How Grad School Officials Evaluate International Applicants

Don Martin Dr.

International students often wonder what those who evaluate their graduate school applications are thinking as they read a candidate's file. Having been a director of admissions and an associate dean for enrollment management, my 28 years of experience in higher education included evaluating and making final decisions on tens of thousands of applications.

I also attended many conferences with other admissions and enrollment professionals. During these events, we had opportunities to discuss our approaches to evaluating applications, including those submitted by international students.

The following are some of the major things admissions officials keep in mind when evaluating and making final decisions about international applicants.

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1. The institution's enrollment goals: These are primarily set by the senior administration, and less often by the faculty. It is rare that the admissions director has input in the setting of these goals, yet she or he is responsible for reaching them.

Many factors are considered in the determination of enrollment goals: the number of men, number of women, number of U.S. minority students, number of international students, average GPAs, averages for standardized tests and more. While enrollment goals may not always seem understandable from an outside observer's point of view, there are usually sound reasons for each of them.

There will almost always be an international student enrollment target number provided to the director. Sometimes this number will be flexible; most of the time it is set in stone.

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For several years the enrollment goal for incoming international students at one of the institutions I served was 20 percent, and the overall incoming class size goal was 450. That means I was responsible for the enrollment of 90 international students at the start of the academic year.

If that final number was less than 80 - or greater than 100 - administrators were not happy. Over a 10-year period, while the enrollment goals stayed the same, international applications rose from 300 per year to more than 1,000 per year.

Obviously the selection process became more challenging each year. What I often communicated to international applicants was that the enrollment goal was not mine to set; rather, it was mine to achieve.

2. A positive impression of international applicants: My impression of international applicants was and is that they are extremely motivated, committed, hardworking and flexible.

I find international students consider studying abroad to be a real privilege and they are committed to making the most of that opportunity. In many cases, it is assumed that international students complete applications, and that they are able to follow directions well - which is extremely important.

In the mind of admissions officials, someone who cannot follow directions as an applicant will be less likely to follow directions as a student.

3. A belief that international students work hard to adjust: There is also a general impression that international students will make every effort to become part of the educational environment they join. The perception is that international students take great pains to fit in, make friends and become part of the institutional family.

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4. Confirmation of good English skills: One of the largest concerns for most admissions directors is the ability of international applicants to communicate in English. Obviously, this is critical to the success of the student, and of the faculty as well.

Sometimes international students view English requirements at various institutions as prohibitive or even punitive, but this could not be further from the truth: The requirements are actually meant to help guarantee their success.

Admissions, student affairs and academic personnel are extremely concerned about creating an environment in which their students will thrive. After all, satisfied alumni are what give an institution its greatest level of credibility.

The last thing anyone would want is for a student to come to the United States for graduate study and fail, especially if that can be prevented. Confirming English proficiency is critical to the success of an international student's application.