Q: This is my senior year. I moved to the US from Vietnam in the second semester of my sophomore year. I attend a large, pretty crowded public high school and my parents knew nothing about schooling in the U.S. So my classes are not the strongest in the school and I haven't done ANY activities yet. That's because I spent time learning English and helping my family. We didn't have clubs in Vietnam, and I didn't get information about them here, because I was working after school.

But now that I have to apply to college, will this hurt me? Can I explain why I wasn't on any teams or in clubs? And I only earned about AP classes when I was researching colleges online, by myself. When I arrived here from Vietnam, the school just looked at my records and assigned me to random classes. Last year I had one honors course, in math; I aced it, so my teacher recommended me for AP Calculus, which I am taking this year.

I am worried that it will look like I have avoided challenging courses and activities. I'm just stuck hopelessly! Should I explain about my special circumstances?

A: Yes, absolutely! First of all, you cannot be blamed for not taking what was not available. It's not your fault that you didn't take the most challenge courses. You arrived not knowing English, coming from a different educational system, and having to spend your extra time helping your family. And what your high school did at the time was probably what they thought best. However, college admissions staff cannot expect your application to look like that of someone who has grown up in the U.S. and has been strategizing for years how to get into U.S. colleges. Don't worry: all applicants are looked at in the context of what was available to them.

But look what you HAVE done! In just under two years, you have learned English (a tough language!) and have gotten excellent grades. Your individual energy is apparent; you have taken the initiative to research colleges and to form a bond with your math teacher.

The most important part of your application is the academic record. Don't join a bunch of clubs because you think it might look good. Stick with what you have. "Activities" refers to ANY activities a student does outside class. Some students can play on sports teams and be in several clubs or musical groups. Others have to take care of younger brothers or sisters, or help at the family's restaurant, or work after school at a supermarket. It's the QUALITY of the time spent that is important. You definitely need to explain all of this in your application.

Second, it is very important to have two teachers of academic subjects who will help you. You say you go to a large school, so I know this is not easy. But the recommendation letters from teachers are very important. The math teacher you had junior year would be a good choice. And you will need a teacher in another subject for the other letter. There must be one who knows how hard you have worked to succeed. That person can write about your work ethic, your desire to learn, and your demonstrated ability to succeed.

America is a land of immigrants. My grandparents came hereHow to from Russia, not knowing much English. They had to work very hard to adapt to life here. But they did. Your story is familiar to colleges—so many students in the U.S have come here from elsewhere. Each has a unique story. Tell yours! I wish you success in your quest.