A Guide by Justin Thach

If you are familiar with the premise of NSLI-Y, scroll down to the second Beyoncé picture to skip to the in-depth advice.

To preface this guide, I’d like to say that this method is in no way a formula to get into NSLI-Y, and that the advice is based off of my experiences and observations over time. The best advice that I can give for the entire process is to pour your heart into it. Let no letter that you type or sound that you utter from your lips go without meaning and purpose; be genuine with all that you say and do, and the largest successes will come back to you.

Let the slayage begin!

First, an overview of what NSLI-Y is, exactly:


The National Security Language Initiative for Youth, or NSLI-Y program, is a FULL SCHOLARSHIP study abroad program that resulted from the National Security Language Initiative instituted by former President George W. Bush. NSLI-Y’s mission is to promote the acquisition of critical languages by high school students and recent graduates, who receive FULL SCHOLARSHIPS (again for the people in the back) to immerse themselves in the languages of various destinations for a summer or academic year.



The NSLI-Y website states that the following determine eligibility for applying to the program:

  • U.S. citizen
  • Grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or higher on a 4.0 scale, or the equivalent
  • 15-18 years of age at start of program (birthdate between July 10, 1998 and June 10, 2002 for summer programs; birthdate between September 20, 1998 and June 30, 2002 for academic year programs)
  • Enrolled in high school (grades 9-12, including home school) at the time of application
  • Not an immediate family member of an employee of the U.S. Department of State who works in the Youth Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs or an employee at a NSLI-Y administering organization whose duties involve the NSLI-Y program
  • Have not previously traveled outside the U.S. on a long-term (more than eight weeks) program sponsored by the Youth Programs Division of the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)


The application process includes a few short essays and a teacher recommendation, and happens in two stages. After submitting your essays and teacher recommendation, semifinalist notifications are sent out. If you move on to the semifinalist stage, you are scheduled to interview, and then, a few months later, will receive your final decision. For more a more organized timeline of the application process, check out my friend Jacquelyn Kim’s post, or go to NSLI-Y for more specific dates and details. However, I think I offer a pretty entertaining timeline below, if I do say so myself (*chuckles*). For my guide on rocking the essays and interview in particular, check out my NSLI-Y page!

August – Start your 2017-18 NSLI-Y application. The earlier, the better!

October –  Make sure that your school sends official transcripts to American Councils and turn in your application online – it is due regardless of technical difficulties. 

Quick anecdote time! 

At the end of the school day on October 27th, 2016, I scrambled to my school library to finish my NSLI-Y application. After making a few word choice changes, I went to submit it, and then looked at the clock. 3:49, it read. My heart rate quickened as I scrambled to find my way through my school’s lethargic Wi-Fi speeds.

3:55, I was almost there. Just a few more buttons to press!

3:58, THE END OF THE WORLD BEGAN. This is when I started to pray to every God that I’d ever heard of in my life. Yikes.

Fortunately, the computer decided to spare me from my impending misery, and submitted my application at precisely 3:59. (Thanks to the external forces of the universe!) The lesson here, kids, is not do to what I did. Finish your application early, and be ready to submit it early as well! This isn’t to say that you should rush, however. The essay portion of your application can make or break you in the post-semifinalist stage.

“Pics or it didn’t happen!”

November – Teacher recommendation and parent statement/recommendation due online.

“Any technical problems with the application form should be reported by email to nsliy@americancouncils.org; NSLI-Y staff will be available to assist with technical problems as much as possible; however, for inquiries received on October 27, there is no guarantee that NSLI-Y staff can respond before the application deadline,” (from NSLI-Y themselves).

December – Semi-finalist notifications are released, so check your email! Also, complete your Medical Evaluation Form and attain a passport, if needed. (Your passport must be valid for 6-18 months after returning from NSLI-Y.)

December to February – An AFS volunteer will contact you to schedule an interview. For more information about how to slay your interview, check out a post coming soon!

February – Medical Evaluation Forms are due, as well as passport information (if NSLI-Y requests it).

March to April – Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, you’re in! Finalist notifications for summer programs come out first, on a rolling basis. The order typically goes Turkish, Persian, Russian, Hindi, Chinese, and lastly, Korean. Summer Finalists will have 7 days to accept or decline their scholarship, while Academic Year Finalists will have 14 days to do so.

April to June – Pre-departure festivities commence. Your local alumni representative may host a finalist reception, and NSLI-Y will send you materials for mandatory preliminary basic language study. You may also undergo additional processes, depending on your implementing organizations.

WHY should you apply for NSLI-Y?

To answer this question, I can only speak from my own experience, but I can say that I have only great things to say about this program. Even before having gone abroad, or even before receiving my finalist notification, I’ve made the most amazing friends through Facebook groups, primarily. Being surrounded by such brilliant people has inspired me to reconsider what I consider to be possible by someone my age. NSLI-Y is a family of like-minded, open-minded, passionate, kind, and supportive individuals–something that can’t be found in many other places, if any at all. Do NSLI-Y. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

As promised, here is the second Beyoncé picture:


PART I - Rocking the Essays

In the NSLI-Y online application, there are essentially three writing components for all applicants, and an extra one for AY (academic year) applicants. These three include two short essays, usually dealing how you’ve overcome adversity, and one letter to your host family. The latter is basically an extended personal statement.

The objective of the short essays is to showcase your resilience and maturity as a human being, as well as your voice as a writer within the context of the prompt. In these, its important to highlight events in your life that significantly impacted you–but more importantly, you must be able to communicate those events in a powerful and unique manner.

Remember, for this scholarship, you are up against some of the best and brightest minds in the country. There are seasoned travelers, avid writers, and generally brilliant people. Your short essays are your only chance to impress and entice the selection committee to grant you the scholarship.

The host family letter, in my opinion, is the most fun part of the entire essay process. Here, the objective is to provide a comprehensive picture of your personality, in under 500 words, to your future host family. Sounds difficult, right? It is.

Since the focus is on YOU, a great way to approach this is to think of it as a verbal self-portrait painting. What interesting parts of your background do you want to emphasize? How about your facial expression–are you more of a serious and studious person, or are you more spontaneous and laid-back? What are you doing in this hypothetical portrait painting? In other words, what are you most passionate about, and what can you be found doing on your leisure time? NSLI-Y provides basic prompts to include in your letter, but here, it’s important to craft such a piece that it seems it could come alive and walk off of the page.

The finished product is a picture that has your name all over it, most importantly, and portrays an individual that is completely competent and able to study abroad, as well as easy to live with. Remember, NSLI-Y is looking out for the host families too!

PART II - The Interview (No, not the movie!)

It’s not an interview. This is simply an organized conversation in which you hope to eventually stumble upon deep topics like the meaning of life, or, in my case, newly inaugurated Donald Trump. (That’s all I’ll say about that.)

But really, don’t think of this as an interview. That incites anxiety, which leads to lots of sweating or shaking: 1) no one wants to smell your sweaty self, and 2) no one wants to sit and talk with your shaky self.

Here’s what I have to say about slaying this conversation.

  1. Dress to impress! As a wise woman once told me, “Dress for the position that you want, not the position that you’re in.” The interview plays a large role in determining whether you’re worthy of serving not only as a student of your host country, but also as a young ambassador of the United States of America. That’s some heavy stuff! Most people go with a dress shirt and tie or a dress, depending on your preferences.
  2. Get comfortable! An uncomfortable interviewer will never be a part of a good interview, and you can’t expect your interviewer to be comfortable if you aren’t. Take a deep breath! It’ll be okay, I promise.
  3. Vibe off of your interviewer. Generally speaking, NSLI-Y kids are people-people. No, of course they’re not all extroverts. I mean that they’re perceptive of and able to tailor their “vibes” to other personalities, and therefore this step is usually an organic process. It’s an in-the-moment thing, and it all goes back to getting comfortable with your interviewer–think of it as a “speed-dating” session! (Is that weird? I don’t know.)
  4. Enjoy the conversation! Like I mentioned earlier, this is a sit down conversation with a person who volunteers their time with AFS to do things like these interviews. Usually, these volunteers are really interesting people who’ve had experiences on either ends of study abroad themselves. Not only that, but you are there to talk about yourself! There are few times in your life that you’ll get to ramble about your life goals, aspirations, accomplishments, beliefs, and passions with someone who is entitled to listen to every word.
  5. But remember, this is a conversation, so ask your interviewer questions too! No, I don’t mean basic things like, “How was your day?” Ride the flow of the conversation into some deeper topics (as time and circumstances permit, of course), and seize the opportunity to learn from your interviewer as much as you hope they’ll learn from you.
  6. You’ll do great! I wish you all the best. 🙂