Higher Education

Writing a university application for expats

If you plan to study while living abroad, learn what makes expats strong candidates for university admission and scholarships. Learn how to craft the perfect university application.

University application

By Expatica

Updated 28-2-2024

Studying abroad offers a wide range of opportunities for an international career. But how should you submit a university application as an expat or global nomad? Perhaps you’ve relocated to Lisbon via São Paulo via Hong Kong via the United States; such is the path of many expat families. This path often includes making new friends, learning about new cultures, and experiencing new educational systems. You’re sure to uncover differences between curricula, extracurricular offerings, and grading systems as you move between countries.

If your family lived abroad during your school-age years, you might reach a state of panic when embarking on the university application process. Will the transcripts make sense to the admission committee? Will they understand why I didn’t fully complete the IB diploma? Is the fact that I haven’t been a club president going to be viewed negatively?

University students at a laptop
What do you have to keep in mind when submitting a university application abroad? (Photo: Mimi Thian / Unsplash)

It’s important to remember that the majority of universities have worked with international students. The breadth of knowledge that each school has regarding the application and visa processes for students can vary, however; most schools will have enrolled someone in your situation in the past.

“Universities want students who have had international experience because they bring global connections to the campus and enrich the student body,” says Aaron Andersen, an International Recruitment Manager at the University of British Columbia. “Even a Canadian or American returning ‘home’ brings a unique individual perspective.”

Making your application stand out

According to John Sullivan, Dean of Admission at Eckerd College, students should distinguish themselves in their applications.

“Rather than stress about how your transcripts and ability to be involved are different than students who have attended the same high school for four years, you should capitalize on the different experiences you’ve had,” says John. “Bring it to life in the essay.”

For some applications, you might need to include a resume. If this is the case for you, ensure it’s clear and accurate. Give it a clean layout – online platforms make design simple. It’s also a good idea to ask someone you trust to check for typos!

If you feel that you’re missing a particular skill for your course, or you want to do some research before starting, try looking online for summer schools, short courses, and online lessons. Websites such as Udemy provide massive open online courses (or MOOCs) which can give your application an edge and prove an interest. They can also offer an insight into whether a course is the right subject area for you.

Extracurricular activities

A common difficulty is how to provide a stellar list of extracurriculars, including leadership positions, which can make applicants stand out. Lin Larson, Coordinator of International Admissions at Saint Mary’s College of California, says students should concentrate on a few things in which they have a strong interest.

“It’s more important for a student to be consistent in an activity than to have 30 on their application. Colleges like to see commitment and dedication,” says Lin. “Leadership is good as well, but we also know that if families are moving every year or two, this isn’t possible for the student.”

University students working in a cafe
Prospective students need to make their university application stand out from their peers (Photo: Tim Gouw / Unsplash)

Joan Jaffe, Associate Dean of Admission at Mills College, echoes these sentiments.

“We’re not interested in the laundry list of activities or in ‘what looks good on a college application’,” says Joan. “We’re interested in those activities or interests that show real depth and commitment on the part of the student. We want to know what inspires the student and what he or she is passionate about and to bring that depth of commitment and passion to our campuses.”

Tips for writing your application essay

Depending on where you apply, your college essay can be important. The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2014 State of College Admission survey revealed colleges ranked the essay as the fifth-most important factor in the application process, after grades, curriculum and related test-scores. Recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank and interviews were further down the list. Start writing your essay early.

Some general tips for writing your university application essay include:

  • Write as you would speak: Read it aloud and ask yourself ‘would I actually say that?’
  • Tell your story: This is about the real you, not about who you think you should be.
  • Share something new: If your essay is going to repeat what’s already outlined in other parts of your application, choose a different topic. use this opportunity to expand your depth and breadth of interests and experiences.
  • Be genuine: Admission officers are trying to get to know you via your writing, so let them in.
  • Avoid the shock and awe tactics: Your essay isn’t about showing your best comedy act or gross-out story. While you should be authentic, it’s not the avenue to go over the top. You never know which admission staff will read your essay and while offending them with your essay may leave an impression, it’s probably not the one you’d like to make.

Documents required to study abroad

When sending in university application materials, it’s important that expat students include all necessary documentation such as transcripts and school profiles. Families should work together with the student’s college counsellor to ensure that all paperwork is completed and sent by required deadlines.

Remember, all students have the same deadlines, regardless from which country they’re mailing their university application materials.

Stacked documents
A good university application has plenty of documents inside (Photo: Ron Dyar / Unsplash)

“Universities need the official transcripts sent directly from the original institution. Did you you attend multiple high schools? That means contacting all of your previous schools so they can send transcripts to the university directly,” says Aaron. “Be sure to start the application as early as possible so that documents can be processed on both ends.”

Get help during the application process

It’s also important to develop open lines of communication with an admission representative from the university using e-mail or Skype. This relationship can, and should, start well before you actually submit a university application.

“I always encourage applicants to keep in touch with me throughout the application process. Admission committees don’t need to be nameless or faceless groups,” says Joan. “Students have access to an admission counselor who will assist and advocate for them in the admission process; it’s okay to contact your admission counselor with any questions.”

As your university application deadlines approach, remember to highlight your strengths on your applications; being a global nomad should be at the top of your list.