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How to Use High School Abroad to Boost Your College Application

How to Write a Unique College Essay About Studying Abroad

As a high school student who has studied or volunteered abroad, you’re part of a small percentage of teenagers who have taken advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience life in a different country.

While you hopefully accumulated a mountain of memories (and photographs) to look back on your experience, there’s probably also one big question burning in your mind -- how can I put this experience on my college application? Should I use it as my college essay topic?

If you position your experience right, you’ll be able to be an even more competitive applicant.

The pressure to be competitive on your college applications is greater for high school students than ever before. As a high school abroad alum, there’s some good news. According to a theory written about on Petersons, one of the leading providers of educational content, “there’s a correlation between the amount of cultural exposure that children receive and their chances of getting into college.”

According to the research, just by choosing to go overseas, you will already be ahead of the game when it comes to college applications. But if you position your experience right, you’ll be able to be an even more competitive applicant.

Thing is, you have to know how to talk about it and ways to articulate your experience on your college application and essay in order for it to give you a competitive advantage. Here are a few tips for using your high school abroad experience to boost your college app.

Writing Your Personal Statement

If you've decided to write your college essay about your experience studying or volunteering abroad, there are quite a few angles you could take. However, it’s important to avoid clichés and not just churn out a trite college admissions essay based on your high school abroad experience. For example, you want to avoid writing an essay with a central thesis based around these ideas:

  • I went abroad and it made me realize how lucky I am
  • My service abroad showed me how much I like to help people
  • I love to travel and this is demonstrated by my study abroad experience

College admissions have seen them all before.

Instead of using the above clichés, you can use your unique experience to tell a more compelling narrative. Boost the impression you make on admissions officers to the next level with these five ways to position your high school abroad experience.

1. Focus on Cross-Cultural Understanding

studying abroad

In an ever diversifying world, cross-cultural understanding is more and more important as businesses (and academic institutions) become further globalized. Use your personal statement as a space to reflect on how your time overseas helped you deepen your understanding of cross-cultural understanding. Demonstrating cultural awareness, of both your own culture and others, is a great way to demonstrate maturity.

You can do this by shifting the focus of your essay away from you and how you felt about being in a new environment overseas to how what you learned about your host culture impacted your way of thinking. For example, perhaps while studying in Beijing, you learned how to adapt from your background in an individual-oriented culture to navigate a group-oriented culture and build meaningful relationships. Or perhaps while in Australia, you came to learn about your own cultural style while butting heads with a more relaxed classmate.

2. Emphasize your Leadership Skills

Universities are looking for students who are going to thrive both academically and socially and become leaders in their fields of study, career fields, and communities. To this end, college admissions officers place a large emphasis on selecting students who have demonstrated their leadership abilities.

As a high school study abroad alumni, there are several ways you can use your experience to demonstrate your leadership skills. First of all, many study abroad programs have leadership components tied into the plan for learning. Perhaps you led your coursemates while hiking through the mountains of Peru, organized student volunteers at an orphanage in Malaysia, or edited your school’s newspaper in Australia.

If your time abroad didn’t come with set leadership experiences, a little thinking outside the box is sure to afford many ways you can demonstrate leadership. Did you take the lead on a class project that also involved cross-cultural thinking? Or cultivate a successful relationship with a host family? Even things that may seem simple (now that you’re an expert), such as navigating public transportation in a foreign city or taking a day trip on your own can be strong demonstrators of your leadership abilities.

3. Talk About your New Foreign Language Skills

Language learning abroad

Studying a foreign language is a requirement for many colleges, and many universities require students to continue language study as part of their degree requirements. If you studied a language abroad, you have developed a set of skills that will really help you stand out on your application. Just make sure you’re honest about your actual proficiency level, and don’t exaggerate.

Be sure to make note of your language skills in the language proficiency, other secondary schools, and extracurricular activities sections of your applications.

Language study can also be an excellent essay topic. To enhance your personal statement, try to focus on language interactions you had abroad out of the classroom -- maybe a meaningful conversation you had with a local or something deep you learned while touring a foreign historical site -- instead of writing about your experience learning out of a textbook.

4. Write About How it Enhanced Your Creative Thinking

Universities want to attract creative thinkers who will not just use a status-quo approach to academics, but come up with new ideas to solve problems in varying fields of study, the university community, and larger world.

Research published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology states that "cultural experiences from living abroad have wide-reaching benefits on students’ creativity, including the facilitation of complex cognitive processes that promote creative thinking."

That’s great news for you, but how can you make this clear on your college apps? You could state this research in an essay, or you could also write about how your time abroad changed the way you think and helped you approach life more creatively.

Perhaps you had to come up with some creative ways to communicate with your host family who spoke a different language than you. Or maybe, exposure to art at the plethora of museums in Paris fueled a new interest in painting for you. Perhaps your cultural interactions with classmates taught you first-hand that there are many different ways to approach life and thinking.

5. Include the Unique Extracurricular Activities You Did Abroad on Your Application

Studying abroad and college essay

Extracurricular activities are a standard part of most college applications. The courseload at the university level is more rigorous than high school, and college admissions officers want to see that you will be able to balance this while remaining an active member of the institution’s student body.

Extracurricular activities can also be a good indicator that a student is well-rounded and likely to be involved in the community outside of the classroom as well, contributing to greater unity and school spirit.

As a high school study abroad alum, chances are you have added some unique extracurricular activities that you can add to your resume. Did you play a sport abroad? Take dance lessons in Argentina or singing lessons in Vienna?

Maybe you took up photography while living in India, or kept a travel blog of your experiences in Costa Rica. Or perhaps traveling and museum visiting became your new hobbies overseas. No matter what activities you chose to pursue, international extracurricular experiences are sure to help you stand out.

And there you have it -- five ways to use your high school study abroad experience to write a unique college essay. Just remember, the skills, global knowledge, and personal insight you gained while overseas won’t just make you a stronger candidate for universities. They will have far-reaching implications that carry long throughout your life. Applying for college is just the first step into your bright future!

It's never too early to start thinking about college study abroad programs.

Lauren Salisbury

A California native, Lauren Salisbury has found the best way to get to know a region of the world is to live there, and with that in mind has worked in four countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Costa Rica. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and is now living in the Costa Rican rainforest, working as Social Media & Marketing Manager for Outward Bound. Lauren documents her travel adventures on her blog SomethingInHerRamblings.com.