Tips & tricks for explaining your study abroad experience

Published March 11, 2014

Almost one quarter of a billion people have left their country of birth in search of opportunities abroad – and roughly 4.3 million of those global nomads are enrolled as international students. Around the world, more students are choosing to study in a broader range of countries than ever before. However, in a competitive applicant pool for graduate school, international experience alone will not necessarily set you apart; instead, it is your ability to reflect deeply on why you are applying to a specific graduate program and how you will contribute once you enroll that should be kept in focus. Below are three key steps to help you dig deep and showcase your study abroad experience during the application process.

Pre-writing Exercises: Reflecting on your time abroad

Take a few moments to answer the following questions and get your thoughts down on paper. Do not filter yourself or edit at this stage. What international experiences – from volunteering to backpacking – have influenced your career direction and academic focus? Who or what, from these experiences, has played a decisive role in your journey? If you struggle with this initial brainstorming process, take a step back and read the sample responses below. 

Drafting Your Statement of Purpose: Beyond the travelogue

The statement of purpose is a critically important piece of your application that you can use to show how study abroad has prepared you for graduate-level work. The admissions committee (who may have read hundreds of essays and applications before reaching yours) will be looking for how your international experience has shaped who you are and where you are headed next, not a travelogue or details of a study tour. Use the ideas and stories from your pre-writing exercises to draft an outline of your statement of purpose.

Getting Admitted: Pulling it all together  

Each part of your application – from your statement of purpose, to whom you choose to write letters of recommendation – should illustrate who you are and why you are a good fit for this specific program. In other words, each element should reinforce your application and help you tell a personal and compelling story. Spending time abroad is not something every applicant will be able to discuss. So using this as part of your story – your journey – could help you stand out among the applicant pool. Let the admissions committee know how this experience impacted your life, what you learned, including the difficult lessons, and how you believe this will contribute to your graduate school experience.


Selected excerpts from Donald Asher’s outstanding book, “Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice” – samples are provided so that you may learn how to write the best statement of purpose for your own unique background. Do not model your essay too closely on these examples or someone else’s work.  

64,000 Miles to Law School
"I did not consider applying to law school immediately, for I felt that I had lived a sheltered life in a white, middle-class suburb of Sacramento, and that I knew little of the real world. So I packed my bags, and with two thousand dollars in traveler's checks in my pocket, I took the train to Guadalajara, Mexico, determined to make a new life and face whatever rigors it had to offer... In my extensive travels I saw how the law was applied differently around the state, and I became especially aware of the tremendous shortage of bilingual, bicultural attorneys to serve the needs of California's growing Hispanic population…"

Wesley Teter: This is a compelling life story that exemplifies an important guideline for your statement of purpose: show, don't tell.

Lab Sciences and Chinese
"As an undergraduate, I have consistently studied Chinese language and culture, and have traveled abroad for a language intensive program in Chengdu, China, an unusual experience for a lab sciences major. These classes have made it possible for me to graduate with both an Asian studies and biochemistry bachelor's degree... I consider myself a useful student not only for the scientific background I can bring to Yale University, but also for my proficiency in the Chinese language that I can use to enhance international collaborations in science…"

Wesley Teter: This applicant goes on to illustrate her determination and how she hopes to contribute real value to the projects of the faculty at Yale University. Her rationale is clear and persuasive.


Wesley Teter is a senior consultant on higher education and a former regional director for EducationUSA, supported by the U.S. Department of State

Source: Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice, fourth edition, by Donald Asher (2012).