Tips for International Students Applying to U.S. Universities

If you're an international student interested in applying to American universities, these tips from IvyWise's Dr. Kat Cohen offer the information you need to begin your application.

The U.S. college admission process can be confusing, especially for international students who may not be familiar with what’s required in order to apply and be accepted to an American institution.

When you are considering studying in the U.S.A. as an international student, it’s important to understand how the American admissions process works, and what additional information international students may need to submit in order to insure their application is complete and to enhance their chances of being accepted.

Here are four key tips to help international students succeed in applying to American universities.

Understand how the U.S. admissions process works.

While many countries around the world rely solely on academics, test scores, and course of study when admitting students to their universities, the U.S. admissions process is more complicated.

In addition to the “hard factors,” (test scores, grades, etc.), U.S. institutions also take into consideration “soft factors,” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest). This evaluation of quantitative and qualitative data is known as “holistic review,” and it’s how most U.S. institutions evaluate applicants for admission.

While it’s important to have great grades, test scores, and an area of focus when applying to U.S. universities, neglecting the other considerations like recommendations and extracurricular activities can hurt an applicant’s chances of admission. U.S. admissions officers want to get a full picture of an applicant inside and outside of the classroom, so participate in activities which interest you, develop relationships with instructors, and work on writing a great college essay.

Take the right tests.

In the U.S., many colleges require students to submit scores from standardized college entrance exams, either the SAT or the ACT.

If English is your second language, you might also have to take a language proficiency test. While some schools may accept the ACT or SAT as proof of English proficiency, in most cases international students may also have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) in order to demonstrate proficiency in the English language.

The TOEFL consists of a mixture of fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and essay-style questions, and takes about four-and-a-half hours to complete. The IELTS is made up of four sections (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), and takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.

Conquer the Common Application.

More than 500 colleges and universities in the U.S. accept the Common Application, a standardized online application which allows students to apply to multiple colleges using one set of information, and usually a school-specific supplement.

The Common Application allows students to list their extracurricular activities, input information about their background, and submit teacher recommendations directly through the online application. It’s a one stop-shop for college applications, but it still requires a lot of attention in order to maximize your changes of admission.

The key to conquering the Common Application lies in the details. When filling out the activities section, be specific. Let colleges know if you held any leadership positions, how many hours a week you devoted to your activities, and which were the most important to you.

When it comes to the essay, use the space to reveal something about you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. For example, if you list the International Business Club as one of your activities, don’t write about it in your essay. Instead, let the admissions office get to know you as a person by writing about something that reveals a slice of your life or your personality.

Skip the financial aid application if you can.

Many colleges practice a “need-blind” admissions policy when evaluating U.S. applicants, meaning that a student’s ability to pay full-tuition is not considered when making admissions decisions. However, many U.S. schools are very explicit about operating on a “need aware” basis for international applicants, meaning that they do consider a student’s ability to pay full tuition.

For international students who can afford to pay full-price tuition, this can be an advantage. However, the ability to pay will not outweigh the other factors necessary for admission, so while it’s wise not to apply for financial aid if you can afford to pay full price, remember that great grades, test scores, and “soft factors” are still key to gaining admittance to your top choice U.S. university.

Applying to American universities as an international student can be a lot of work, but if you start early, do your research, and stay mindful of the application requirements, you’ll have a great chance of coming stateside for your university education.

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