By John Wilkerson




Many U.S. university admissions professionals are familiar with the sentence, ​”That was a transitional year for this student.” This sentiment can be compounded when working with students who are receiving their high school education within a country that is different from their country of citizenship.

Each year, many universities in the U.S. receive applications from students who fall into this category and are referred to as “Third Culture Kids” or “Global Nomads.” A majority of the global population of third culture students have found themselves in expatriate communities because of their parents’ occupational location or family ties. Often they are enrolled in American or international high schools abroad​, where they interact with a diverse range of classmates and are exposed to global perspectives and conversations as part of their daily routine.

However, some international students studying in the U.S. have traveled primarily for the purpose of receiving secondary education.

The Institute of International Education reports that more than 48,000 international students were pursuing a diploma in U.S. high schools in 2013. ​Many international students hope to gain an advantage when applying to college in an increasingly competitive university admissions landscape.

This was a primary factor in “Anh’s” decision to enroll in a private St. Louis high school for her final two years. Her grades are strong, she’s active in several clubs, participates in a local church youth group and her English employs occasional slang that one might hear on any television teen drama.

Now in her final year of high school, Ahn was accepted at multiple U.S. universities this spring. “I know more about how things are (in the United States), because I’ve been here so long.”

While Anh’s transition to and integration within her community have been largely positive, not every international student’s experience is similar.

Ryan Griffin, director of international admissions at the University of Missouri, ​​feels it’s important for international students to have a solid understanding of how their academic records will be viewed by university admissions officers – especially those who have transferred to the U.S. midway through high school.

“Students should understand that the grades they earned from both high schools will likely be considered,” he says, and those policies will vary from one university to the next.

Of course, it’s often not only grades that make a stellar application.

“Not every [secondary] schooling system emphasizes the holistic development of a student,” says Mark Butt, an associate dean of admission at Emory University in Atlanta. “Non-measurable skills such as communication, creativity and critical thinking, and the opportunity to take on leadership roles may be more available at U.S. high schools.”

He says that demonstrating these skills can be very important when applying to universities, especially liberal arts or highly selective institutions.

Natalie Koster, senior assistant director of international admissions for the University of Colorado—Boulder, agrees. “One of the things we look for in an applicant is how much they have participated in extracurricular programs.”

Koster has noticed that some international students may have difficulty integrating into a high school environment, where the stress of being away from their natural support network can impact a student’s ability or interest in social involvement. “It’s definitely something that international students and parents should keep in mind, if they’re thinking about high school in the United States.”

The most successful university applicants are those who not only demonstrate academic ability, but also social acumen and community engagement.

“Sharing these unique perspectives and experiences through application essays and conversations with admissions officers is important to truly stand out to a university,” says Stav Boutsis, dean of international recruitment for enrollment management at Hofstra University in New York. “This will show up in strong application essays or interviews.”

As the third culture population of high school students in the U.S. continues to increase, this special population of international students can have an enriching impact on learning environments and communities.

Shared global conversations, sharing of cultures and expanded learning opportunities can be of benefit to all students when applying to university, regardless of citizenship. Academic performance, community involvement, social integration and the ability to showcase those experiences all contribute to a strong university application.