In the summer of 2007 I, a high school graduate in Russia, spent hours on the Internet in search of a cheap summer school in the United States. I had been studying English for a couple of years, but I never had a chance to practice it with native speakers. Summer school seemed like a good opportunity, but the average cost was unimaginably high for my family.

I did not find a cheap summer school then, but I discovered something a hundred times more valuable. I learned about an exchange program called Global UGRAD, which offers students the chance to go to a university in the United States for one academic year, pursue an internship, and engage in community service ? for free.

Global UGRAD

I applied in my first year of college, and after a few rounds of the competition, I was selected as one of the 20 finalists. I spent my year at Southern Maine Community College, located nicely on the beach.

The Global UGRAD Program also allows its applicants to choose any major, regardless of what they study at their home universities. I took advantage of this policy and picked something I was really passionate about but never had a chance to study ? International Affairs.

When I came back to my home university, I knew I wanted to change my major from Marketing to International Affairs. Because of institutional bureaucracy it turned out to be practically impossible. Moreover, this exchange experience made me very sensitive to the differences in Russian and American education systems. I began to notice disadvantages of education in Russia that I didn?t notice before.

So I started to think about continuing my studies in the U.S.  But despite my academic experiences there, I still had very little knowledge about applying to American universities. I did not even know at that point in time that transferring from a university in Russia to a university in the United States was possible. I started my research from literally nothing.

Researching Schools

The first thing I learned about U.S. schools in my research was that they were extremely unaffordable for me. I wouldn?t be able to pay even 1/10th of the cost of attendance. I felt discouraged.

However, soon I discovered the EducationUSA advising center in my area, and learned that there are universities in the U.S. that offer financial aid to international students. My EducationUSA advisor gave me a list of about 50 highly selective schools that have a proven record of awarding financial aid to foreigners.

It took me a couple of months to make a short list of 13 schools I would be applying to, learn about their admission criteria, and create a profile for each.

I made my decisions based on overall academic reputation and the choice of courses relating to my major. Location was a secondary factor for me, but it did matter ? I wanted to study on the East Coast in relative proximity to Boston, New York, and D.C., which I knew host a lot of academic events.

Only one of the schools on my list was need-blind to international students, and the rest were need-sensitive. If a college has a need-blind financial aid policy towards international students, it means it will not consider the applicant?s financial need when making an admissions decision. In fact, there are very few such colleges in the U.S., and they tend to be among the most selective in the nation. A need-sensitive policy implies that the candidate?s financial need is taken into account and may decrease his or her chance of being admitted compared to other applicants with no or smaller financial need.

Since I was going to apply to need-sensitive schools, I knew I had to be not only a great candidate, but also a better candidate than most applicants not applying for financial aid. This was a real challenge.

Making myself a stronger candidate

The first thing I did was a critical and strategic evaluation of myself as a potential applicant. I asked myself: What is my strongest side? What are my weaknesses? Where do I stand compared to others and how do I move from there?

I had just finished my second year in Russia (the exchange year in the U.S. did not count), and I had a perfect transcript with almost all A?s. However, I did not think of excellent grades as an advantage. Most students that apply to highly selective American schools have good grades. So I decided that my extracurricular activities would be my strongest side. Again, I had to start from almost nothing.

Books and websites I used for researching schools...

U.S. News & World Report
Provides college rankings based on a variety of criteria

A huge online forum for prospective students and their parents

For writing my personal statement...

Best College Admission Essays
A book that showed me the appropriate style for an admissions essay

A website where you can post your personal statements and get a feedback on them

To study for the SATs...

Kaplan SAT and Peterson's Master the SAT
I found it useful to study with more than one book to practice different sets of questions

[See what resources other bloggers have used for their research]

Although I did some extracurriculars in college, I wanted to take them to a completely new level. The very limited time I had ? half a year before application deadlines ? made me look for something very rewarding, and of course something free. In that half a year, I was selected to represent Russia at the first-ever Girls20 Summit, to act as the ICRC spokesperson at the United Nations Conference of Parties in Mexico, and to lead a self-directed workshop at the Women?s Worlds Congress, just to name a few.

These experiences transformed me as a person, and helped me discover a specific area within international affairs that I wanted to focus on in my career. They also gave me a lot of thoughts that I would later write about in my admissions essays.

Standardized tests

I learned what the SAT is when I was doing my research on schools? admission criteria. I had only 5 months to prepare, and only one attempt to take the test. In order to take the SAT and make it by the deadlines, I had to go to Moscow, which is an 8.5 hour flight from my city. I could afford to go there only once.

When I was studying for the SAT, I made a big mistake ? I decided that math is easy I didn?t need to practice it much. I focused on my weakest area ? reading. As a result, I got 730 in reading, but only 600 in math. During the test I did not understand what some math questions were really asking, which I believe would not have been a problem if I had practiced math before the test.

I think that since I was applying to liberal arts colleges and was going to major in humanities, higher reading and writing scores compensated for a lower math score. But lower math score certainly did have an impact ? it pulled down my overall score, which is important to highly selective colleges.

The TOEFL test scares away some students willing to study in the U.S., but it really shouldn?t. If you are already studying for the SAT test, you will learn a lot of synonyms and antonyms in the reading section, and practice your knowledge of English grammar in the writing section. Just make sure you stay calm during the test.  I could afford to take it only once, and I was so nervous that I couldn?t even speak clearly in the speaking section. I got 110, with the lowest score on speaking.

An interesting thing about the TOEFL test is that many colleges have a minimum TOEFL score requirement for international students. For example, the schools I applied to required a minimum score of 100. However, I believe it?s not the minimum score requirement that applicants should really focus on. A much more important figure is the average score of students admitted in previous years. For colleges on my list this average score was 110-115. Quite a big difference.

Lessons Learned

Mount Holyoke College

The first admissions decision I received was positive. I was admitted to Mount Holyoke College with advanced standing and awarded the financial aid I needed. Six decisions were negative, and I never got the rest.

The question that is still lingering with me is: Was it a good or a bad decision to apply to 13 schools?

One the one hand, it made sense in my case when financial aid is the biggest issue, because more schools meant more chances to get the aid I needed.

On the other hand, I could have prepared fewer but better applications. Asking for 26 recommendation letters from professors and writing about 30 essays took time I could have used to study more for the SAT.

Schools also have different application policies. I expected that if I submitted the Common Application but something from my application materials was missing, the school would notify me. Many did not, and it is understandable: they probably had so many applicants that they simply did not have time to communicate with everyone. So learn from my mistake and make sure nothing is lost on the way.

Furthermore, it cost me a lot to send my application materials to all 13 schools.

Mount Holyoke College

I am happy that I ended up at Mount Holyoke ? I believe it has all I need to succeed in my career ? academic rigor, a big choice of courses relevant to my specific interests, amazing career development center, professors doing a lot of research in my field of interest, organizations on campus that help me develop professionally, and funding opportunities for study abroad and internships. Few other schools I applied to had a combination of all of these.

So the biggest thing I learned may be this: Many students try to get into the ?best? school, but they do not know if that ?best? school will be the best for them given their unique interests and abilities. It is essential to find a college that will be right for YOU.

Note: EducationUSA has the Opportunity Program, which provides grants to cover students? application costs, but I was awarded an Opportunity Program grant after I had already been admitted to Mount Holyoke, so it paid for my plane ticket to the US and some "settle-in" expenses. But I would recommend applying to this program early when you are planning your application process so that the grant, if awarded, covers your application and testing costs as well.

This article originally stated that UGRAD participants are ineligible for Opportunity Program grants. That is incorrect, and we apologize for the error. Here is some useful information on the Opportunity Program from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.