Critical Language Scholarship Application Tips (2019-2020)

October 18, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

The CLS Program is a highly competitive
and prestigious program of the US Department of State. Each year the
program receives around 5,500 applications for approximately 550
available awards. The program is very selective, but there are several ways
that you can improve your application and become a more competitive candidate.
We’re going to talk through what it takes to be a successful applicant for
the CLS Program, and especially what you can do in your essays to prepare the
best possible application. You can find detailed selection criteria for the CLS
Program on our website at In a successful application, you need to address three big questions for the reviewers who will be selecting finalists. First, how does the CLS Program and the language you are applying for contribute to your future academic or
professional career goals. Second, what specific interests, experiences, or
background do you possess that make you a good candidate. And finally, how can you
show us that you will be successful in the rigorous academic program and in the
immersive cultural environment of the CLS Program while abroad? We’re going to
look at each of these one by one. The CLS Program is a unique study abroad
opportunity in its goal to support more and more diverse students to master
languages that are critical to America’s national security and economic
prosperity. In particular applicants are selected based on their plans to apply
their language skills to their future academic or professional pursuits across
every field. To make that case begin with your field of studying and consider how
it is related to the language you want to learn. Take the time to think about
how you can engage with knowledge of this language and culture in your field.
Also do some research to find out what people are doing in your field globally.
Successful applicants come from a broad range of fields: medical fields
engineering business political science and international relations as well as
arts and humanities. Each participant successfully makes a case connecting
their studies and future goals with their language goals. Be as specific
about your career goals as you can. Not everyone knows exactly where they’d like
to end up professionally, but this is a chance for you to show that you have
ideas about the professional field you’d like to work in. Be ambitious, but
realistic and try to avoid generalities. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, take
the time to think about what you would like to do, and lay out a plan for how
you will get there. Later on in life, your plans may change, but you should show that you’ve given it substantial thought and that you’re committed. If you’re a master’s or doctoral student it should be easier to
flesh out your career goals and evaluators will definitely be looking
for more evidence of a clear plan. Once your career goal is clear think about
how the language skills and cultural knowledge that you will acquire on the
CLS Program will strengthen your plans to build that career. How can you use
your CLS language in your future career? How are you planning to use the cultural
knowledge you acquire on the CLS Program in your future career? Think about what
it means to use your foreign language skills to be more culturally competent
in a foreign culture. Why would cultural competence be key for
communicating and working with people who speak the target language and how
will your experience abroad prepare you to engage with people both in the United
States and in other countries? Finally, how will knowledge of your CLS language
contribute to your professional field? Say more than simply ‘I want to
contribute to international advances in my field.’ Give some examples of how
specifically you want to contribute. Remember that the people evaluating your
application are generally not experts in your field of study, so you should
explain how your studies intersect with language, and what work you hope to be a
part of. Paint a clear picture of specific goals and exactly how CLS helps
you meet these goals. In addition to drawing a connection between your language and professional goals, you should lay out in your application what
makes you different from other candidates with similar goals, and what
you bring to the program that others don’t.
CLS students are diverse and come from all over the United States from an array
of backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences and with all sorts of
different interests and goals. The CLS Program wants to be representative of
the student population in the United States. Think about who you are, where you
come from, what experience and viewpoints you might bring to the program, and how
you may benefit from sharing this experience abroad with other Americans
who are different from you. Think about the uniqueness of your hometown, your
school, your family, and your friends. No matter who you are or where you’re from, your life path has been unique and you have overcome challenges and have a
perspective that can help your application stand out from the crowd.
Finally, you should highlight how you will be successful on the CLS Program,
which will challenge students with a rigorous academic schedule and immerse
you in an exciting but stressful and unfamiliar cultural environment. First,
consider ways that you’ve engaged with the language. Have you practiced speaking
the target language with native speakers? What language learning techniques do you
use in trying to keep up your language skills? If you have not studied the target language before, you might draw on your experience in studying other languages. Be prepared to talk about how
you adapted to an intensive academic program or environment, but remember that
the language you are applying to study should take center stage. Consider ways
you can exhibit your interest and commitment that go beyond language
learning. It’s also critical for you to demonstrate that you have a plan to
maintain and develop your proficiency in your CLS target language after the
program ends especially if there are not classes at your school, which is the case
for many successful applicants — what will you do to keep practicing? Also try to
think about how you have adapted to new environments or cultures in the past.
Consider examples from other study abroad opportunities. Or, if you’ve never
been abroad before, experiences in your own community or in a different part of
the United States. Think about how you initially approach
these environments, and what challenges you encountered. How did you adapt to
them? Alternatively, how do you approach challenging situations generally? Before
you answer the essay questions, try listing the coping techniques you tend
to use in new situations. Remember that the CLS Program is about intensive, group
based language learning. The classes are supposed to challenge you, and on top of
that, you’ll be getting used to a place that is very different from the United
States in terms of culture, food, and conveniences, among other things. Have you
ever had to adapt to living out of your comfort zone before? How will you cope
with these challenges? We will now take a few minutes to go through each of the essay questions in the CLS application and discuss strategies for effective
responses. The first short essay question offers an opportunity for you to show
how you adjust to new situations or situations with people different from
you by drawing on your previous experience. Successful study abroad
experiences often require traits such as flexibility, tolerance, openness, and
adaptability. On the CLS Program you will be exposed to new beliefs, values,
attitudes, and opinions. For example, you might find that there are differences in
concepts of privacy, socially acceptable behaviors, the role of the individual and
society, and/or values, and political viewpoints. Give an example of when you
had to adapt to a new environment or situation. Based on that experience, what
are your strategies for interacting with people who are different from you or
situations that are unfamiliar? A successful essay is grounded in your
previous experiences and acknowledges the challenges of the program
and living in a new environment with people who do not share your personal
background. It should show that you recognize your limits, but also that you
are resilient. This is an opportunity to show what you know about yourself and
the challenges you will face. How have you dealt with challenges in your life?
Do you have coping mechanisms or hobbies or interests that can sustain you in
times of stress? CLS is an intensive program and it can be frustrating not
being able to communicate in your native language. It is normal to find new
environments stressful, but it is concerning if you are not able to draw
on previous experiences of discomfort or stress, and show how you dealt with them.
Signaling open-mindedness and an awareness that not all countries have
the same living standards and cultural norms as the U.S. will make your essay
stronger. We strongly recommend applicants check out the University of
Michigan’s site, ‘Resilient Traveling’ and consider how these resources might apply
to them on the CLS Program. The second short essay question also speaks to
challenges on the CLS Program. Unlike the resilience essay, this one asks
applicants to project into the future. The CLS Program is an intensive, group-based overseas learning experience. The program involves adapting to a new
culture and environment, an intensive academic program, and mandatory cultural
activities that may not always align with your interests. CLS involves
building new relationships with people from the host country and functioning
day-to-day in another language. CLS cohorts are often very diverse, and
maintaining positive group relations can be challenging. There may also be
challenges specific to the location in which you study and your own identity,
background, and experiences. What aspects of the CLS Program do you expect will be
the most challenging for you? What knowledge, skills, and experiences will
you draw on to meet these challenges? A successful essay will acknowledge some
of the challenges of a group-based program abroad and explain why you think
it is nonetheless the right learning environment for you. You should
demonstrate that you understand what you are applying for, and have the desire to
commit fully to the program with all of its challenges. Personal qualities like
flexibility, adaptability, and openness to new experiences, skills like perseverance
and commitment, and how you will make a positive contribution in a diverse group.
Much of this essay will reflect the contents of your first essay. It is
important to consider these essays together to make sure you don’t waste
too much space repeating yourself. Again, consider the first essay as an
opportunity to speak about your past experiences and then look at this essay
as an opportunity to make the case for your future success.
The third short essay question gives you a chance to talk about your background
and how you will contribute to mutual understanding through dialogue as a
citizen diplomat. A key goal of the CLS Program is to increase the number and
diversity of Americans who study and speak critical languages in order to
develop mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people
of other countries. Languages offer an opportunity for communication in
exchange providing the foundation of a more peaceful world. CLS Program scholars
bear responsibility for representing the United States as citizen diplomats in
their host communities. They reflect a diversity of values, beliefs, and opinions
that is fundamental to providing a balanced representation of the United
States abroad. CLS Program scholars are expected to contribute to the goal of
building mutual understanding by sharing what it means to be an American, learning
about the host culture, and building meaningful relationships. Make a case for
how you will serve as an effective citizen diplomat abroad. How could you
contribute to the mission of building mutual understanding between the people
of your community and the people of your host community? CLS participant groups are very
diverse. Think about who you are, where you come from, what experience and
viewpoints you might bring to the program and think about how you may
benefit from sharing this experience abroad with other Americans who are
different from yourself. As we said before, think about the uniqueness of
things like your hometown, your school your family or your friends. How will
your background and experiences help you bring something special to the group
dynamic and to your interaction as an American with people in the host society?
Think about what aspects of your background you would like to share with
people you meet in the host society including both typically American things
and also things that might challenge stereotypes about Americans. How are you
going to share your culture with your peers and host family abroad? Then go
beyond that — think about not just what you can teach your host community about
the United States, but also what you can bring back to your community in the
United States and how your experience can have an impact on others.
The fourth short essay is the shortest in the CLS application at a maximum of
200 words. It is no less important than the others, however. The CLS Program seeks
to support students who are committed to acquiring a high level of linguistic and
cultural knowledge about the regions and countries in which they study. What
interests you about your chosen target language and the people who speak it? How
will you continue to study this language after the CLS Program? The CLS
Program is not meant to be a one-off experience. It should only be one step on
a successful applicant’s road to gaining proficiency in the language they wish to
study. For that reason, it is very important for applicants to present a
persuasive case explaining their enduring interest in the language and
explaining how they intend to continue their studies following the program.
You’ll need to do some research for this question to pin down what you can do
after your CLS summer to continue to develop your language. Be proactive and
forward-thinking, don’t harp on the fact that formal language study isn’t
available in your community, but instead be creative and show that lack of
resources won’t be an obstacle for you. Think about the next step in your
language learning plan such as graduate school or courses at your next planned
institution of study. Finally, you’re asked to complete a statement of purpose
that addresses why you should be selected for a CLS award. This is the
most space that you’re given in the application to make a case for yourself
so use it wisely. You should address the three questions posed by the essay
prompt, but make sure that what you say serves to pull together your application
into a coherent argument. How will increased language and cultural knowledge
help you achieve your future academic or professional goals? Why is participation
in CLS Program appropriate for you at this point in your academic or
professional career? Why should the CLS Program invest in you? What is it that
you bring to the program? You need to make a coherent case for why mastery of
this language is central to your academic and professional goals. Talk
about the trajectory of your studies and why CLS would be a natural next step.
This is also your opportunity to summarize the case you have made
throughout the application to show that you are committed to the language, that
you are aware of the challenges, and prepared to meet them, that you bring
significant personal strengths, and finally that you have a clear academic
or professional plan to use the language you wish to study. As with writing any
kind of application essay before you put pen to paper think about what is really
motivating you to apply. Think about the arc of your interest in studies and how
CLS is a natural boost to getting you farther along toward reaching your
larger goals. You want to give yourself time to tighten up your essays, get
outside feedback, and make small improvements. Applicants who can make
concise, clear, and strong arguments give themselves the best chance of success.
And remember, don’t forget to proofread your essays before you submit and get
the perspective of an advisor or friend. You can find a lot more resources that
can assist you as you apply on our website at You can also find a PDF of the application to print out and use as a hard copy to mark up
before submitting your application online. Remember, the deadline to apply is
November 19th at 8 o’clock p.m. Eastern Time — That’s 5 o’clock p.m. Pacific Time. Please visit the CLS website for more information about the program. If there
is still a question that you can’t find the answer to, please write to us at [email protected], and we’ll do our best to answer your email in a timely
fashion. To learn more about other study abroad and exchange opportunities
offered by the U.S. Department of State, please visit and
stay in touch with us via social media. Thank you for your interest in the
program and we look forward to seeing your application.