Foreign Service Student Guide to Creating a College List

Changes in student demographics and school admissions procedures point to a new approach to college applications.


The Magic Number

Why do we suggest students identify six to eight colleges?

According to Barbara Conner’s “Five First-Choice Colleges Approach,” a limited list will reduce stress and improve outcomes (both in admissions decisions and collegiate success). Conner, director of college counseling at the Foxcroft School, contends that when students focus on schools where they will thrive in different aspects of their lives, they are setting themselves up for success in university and beyond.

If, however, students are deciding between different academic systems (such as the U.K. and U.S. systems), there may be a need to apply to more institutions. Students should always discuss their application plan with their college counselor at high school to ensure they are aware of the various application requirements and deadlines.


The landscape of college applications has changed drastically in the past 20 years. A Foreign Service parent recently described the college application process today as “a shot in the dark”—she felt her child had applied to as many schools as he could with the hope of getting into one. Not only were we sad to hear how disheartened this parent was; we were concerned that too many families feel there is no guidance on how to create a realistic “great-fit” college list.

The changes in admissions statistics over the recent decades reflect changes in admissions procedures, as well as a new reality for college-going young people. This new reality suggests a revised approach to college applications. (We use “college” throughout this article to refer to all twoand four-year postsecondary academic institutions.)

When the parents of today’s high school students were preparing for college, the typical applicant applied to three or four schools. Today, many students apply to more than 10. That three- to four-fold increase in applications received by colleges has diminished acceptance rates proportionately. Where, for example, Stanford’s acceptance rate was just under 20 percent in 1995, it hovers around 5 percent today.

On the other hand, demographic trends in the United States mean that the number of U.S. high schoolers is shrinking, and less competitive schools are working hard to entice freshmen into their classes. Schools are increasingly offering healthy discounts to students they’d like to enroll—even if the family does not need financial aid—in the form of merit grants.

The average admittance rate for firsttime freshmen to four-year institutions in the United States during the fall 2016 cycle was 66 percent, according to the 2017 State of College Admissions Report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

What does all of this mean for the current applicant? Simply put, it means that “fit” is more important than ever before. It is not only essential for the student to identify schools that are a good fit for them; it is becoming increasingly important to demonstrate to the school that they will be a valuable addition to its freshman class. While a school that admitted 20 percent of its applicants in 1995 had a wider range of admitted students, today schools admitting only 5 percent have the luxury of taking in only those students who balance the class the college is trying to build.

In addition to the changed reality suggested by recent statistics, Foreign Service students often face challenges that their U.S.-based peers do not. In her book, The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, Tina Quick, an adult third-culture kid (TCK) raising four TCKs of her own, highlights the challenges globally mobile students face when they leave the family unit for university.

Those challenges include frustrations making U.S.-based friends, struggles with cultural imbalance and encounters with mental health issues. The “best fit” concept can help alleviate those challenges before TCKs ever walk into their first college class.

Challenges of Searching from Afar

For the Foreign Service kid, the college search is often limited to knowledge of the Ivy League and the colleges their parents attended more than two decades ago. A mobile lifestyle precludes taking a summer course at the local community college or participating in the middle school trip to the nearby state university.

And yet, come spring of junior year many students are expected to have a list of eight realistic colleges to consider applying to by the beginning of their senior year. How can they compile that list?

Possibly the worst tools to use are the many ranking systems that pop up in the news every autumn. Rankings do not measure the quality of the education provided in any useful way; they give no insight into student satisfaction with a particular school or degree, the likelihood of employment upon graduation or the diversity of programs available at the school.

To understand how universities manipulate their rankings, take a look at the 2017 article by Northeastern University President Emeritus Richard Freeland in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Stop Looking at Rankings. Use Academe’s Own Measures Instead”).

Another ineffective strategy is to look entirely at past admissions numbers. Students often categorize their college choices in three simple categories—Reach, Likely and Fallback—based on how their test scores and grade-point average (GPA) fall into a scatter plot. After a student narrows this list down based on simple factors such as academic areas of study, proximity to an international airport and attractiveness of the admissions website, he or she often feels pleased with the resulting list.

Possibly the worst tools to use are the many ranking systems that pop up in the news every autumn.

But Becky Konowicz, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at Santa Clara University and president-elect of the International Association for College Admissions Counseling, highlights how imprecise the categories “likely” and “fallback” truly are.

“Those terms leave out the unpredictability of enrollment management and the fact that no university wants to be a student’s ‘fallback’ option,” Konowicz says. “University enrollment goals and priorities do change year to year. It is important to realize that shifts can occur strategically or by fluke for a university, impacting admission decisions.”

“When you use terminology like ‘reach,’ ‘likely’ and ‘fallback,’ the focus is on selectivity rather than fit,” explains Sarah Loring de Garcia, who has more than a decade of experience as a high school counselor. So we recommend doing away with the idea of “fallback” and “reach” schools, and instead supporting students to identify six to eight “strong match” colleges for their list.

Strong matches are those schools for which there is a strong fit of selection criteria and interests, and for which the student’s history of academic rigor, GPA and test scores (where required or recommended) are on target.

Thorough research on which schools are a match for the student should take place before the application season. Don’t waste your money applying to schools where you’ll struggle to stay competitive, to schools that do not match your academic profile, or to schools you wouldn’t attend even if they gave you a full scholarship. The Foreign Service student’s college list should focus on places where both the student and admissions committee agree the student will be happy and thrive.

Where You Go Is Not Who You Are

Success comes from being given the opportunity to thrive, to do things like be a big fish in a small pond, have one-on-one attention from professors, participate in undergraduate research projects, learn skills through a mentored internship or create a community in a living learning residential program—the list goes on.

Quincey Malauulu, admissions adviser at Westminster College in Utah, reminds the students he mentors that they only spend 15 hours a week in the classroom, and that college is about learning to become a lifelong learner, both inside and outside the classroom.

Students beginning the college search should reflect on their high school experience. Which style of class did they learn best in? Which course topic were they most excited to learn about? Did they excel in courses where they had extra advantages, or did they shine when competing with their peers? How did students supplement their education through co-curricular or out-of-school learning experiences? Do they learn best by actively doing (e.g., part-time job, internship, co-op), or by reading and reflecting? Do they prefer to listen to a lecture and study on their own, or actively participate in a seminar discussion?

Students beginning the college search should reflect on their high school experience. Which style of class did they learn best in?

Simple, dinnertime conversations on these topics can help students uncover their best learning environments, which are what they should be searching for in a college.

With a wealth of top international secondary schools to attend, most Foreign Service kids are academically prepared for admission to college after high school graduation. And yet, when these students are interviewed later, they highlight that although the academic part of the university transition came easily, the rest of the pieces did not fall into place as easily.

From the overwhelming feeling of having so much free time to the challenge of relating to peers who have 18 years of shared pop-culture references, the transition can be difficult. But it does not have to be if the college search is carried out with the aim of identifying institutions that will support the whole student: academically, emotionally, socially, professionally and physically.

When students focus on building community, finding academic support, building a healthy routine and contributing to the world around them they begin to lay the building blocks for a successful adulthood. In the college search, then, students should be looking for schools that offer them opportunities to continue the activities that have helped balance their lives during high school, as well as new opportunities that they might like to take up or engage in.

Carl Gavin, an academic adviser at KIS International School in Bangkok, reminds applicants that they should also actively consider class size when considering what will help them do well in college. “All too often I have big fish in my small pond, but a kid who knows all the answers in his HL Physics class of 13 can all too easily get lost in a Science 101 lecture hall with 500 other students,” says Gavin. “And this can lead to all sorts of other problems.”

The globally mobile student is accustomed to smaller, highly interactive classes. These students may not fully understand the learning differences between a competitive academic program that attempts to “weed out” weaker students with online classes and dramatic bell-curves, and a cohort-based program focused on supporting students through difficult studies.

Foreign Service students are also often in need of a stronger support system on entering university. The transition to a U.S. university involves a period of re-entry for students who have lived a cross-cultural life overseas in tight-knit international school communities.

Thorough research on which schools are a match for the student should take place before the application season.

“Honors programs, international student clubs and other groups can help them re-enter U.S. culture more smoothly, especially if the college they are at is really big (e.g., a state university),” John M. Evans, upper school counselor at the International School of Prague and an adult TCK, reminds students. “Honors programs give students a smaller cohort to go through college with, and a benefit typically includes closer relationships with professors.”

Students who seek out universities where they will have an option to be a part of a community—be it an honors college or a minority scholars society—will have access to academic, professional and peer mentorship throughout their early years, and will grow into leaders as they continue throughout their university studies.

Making the Match Work for You

Sometimes we hear of students with great profiles and scores being turned down from institutions whose recent average admitted scores are lower than those of the applicants. Though it may appear that the schools are suddenly getting more selective, that is not necessarily the case.

“Yield,” something of a buzzword among college admissions professionals, is the issue; it is the measurement of how many of the admitted students eventually make a deposit and choose to attend the university. Universities don’t want to accept students who are unlikely to enroll (because they are likely to be accepted at and attend a more selective college), as yield is also a significant factor in how a university ranks nationally. This is why “match” matters for admissions officers, as well as for students.

Students can make this work for themselves by being clear in their application materials that they are particularly well-suited to the campus and student population. Though it can be harder to visit campuses, FS applicants can demonstrate significant interest in the school by emailing the admissions office, requesting an interview (if available), asking specific questions, attending informational webinars, joining interest groups hosted by the university on social media and interacting with the university in other ways.

While most application essays (like the Common Application essay prompts) are still student-focused, many universities ask supplemental questions, such as “Why are you choosing to study at our institution?” or “How will you become an involved student who gives back to the campus community?” This allows the applicants to show they have thoughtfully considered their fit at the university. In addition, students can tailor each essay and additional information section (even in the Common App) to ensure they’re writing an essay that is appropriate for the university they’re applying to.

Jacqui Brelsford, an adult TCK and currently the university counsellor at the British International School of Phuket, reflects on how a student’s experience and needs as a TCK could factor into a great application package: “Look for unique or specific activities or events the university has that match their interests. For example, if the university is known for its spectacular international day, and the student is brilliant at playing the traditional instrument from their home country, they could be a part of this day. They can also mention that they have spoken to international students already attending the university—this shows initiative, and that they have heard more than just the university sales pitch.”

Foreign Service students are also often in need of a stronger support system on entering university.

Students who work best in individualized learning environments, such as honors colleges or in specialized fellowship environments, should include these opportunities in their search and be eager to discuss them with admissions advisers (check the school website for a list of admissions officers and which region of the country or world they cover) and with current students in those programs. Admissions staff should welcome emailed questions that aren’t addressed on the website.

Many colleges will require a supplemental essay or application for these special programs, and they can be due as early as Nov. 1 (a common Early Decision or Early Action application deadline). Acceptance to these programs often happens in early spring, giving the student time to weigh the program opportunity into their ultimate decision.

Support in College and Beyond

We encourage students, families and communities to change the language they use to frame the college search. Instead of “applying to as many schools as possible with the hope to get into one,” students should focus on applying to colleges where there is both an academic fit and the healthy learning environment a student needs to succeed.

When students discuss the importance of being able to swim year-round, for example, or participate in a religious group, they are identifying college choices where they will build the networks to support a successful experience. Making this kind of match, rather than opting for a recognized name brand, is a win-win for both the college that will want to admit such a great addition to the next freshman class, and to the applicant who knows that they will be happy at any of the schools to which they are admitted.

We also encourage families to listen to the advice of experts such as high school counselors, university admissions advisers and educational consultants. Carl Gavin reminds students that their high school counselor is the most knowledgeable person on their campus about the university application process—not their science teacher, not their mother’s accountant friend and not their peers.

Finding six or eight “great fit” schools can take time, but the process of identifying individual success factors, personal interests and student needs will pay off when students are accepted to and attend colleges where they will truly thrive.

Hannah Marie Morris, an FS family member preparing for her next tour in Khartoum, worked in the United States and abroad in university teaching, counseling and admissions prior to earning a doctorate of philosophy in higher education administration. She is the cofounder of Intercultural Transitions, a nonprofit offering education services to international schools, communities and families with globally mobile students.

Lauren MacKinnon Steed, an FS family member in Kigali, is the founder of Nomad Educational Services, an educational consulting firm helping TCKs find their best college match. She also works at Bridge 2 Rwanda, a nonprofit helping students from East Africa prepare for and apply to university in the United States. Prior to the Foreign Service, she served on the academic faculty and on admissions committees at a midsized state university and has a doctorate of philosophy in ethics and social theory.


What to Look For in a College Search

In advising Foreign Service kids, we have found that it’s best to reframe the entire college search. Don’t hunt for prestige and glossy marketing; look instead for schools that fulfill specific criteria. Globally mobile students can reach out to their admissions counselor and review the university website to help answer the following questions:

Access to a community on entering college: Does the school have an honors college, fellowship program, living-learning community, first-year success programming, sports teams?

Active campuses: What percent of students live on campus during their first year, and what percent stay active on campus during weekends? Is there night and weekend programming on campus?

Mental health services that understand the challenges faced by globally mobile students: What programming exists to support cultural adjustment? Connect with the international center to learn about programming there.

Opportunities for academic success: What programs does the school have to identify student learning styles, to encourage further exploration, to support international and third culture kid students?

A diverse array of interesting programs and majors, allowing freedom to possibly change majors without transferring: What are the international study options, opportunities to double major and add minors, access to internships and other hands-on learning?

Schools with opportunities to stay during holiday breaks: Are there faculty mentors or peer buddy programs that welcome international students during the holidays? Do dormitories stay open during breaks for students who cannot go “home”?

Opportunities to see the world: Does the school have 1+3 or 2+2 programs that allow students to go beyond a semester of study abroad and spend a full year or two at a different international institution?


Online Resources
  • Colleges That Change Lives (also a book)
  • College Confidential
  • College Week Live
  • The Center for Global Education’s List of Colleges with Innovative International Student Support
Virtual Tours and Reviews by Current Students
  • College Click
  • Unigo
  • eCampusTours
  • YouVisit
  • 8 First Choices: An Expert’s Strategies for Getting Into College, by Joyce Slayton Mitchell
  • Hidden Ivies, by Howard Greene and Matthew W. Greene
  • Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, by Frank Bruni
  • The College Finder, 4th edition, by Stephen Antonoff
  • Admission Matters, by Sally Springer
  • Fiske Guide to Colleges, by Edward Fiske