international students


Everyone Has a Cultural Background

Yours Could Make an Awesome
College App Essay Topic!

I love working with students from all over the world.

I’m always surprised, however, how many of these students overlook their rich backgrounds when brainstorming topics for their college application essays.

There have been several reasons for this.

Many international students seem to believe that colleges wouldn’t be interested in their country of birth, and the related customs, food, traditions, etc.

These same students also believe they need to appear “Americanized” in order to be attractive to their target schools in the U.S.

They are wrong and wrong.

I also have worked with students born in the United States who are reluctant to feature their ethnic heritage because it wasn’t white and waspy.

Others are so immersed everyday in their cultural backgrounds that they don’t even recognize how special they are—or that they even have them.

Sometimes your “culture” is so close to you that it’s hard to see.

international students

For example, I had to convince some students by the Texas border in the Rio Grande Valley, which is almost entirely hispanic, that they had incredible cultural topics to feature in their essays, from Mexican myths and sayings to speciality breakfast tacos sold at their local convenience stores, called the Q-taco.

They were too close to these cultural treasures to understand that others outside their community would find them of interest.

The trick is to find your unique cultural bubble. Sometimes you have several!

Even students from “white” backgrounds who feel they don’t have distinctive “ethnic” cultural heritage often overlook their own rich cultural surroundings. (Examples: surf culture; “redneck” culture; “preppie” culture; military culture; hippie culture; city culture)

Culture is everywhere.

It’s kind of like a mini-world with its own set of traditions, food, clothing, beliefs, etc. One good place to explore yours is to think about the background of your parents and grandparents.

In personal statements, you are looking for examples in your life of what has shaped or defined you, and your values.

Often, these cultural backgrounds have played a powerful role, and also are distinctive and fascinating—so take advantage of that in your essays!

Not to mention that many schools are seeking “diversity” for their student body make-up: How will they know what you have to contribute if you don’t help them understand your upbringing?

Different is good!

Students who have any type of ethnic and cultural background are the lucky ones: They have something unique and often colorful to write about right out the door with these essay topics!

international students

Advice for International Students

I have four pieces of advice for international students.

You are lucky since your cultural background is a given: It’s usually first defined by the country you live in—which is naturally “different” than the U.S.

Embrace and celebrate that in your essay!

Often, as you know, there are various cultures within your country. The more specific you can be about writing about your culture, the more relevant and meaningful your points will be.

My Four Tips:

1. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the type and style of essays that are most effective at most colleges and universities in the U.S. If you are writing a personal statement essay (such as The Common Application core essay), you want to write a personal essay that features real-life experiences to showcase your personality and character.

RELATED: Learn How to Write a Personal Essay

I’m not an expert in the required essays at colleges and universities outside the U.S., but the prompts and sample essays I have read from places in Great Britain, Scotland, Germany and other countries have often sought more formal, academic essays. If these are the type of essays you are used to writing, take the time to learn about writing a narrative-style personal essay. There’s a big difference.

2. When looking for a topic for your personal essay, consider the customs, traditions, (physical and emotional) environment, food, dress and other parts of your family background and lifestyle that were unique to your country, or particular region or community.

These can make terrific topics, especially if you can share related experiences and reveal how they helped you define your core qualities or values.

Not only are these culturally related experiences fresh and interesting (especially to the Americans reading your essays), they are also full of personal stories, color and details that can enliven your essays.

international student


3. I believe that when admissions folks at college and universities notice that you are an international student, they will be on the lookout for evidence that you have what it takes to live far away from home.

To me, that means they want to see that you are independent, determined, resilient and have grit. If you can showcase these qualities in your college application essays, I think you could give yourself an edge.

RELATED: How to Show Your Grit

4. Although it might not seem fair, but I also think when colleges see that you are from a country outside the U.S., especially one where English is not the main language, admissions folks will look more critically at the mechanics of your writing.

Always have someone with a strong command of English review your essays, and make sure you nail the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Also, ask them to help you make sure to use more everyday language, and “write like you talk,” so you aren’t too formal and stiff in your style, and don’t use idioms incorrectly (a tip-off that English is a second language).


international student

Advice For Everyone Else

Find your culture, no matter where you come from.

Often, you are so surrounded by it that it can be hard to see.

Once you recognize your cultural background, it’s important to avoid making cliche observations about it in your essay.

For example, if you are from such giant countries as China or India, you will need to carve out a smaller piece of your culture within your country.

HOT TIP: Pick one specific tradition or experience related to your cultural background to feature in your essay, instead of trying to write about too much. (The Q-taco; henna; Pho your grandma taught you to make; roping cows; braiding hair; ghost stories; picking berries; your strange name…)

That will help you avoid the overdone and cliche.

Always look for ways to find the unexpected within your culture.

What would readers be surprised to learn about your culture? Look for things that bust their assumptions.


international students



I’m from India, but I’m not Hindu. Instead, I’m …

I’m from a Native American tribe, but I don’t own any indigenous costumes or dance. Instead, I …

I’m from Texas but I hate bbq. Instead, I …

My dad is from Guatemala and my mom from Mexico, but I don’t speak Spanish. Instead, I …

I’m from California, but I’ve never been to the beach. Instead, I …

You get the drift.

As you know, many cultures come with stereotypes and generalizations, and even racism and prejudice.

Exploring these patterns and issues can lead to great essays topics, especially if you have had to deal with them.

Read my post on why Problems Make Great Essays.

Let the reader see and feel what it has felt like to grow up in your unique culture, and then share what you have learned from it, both the good and the bad.

I’m confident you will end up with a personal, compelling and meaningful essay, no matter what planet you are from!

international students