Part One: Applying to NSLI-Y

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Unlike most of my posts, this blogpost is meant mainly for prospective NSLI-Y students. When I was applying to NSLI-Y, one thing that really helped was reading through blogs giving application advice. I have been meaning to write a post on this for a while, but I never really got around to it. Now, with my Jordan adventure just weeks away, I decided to spend the next two weeks talking about my personal take on this portion of the NSLI-Y journey.

With over 3500 applicants applying each year and an informal acceptance rate of roughly 15%, the NSLI-Y application process is quite competitive. A lot of questions have been answered on NSLI-Y’s FAQ page. Here is my personal take on the application experience. I hope these tips help shed some light on this process.

Application Components:

The NSLI-Y application comes around late August or September and is due towards the end of October. The application is extremely extensive and consists of various parts such as Personal Information, Transcript Submission, a Teacher Recommendation, a Parent Statement, Placement Information, and of course, the numerous essays. I wanted to focus on some of the most important parts.

Personal Information:

Within the “Personal Information” component there are are various sections, some of which are extremely self-explanatory, such as information about your school, contact information, etc. The part that I believe takes the most thought is the Activities, Athletics, and Organizations section. This page is a resume of sorts, where you are asked to submit a short description and hours for your various activities. These can include extracurriculars, volunteering, work experience, languages you have learnt, and awards. My biggest tip here would be not to try to collect all the activities you can think of to put on the resume. To my understanding, NSLI-Y looks for students who are committed and passionate, and demonstrate this through their non-academic life as well. So rather than trying to highlight something that you think they want to hear, discuss what you care about most, and how it shows that you are an interested and focused person. In my case, I had a lot of volunteering experience, but little work experience, but I was able to demonstrate a strong passion for my activities. That said, I would strongly advise against trying to shape yourself to fit into a certain mold. Everyone who has been accepted into NSLI-Y has a specific diverse background, and I am quite sure that no two people will have a similar resume.

Choosing your NSLI-Y Language:

This section, titled “Program Preferences” on the application is where you submit your top program choices, as well as a paragraph justification on your first selection. Hopefully, you will have already developed a clear idea of which language you would like to study and why. Now is just a matter of getting those thoughts down in a manner that is clear and to the point. Keep in mind that you will be given more time to justify your choice in your essays. I also wanted to talk about commonly cited misconceptions associated with choosing your placement preferences.

1) Applying to certain languages gives you a higher chance of getting accepted.

When you are accepted into NSLI-Y, you are first accepted into the program as a whole, meaning that you are chosen to receive a NSLI-Y scholarship. Then, you are sorted into a specific program. (Of course, when you receive your acceptance email, you will get all the information in one go.) But, the point is, applying to X language will not improve your chances of getting in, but having a strong justification for whatever language will help you be placed in your top program choice. The more popular languages have the most spots and vice versa, so no language is easier to get in than another.

2) Indicating that you want to go for the year program shows more commitment.

When I was applying, I heard that indicating that you would like to go for an academic year as a second choice makes those evaluating your application believe that you are more committed towards learning the language. By personal experience, I can say that it might not necessarily be true. While I would have loved to go abroad with NSLI-Y for an entire year, I made it clear in my application that due to my school’s rigorous IB program, this would be implausible for me. I did add that I will definitely be applying for the year program as a gap year!

3) Mentioning a different language as your second choice shows that you are interested in learning foreign languages as a whole.

When I was applying to NSLI-Y I was really focused on Arabic specifically, and it tied in most with the academic and career goals that I had outlined in my essays. So, I left the second choice option blank. That said, I certainly did find ways to talk about my interest in language as a whole, when I discussed the languages that I had studied prior to applying. I would say that when you put down a second choice, you should ask yourself: “Can I see myself studying this language for six weeks and being immersed in the culture?” If so, do put down a second choice. (Or third if you wish.) If you can’t see yourself learning any language but you first choice, it is always an option to not select another choice, and it won’t be counted against you.


And now to the essays, which, in my opinion, are probably the most important part of the application. Your essay’s are NSLI-Y’s way of understanding who you are. NSLI-Y is a rigorous overseas education program, and these essays let them see if you have the necessary skills to thrive in an immersive environment, such as maturity, flexibility, responsibility, commitment, and interest.

The longer essay has a 500 word limit and it is a letter to a potential host family, with a set of questions to answer. To prepare my essay, I initially broke the prompt down into several parts based on the different questions and bulleted my answers separately. Then, I turned these bullet points into cohesive paragraphs, which I put together and edited. Since they are asking a lot from you, and you only get 500 words to express yourself, you should prioritize the traits, experiences, and activities that make you a good candidate for NSLI-Y. But then again, don’t try to shape or change yourself to fit a certain profile; it is best to be honest.

The first short essay, which is limited to 250 words calls for three reasons why you want to participate in NSLI-Y. My advice for this section is to brainstorm several reasons first, and then go back and evaluate which ones you feel strongest about. Then, come up with evidence and ample justification for each reason. In my case, the first reason that I mentioned was my overall passion for language and linguistics. I talked about how I first became interested in learning Arabic when I discovered the linguistic connections between Arabic and the Romance languages (two of which I have been studying at school), and how this fascination led me to learn how to read the Arabic script. I found this to be a good place to discuss and connect my experience with various languages. For my second reason, I talked about my career goals, as far as going towards a diplomacy or international politics track. I said that NSLI-Y would give me a good basis to build off of. Finally, for my third reason, I connected it to a very specific college level language program I want to be a part of: the Arabic Flagship Program. I talked about how the counselor of the program said that NSLI-Y would be a perfect starting point for such a rigorous program, thus connecting it to my academic goals.

The third essay offers the most room for creativity. While the topics vary each year, I believe this essay is NSLI-Y’s way of evaluating a candidate’s character. Out of the three given topics, I chose the one in which we were asked to talk about a time we were uncomfortable, and how we responded to the situation. Personally, I decided to narrate an anecdote, as a opposed to stating something like “A time when I was felt uncomfortable was…”. As for my subject, I didn’t focus on anything that had to do with going abroad or even Arabic; however, the main conflict in my narrative was a language barrier. I talked about an experience I had volunteering at a camp for teenage refugee girls, where I had to help an Afghan girl with a writing assignment. Our tension and nervousness was mutual, and in the end, it was a broken conversation about a Bollywood actor that broke the ice. Of course, at face value, this might sound mundane; however, what I capitalized on was the way that a simple conversation was able to cross a cultural and linguistic barrier.

This has been a pretty long post so let me just finish by summing up the key points:

  • Be honest about the language you want to study and have a clear justification in mind
  • Intersperse your justifications with examples and experiences that support your ideas
  • Do a lot of brainstorming as to give a clear direction to your personal statement, and think about the kind of person you want to come across as
  • Jot down several reasons why you want to participate in NSLI-Y and then prioritize, collect evidence, and give examples
  • Refrain from lecturing in your final essay; make it a concise story about any simple topic, and perhaps allow internal dialogue or thoughts to convey your self-reflection

Next week, I will be sharing some tips and talking about my personal experience with the next big step in the journey: the interview!

14 thoughts on “Part One: Applying to NSLI-Y

  1. Thank you so much, Emma! It’s so nice to be validated by someone who has been through the NSLI-Y journey!


  2. After reading your tips…I think only by the grace of Jesus I could get inside this program. cX Dang it…my 3 reasons for NSLI-Y weren’t as good as yours…I am not sure exactly what I wish to do as a job yet and I didn’t even know Flagship existed until recently…I have seen other applicants essays that are similar to your 3 reasons…i now feel like i came into the game too late


    1. Don’t worry! I am sure you did just fine! My own examples were just what I did personally; however, remember that every NSLI-Y student is different, and that there is no “perfect” application. I only knew about the Flagship since there is one in the university in my city (University of Texas at Austin), but the program is not extremely well-known as of yet. It is totally alright if your application is very different from mine. Out of my closest friends in the program, one wants to become a Marine, while the other wants to study behavioral linguistics, both of which are very different from what I want to go into. Are you applying to the Arabic program? Feel free to message or email me if you have any questions!


  3. Thanks for the very detailed recap and advise! My daughter is a Semifinalist.
    She has no medical issues and If she does not totally bomb her interview what are his chances of being a finalist?


    1. Thank you so much! I am glad this helped! Congratulations on your daughter becoming a semifinalist! While the interview does play an important role in the steps to becoming a finalist, the written application will be reevaluated by other application readers as well. Statistically, I believe that NSLI-Y picks half of the people who make it to semifinals; however, this number may fluctuate. What language is your daughter applying to? If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me in the contact form! 🙂


  4. Hi, I’m applying to NSLI-Y and I was wondering if you could proof read my essays? I would really like to get some tips from an alumni. Can I email you? Thanks!


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