The American Dream: University Edition

My first snow fall ever in my college campus!

Navigating college and university applications is hard enough, up until you add an international college to the mix. When I was applying to colleges in my native country of India, I realized I wanted a liberal arts college education where I could study a variety of subjects before deciding what I really wanted to study as my major. I knew that a liberal arts education, typically offered by American colleges and universities, would give me this opportunity. As a student at Mount Holyoke, I later took classes ranging from Philosophy 101 to dystopian English literature during my freshman year — only to end up majoring in International Relations!

While researching American schools, I primarily filtered my research toward liberal art schools while researching universities. During this process, it important to understand what colleges would be a perfect “fit” for you. Think about this, keeping in mind what you are passionate about, your strengths and weaknesses, and what you want to ultimately want to pursue in terms of academic interests. What also worked for me was choosing a college that had individuals with similar aspirations and were passionate about similar issues. For example, my college, Mount Holyoke, has a strong presence of international students on campus which was an important aspect for me: I wanted to be able to interact with students from all over the world and Mount Holyoke offered me exactly that with almost 30% of our student population being international! The idea of a community was also important to me and Mount Holyoke checked all these boxes for me and more: it is part of a five college-consortium ensuring a lot of student- friendly areas, access to resources from five different colleges along with being close to two big cities, Boston and New York.

Experiencing fall on my campus for the first time

While finding a liberal arts school with a welcoming and international community was important for me,I also focused on other aspects that impacted my decision. It may be helpful to consider these aspects while you make your decision: do you like to live in a big city versus smaller towns, do you like a social culture that is prevalent in US college campuses or not? Many college campuses in America are situated in urban areas, but others are in rural areas and they provide a whole different experience. Decide what excites you! I opted for a college campus in Massachusetts and definitely enjoy the familiarity that a small college campus brings along with a low student- professor ratio allowing close interaction with my professors. Other aspects that were important for me personally included the diversity of the student population on campus, the different kinds of classes and combinations offered in subjects that interested me and the idea of a college campus. I am passionate about writing so I checked out the available writing opportunities that were offered by many organizations on my campus (and ended up writing for the student newspaper my freshman year!) I have friends that kept in mind different aspects such as the presence of collegiate sports on campus, the number of college organizations that they liked and connected with, and most importantly, whether they could imagine themselves living on that particular college campus for four years! Think about what you do in your free time: are you heavily involved in sports? It would be a great idea to check out the different sport teams on the campuses you are applying to. Really like music? Check out their music societies! My point is simple: your college will become your home and these additional factors can help make that transition easier

Once you have made up this list of colleges you would want to apply to, I suggest categorizing this list as follows: dream/reach, target, and safety. This categorization essentially means schools that all are a perfect “fit” for you but your likelihood of being accepted to these schools may vary due to the selectivity of the admissions process at each school. Remember, this does not mean that you give higher priority to a “dream” school versus a “target” school- if these schools are on your list, it means you would gladly attend any of them. This is one of the common mistakes that international students make: of applying seriously only to “dream” schools and then being disappointed about rejections from “target” schools after having not paid enough attention to the application process. This clarity of equal importance to all college applications helped me tremendously!.

Applying to American colleges and universities can be overwhelming, so it is important to have a firm understanding of admission requirements. Make sure you have someone, like a counselor, teacher, or EducationUSA Adviser, who knows the ins and outs of the American college education system and can answer your questions accurately. As a high school senior, I drew up a checklist with detailed deadlines for myself and stuck it on a pin board above my desk. This practice turned out to be extremely useful for me as it provided a clear and concise way to map my journey to college and kept me on track to meet deadlines — the real key to successful international applications!

An intern at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, Upasana Sharma is a student at Mount Holyoke College majoring in International Relations. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the EducationUSA Advising Center or of the U.S. Department of State.