NSLI-Y Application tips

Applying to NSLI-Y took over my life for the first months of fall. I spent hours from September to October agonizing over my application, specifically the essays. Along the way, I learned a lot of lessons. Here are my words of advice to any aspiring study-abroad high schooler.

Read. Read a lot. Read study abroad blogs. Read “college application essay” advice on College Confidential. Read NSLI-Y’s website. Read the NSLI-Y interactive stories.

Write first, second, third, fourth, and seventeenth-edition drafts. Don’t stop there. Write and rewrite. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially critical feedback. In the beginning, my English teacher was an invaluable asset in helping me find my topics, voice, and basic structure for the essays I wanted to write. After many, many lunches spent criticizing and revising, I had a couple essays I was proud of. Then, eager for a more “NSLI-Y specific” eye, I haunted the NSLI-Y Facebook page and sent a copy/paste message asking for essay feedback to about a dozen alumni. Only a few replied, but they provided specific advice on which lines were really working, and which ones really weren’t. For example, for one of my earlier drafts, I had written something along the lines of “… studying Arabic will help me in future career endeavors.” Of course, in hindsight, this sentence is not very strong, but a comment I received was “I really recommend being specific about what these are because it helps them understand why you really need the opportunity to achieve your goals.” Ultimately, that sentence morphed into “…Arabic is not just for personal betterment but also for public benefit. I want to combat prejudice against the Middle East and work with women in Arab countries.”

Questions to ponder:

Exactly which language are you interested in? Pick one and stick to it. That’s the tried-and-true method. Or, you can do what I did… I was torn between Chinese and Arabic. It’s a really long story, but I got into semi-finals with Arabic AY as my first preference, and submitted a form asking to change my first preference to Chinese, and ultimately got the scholarship for Chinese.

How will unlocking the door to a new language aid you in future career endeavors?

Why is learning language important to you?

What are your goals for the future, and how will NSLI-Y specifically help you achieve those goals?

Do you have a special story that’s specific to you that shows a character trait you believe will be beneficial for a year/summer abroad? Tell that story.

So, Mei, what about you?

Glad you asked! Pertaining to the essays, my biggest struggle was definitely getting started. Especially on the host family letter. I ended up talking to my mom for a couple hours about a week before the application was due, expressing my woes and frustration and not being able to write a simple letter. Shaking her head and scoffing at my deplorable stressed-out moping, she proceeded to rattle off story after story about my life. I got out my phone and started recording her. Immediately following, I sat down at my laptop, replayed the recording, and started typing. That initial page-long word rant evolved into a paragraph, which again expanded into a page, and from there, I was able to get a great first draft. The hardest part is starting.

As for the other essay prompts, I asked my English teacher for his advice. We brainstormed many, many ideas, and boiled it down to just a few. The prompts change year to year, but for my year the first prompt was to “describe a time in the past 2-3 years when you worked to improve something about yourself. Why did you want to improve it? What did you do?”. I wrote about my painful two seasons of crew, one in the winter and one in the spring. (One day, I swear, I will go back. (Wellesley dorm crew??) I gained so much more respect for athletes, especially rowers.) My essay was about my struggle throughout the season and consequently, perseverance through the two seasons. For my second prompt, “Describe a challenging situation outside of school you faced in the past two years. What did you do to overcome this situation? What did you learn?”, I wrote about getting my passport stolen from me. In China. At age 14. Alone.

The “3 reasons why” prompt is the only one that doesn’t change too much year to year. For this one, be genuine, direct, and specific. Don’t be afraid to list your far-flung ambitions for diplomacy, world peace, or career endeavors. This is your time to tell the reader why you want to spend a summer or a year learning a foreign language! (Don’t forget—NSLI-Y is a language learning scholarship!) A final word of advice on this essay: I initially had a small introduction and then a numbered list of my three reasons. An alumni reading over my application told me that in her experience, every alumni she’s talked to discourages using that format. I ultimately separated mine into four paragraphs.

The other stuff

For the teacher recommendation and parent recommendation letter, ask as early as possible, tell them about NSLI-Y and why you specifically want to do it, and be nice about it. 🙂 Your school has to mail in an official transcript by October 30. Ask your counselor or your school registrar to help you!

As for semi-finalists, interviews, and even language preference switches, stay tuned!

Join the Ask NSLI-Y Alumni group if you have any questions! There are many resources out there, even if seemingly none of your teachers/friends have heard of NSLI-Y before.

Good luck!


  1. Mei, these are very genuine, organic, very very helpful advise you give. I love you so much, and love what you do as well, you have a kind and generous soul. You have helped me so much in what I do. You might think I took on a job to help teenagers, whilst help me to get through dealing with your teenage years at home. Indeed, you have helped me beyond I want to admit.
    Let’s get all the vaccines done first.

  2. Mei, thanks a lot for sharing this. The systematic way that you took to draft the essay actually applies everywhere. I am so glad to see that you are able to do it at this early age and I am so proud of you. I am sure that you are going to benefit from this throughout your life. Like your mom said, we all learn from you a lot.

  3. Hi Mei,

    Catherine here, the one who always asks questions 🙂 Thanks so much for posting this, this was super helpful. I’m excited to see you update your blog more and more, especially once you’re in China. Keep us informed!

  4. Hi Mei,

    Thank you so much for your tips, I did NSLI-Y this past summer in China, and I am currently applying for the China AY program. I will definitely incorporate some of your advice into the application process. Thanks again.

  5. This is very useful information for those of you who have studied abroad, let us know in the comments if you can think of any more good reasons to study abroad and whether you agree with the list so far! Thanks again for the post.

  6. Hello Mei!! I am a semifinalist this year, and I just had my interview yesterday. I applied for Arabic summer and Russian summer as my two choices, but my parents and I are concerned about the Arabic program for safety reasons, and because of women’s rights in some countries. Do you think I would be able to submit a form to change my preference? Did you do it after receiving your finalist notification or before?

  7. Hi Mei!! I am a semifinalist and just had my interview. I applied for Arabic summer and Russian summer as my two choices. My parents and I are worried about the Arabic program for safety reasons, so I’m wondering if I should submit a form to change my preference. Did you submit the form after receiving your finalist notification? Where did you find the form?

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