5 Lessons I Learned From Coaching 100+ International Students Into Top-10 Universities

International Students WriteIvy on the Map

Working as a private admissions counselor in Asia is endlessly fascinating. The sheer number of applicants, and the incredible value they place on education, means counselors like me get to see the application process in a way that most Westerners would find mind-boggling.

Example? I recently met an applicant who applied to fifty total US universities. FIFTY!

Another example? I know a hot shot Wall Street quant who left his job to make MORE money writing algorithms for an “AI-Driven Counseling Service.”

Private education is an incredibly sophisticated industry in Asia. In China alone it’s a US$300 billion market. I lived in that world for nearly 15 years, and loved every second of it. I loved it even more when I branched out into other countries: Singapore, Korea, India, Malaysia, Japan, France, Slovenia, and Brazil just to name a few.

But the thing I loved most was the many, many incredible students with whom I worked over the years. A few were bonafide one-in-a-million geniuses. Most were hard-working, happy, and inspiring. Watching them conquer America’s best universities – and listening to their stories of unscrupulous classmates – this taught me very distinct lessons.

I hope a few of these lessons might inspire you as you tackle the admissions monster yourself.

Lesson #1: Fit and Genuine Academic Curiosity are More Important than Talent

A few years ago I got a call from a shocked, nervous friend. His client, a STEM major, was the #1 student in the #1 university in their uber-competitive country. His English was perfect. He’d won insane awards. He’d spent a year at the #1 university in a different country, conducting research with a world-famous professor while completing an adjacent major just for kicks. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Yet, when he applied to PhD programs, he was rejected everywhere he applied.

“How is this possible?” my friend asked. How could the #1 student in the country get rejected from every top-10 program in the US?

When I looked at his SOP, I knew the answer immediately. The essay was well-written, sure. But after reading it, I had no idea what he wanted to study. He described his past research in detail, but said little about what he wanted to research in the future. He’d written the entire SOP as if admission was an afterthought, as if when he arrived, the program would simply hand him research instructions and he’d complete them as flawlessly as everything else in his life.

“So, what do you want to study?” I asked him.

When he shrugged and repeated the name of his field (imagine he said “Physics”), I actually felt sad for him.

This is actually a common problem in test-centric countries with hierarchical education systems. Students have virtually no choice where they study in high school and undergrad. The system decides for them. When they apply to countries with different systems, where “fit” matters, where the rules are hazy, they face big obstacles.

Of course, that student did get admitted to a stellar program later. And he deserved it. He was an amazing guy. But through it all I couldn’t help thinking about all the time and anxiety he could have avoided. I also couldn’t stop wondering about the students who were accepted in his place.

What’s the lesson?

If you don’t have a very specific research path in mind, you shouldn’t be applying to PhD programs. That’s what master’s programs are for. Even if you’re a genius like our friend above, do the master’s and figure out where your talents really lie. It’ll only generate better recommendations.

Lesson #2: Funding is Available at the Master’s Level (in brand new programs, at least)

Honestly, I don’t fully understand this one. I can’t seem to determine any rhyme or reason unless it’s this: when a university has a new program, and they’re striving to attract top students (and thus slide up through the rankings), they often give out surprising scholarships.

In the last few years, I’ve seen it happen at a number of impressive universities, in “trending” fields like Biostatistics, Health Administration, and Educational Technology. In each case, it seemed as if the universities were trying to get a foothold in a burgeoning market. Often however, after two years, the money seemed to dry up.

What’s surprising is how these full or partial scholarships went to international students, the kind who are usually welcomed because they pay tuition in cash. Much has been written about how “full pay” internationals subsidize financial aid for American students. Yet, in some cases it seems universities will do whatever it takes to attract top talent.

What’s the lesson?

If you’re a strong applicant in a cutting-edge field (I’m looking at you, decentralized finance), consider applying to schools with brand new programs instead of the traditional Ivory Tower elites. They just might pay you to come.

Lesson #3: Good Writing is the Ultimate Hook

If I learned anything from working with international students, this is it. A student who writes significantly better than her peers always seems to win. A decade ago, it was all an international student had to do to get admitted. Honestly. I’d see applicants with utterly average GPAs, and I’d expect them to get a Top-5 admission. But this makes sense. If you come from a country of non-native English speakers, where everyone writes with grammatical difficulty and no one understands the nuanced purposes of the SOP, but YOU write like George Orwell…well, you seem vastly more intelligent than your peers.

It isn’t so easy today. Today, a significant portion of internationals are better English writers than most Americans. While this doesn’t say much about the state of American education, it does present a unique opportunity.

What’s the lesson?

Learn to write well. It makes you seem smarter. It means you ARE smarter. This is especially true if you’re in a STEM field where nearly everyone writes poorly. If you’re being directly compared to another applicant and only one of you will get the offer, you want to be the one whose essays brim with clear, lucid intelligence.

Lesson #4: Standardized Tests are Hackable

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with internationals who could barely get passable TOEFL scores (Test of English as a Foreign Language). On paper, they possessed the English abilities of cognitively challenged 8th graders. Of course, they could all read like graduate scholars. But ask them “Hi, how are you doing?” and they’d stammer, flush red, turn around, and walk away.

Yet, these same students would consider it a failure if they scored less than 165 on GRE, or 730 on GMAT.

How?

The answer is simple, really: practice like crazy.

Countries with test-centric education systems know that virtually anyone can earn great scores if they just put in the time and effort. Standardized tests, after all, are standardized. They each have their own internal logic systems. If you know what kind of answer a question is seeking before you’ve even read the answers themselves, you’ve already won the game. It’s like watching those maniacs on Twitch complete perfect speed runs of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without taking any damage. Practice long enough, and you know where every single pitfall lies.

What’s the lesson?

Somewhere between 10 and 20 practice exams, every student of reasonable intelligence starts scoring consistently around the 95th percentile. But don’t try to cram them all into one summer. If you’re in a field where test scores matter (GMAT, LSAT, MCAT), start taking practice exams 12-18 months in advance and you’ll have no trouble beating most of your competition.

Lesson #5: Research is a For-Profit Industry

Much like with standardized tests, students in certain hyper-competitive countries have learned to treat all application variables like a beatable game. Research is no different. And it’s actually kind of insidious.

It goes like this. You’re a master’s applicant. You know research experience will give you an edge, but you’ve putzed around for two years playing League of Legends. No professor in your university will let you within shouting distance of their lab. So, what do you do? Easy. You pay $5 grand to a professor at another university to give you an “online research project.”

Want to up the stakes? No problem. That same professor will give you second-author status on a paper for another 5 big ones.

Want to really, really get an edge? For $20,000, our noble champion of academia will give you first-author status (“paper on submission”), even though you did little more than read articles and organize an Excel sheet.

I hear you, I hear you. This doesn’t happen in the US, right? Surely this devious underbelly of academia can only be found in unscrupulous foreign outposts, light years away from the lofty heights of the Ivy League and their kin, right?

Give me a break. They literally advertise it. I’d post the links if I weren’t at risk of defamation lawsuits, but Google around and you’ll find them. Sign up for an “online summer research program” and soon they’ll casually email you a menu of professors from uber-elite schools, each of whom would be happy to work with you 1-on-1 (for a “modest” fee).

What’s the lesson?

In 3-5 years, universities will probably learn to tell the difference between legitimate and paid research. But at the moment, it’s still going on, and sly applicants are still reaping big rewards. (Not to mention the professors who are still enjoying a great side hustle.)

Luckily, PhD programs can already tell the difference. For-profit research projects can never generate genuinely compelling recommendation letters. So, if you’re thinking about hiring a professor to help you get into an elite PhD program, think again. A dodgy rec letter will submarine your chances.

If you’re broke and can’t afford a hired gun, however, there’s still hope! As digital technologies continue to transform research tasks and move them online, it only means that there are more and more professors who are willing to outsource their labor. You can scour bioinformatics databases, produce heatmaps, or troubleshoot machine learning algorithms anywhere on the globe. Ask them. Ask everyone. It can’t hurt to try.

Conclusion

International admissions really can seem like the wild west sometimes. A lot of Americans have no idea the lengths to which their global peers will go to earn admission to a top university. And this is understandable. In some countries, a “brand name” diploma can double or triple your salary after graduation (even if there are public universities which are actually better in your field, and even if you had a garbage GPA).

Yet, the lessons remain:

  1. “Fit” and genuine academic curiosity can’t be replaced.
  2. New programs will often hand out loads of free money, no matter where you’re from.
  3. Good writing will give your applications a gigantic boost.
  4. Standardized tests are a beatable game (one that you hardly need to speak English to win).
  5. The Internet has amplified research opportunities for both unethical and ethical students alike.

Take advantage if you can. University admissions are an unwieldy beast. But with the right strategies, you can save yourself a lot of stress and maybe accomplish things you never thought possible.

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