April 26, 2024

How online extracurriculars earned me a full-ride at NYU Abu Dhabi as an international student from Russia


Ellina from Russia 🇷🇺

Campus Image of NYU Abu Dhabi
How online extracurriculars earned me a full-ride at NYU Abu Dhabi as an international student from Russia

Hey everyone! My name is Ellina and I come from Adygea Republic, Russia. I got into NYU Abu Dhabi through Early Decision 2, so I was fortunate enough to attend an in-person Candidate Weekend in Abu Dhabi. As for my major, I have always been interested in social studies and so my choice fell on Social Research and Public Policy.

My educational background is unlike most people applying to American universities - a public school with no IB/AP/A-levels in the middle of the quaint town with a population of no more than 20,000 people.

My application journey

Since I can remember myself, I've been captivated by foreign cultures and languages.

Growing up, I never had a specific dream country in mind; my desire was to explore the world. This dream has now been fulfilled as I embark on my studies at one of the most diverse universities globally.

My ambition to pursue higher education abroad was fueled by my inability to picture myself continuing my studies in my home country.

My application journey started in 9th grade. I dedicated my days to researching scholarships, understanding the application process, and elevating my English and writing skills. But there was one factor I hadn't thought through - one that could have cost me everything and crush my hopes forever. I am from the Northern Caucasus, where studying abroad is almost unheard of. When I mentioned my dream, it was quickly dismissed with the words that it is impossible for someone from my cultural background and that no one would let me study abroad. Was I heartbroken? For a minute, but that rejection and lack of support only fueled my desire to make the impossible possible. I had immense trust in my vision, even if nobody else could see it.

Despite my parents wanting me to pursue a medical career, a more secure and easier path in a way, I knew that path was not meant for me. Instead of attending a medical college, I decided to pursue further education with the goal of studying abroad in mind.

At the time, attending an American university seemed impossible due to both familial disapproval and the high cost of studying in the US. Exploring alternatives, such as learning Korean and Turkish to potentially study in those countries, I realized that these options wouldn't fulfill my core desire of studying in an American university. So, I made the decision to stay true to myself and pursue my dream.

Even though I knew my family would be against it, in 10th grade, I decided to apply to American universities. I had no opportunity to take SAT or even IELTS and had no one to guide me through this journey. I spent months figuring out different aspects of the application process without mentioning a word to anyone. When the first deadlines approached, I had to tell my mom that I was applying to universities abroad, but she thought I was being unrealistic and didn't take it seriously.

During my senior year, I applied to Bowdoin College for ED1 but received a rejection. This made me hesitant about choosing my ED2 university. NYU Abu Dhabi had always been my dream school, and its diverse community, shared values, exceptional programs, and personal connection immediately captured my heart. Despite its low acceptance rate of 3%, the rejection from ED1 pushed me to take a risk. Trusting my gut feeling, I chose NYU Abu Dhabi for ED2, feeling like it was the right fit among other options that felt lacking.


I applied test-optional due to the closure of SAT test centers in Russia, also preventing me from taking IELTS or TOEFL. Instead, I took a Duolingo English Test and scored 150/160 on my very first try. As for my GPA, it is 4.93/5.

As you can see, I am a perfect example that having a different background from most applicants should not hinder you from applying to competitive universities abroad.

Extracurriculars & my application

My application was mostly centered around social impact and cultural identity. These topics showed up in all aspects of my application, including my extracurricular activities and essays.

My extracurriculars don't fit into the conventional activity list for an international student. I had no MUN, summer schools, or even participation in school clubs. Due to the lack of available opportunities in my region, I had to create these opportunities for myself. As a result, more than half of my extracurriculars were online. I can divide my main extracurriculars into three groups, all while maintaining a similar mission that ties them all together, with a clear motivation behind each.

  1. Social media work. While I myself never got to be an influencer, I worked as a social media manager and managed various projects in the field. Even though some of my extracurriculars can fit into the title, they were beyond just socials. These activities also claimed my mission of making a social impact and leaving a positive mark on the community.

  2. Volunteering. Activities related to this group were not just in one field, involving a range of fields like computer science, web design, and teaching. The specific activities varied, but what mattered most was the motivation and impact behind them. Having diverse interests showcases different sides of you, but it is essential to ensure that there is a common thread of values and mission to connect these activities.

  3. Culture. My cultural background as an ethnic minority has played a big role in shaping my identity, so I also listed some activities related to that.

Overall, I had included 9 extracurriculars in my CommonApp and I believe that they all fit pretty well with my personal brand.

Common App essay + NYU quote-essay

I had been rewriting my personal statement over the course of several months, but the result was worth it. The final version was submitted after tons of ideas, at least 10 changed topics and +50 written drafts.

My essay has a pretty unique structure, and the essay itself is about tattoos. Each paragraph starts with an imaginary tattoo that represents an aspect of my personality or a life story that reveals different sides of me. At the same time, there is a common "thread" that connects all these themes.

Even though my essay has a creative arc to it, I still raise the topic of serious social issues that are often overlooked. I also included a lot of my personal reflections.

The beginning of my essay sounds like this: “My entire body is covered in tattoos, but i am the only one who can see them”

For the NYU quote-essay, I crafted my response around the quote of my choice: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” I delved into my upbringing in completely different cultures and the value of embracing diversity. In the final paragraph, I linked these experiences to NYU, subtly illustrating how we could be a potential match.

While writing my essays, there was this one underrated practice that helped me improve my writing skills: journaling in English. Not only was it like therapy for me, but it also was a great boost for my writing skills. If you’re about to begin your application journey, start a journal and commit to writing in it daily.

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Candidate Weekend

January 24th. It's 6 AM in the morning and the message “Were you invited to CW?” from my NYUAD friend Kuralay pops up on my phone. It's only been a few minutes since I woke up, so I have no idea what's going on. As I unlock my phone, I see the email from NYUAD that I've been selected for a two-day Candidate Weekend in Abu Dhabi.

At the time, I wasn't sure if I would make it to CW due to my parents thinking that it was a scam, and me turning 17 just a few days before flying out to Abu Dhabi.

For those of you wondering what Candidate Weekend is - it's a two-day program where you get to explore Abu Dhabi and the NYUAD campus, while meeting the amazing staff and your potential classmates. All the expenses for Candidate Weekend were fully covered by the university, so everyone had an opportunity to fly out.

Day 1

First day of Candidate Weekend for the Early Decision 2 batch was on February 9, while some lucky people made it to the hotel a day before.

The place we were staying at was a five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi named “Dusit Thani Hotel”, where we were met by super friendly NYU staff upon our arrival. I got to meet my interviewer from Candidate Conversation in real life, which was a pleasant surprise. He handed me over a name tag with some gifts like a NYUAD bottle,bag,pen and hat. After that, I went to a lounge prepared for CW candidates only, where I got to meet all of the other guys from around the world.

There were more than 220 people on Candidate Weekend, which made it hard to have a chance to meet each one of these amazing people. However, the connections I've made on Candidate Weekend are still one of the best ones in my life. It was really easy to connect with everyone and it felt like we've known each other forever. Despite that at NYUAD everyone is different in one way or another, the community is super welcoming and made me feel like It is the right place for me.

First day program included a trip to the desert, where we spent our time sand boarding, riding camels and just having fun.

At the desert, we were paired into groups to whom we presented our “special objects”. We all had to bring with us an object representing home, which could be anything. Starting from a picture of a bicycle to a family of wood bears that resembled a puzzle, everyone brought something that felt like home. For me, it was a cultural wool hat called papakha. Stole the show for a minute:)

Day 2

Second day has a special place in my heart. This was the day where I got to see my dream university not from the screen, but with my own eyes.

We started off our last day in Abu Dhabi with a bus tour around the city, stopping at The Founder's Memorial.

cis community:)
cis community:)

We then headed off to explore our potential alma mater - NYU Abu Dhabi.

Our day at campus began with the Vice Chancellor, Mariët Westermann giving her speech. There were also other departments and students speaking and then we had some time to ask our questions.

We then went to a marketplace to grab some lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We were joined by some admission officers where everyone shared their experience and had a lovely chat. Personally, I also got to meet some current students from Russian speaking countries.

After lunch, our group was divided for a campus tour. The size of the campus exceeded my expectations, although it may not seem large to some. With a student body of around 2100, the community seemed incredibly close-knit. Exploring the campus and discovering its hidden gems, I couldn't help but feel grateful for the opportunity to be there. The prospect of studying alongside such motivated peers and inspiring professors, all while soaking in the unique NYUAD vibe, was truly a blessing.

mini-campus <3
mini-campus <3

Following the tour, we attended lectures of our choice. Given my interest in social studies, I opted for a session “Wicked Solutions for Wicked Problems”. The professor, an alumna of both Harvard and Stanford, was incredibly inspiring. The interactive and engaging nature of the lecture left a lasting impact on me. At that moment, it felt like I was living out my dream reality. Sitting in a classroom on the campus of my American University, listening to a lecture by an Ivy League professor, surrounded by remarkable individuals from across the globe – it was truly mind-blowing.

After these activities, we gathered for a campus mixer where we had the opportunity to get to know each other better and connect with current NYUAD students.

The entire Candidate Weekend felt surreal. The experience of flying out to my dream university in the midst of my senior year, meeting incredible individuals - from students to staff, and creating lasting memories made this trip unforgettable. It remains a once-in-a-lifetime experience that still feels unreal to this day.

Advice to applicants

Don't fake it

Don't create another project or join a random international conference just for the sake of how it would look on your application. Yes, while it is important to have extracurriculars that are impressive and have impact, there are other ways to go around this.

Instead, focus on what you're truly interested in. At the same time, your extracurriculars are there to help you build a strong personal narrative throughout your entire application, not make it look like you're all over the place.

So considering the fact that you need to have a central theme in your application, make sure it's something you're truly passionate about.

Be authentic

A big part of what helped me build an application that was strong enough to secure a place at my dream university was authenticity. Even in all of my essays, I wasn't writing something that I thought Admission Officers might want to hear. I was completely transparent with my thoughts and ideas, choosing to write about topics that mattered to me the most. I wasn't worried about whether or not it would look like a template for a perfect essay as admission officers are tired of hearing the same stuff over and over again. Yes,there might not be unique topics that admission officers haven't heard of before, but what makes your essays unique is the way you choose to write.

Don't compare yourself to others

Everyone has a different background. Admission Officers have a comprehensive approach, taking into consideration the kind of opportunities available to you. Most importantly, they look out for the ways you utilize these opportunities. Whether or not you went the extra mile and sought out some opportunities yourself, or simply did the bare minimum.

There's also no use trying to compare your application to your peers and doing something similar. Instead, focus on your own path.

Have a community around you

Don't be afraid to reach out to other applicants for advice. Make connections with people who have already achieved what you wanna achieve. Be it getting into your dream university or creating your own project.

Having supportive people around you is also extremely important. The struggles the application process entails can take a toll on your well-being, so make sure to share what's on your mind with your loved ones. While I did start my journey with no support, my parents are happy for me now and the application process only brought us closer together. In the middle of my application journey, I also told my friends about my plans and received massive support. Even if you have no one but yourself through this journey, the right community will find you in the end.

Don't be afraid to try

Before deciding to take a plunge and apply to American universities despite my family's disapproval, I've often wondered what would happen if I never did it. I came to the same conclusion every single time: I'm gonna regret it for the rest of my life. While there is no guarantee that hard work and years of preparation are gonna secure you a place at a foreign university, it is so worth a try. It is worth knowing that you truly did everything in your power and left the rest to fate.

Be strategic

With your time, resources and the ways you position yourself to admission officers.

Dream big, work hard and don't let the complexity of the process discourage you from going all in!

I've also created my own Telegram channel where I share tips on the application process and some personal stuff, so if you want to show your support - feel free to follow <3


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from Russia 🇷🇺

Duration of Study

Sep 2024 — May 2028


Social Research and Public Policy

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NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, UAE🇦🇪

  1. 🫡


    3 months ago

    You're amazing, congrats!

    1. 🎀


      2 months ago

      god that`s just increadible. The topic of the essay is so creative... we have much in common btw ahhahaha