Common Mistakes on International Student Applications

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Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

Ambitious international students from India, China, Singapore, Thailand, and many other countries often hope to attend college in the United States. However, coming from a different schooling system presents challenges. Often, we at Empowerly see students submit international student applications with plenty of potential to succeed with many common mistakes that decrease their chances. In this blog post, we hope to outline each of these areas to help international applicants in the college admissions process.

We have helped many of international students with their applications to US universities. In fact, Ivy League schools and world-class tier universities in the United States are not out of your reach! However, you must be careful to avoid a few common mistakes on your international student applications to avoid being dismissed.

In our experience, we have found three common themes:

  1. lack of extracurricular activities,
  2. focus on a single grade versus cumulative GPA, and
  3. guidance on specific academic requirements.

Next, let’s discuss each of these common mistakes and how you can avoid them. Becoming a stronger applicant overall will increase your chances of acceptance to a great school and future!

Extracurricular Activities

Many public international high schools and international countries do not have a culture of extracurricular activities. For example, in China, there are standardized national examinations that determine admissions to top universities. On the other hand, in India, there are a plethora of testing options, dates, and deadlines with two major exams in 10th and 12th grade. In Singapore, international schools tend to get more support than public high schools.

However, the best thing a student hoping to attend an Ivy League in the US can do is to start thinking and initiate their own extracurricular activity. Regional admissions officers at these top schools understand the local dynamics and culture, and appreciate out-of-the-box activities. We helped one student establish an NGO related to climate change in Africa. This formed the basis of his Common Application and essays,  and he earned acceptance to Cornell and many other universities. In fact, he is studying climate change now in university.

Ultimately, demonstrating initiative is almost as important for international applicants as the actual activity.

This flowchart demonstrates how extracurriculars strengthen your application in two major ways.

GPA Requirements

Because the grading systems differ, many international applicants worry about how their grade point average (GPA) and courses will be viewed. Each Ivy League college does this in their own way – the important point is to focus on rigor and consistent performance.

Schools are flexible with senior year grades for seniors – they know that exams and academic deadlines vary. Focus on covering the academic requirements for internationals applying to Ivy League schools and completing the coursework offered. Having an extracurricular theme is more important than one college course taken outside of school just to improve the GPA.

Academic Requirements for International Students

The biggest challenge facing international students is understanding the requirements for applying to US colleges. Many students miss the opportunity to engage with AP or IB curriculum, which demonstrate academic dedication to US admissions officers. Sometimes, students do not give themselves enough time to take the SAT I or ACT 3 times starting at the beginning of junior year or at the end of sophomore year. And often students underestimate how closely colleges will look at transcripts, and the importance of the essays.

You can use sites like College Board and Big Future to start a roadmap to admissions. Many students also come to Empowerly for college counseling for this very reason.


We know that this can be a confusing process. It’s difficult to navigate all the necessary paperwork, tests, and requirements on your own! If you are interested, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You can book a complimentary consultation session below to learn more about our approach and services. You may choose the time that is most convenient for you and your family to meet with the Empowerly team. During the session, bring all your questions, and we can match you with a college counselor to get started.

Questions? Let us know!