Applying to U.S. College as an International Student

More than 1.1 million international students studied in the U.S. in the spring of 2019. While that number dropped by 43% during the pandemic, it’s likely to rebound in the future. College admission for international students follows a similar process as it does for American students, but there are some key differences to be aware of.

If you’re an international student interested in studying in the U.S., these tips will help you navigate the college admissions process.

College admission for international students: 9 pro tips

Before sending off your application, consider this advice for international students:

1. Apply to several different schools
2. Learn about the holistic admission process
3. Research application requirements
4. Spend time on your personal essay
5. Take the SAT or ACT
6. Learn the language requirements
7. Get your transcript evaluated
8. Learn about your options for financial aid and scholarships
9. Keep track of deadlines

1. Apply to several different schools

There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. Some are extremely selective and only let in students with top grades and test scores; others have a more forgiving admission process.

To maximize their chances, most American students apply to several different colleges. They apply to a few “safety schools” where they feel confident they’ll get in. They also apply to two to three “on target” schools. They’re qualified to get into these schools, but admission is not guaranteed.

Finally, students apply to two to three “reach” schools. Getting in may be a long shot, but it’s possible. Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale are considered “reach” schools for just about every student since they’re so selective.

If you’re applying as an international student, send off five to eight applications to increase your chances of admission. Even if you have your sights set on one school, make sure all the schools on your list are ones you’d be happy to attend.

If application fees are an obstacle, contact the financial aid office of your prospective schools. Financial aid officers may grant you an application fee waiver.

2. Learn about the holistic admission process

Another unique feature of American college admissions is that the process at many schools is holistic. Rather than looking solely at grades and test scores, admissions officers seek to learn about you as a person.

They want to know about your interests and passions. What do you do outside of school? How have you contributed to your community? What skills have you developed outside of academics?

You can reveal your personality through your personal essay and letters of recommendation. Plus, you’ll share any extracurricular activities or community engagement on your application.

If time allows, make it a point to join some clubs or take on an internship during high school. Many U.S. colleges are interested in what you’ve done outside of the classroom, not just within it.

3. Research application requirements

Every college is different, so every application might have its own unique requirements. Some colleges may require standardized test scores, while others are “test optional” or don’t look at test scores at all.

Some ask for recommendation letters from teachers or coaches, and others request that you schedule an interview with an admissions officer or alumni volunteer. It’s important to research the unique requirements of each school you apply to to ensure you’re not missing anything.

That said, many schools will accept the Common Application, which is an online application that you can fill out once and send to multiple schools. Filling out the Common Application can be a time-saver, but make sure to include any supplemental materials a college requests, as well.

4. Spend time on your personal essay

Your personal essay is an important part of your international student college application. This college essay is very different from a typical academic essay you may have written in history class.

Admissions officers want you to share a specific anecdote from your life. Maybe it was a time you experienced failure, overcame a challenge or learned a life-changing lesson. They’re interested in how you made meaning from this experience. Your personal essay is a chance for you to reveal your identity.

Before sitting down to write it, read some sample college essays. Many colleges share essays that impressed admissions officers on their website.

5. Take the SAT or ACT

Among other requirements, an American university application will likely ask that you take the SAT (or its counterpart, the ACT). The SAT is a test that measures your reasoning, verbal and math skills.

Studying for the SAT is key. Before you start, research the average SAT (or ACT) scores of accepted students at your prospective colleges. That way, you’ll know what scores will help you get in.

You can use free study materials online, an SAT or ACT prep book or study with a tutor or class.

6. Learn the language requirements

Since your courses at a U.S. college or university will be in English, you might have to demonstrate English proficiency to get accepted. Many colleges require foreign applicants to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL®) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Just as with the SAT or ACT, you can research schools to find out what scores it looks for in applicants. Once you have your goal, commit some time to studying and preparing for your exam.

Even if you speak English fluently, the TOEFL and IELTS are challenging. The TOEFL, for instance, is strictly timed and asks you to deliver verbal “essays” in response to unpredictable questions.

7. Get your transcript evaluated

Before applying, you’ll likely need to have your transcript evaluated. Since your school probably uses a different grading system than American high schools use, this evaluator can put your transcript into terms a college admissions officer will understand.

Make sure to request a transcript evaluation from an acceptable agency, such as one that’s a member of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) or the Association of International Credential Evaluators, Inc. (AICE).

This evaluation typically costs somewhere between $75 and $250 and can take several weeks to complete, so plan ahead. You might also need someone to translate your transcript into English if it’s in a different language.

Check with your school to find out if it has any requirements around transcript translation. Harvard University, for example, says you don’t need to hire a professional translator; rather, it’s acceptable to have an English teacher translate your materials.

8. Learn about your options for financial aid and scholarships

Most U.S. citizens apply for federal financial aid with an application called the FAFSA. If you’re an international applicant, you’re probably wondering, “Can international students apply to FAFSA?”

The answer is somewhat complicated. Unfortunately, international students are not eligible for federal financial aid. However, it’s still worth filing the FAFSA, since your school might use it to award institutional grants or scholarships.

While you may not be able to access the form online if you don’t have a U.S. Social Security number, you can still print out the form and mail it in. Some schools also ask for additional financial aid forms, such as the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) or the CSS profile.

You can also apply to external scholarships. Use a scholarship search tool to find money for college.

If you need further funding, you might be able to take out private student loans in the U.S. or your home country. U.S. lenders may require a cosigner who’s a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Be cautious about repayment plans and interest rates — interest rates on private student loans can get very high, making your student debt balloon over time.

Before accepting an offer of admission, figure out how you’ll fund your education and make sure your investment is worth the cost.

9. Keep track of deadlines

From filling out the Common Application to writing your personal essay to taking standardized tests, the college admissions process has a lot of moving parts. It’s crucial to keep track of your various deadlines so that you can stay on track.

Some important deadlines to keep track of include test registration, testing days, financial aid deadlines and of course, application due dates. Colleges often offer early deadlines (typically in October or November) or regular deadlines (typically in January or February).

But again, every college is different, so look up every school on your list to learn about its unique requirements and deadlines.

Getting your student visa

Once you’re accepted to a college, you’ll start the process of obtaining your student visa. If you’ll be attending a four-year school, you’ll apply for an F-1 visa. Vocational students will typically apply for an M-1 visa.

You will need fill out a student visa application at a U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country before you come to the U.S. Your school should assign you an international student advisor who can help you navigate this process.

You should start this process early, as it can take time. Your F-1 visa can be issued up to three months before you arrive in the U.S. to start your studies.

Plan early for your international student college application

Admissions officers at U.S. colleges review all four years of your high school experience. They look at your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and community involvement. Plus, they want to learn about your personality through your college essay and recommendation letters.

All of these American university application components take time, so start planning early. With enough preparation, you can submit an amazing application and get into your first choice school.

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