When Philippines national Sevi Reyes applied to 15 global universities in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the Philippines, he made sure to highlight his volunteer work, language abilities and high school academic program.
"I was concerned back then about standing out from the crowd," says Reyes, who graduated in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in computer science from New York University Shanghai in China.
Experts say prospective international students should present a strong application to global universities to demonstrate their international perspective and preparation to study in another country. In application essays and supplements, students can emphasize soft factors beyond grades and test scores -- such as extracurricular activities, language skills, foreign travel experience and more -- to expand their overall profile.
Martha Allman, senior assistant provost and dean of university collaborations at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, says the school values international applicants "who seek and appreciate experiences beyond their own comfort zone and community."
Here are six aspects that prospective international students can highlight in their applications to demonstrate their global aptitude.
-- Why the student wants to study at a global university
-- Internationally focused extracurricular activities
-- Pandemic-related volunteering
-- Strong language skills
-- Qualities like being curious and open-minded
-- International travel experience
Why the Student Wants to Study at a Global University
Applicants should mention why a specific university was selected and why they think they are a good fit.
"Students should try and demonstrate what it is they're interested in and why an international university would be the perfect place for them to study -- much of this is about demonstrating how they view the world and how this may resonate with the university they're applying to," Tim Rogers, vice president and director of enrollment management at American University of Paris in France, wrote in an email.
Annie Lu, director of admissions at NYU Shanghai, says specificity matters on applications, and general statements like "I want to study international business" or "I'm interested in learning about other cultures" can be too vague.
"Instead, students should explain why the specific opportunities offered by a certain school are important to the student's personal and academic journey," Lu says. "How does the school's location and proximity to a particular technology or financial hub advance their academic, research or internship ambitions? Are there particular faculty members they hope to study with? How does a school's culturally diverse and international student body enable personal self-discovery?"
Neil Green, head of student recruitment at University College London in England, says students who show a willingness to listen to new ideas and perspectives demonstrate their suitability for studying at a global university.
"Successful students at UCL show an interest in world affairs, display a desire to learn from world-leading academics and can look at problems on a global scale," says Green.
Internationally Focused Extracurricular Activities
One way prospective international students can demonstrate their readiness to study overseas is to highlight their participation in everything from international organizations to competitions and explain how these experiences have shaped them as individuals.
"We value applicants who have sought opportunities to learn about the world through international service, exchange programs and academic experience," says Allman.
Hong Wei Tan of Malaysia, who received his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering in 2017 from the Illinois Institute of Technology, says he applied to four universities and also sent a cover letter and resume to further demonstrate who he was. His resume highlighted his involvement in a young entrepreneur program and the Leo Club Program, a youth division of Lions Club International, a global service club organization.
At the National University of Singapore, students are admitted "primarily on their academic and co-curricular achievements," R. Rajaram, registrar and former senior director of the office of admissions, wrote in an email. For example, he said achievements in International Olympiads or sustained work in social enterprises "will certainly give advantage to applicants."
The COVID-19 pandemic affected people worldwide, forcing students to learn and/or work remotely, and universities want to know how students spent that time, experts say.
"Covid has provided so many challenges for applicants and we're already seeing students include how they have volunteered in hospital and community settings, distributing PPR equipment and medical supplies as part of their essays or in supplemental information," says Rogers.
Green says it is important for applicants to explain the value of their experience volunteering, such as what they learned about working in that particular environment, about themselves or about other people.
In reviewing applications from U.S. and global applicants, Niki McInteer, associate dean of admissions at Wake Forest, says: "We've learned how students have promoted vaccines, built community despite social distancing and have recognized the needs of others above their own."
She says reading about how students have served others during the pandemic has "made us as an admissions committee understand what kind of community members they would be at Wake Forest."
Strong Language Skills
Prospective international students should also plan to highlight any foreign language skills they have, including in a school's native language, since it shows interest in and a dedication to learning about other cultures. Students can also mention additional language or tutoring courses, such as massive open online courses, commonly called MOOCs, that they have taken in a foreign language.
For applicants with foreign language skills, Rajaram says his university "considers the context of how these students enrich the class learning environment and add value to the student community."
In his application, Tan highlighted Chinese, English, Malay, Cantonese and Hokkien, along with his Interagency Language Roundtable scale for each language, which denotes skill level. He also noted that he was president of the Toastmasters club and earned achievements in public speaking competitions.
"I was proud to include the wide range of languages that we speak in Malaysia, which are extremely practical when we travel abroad," Tan says.
Katie Korhonen, former director of admissions for NYU Shanghai, says the admissions committee is "particularly impressed" if students have started Chinese language study in high school, since the program is in China and studying the language is an integral part of the liberal arts core curriculum for non-Chinese students.
She says the university finds that students with "previous instruction in or connection to Chinese language or culture tend to be strong matches" for the school.
Rogers suggests that "any demonstration of international literacy is welcomed," adding that many incoming freshmen at AUP are fluent in three or more languages.
Qualities Like Being Curious and Open-Minded
Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness can give a window into the type of student being considered by a global university.
"An applicant's willingness to engage with new ideas, differing values and foreign cultures is critical to that student's future success at global universities like NYU Shanghai, and we're looking for evidence of a student's curiosity and willingness to explore the unfamiliar in their application," says Lu.
Rogers says demonstrating qualities like inquisitiveness and open-mindedness when applying to AUP "is the number one factor not only in successful admission but also in being awarded one of our merit-based financial scholarships."
Global universities are interested in students who "have focused on or experienced things out of their everyday path -- volunteering, environmental topics, community projects," Rogers says. He also says choosing to go to a global university away from home "is already an important indication of curiosity."
Curiosity and open-mindedness drive new discoveries and new research, which are important at a global research-led institution like UCL, Green says. "We are looking for students who are proactive and who can think for themselves, who can see the wider picture, but also reach their own conclusions."
International Travel Experience
Prospective international students should emphasize any international travel or time living in another country to show their adaptability and openness to new cultures. Examples may include attending a high school semester abroad program or spending a gap year traveling.
While travel experience isn't required to apply to a global university, prospective students who have visited other countries should detail how these experiences have shaped them as individuals.
For example, David Stevens, UCL's retired former director of student recruitment marketing, says via email that if a student has spent a gap year in another country, it can be relevant "as long as you can demonstrate that you have done something constructive with your gap, whether volunteering or getting relevant work experience."
He says the university is interested in how that travel has "informed an applicant's character, suitability and their desire to study that particular subject."
Samantha Deleon, associate director of international enrollment at the Illinois Institute of Technology, says international travel "helps us know that the students have experience with travel and new cultures and that perhaps their transition to life in the U.S. might be easier."
Reyes, the NYU Shanghai graduate, says students shouldn't wait until a year or two before the college application process to take on leadership roles, volunteer or achieve academic excellence.
"Gradually build your identity as an international applicant over a long period of time," he advises.
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