Cbyx Essay Tips
(This won’t be useful for most people who’ll end up reading my blog, but I’ll leave it here just in case, for future applicants.)
I’m on spring break now, so I’ve got some time to write about my application process.
August 2016. I learn about government sponsored study abroad programs. I fantasize about living and learning abroad. I’m utterly enchanted by the idea. To my dark, unmoved soul (jk), this is like falling in love.
Fall 2016. I start my CBYX application, along with my NSLI-Y (another study abroad) application, and my dozen or so college apps. Lots of AP classes. Suffering. Not enough sleep. Headaches and ibuprofen around the clock.
December 2016. Flat-out rejected by NSLI-Y. Dream school also doesn’t like me. CBYX is due, mid-December.
End of December 2016. Contacted by AFS. I made it to CB interviews. Not a huge deal, but still. Preliminary celebratory dancing.
Early February 2017. CBYX interview. I’m fortunate to live so close to my interview location. Meet lots of other awesome candidates from across NJ.
Mid February 2017. Full CBYX application is due. Just lots of technical paperwork that I have to get in. Medical forms, academic forms, blah blah.
March 22nd 2017, 8:00pm on the nose. I get a call from our selection committee chair. “Would it make your day any better”, she says, “if I told you that you were selected as a finalist for CB?” Screaming, screaming, screaming.
I’ll break my application process into two chunks: the written application, and the interview. I’ll describe each in detail and then provide some tips on how to do well.
But first, some background information. CBYX is a government scholarship program that is outsourced to private companies that operate in five different regions of the U.S. The five companies that run the regions are AFS (Northeast), CIEE (Southeast), YFU (Midwest), FLAG (Southwest), and ASSE (Northwest + Alaska, Hawaii).
Although their written applications are similar, their selection timelines and processes vary to a significant degree. Because each region draws a different number of applicants, but each region selects fifty students regardless of how many applications they receive, as you can imagine, their competitiveness also varies quite a bit. CIEE, the most competitive region, for example, apparently has acceptance rates <10%. AFS is second in competitiveness, followed by ASSE, FLAG, and YFU (probably, but not necessarily, in that order).
My experiences come from the perspective of an AFS applicant, obviously. Although certain procedures are done quite similarly in the other regions, not everything I say will be applicable to people of all regions.
Moving right along.
The written application:
What it is: Six (?) essays, and a host family letter. And they also ask about academics/extracurriculars. Eek. The essays are relatively short (250 words, maybe?), but still take a long time to write and edit. The letter is lengthier and more casually written. It’s used both for evaluating you as an applicant, and also for shipping off to your host family as an introductory letter. Double eek.
For me, the application became available in the early fall of 2016 for me (September is a good bet). AFS applications were due on December 12th. All regions set their deadlines for sometime in December or January.
- You don’t have to be a great writer. You shouldn’t be a bad writer, but you don’t have to be a good one. I believe what the selection committees are looking for is not artistic prowess, but substance. The personal qualities that they’ll be looking out for during the interview process, they’ll also be searching for in the essays. Show them that you’ll be a good exchange student.
- It helps to have a good reason to want to go to Germany. Although a notable chunk of us finalists have familial or other connections to Germany (myself included), you could equally be selected to go if you’re really interested in history/politics, etc. Additionally, CB’s selection process is less “Germany-oriented” and more “exchange-oriented” compared to other selective study abroad programs. They’re searching for the qualities of an exchange student in the written application and don’t require that you want to live in Germany forever, or pursue a career in Germany, or have a long-lost relative in Germany, etc. I wasn’t even asked in my interview why I wanted to go to Germany.
- Specificity is key. When they ask you, for example, about what you think makes America unique, draw from your own experiences. If you come from a specific cultural background, talk about that.
- Keep the mission of the program in mind. Citizen diplomacy! And keep in mind that you’re going to be an ambassador. In whichever part of Germany you end up, you’re there to represent America. The people reading your application know that.
- Be honest. It’s not a crime to highlight to more positive aspects of your life experiences, but it’s also okay to write about the imperfect parts of your life. It’s okay to talk about your faults and weaknesses, especially if you put forward a plan to improve upon them.
- (As per common sense, having all these qualities on your application will definitely give you a greater boost if you’re in a more competitive region.)
- (Briefly addressing academics.) You don’t have to be an amazing student, but you should be a good one. The majority of the finalists I’ve spoken to, for example, are AP/IB students. But in the end, your essays and interview matter a lot more.
Now, the interview.
What it is: I’m only going to talk about my own experience here, as an AFS finalist. Most other regions conduct interviews after selecting a group of semifinalists from the general applicant pool. AFS does not do this (probably in the name of saving time; our final results did come out relatively early even though we had more applicants than most other regions). AFS does, however, eliminate ineligible applicants from the pool (i.e. you’re too old for the program, your GPA is too low, etc.) before inviting all remaining applicants to interviews.
The events are more than interviews. They’re three hours long and have several stages. My session featured applicants from almost all of New Jersey, so some people had to drive several hours to attend. Fortunately for me, the interview location was fifteen minutes from my house.
Once everyone was there, they whipped out free coffee and donuts, and started an information session with a CB alumna. I sat, took notes, and asked questions as we were called in one at a time to interview privately.
Private interviews were conducted in front of a panel of three judges, who had all read the written applications beforehand. Interviews were timed for twenty minutes precisely, so the judges couldn’t be seen as giving preference to one applicant over another.
At the end of the three hours, we were called in again for a group interview. I won’t reveal what our group activity was; but if you’re a desperate prospective CBer like I was, you’ll definitely be able to find it by stalking the other blogs online.
And that was it! If anyone’s curious about how selective this scholarship is, my interview had around a dozen people attending, and to the best of my knowledge, three (maybe four..?) of us are going to Germany.
But there isn’t a quota. Our interviewers did not ultimately choose who the finalists were. I know of some locations where half or more of the interviewees were made finalists, and I know of other locations where there was only one person chosen to go to Germany. It all depends on the strength of your application and interview as a whole package.
- I didn’t do this, but I think it would help a lot. Spend some quality time on AFS-Wiki. Because the interviews are so short, it helps to know what the interviewers are looking for, so you can show the brightest side of your personality to them in the brief twenty minute span that you are given. https://www.afswiki.org/index.php/Hallmarks_of_Successful_Sending_Participants (p.s. It also helps to note the “red flags” that signal an applicant as unfit for an exchange experience. [Frankly, if you feel the red flags describe yourself perfectly, maybe you shouldn’t have applied in the first place?] Ick. Was that too mean?)
- In terms of preparation, just get to know yourself better. I spent too much time trying to figure out the questions they would ask, and they asked almost none of them. A lot of the questions are situational: “How you would handle people making fun of your culture? How would you handle your host sister being late for everything?” Etc. Just answer as honestly as you can. It’s okay if you need to think about it for a bit. You’re human.
- They’re looking for potential. They don’t expect you to have all the qualities of a perfect exchange student, but they want to believe you have the potential to gain all of them. I talked a lot about my faults, my role models, my relationships with the people I love and admire, the ways I’ve changed and improved myself, and the ways I hope to change myself in the future. Really focus on the positive relationships you have with people in your life.
- Specificity again! I drew on a lot of personal anecdotes to answer their questions. Personal experiences give you more credibility. They’re the backbone of your answers.
- In the same vein, justify all your answers. Most answers to the kinds of questions they ask are very subjective. So as long as you provide a justification for your answers that aligns with the personality traits they’re looking for, you will be okay. Even if you don’t think you answered “correctly”.
- If anything else, just scrap all the tips I’ve given and enjoy. It’s not an interrogation, even if it’s three on one. Genuinely laugh and smile a lot. I laughed a ton with my judges. I’m not even a funny person. I was just having fun. I quite enjoyed some of the questions they asked, as a matter of fact. And sometimes they even told me when they liked my answer. Chances are, if you leave the room with a positive impression of your interviewers (I thought mine were so wonderfully warm and friendly), they’ll keep a positive impression of you.
Currently listening: Nessun Dorma, Turandot. Feast your ears upon Jonas Kaufmann. Luciano Pavarotti. Plácido Domingo. “Child opera stars” and Wherever’s Got Talent are kind of trash. Fake opera that caters to people with untrained ears who see opera only as a stunt and not as real music (sorry not sorry).
If you’re reading this post, you might be my mom or one of my friends, but this will be most helpful to you if you are interested in applying! Just to recap, CBYX is a program that sends 250 American high school students to Germany for a year on full scholarship. There are five regions that the program is split up in. I am going through the CIEE region which is known for being more competitive- I applied for CBYX last year and wasn’t accepted, but here I am! Here’s a rundown of the process:
The application consists of filling in a TON of information about your address, school, family, etc. It’s mostly contact information and things like that. After filling that out, there are personal essays. The essay prompts aren’t super difficult, and I would recommend using humor in a relatively liberal manner- the first year I applied, my application was overall very serious and I wasn’t selected as a semi-finalist. My application this year had some serious essays but I definitely added in more humor than my first time around. The application is very self-explanatory and not super difficult, I just think it’s important to be as versatile as you can.
HAVE PEOPLE READ YOUR APPLICATION.
I canNOTSTRESSTHISENOUGH. Have a friend or teacher or a parent or your dog read your essays but get some feedback. This advice is 10/10. I promise you will not go wrong with this. Get ’em read.
If your application makes the first cut, you get a really exciting email that is like “hey! I have some super exciting news for you! You are really really reeeeally close to getting this AMAZING scholarship thing!” If your name is Beth Siegling, you get this email in the middle of Chemistry when you aren’t supposed to be on your phone and you have to deal with a silent heart attack for forty-five minutes.
This year, the semi-finals round was conducted in two interview events. The even took place over a weekend and I had SUCH an amazing time. Each applicant is called individually throughout the day to have a one-on-one interview. Be careful with “um” and “like”! Being at Semis was like being with a huge group of people my age who had super similar mindsets in relation to the things I think are important. Everyone was so open-minded and fun, and I just met some of the most amazing people. The CIEE staff was so kind and helpful, all of the other semis were beautiful and perfect, the hotel was lovely, and the whole event was so much fun.
A word on dress code: wear fancy clothes when you get to the hotel or your interview or wherever you are going, but also bring at least two changes of clothes- you are allowed to change after the morning interviews before dinner! Also, Get Some Sleep Before Getting To Interviews. Very Important.
So you’re a finalist. You get a call from Julia Littlefield (J Lit) and find out you’re moving to Germany. You cry. You lose your sh*t. This is big news friends.
You can’t freak out and be excited and forget about everything yet. You’ve got things to take care of. The secondary application.
The monstrous secondary application.
I’m kidding. It’s really not that bad. After getting accepted, Julia sends you a bunch of emails with information about what you need to do in the next few weeks. This includes filling out a secondary application and filming an introductory video. The secondary app basically consists of a bunch of short essays with questions about your hobbies, your family life, daily schedule, favorite classes, etc. It’s very easy but definitely time consuming. It is not an app that can be left to the last minute unless you enjoy the most stressful type procrastination fever that there is- irrational and completely unrealistic terror of scholarship revocation.
Here is the link to my introductory video this year. After you submit your secondary application (which also includes a new letter to your host family) complete with the video, the prospective host families look at your app and video and they basically handpick who they want. I’ve heard other people say that CIEE matches you with host families that they think you will go well with, but either way a host family sees your video, so it has to be at least C+ work. (This is a joke.)
My intro video: https://youtu.be/XX_QI0mWBvs
Everything above is as far as I have gotten in the CBYX process. My next steps will be hearing about a hopeful host family, attempting to learn German in the midst of exam time, saying goodbye to lots and lots of things, and boarding a plane.
You have officially concluded the CBYX application process guide, courtesy of Beth Siegling.
Last thing and then I will leave I promise: If you apply and don’t get in one year, please try again the next. Seriously. I have a surprising number of friends who applied last year (as did I) and did not even get semi-finalists. Applying more than once shows drive and motivation. Also it’s great practice for much-anticipated college applications. Food for thought.
Peace out girl scout,
German vocab word: diePfadfinderin (girl scout)