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NSLI-Y 201: Application Advice

The NSLI-Y application has many components, and it can definitely be an intimidating process! Here, I break down and offer advice for each section to hopefully make the application less scary. As a two-time (and soon to be three-time!) NSLI-Y applicant, I’ve included insight into what I think helped me succeed with my second application. NSLI-Y was a life-exchanging experience for me, and I hope this post enables you to gain the opportunity to have a similarly incredible experience!

If you have no idea what NSLI-Y is, start with this post: NSLI-Y 101.

There’s a lot of information, so bear with me! I’ve added some fun pictures that are loosely related to each section to break up the text 🙂 You can jump to a specific section using the handy dandy contents box!

General Advice

  1. Be intentional with your words. With a limited word count for each component, it’s important to ensure that you effectively and adequately communicate your ideas.
  2. Make a list of a few personal qualities that you want your application readers to take away after reading your application. After you’ve drafted your application, go back and check if those qualities are prominent. If you can’t find them, it’s likely your application reader can’t either.
  3. NSLI-Y isn’t looking for students who are superhuman!! Don’t write about what you “think” the application readers want to see. Cliche but always relevant, be authentic and let your passion shine.

Personal Information

Activities and Hobbies

NSLI-Y Korean Traditional Music Club

This is the section where you get to talk about your community involvements! Don’t worry if you don’t max out the available spaces. You’ve likely heard it before, but genuine depth and dedication to a few things are always better than superficial breadth. As with any application, it’s good to list activities in order of personal importance!

You’re given forty words to describe how you contribute to each activity/organization, which is actually a lot of space! If the title of the activity isn’t self-explanatory, be sure to explain what it is. If you’ve earned a leadership role, briefly describe your responsibilities as well.

Internships, Paid Work, and Jobs

Don’t stress if you also don’t have anything to put in this section! When I applied to and was accepted to NSLI-Y last year, I left this section completely blank. There are other places in the application to demonstrate your passions and work ethic. However, if you do have work experience, you should of course include it!

Awards, Honors, and Special Recognitions

Completion ceremony with NSLI-Y friends <3

If you’ve been formally recognized for your hard work and dedication, congratulations! Remember that it doesn’t take a bajillion formal awards for you to show NSLI-Y your awesomeness and passion for your activities! To that same end, the transcript is not a major factor in the selection process, evident in the minimum 2.5 GPA requirement. The essays are really where you get to share your passion and personality, so I would suggest channelling most of your energy there.

Placement Information

For the mini essay in this section that asks you to explain your language choice(s) and the first longer essay that asks you to list three reasons why you want to participate in NSLI-Y, your initial answers will likely have great overlap. I would recommend using the longer essay to explore your reasons for wanting to gain global experience in general and concentrating your reasons for choosing a specific language in this mini essay. This way, you avoid redundancy and allow yourself adequate space to more fully explain your three reasons for wanting to participate in NSLI-Y.

Self-Introduction to Host Family and Language Instructors

The first time I met my host family (faces covered for their privacy)

I think the greatest improvement I made in my second NSLI-Y application was in the host family letter. For my first application, I blandly replied to the very many questions of the prompt in the order they were given. I thought this was a logical choice because the flow of the questions made sense, but, after having gone back to read my letter now, I realized that I ended up writing a rather boring letter. You should answer all of the questions, but you don’t have to answer them in the order they’re given! Answer them in the order that makes the most sense to you and the personal story you’re telling.

The longer word count of the letter compared to the other essays enables you to be more creative. While other essays may require a more formal tone, I think a more casual tone is appropriate and, in fact, more ideal for injecting your personality into this letter! I’ve helped many people edit essays this year, and the letters were always my personal favorite to read. The letters that stood out to me were those in which the writer’s personality and voice shined. Tell a joke, add an anecdote, use descriptive imagery, etc. You want to keep your reader engaged, so I would suggest employing various strategies to connect to your reader on a more personal level.


Essay One: Three Reasons Why

Prompt: List and explain three (3) reasons why you want to participate in NSLI-Y.

To help guide your reader, it’s best to articulate each of your reasons in individual paragraphs. The word count is limited, so, when I wrote my own essays, I didn’t make artful topic and closing sentences for each reason. Keep in mind that NSLI-Y is a language and cultural learning program. As mentioned above, you’ve already been provided space to explain your language choice, so I think this essay could be best used to contribute to your application by focusing on explaining why you would like to gain global experience through NSLI-Y and how this experience would impact your future. Consider how you would like to impact both your potential host community and your own local and global communities upon your return.

Edit 10/23/17: It’s also very common to include how NSLI-Y would help you achieve your future career goals. However, don’t feel pressured whatsoever to say that you would like to work for the State Department or become a Foreign Service Officer just because you think that may be what they’re looking for! Language and culture skills can be applied to any field; that’s their beauty! When I applied to NSLI-Y in 2016, my career goals were to study global health and either do research or become a doctor. I related these goals to the language and cultural skills that I would gain through NSLI-Y by describing how I hoped to communicate with patients in their native tongues and relating it to my observations of the powerful relationships between my father and his Korean-speaking patients. My career goals now are different, but the universal application of language and culture skills remains the same!

Essay Two: Essential Qualities of a Successful Study Abroad Student

This year is my third time applying for NSLI-Y, and the prompts for the second essay have differed slightly each year. (In fact, for 2017-18, there were three prompts to choose from.) This second essay is seeking more information about a personal quality that is essential for successful study-abroad students. For 2018-19, it seems that the two essay prompts given are probing for adaptability and self-initiative.


Prompt: We sometimes have to change how we do things. Describe a time in the past two years when you had to find a new approach to a situation. What did you do?

Being an exchange student in a foreign culture inevitably involves mishaps and cultural misunderstandings, and being adaptable is key! I would recommend brainstorming some anecdotes that are applicable to this prompt and writing down some notes about what you learned from each incident. Consider writing about a situation that involved a cultural difference! (Remember, culture doesn’t always refer to an ethnic or racial culture!) Then, choose the story that resonates the most with you and/or is the best example of your adaptability. Be genuine in describing the steps that you took in changing your approach and how you grew from the experience. Also, think about your reasoning behind the new approach (i.e. why did you think this approach would be more effective than the previous?).


Prompt: Describe a goal you set for yourself in the recent past. Why was this goal important to you? What steps did you take to work toward the goal? Did you achieve your goal?

As I briefly discussed in my post about the info sessions at Pre-Departure Orientation, goal setting and realistic expectations are essential to making the most of a study abroad experience. Choose an anecdote that exemplifies your ability to take initiative and make an improvement in some capacity. Like with the adaptability prompt, be genuine in describing your steps. Your first ideas for this essay likely involve a goal that you were able to achieve, but consider writing about a time you failed! Even if you didn’t achieve your goal, there’s still much to be said about the learning process. Perhaps you failed because your expectations were unrealistic; if so, consider what might have made your goal more attainable and how this impacted setting future goals.

Language Experience

Our language class and two teachers at the closing ceremony (excuse our teary smiles!)

If you’ve studied other languages, you can list them in this section! Be honest about your language experience. The information about your experience with the NSLI-Y program language is used for class placement if selected, and little language experience will not negatively impact your application. The majority of the students of our Seoul program were beginners and indicated themselves as such on their applications!

Academic Year Application-Specific

Placement Information

If you’re applying for AY, there’s an additional essay to explain why you would like to participate in a year-long program. The most common answer to this question is likely “because I’ll be able to learn more in one year than in one summer.” While this is of course true and an important reason to consider, push yourself to think a bit outside of the box. Do you have an interest in particular events that do not occur during summer? Is there a cultural activity you would like to pursue to a degree of mastery? Concrete examples almost always strengthen a point, and adding more specific, personal reasons will help you stand out.

Choose the program length that you truly feel is optimal for your circumstances. Applying for AY does not necessarily indicate a greater dedication/interest to pursuing your language and cultural studies. Also, applying to AY as a gap year is very common and definitely allowed!

Essay Three: Teamwork

Prompt: Describe a time in the past two years when you worked on a team or in a group (sports, class project, other activity). What was difficult? What did you like about it? What did you learn from the experience?

The AY students for each city are a small cohort, and teamwork makes the dream work! This question is asking you to characterize yourself as a teammate. Are you more of a leader or follower? What’s your communication style? How do you resolve disagreements? Especially for the year program, a well-balanced team dynamic is important for an enriching program, so consider how you contribute to creating a beneficial experience for both yourself and your teammates in the anecdote you choose.

The End

Anddd that’s the end of my long (and hopefully helpful) spiel. Good luck with your application!! You can do it!! If you have any questions, shoot me a message on Facebook or through the Contact page on the blog. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures!

PS — If this post was helpful, please consider liking my Facebook page through the handy dandy widget in the sidebar so others will be more likely to find these resources! 🙂

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