I’ve often been asked how US colleges go about admitting international students. The questions are usually centered upon quotas—limits to how many students can be admitted from a particular region of the world. Because certain countries often send such “incredible” students to US colleges, and only a few of them are admitted year to year to a given school, there must be a predetermined number of admission slots per country goes the thinking. Right? Wrong. Most admission officers don’t have an imagined number of admits in mind when comparing applicants from one country against another’s. Instead, when sifting through a set of applications, they might pivot towards the “best” applications they’ve seen in a given context, regardless of country. “Best,” you see, is often variable; there’s more than one version of it. What’s valued in one part of the world might look different in another.

Imagine going to a farmer’s market. What you buy isn’t always predicated upon a preconceived menu or shopping list. Sometimes the reverse is true: Your menu is driven by what you find at market. And even if you knew you wanted clementines going in, you probably wouldn’t buy an entire crate of them just because they were in season. You’d more than likely pick the best ones you came across and then move on to the apple bin. And the blueberry bin. And then spinach. Your aim might be variety, the best from an array of produce that could all complement one another within many a list of ingredients. So despite what the clementines might think or how much more wonderful they imagine they taste compared to the apples sitting next to them, you’d still probably end up with a few superbly tasting apples—unless, of course, they were nowhere near ripe.

International college admissions is not all that different. Applicants are often seen in context: French students with French students, Chinese applicants with Chinese applicants, global nomads with global nomads. Admission officers often aim for the best from each context without a preconceived notion of how many students they’ll be admitting by country. It’s only when the dust settles do they know the end result, the overall class composition.

There’s beauty in this big world of ours: Plenty of room to step back from the street-side view, to look at the globe as a whole, and to imagine how the differing strengths of one’s overall international class will mesh and mingle. How many students one admits from a given place is often not at the forefront of an admission officer’s mind; instead, what’s usually front and center is what a student brings to the figurative, and sometimes literal, roundtable.


Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.