US college essay tips for international students

Beyond your test scores and grades, the college essay is your opportunity to express your academic and personal character, writing skills, and ability to self-reflect.

You should use your unique culture and individual perspective to write a compelling essay with specific stories, a conversational tone, and correct grammar. Here are some basic guidelines on how to write a memorable college essay as an international student.

Research: How applying to US colleges is different

The US college experience offers not only academic growth, but also campus community. While admissions officers use your grades and test scores as a baseline, they also use the college essay to further evaluate if you can add value to the academic community, student body, and campus culture.

The college essay, or personal statement, is a creative, personal piece of writing in its own genre. Rather than providing a broad overview of your life, personal essays are often centered around a specific narrative or theme.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in a student’s application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars. Many students spend weeks一even months一brainstorming, workshopping, writing, and revising their essays to produce an original, compelling story.

Before starting your essay, you should take time to brainstorm topics and research your desired schools’ academic programs and campus cultures. Then, you can start outlining why you’re a good fit for a particular university.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays (e.g. diversity essays, “Why this college?” essays), which must be submitted along with the college application. Scholarship essays are also worth writing, as many students overlook this opportunity. Research deadlines early, and create a college application timeline and checklist. Or check out our guide to writing fast if you’re running low on time.

Stories: Show your strengths

Just being an international student isn’t enough to be competitive in a pool of both US and international applicants. To write a memorable essay, share specific stories that illustrate your strengths not only as an international student, but also as an individual within your culture. You should add details about your life that aren’t apparent in your application.

Example of a story

In South Korea, school is war. Similar to Battle Royale, students viciously compete, not for their life, but for their futures. From 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., I study either in school, an after-school academy, or my room. With no time to spare, I eat my meals over my textbooks while memorizing chemical compounds or geometry theorems. My bathroom breaks are like short breaths before I dive back underwater into the vast sea of knowledge that I must conquer before it drowns me. Among this chaos, I find solace twice a week with my online English tutor, Catherine. Her stories of college in Boston help me to imagine a reality where classmates can be collaborators, not competitors. Rather than memorization drills and one-sided lectures, I imagine a lively discussion between pupil and professor. As we converse in English about my future dreams, I get a taste of what it’s like to be not a prisoner to knowledge, but a friend.

Tone: Be conversational, but respectful

American student-teacher relationships are much less formal than those in many other countries. US universities value student-professor discussion, debate, and collaboration.

Similarly, college application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing. You should use a conversational yet respectful tone, as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be honest about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the admissions officer.

  • Firstly, I would like to elaborate on how my family moved from Xizhou to Beijing.
  • When I was just five, my family and I left behind our tranquil village in southwest China to make a new home in the vast, bustling capital of Beijing.

Culture: Write about what you know

As an international student, you have a wealth of culture that you can share with admissions officers. Instead of potentially using American idioms and cultural references awkwardly, write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Make sure to explain any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might not be familiar with. Provide context to help your reader understand the significance of what you’re writing about.

Example of writing about your culture

While drowsiness still clouds my thoughts and vision, I trudge over to the bathroom to wash before Fajr, the Islamic dawn prayer. While my mouth still reeks of last night’s kabsa, a Saudi dish of rice and meat, my older sister prances out of the bathroom with sleek, long hair, flawless makeup, and a TikTok-ready outfit. While softly humming BTS’s “DNA,” she picks up a comb and begins to skillfully tackle the labyrinth that has taken over my head. Twenty minutes later, she manages to tame my wild, frizzy mane into an elegant French braid. Sara always knows how to make beauty out of chaos.

Language: Use correct grammar, word choices, and sentence structures

Admissions officers don’t expect your English writing skills to be perfect, but your essay should demonstrate a strong command of grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structures. Remember to use US English rather than UK English.

Choose your words carefully. You can be creative in your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers; focus on language that you know well so that your writing sounds natural and genuine. Prioritize simple sentence structures for clarity.

If English is not your first language, it’s a good idea to have a native speaker check your essay. You may want to consider working with a qualified editor or essay coach who can check your grammar, tone, cultural references, and content. Scribbr’s college essay editors can help.

Explore the essay editing service

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

Why do I have to write essays for US college applications?

Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills, and ability to self-reflect. The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college. Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid.

What style and tone should I use for a college application essay?

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing. Use a conversational yet respectful tone, as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice, with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Should I use American idioms or cultural references in my US college essay?

If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references, you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.

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Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
September 21, 2021 at 3:15 PM

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