March 22, 2023

From the Philippines to Vanderbilt - how to market yourself to get into T20 school with financial aid


Marcus from Philippines 🇵🇭

Campus Image of Vanderbilt University
From the Philippines to Vanderbilt - how to market yourself to get into T20 school with financial aid

High School

During high school, I attended a private all-boys school in the Philippines called PAREF Westbridge. The PAREF system is focused on collaboration between teachers and parents, and it consists of a series of all-boys or all-girls schools throughout the country. In my school, we kept the batch size small, with only 20 students, to ensure a proper student-to-teacher ratio. We also had a mentoring system in place where each student was assigned a teacher to help us achieve our personal, professional, and academic goals. Our school's emphasis was on holistic formation, which helped me greatly in my US college application process.

How I decided to study abroad

As an eighth-grader, my teacher asked me which colleges I wanted to apply to in the future. I responded that I wanted to attend Harvard, but the whole class just laughed, as it was considered a far-fetched dream for most of us. Typically, only the top students in our country who attended schools in Manila would be admitted to Harvard.

However, I still decided to pursue opportunities in the US. Due to various testing requirements and logistical challenges, such as having to take a plane ride to another city, I realized that applying to colleges in the US would be a more accessible option for me.

Colleges I applied to

Apart from applying to colleges in the US, I also applied to the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, also known as KAIST. It is considered to be the MIT of Korea and is one of the top three universities in Korea, along with Yonsei and Seoul University.

In the US, I actually applied ED to UChicago, but unfortunately, got rejected. I then applied to several universities, including Carleton, Drexel, Harvard, Pomona, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale. I ended up getting accepted to Drexel and Vanderbilt, and I got waitlisted at Wesleyan. At Wesleyan, I was the finalist for the Freeman Scholarship, which is a scholarship for students in Southeast Asia. Drexel’s financial aid offer wasn’t sufficient, it was only around 1 million pesos, which is around 20k USD per year.

Vanderbilt offered me a great financial aid package and its strong sense of community appealed to me. I also knew that it was a T20 school, so I decided to attend.

Application Process

During my college application process, I received assistance from a non-profit organization called the Coalition of American University Student Experiences Philippines (CAUSE Philippines). However, gaining access to that organization was not a simple process. I had to apply for the program which included submitting an application form and attending an interview. Once I got in, they helped me throughout the college application process.

Fortunately, I did not have to take an English proficiency test since English is the primary language of teaching in the Philippines. Instead, my teacher submitted a form certifying my proficiency in the English language. I did take the SAT but did not perform well and decided to go SAT-optional. My GPA was 99 out of 100 on the scale used in the Philippines.

Extracurricular activities

As for my ECs, I filled up all ten slots on my college application. One of the more challenging activities I participated in was starting my own startup during high school. I also competed as part of the national team in math competitions. Additionally, I was involved in an organization called the Peer Project, which aimed to empower student leaders in character formation throughout our region.

When it comes to ECs, it’s very important to find your passion early on and focus on what you're good at or excited about. This is because awards and achievements are crucial for getting into colleges, and you can obtain them by winning at something you're passionate about.

Importance of essays

I believe strong essays are what ultimately got me in. Not only do you need to have solid grades and test scores, but you also need to convey a compelling story through your essays. This was something that I and many of my friends experienced when applying to college. Those who were accepted had compelling stories in their essays that demonstrated their commitments to their communities.

When it comes to writing essays, it's important not to cram them at the last minute. This was something that I learned the hard way. It's best to take your time and really reflect on your experiences. Ask yourself why you're doing something and try to craft that into your own story. I found it helpful to look at successful essays from other students and try to follow a similar format in crafting my own essays.

Another essential part of writing good essays is constant revision. In my case, the Personal Statement underwent eight revisions. It's also important to strike a balance when writing about your experiences. While it's okay to express both good and bad experiences, it's important not to overwhelm the reader with too much negativity.

Learn to market yourself

I believe that one important piece of advice for college applicants is to understand that it's a game of marketing yourself. It's important to showcase your authentic self but also to market your achievements and extracurriculars effectively. You are essentially advertising yourself to colleges, and it's crucial to word things in a way that will appeal to them. For instance, if you have a club with 10 members and you brought in 10 more, it would be better to say that you increased club membership by 100% rather than by 10 members.

Helpful resources

When it comes to finding resources for college applications, I found YouTube to be a helpful source. Searching for the school you're applying to and reading other students' supplemental essays can give you an idea of what the school is looking for in an applicant. Another resource I found helpful was a subreddit called A2C (ApplyingToCollege).

At the same time, it's important to use these resources in moderation. Overusing them can lead to imposter syndrome or feeling overwhelmed by other people’s applications.

On campus
On campus

Financial aid and scholarships at Vanderbilt

Fortunately, I received a generous financial aid package from Vanderbilt that covered my dorm expenses, food costs, and partial tuition. While I had the option to work on campus to reduce my expenses, the initial offer was enough for me to not need to work for the first semester.

It's important to note that mine was not “full” financial aid because I am able to pay a certain amount. Applicants should be careful when applying to need-aware schools such as Vanderbilt. It's important to provide an exact amount for financial need on the application, as these schools will scrutinize income statements and other financial documents to verify the information provided. While inaccurate information may not completely damage your chances of admission, it may affect your chances compared to other applicants who have provided accurate information. Make sure to talk to your parents and ask them to help you out with the CSS profile.

Vanderbilt also offers various scholarships, such as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, the Ingram Scholarship, and the Chancellor's Scholarship, which can cover up to 100% of tuition. However, I did not apply for these scholarships as they often require maintaining a certain GPA.

Experience at Vanderbilt

My experience at Vanderbilt has been very positive. Recently I decided to switch my major from Computer Science to a more humanities-focused field, which has been challenging in its own way. The workload is often heavy, with a lot of readings and assignments to complete in a short amount of time. But so far, it’s been very fulfilling as at the end of the day you learn a lot. If you are applying to universities, it's important to check whether you can switch majors once you get in, as you might not have applied with the major you want, but the one that aligns with your profile.

One thing I would like to emphasize is the environment at Vanderbilt. I have found the classes to be rigorous but also cooperative, with a focus on collaboration rather than competition. I've been able to form friendships with fellow students, for example, a girl beside me literally helped me pass the math class.

Speaking of student clubs, Im a member of the Commodore Capital Group, which is a venture capital and private equity organization on campus. We meet once a week to discuss the basics of getting into the VC industry. Be aware that every club here is almost like a class, as we also have 2-3 hours of homework after every club meeting.

When I'm not in class or at club meetings, I enjoy exploring the restaurants around campus. We're given meal money that can be used at participating restaurants through the Taste of Nashville program, which is a great way to try out new places with friends. I also enjoy walking around campus, which has many great study spots and areas to hang out with friends.

Clinton Global Initiative University event
Clinton Global Initiative University event

Adjusting to US college culture

As an international student, transitioning to college life in the United States can be challenging, particularly when it comes to language barriers and adapting to a new academic environment. However, I found that my university was supportive of international students, offering programs like the International Student Orientation to help us adjust to campus life. The orientation involved grouping us with other international students and creating opportunities for us to meet and make friends.

During classes, professors were also understanding of the challenges we faced, such as writing in a way that was unfamiliar to us or encountering math topics that weren't covered in our home countries. I found it helpful to attend office hours and collaborate with classmates to better understand the course material.

When it comes to making friends on campus, I learned that it's important to take the initiative and reach out to people one-on-one. Instead of feeling overwhelmed trying to make connections with an entire group, I found it easier to start with individual interactions, such as going to tutoring or studying together. That's how you get to know people on a personal level.

Getting internships

The university provides a lot of resources for career development, including the Career Fest where different companies such as Boston Consulting Group and Goldman Sachs come to talk about their companies and give students the opportunity to network. Additionally, the university uses a service called Handshake, and also sends out programs like Launch Tennessee, which helps connect students with startups in Tennessee that are looking for interns. However, students are still responsible for doing their own work in finding internships that align with their interests. Many of her friends found their own internships by searching for them on their own.

My future plans

After I graduate, I want to pursue a career in tech or consulting, specifically in product management. That's why I'm pursuing an anthropology minor and a data science minor alongside my major in HOD. I enjoy working at the intersection of people and technology, and I want to do something that involves both worlds. I didn't want to do programming and spend all my time facing a computer. Instead, I want to spend half my day working on the computer and the other half working with people. Right now, I'm applying for internships, and once I land one, I'll know what it feels like to work in that environment and whether it's truly the right fit for me.

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from Philippines 🇵🇭

Duration of Study

Aug 2022 — May 2026


Human & Organizational Development (HOD)

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Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, US🇺🇸

  1. ☺️


    1 year ago

    Wow... I'm currently undergoing such a process. A non-profit organization in my country (Kenya) provided application forms for interested applicants to fill. Those who qualify get invited to an interview. What kind of questions were you asked in the interview?

    1. 💭


      1 year ago

      Hi, Marvin. I'm a Kenyan too looking for opportunities. What is the name of the non-profit organization you applied to?

      1. ☺️


        1 year ago

        It's called KenSAP. It prepares students for the American SAT exams and guides them on the application process to American universities. Just visit their official website

    2. User Image


      1 year ago

      Thanks for sharing! Good luck with your internships.

      1. 😆


        1 year ago


        1. 🧸


          1 year ago

          Thanks for sharing your exiting journey to Vandy in such a detail. I didn't expect to learn This much when I started reading . I am currently applying as an international student and I had some similar experience in the application process. I found your story relatable and informative. Thank you again for opening up and sharing it all!