Preparing for College

U.S. Citizen or International Student: Which Carries More Admission Clout?

Question: I am certain that nationality plays a big part in college admission decisions. So if I'm an American attending a high school abroad (and holding a second passport) what should I do? Do I apply as a U.S. citizen or as an international student?

Different colleges go about “coding” students in different ways. There is no consistent system that determines how applicants who are dual-nationals (or biracial, multiracial, etc.) are viewed.


Your best bet is to indicate that you are a citizen of the U.S. and of the country in which you reside. If you are applying for financial aid, it is critical that your target colleges are clearly aware of your U.S.-citizen status because non-citizens are held to a far higher standard than citizens are when they require financial assistance. (That’s because they don’t qualify for aid from the federal government.)

Living in a country outside of the U.S. will definitely give you a “hook” in the admission process. That is, admission officials will recognize that you have had experiences that the average candidate has not. If you hail from an “underrepresented” nation (i.e., one that does not send many applicants to your target schools), then this will mean an additional hook for you. Often college catalogues and Web sites list the geographic distribution of the student body, so you can tell at a glance how many current enrollees are from the country in which you live. Typically, students are listed by residence rather than by nationality, but—again—it depends on the college’s policy.

Some colleges have separate applications for international students. In many cases, any student applying from outside the U.S. regardless of citizenship, should use the international form. If instructions aren’t clear, e-mail admission officials and ask which form to complete. Don’t worry, though, your application will not be discounted if you use the wrong one.

While colleges will ultimately decide in which pile to put your application (American, international, or other), it is still wise to emphasize your overseas background and show officials that you have fully embraced the uncommon opportunities you’ve been exposed to. You might do this in your main essay or in a supplemental one. Your list of extracurricular activities, too, may include some unusual undertakings that are peculiar to your part of the world. That will be a plus, but make sure you fully explain these, if applicable. For instance, if you play a sport, pursue a hobby, or belong to an organization that is not a household word in the U.S., a sentence or two describing it is imperative.

Finally, most admission offices have at least one staff member who serves as the liaison to international students. This is a good contact for you to make. Get names and e-mail addresses from admission offices at your target colleges and direct your questions to this official. Not only will he or she be best prepared to answer any questions that arise, but also it will be helpful for you to have an “ally” as you go through the admission process from afar.