A student’s advice about getting into and financing college

Kevin Assam

Packaging Yourself

Being a jack of all trades typically will not cut it. Applicants should demonstrate strength in a few cores areas whether that entails athletics, social entrepreneurship, or even journalism. Think of yourself as a star. You have 5-6 sharp peaks showing a certain level of achievement within those fields. I reckon that many admissions readers will try to feel out how an applicant can be a “high impact” student on campus and so being able to ascertain what areas they will be most effective in will be useful.


We all dread these. For those of us who aren’t accustomed to writing personal entries we will find this particularly hard. No matter your skill level, you do not want to write in a bubble. Feedback on your essays and supplements is key. You can go the inexpensive route of seeking insight from a relevant teacher at school, college students who have had past success, or even pulling up examples online of great essays that can communicate the level of intimacy needed to be achieved. While we all focus on the actual content, do not let good grammar slip by. Admissions readers are not going to penalize you for a couple of spelling errors or wrong tenses. However, if these mistakes become frequent enough, it will look like you never bothered to revise your writings.

Additionally, you want to start working on these as early in the process as possible. Prompts are usually released in advance of the actual launch of applications. Take advantage of this lead time and start chipping away at that first draft. Even a bad draft at least gives you something to work with and is always better than nothing.

Choosing an Essay Topic

It’s typically bad advice to steer anyone away from one particular topic. After all, only you will be able to ascertain what moments of your life are worth illustrating and are capable of captivating a reader. However, there are certain topics that have been written about so often, that unless your writing skills are above average, they will diminish the originality of your essays. We get it. That mission trip or parents’ divorce was life altering. But does it really help your chances if literally thousands of others are writing about the exact same topic in an almost identical structure? Go for broke. Let one draft have your “safe” and more “comfortable” subject of choice. Have another that’s a bit more zany and unexpected. Then choose the one that you feel better communicates who you are as a candidate. One more draft will not be the end of you.

Provide Explanations

If there was a sudden dip in your junior year grades, explain why. If you have a disciplinary infraction, state your side of the story. If you suddenly dropped advanced courses in place of general ones, elaborate on the fact that you were confident enough to identify what you were and were not capable of realistically achieving. There is typically space provided for such information, for example in the Common Application’s Additional Information section. Alternatively, you can have your school counselor provide supplementary information. The point is to control the narrative and leave little guesswork for the admissions office. Get ahead of any possible setbacks and present a strong argument as to either why this should not be treated as a serious drawback or how you were able to learn from that experience going forward. A justification from you is much better than an inference drawn in all of fifteen minutes from an admissions reader.


This is easily the most challenging part of the process. How do you find external sources of funding? You will typically encounter two of the most accessible types: government and university. Government funds may come from your own domestic administration or the coffers of a foreign territory. The latter are usually more limited in terms of the specific programs and locations that will be funded but tend to start from a base that covers roughly half of all living and tuition costs and upwards to the level of a full ride. If you’re willing to compile all the disparate deadlines and national policies as well as searching beyond the North American community, then this can be a good fit. Keep in mind; these tend to run the gamut of being either massively publicized or relatively obscure. Understandably, the level of competition will shift too suit and you will need to have excellent researching abilities.

Meanwhile, university funding can be further broken down to merit scholarships and need-based aid. The former tend to cover part of tuition and usually involve additional essays and interviews. Because they are specific to the individual achievements of an applicant they are highly competitive but tend to have all the relevant information laid out nicely on one web page. Need-based aid however will typically require complex and frustrating financial aid forms that can be very daunting to international students given how wildly our tax filing systems vary. But they are worth the hassle. Adhering to the tight deadlines and nuanced forms, will allow the financial aid department of schools to offer you additional funding based on your level of income, savings, debt etc. Ideally, you’re looking for a school that guarantees meeting all need-based aid upon admission to the university, which usually puts you on the hook for just personal expenses. As usual, being an international applicant means that there is going to be a lot of competition for these limited funds. In fact, given how expensively international students can be priced, you can bet that if a school can meet all of your aid it is going to be a highly competitive process.

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