By Adela Penagos, PhD, Pacific Link College Advisor

One of my most transformational experiences took place while spending my sophomore year in high school at an American boarding school. Although I returned to my home country, Mexico, something became abundantly clear after that journey: I was going to go to college in the US. However, I knew that goal was going to be challenging.

I understand well that for those of us growing up outside of the US, the Ivy League universities –such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—carry a great amount of weight, and other less recognizable names –such as Rice, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and Trinity— might not seem as attractive. Regardless of your perspective, the admissions process in the US is completely different from that in any other country.

So how do you, as an international student, get ready to be a competitive applicant in the US admissions process? Let’s unlock some of the secret ways to get you ready.

1. Become Fluent in English.
In order to be able to successfully do the required work in the American educational system at the college level you need to be fluent in English. You may have been studying English for years in your home country. But my own experience in gaining fluency in English and French has taught me that we can only achieve the highest level of competency in a language by spending significant time in the country where it is spoken. Hence, if your ultimately goal is to study at an American university, you will be best prepared by studying in an English-speaking high school, ideally in the US, but at the very least in your home country (if you opt for this option please seriously consider spending one summer or two in the US). Furthermore, to gauge your English language ability, I recommend you to get ready for and take the TOEFL as soon as you can.

2. Excel Academically.
The most important component of any student’s record is his/her academic history. It is very important that you do very well (get 90% and above) in each of the classes you take in high school; that you take the most competitive curriculum offered by your school; and that your grades always show an upward trend. Additionally, if you are able to get involved in an academic summer program at a US university, where you can conduct research, you will be better poised to demonstrate that you are not only committed to your grades, but engaged in learning, inquiry, and discovery.

3. Get Involved Outside the Classroom.
The US system rewards students who are able to do well academically and at the same time show that they are capable of succeeding beyond their academics. It is important that you find two or three activities that you can do throughout high school that show that you can excel in a non-academic skill-set from. If you are a skilled oboe or saxophone player, make sure to spend time to improve in such talent throughout your high school years; if you are a gifted public speaker, join the debate or Model UN high school team; if you are a great chess or soccer player, get involved in tournaments. The key is to find activities that will help you develop your talents as well as leadership skills to show colleges that you are a well-rounded individual and can excel beyond the classroom.

4. Understand the Value of Service.
In the US it is expected that we should use our talents for the betterment of society. This allows people to have a great sense of self-knowledge, as one has to reflect on his/her skills and discern how to get involved in one’s community to make a difference. If you are good at Math, English, Science, or History, consider tutoring younger kids to help them become better at these subjects; if you can come up with a project to help your neighborhood or a needy area in your town, take initiative and make a difference. If you are more adventurous and want to spend a summer in Lao, Cambodia, or Haiti helping the poor, find a program that will allow you to do this. Whatever you decide to do to contribute to your society or the world will enable you to learn something about yourself. It is important to make this practice part of your life, something you do throughout high school, as this trait will make you a better member of your college community.

5. Plan Early.
This is probably the main difference between applying to college in the US and anywhere else in the world. To submit the most compelling college application and give you the strongest possibility to get into the colleges of your choice, you must plan early. This means that you need to plan if you are going to study high school in the US or elsewhere; how to spend your summers while in high school; how to prepare to take standardized tests (TOEFL, ACT, SAT, SATIIs, AP, IB) and when you take them; and how to find an expert to help you with the entire college application process.

If your dream is to come to college in the US, you can make it happen with the appropriate planning and guidance. As long as you commit yourself to get a clear understanding of how the system works, plan ahead, and are willing to make some sacrifices along the way, your dream is possible. I am very happy to have achieved this dream and thankful that I can share what I have learned along the way with others.