Application Season 2020 – 2021 – Avoiding Common Mistakes in your Personal Statement

Tips for International Students and Families to Avoid Common Application Mistakes for Boarding Schools in the US and Canada

For many families of international students, a lack of understanding about the American and/or Canadian private school application process can make them feel overwhelmed. Preparing a timeline, writing essays, conducting interviews, selecting schools, and even learning to properly correspond with the school after the final application has been submitted are all steps that are easy to misunderstand. This article will help clear up the common misunderstandings families may have about the application process.


1. Understanding the International School Timeline

After deciding to study abroad, the first thing many families will do is prepare for standardized tests. Although preparing for standardized tests is certainly very important, it is equally important to remember that applying for schools in the US is a comprehensive process. Standardized tests are therefore only one part of the application. If a timeline is not mapped out in advance and most available time is allocated to preparing for standardized tests, a student may end up being underprepared for their essays and interviews, and unable to allow the admissions officers to gain a full understanding of their characteristics and personality. Although a student’s test scores may be high, they may still have difficulty leaving a positive impression in other aspects of their application. School transcripts, teacher recommendations, and interviews are also important factors schools consider when evaluating candidates. Therefore, it is important to prepare each element of the application process in advance and plan accordingly.

2. Selecting Schools

Selecting schools is an essential part of the high school application process. However, due to a lack of knowledge about American or Canadian schools, the following misunderstandings are quite common with international families:

  • Casting too wide of a net: Some families hope that by applying to twenty or thirty schools, they will be more competitive and increase their chances of their child being admitted. However, this often results in students being unable to concentrate on the many aspects of the application process, and not having enough time to gain an in-depth understanding of each of the twenty or thirty schools.
  • Only Considering Rankings: For families who are unfamiliar with American or Canadian boarding schools, rankings can certainly help parents better understand some of the options. However, it is important to remember that rankings are all relative and are only one piece of the puzzle. If one is too attached to rankings, it will be easy to not pay attention to details such as the school’s environment, characteristics, and whether or not the programs and resources offered make it a good fit.
  • Selecting a School Based Only on Standardized Test Score Requirements: Standardized test scores are a basic threshold in the selection process. When selecting schools, many families will choose schools based on the school’s standardized test score requirements. Although standardized test scores are important, American high schools do not only look at test scores. In prior years, we have seen too many students with high standardized test scores that were not satisfied with their admissions results. However, other students may have just barely met a school’s standardized test score requirements, but both their personal characteristics and interview performance were outstanding and they were still accepted by top schools. If parents choose schools based only on their children’s standardized scores, they may be disregarding some great potential options in the process.
  • Choosing Safety Schools That Are Not a Good Fit: When choosing safety schools, some families may choose schools that have low admission requirements and will apply to them even if they don’t like the school and would be unwilling to attend if admitted. However, they may not understand the entire situation clearly. This results in families who may end up applying to schools that may have relatively low rankings, but are still very competitive, especially for international students. American schools have limited quotas for international student applications. This results in hundreds of Chinese applicants often competing for only a handful of spots, resulting in a serious imbalance between supply and demand. The admissions process is not just based on merit, many other factors such as country of origin and international vs domestic student are taken into consideration as well. Therefore, we do not recommend selecting safety schools just to have safety schools on your list. Selecting a school list with “no regrets” is important. All of the schools you ultimately decide to apply to, including your safety schools, should be a good fit for you personally. This way, you will avoid running into a situation where you must attend a school you did not even really like to begin with.
3. Common Application Essay Mistakes

The importance of a good application essay goes without saying. A good essay allows the school to see the characteristics and qualities that may otherwise not be evident. However, due to differences between many Asian and American or Canadian expressions and cultures, students and families often make the following mistakes:  

  • Including Too Many Details, Lacking Focus: An applicant’s strengths are easily obscured by a long list of uninteresting details. Although schools hope to see students that are well-rounded, more than anything, they are looking for students that are unique and true to themselves. Therefore, it is essential that the application essay reflects each student’s individuality in a creative and original manner.
  • Too General and Not Specific Enough: Some parents and students write at length about how wonderful they are, but do not provide specific examples to support their claims. This often results in an essay that is very vague, repetitive, and boring.
  • Too Negative: Many application essays prompt students to share their past experiences or their viewpoints. In previous essays, we have seen students describe negative experiences such as conflicts with other students resolved through violence. Other students may blame or paint others in a negative light throughout their essay. As a general rule of thumb, blatant negativity should always be avoided in application essays.
  • Over-use of “Big” Words: Some students try to use long words they find in the dictionary in their essays. However, this is often counterproductive, because many students do not understand how to properly use these words. Additionally, some of these words are rarely used by Americans or Canadian and therefore may sound inappropriate and unnatural in an application essay. 
4. Common Interview Mistakes

Most private schools in the United States are small or medium-sized schools with less than 1,000 students. Interviews are important because schools attach great importance to the personality of each member of the school community. While some families do not realize the importance of the interview, others over-prepare. This can result in unnatural and robotic interviews where the student delivers prepared talking points but cannot fully interact with the interviewer. Differences in communication styles and languages between Asian countries and the US or Canada may lead students to face the following challenges when conducting interviews:

  • Insufficient preparation: Some students don’t pay enough attention to the interview in the early stages and do not adequately prepare for their interview. The interview is very important in the entire application process. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the interview is the most important part of the entire application.
  • Over-preparation Resulting in a Stiff and Unnatural performance: Some families are unfamiliar with how American or Canadian school interviews are conducted, so they prepare for the interview like they would a written examination, through repetition and rote memorization. This will cause students and parents to answer robotically and may also cause admissions officers to doubt the authenticity of the answers.
  • Too Humble or Indirect: In many Asian cultures, modesty is seen as a virtue. Rather than directly touting their merits, students hope that the other party will be able to implicitly understand their meaning. However, in American or Canadian culture, if students do not proactively advocate for themselves and clearly highlight their own strengths, admissions officers may feel that the applicant is not confident enough.
5. Problems that may Arise After Hitting Submit

Many assume that after the application is submitted, the only thing left to do is wait for an acceptance letter. However, it is important for students to maintain a good attitude and continue to work hard, in order to avoid the following mistakes:

  • System Issue Resulting in Missing Application Materials: Schools receive many applications every application season, especially a few days before the application deadline, so system errors are not uncommon. Ivy Talent recommends after submitting all application materials, students and parents check with the school to ensure the materials have all been received.
  • Not Providing Updates to Schools: After the admissions deadlines have passed, there is still a period of time before the results are issued. While some students think that waiting for the result is the final step, with so many applicants, it is important that students set continue to stay in contact with the connections they made at the schools they have applied to. By sharing recent updates, the school can feel a student’s genuine interest in the school.
  • Updating too Frequently: When interacting with the school, it is essential to strike a balance between not interacting enough and doing so too often. Many schools are very busy after the application deadline. Therefore, when students reach out to schools, they should have a goal in mind. If the interaction does not have substantive content and is too frequent, admissions officers may feel that the student is not considerate, which will certainly not benefit their application.


Above all, a successful junior boarding school or private high school application is the result of careful planning and detailed execution of the details. The common mistakes outlined above will hopefully help prospective students and their families avoid making too many detours on their application journey.

Author: Lily

Date: July 9th, 2020

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