Strengths and Deficits: What Admissions' Essays Reveal About Higher Education and Internationalization

September 15, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

Why do international students study abroad? What qualities and attributes do international students think that American universities value?

Many scholars devote their research toward exploring the reasons why international students choose to go to school abroad. Discussions of push-pull factors, human capital theory, branding, and family influence have all framed the conversations surrounding the motivations and hindrances to mobility. However, Mindie Lazarus-Black and Julie Globokar suggest using a different source to understand international student mobility, namely, the personal essays students submit to admissions officers. Lazarus-Black and Globokar demonstrate that these essays reveal not only what motivates students to go abroad, but also what these students perceive that admissions officers want to know about them.

In the article “Foreign Attorneys in U.S. LL.M. Programs: Who’s In, Who’s Out, and Who They Are” from a recent issue of the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Lazarus-Black and Globokar ask many interesting questions about who the international students are who apply—and are accepted—to U.S. master of law (LLM) programs, from the vantage point of the applicants, the admissions officers, and the admitted students. The authors consider student demographics, students’ personal statements, interviews with admissions staff, and interviews with international students at two law schools—one in the Midwest and one on the East Coast.

Among the personal statements, the authors uncover a common underlying belief felt by the students that they have to identify themselves as already “Western” in some way, and also that they “need” to be helped by the superior West. Lazarus-Black and Globokar write, “In their essays, students juxtapose a discourse of accomplishment with a discourse of ‘lack.’ They establish their personal worthiness, skills, identification with the West, and place in a broader social structure of accomplishment, while acknowledging the ‘developed’ nature of U.S. laws—laws that often serve as models for governing new forms of national and international concerns in business, commerce, treaty relations, and human rights” (Lazarus-Black and Globokar 2015, 40). The content of the essays expose the students’ desired sense of familiarity within the Western context, as well as their drive for further instruction which admission to a Western university will grant them.

Conversely, the interviews with the admissions staff reveal a number of factors that the students often overlook in their personal essays. For example, admissions officers state that they are looking for indications that the students can afford the cost of tuition. In addition, these interviews reveal that the admissions officers are conscious of the discontent felt by some faculty members when they have to work with students with lower levels of English language skills and proficiency.

Mindie Lazarus-Black and Julie Globokar’s research fascinated me for many reasons. They ask those of us in higher education to look at ourselves through the eyes of international students. In particular, educators need to understand that the narrative that international students (and any student!) offer in their application essays tell us as much about what they think we want to hear, as it does about who they are as students and individuals. Many factors influence how students think about higher education, and this study serves as a reminder that the language used by universities may affect the discourse that appears in the students’ admissions essays.


Tamar Breslauer, NAFSA’s Senior Research Specialist, looks for interesting questions in the areas of global learning, internationalization and the contexts in which these exist and shares her findings through NAFSA Research Connections. To discuss the questions raised in this research and to share your reactions with others, please visit the NAFSA Research Connections discussion forum.


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