Every year, thousands of international students apply to colleges and universities in the United States. Currently, there are over 900,000 international students in our colleges and universities. It was over 1 million before covid and before the Trump administration gave the impression that foreigners were less welcome. China, India, and South Korea are at the top of the list of foreign college and university students in America, many of whom are studying in the STEM fields. The process can be daunting for the international student however. 

Coming to America

There are many reasons for an international student to come here to learn. The choices are incredible.  There are over 2000 schools that offer four-year degrees and many that offer masters and doctoral-level graduate degrees. You can find over 1800 college and university majors!  And American schools are prestigious. It’s next to impossible to get into a university in many countries. The seats are few, and the numbers of qualified students are large. The standard of living in America is among the best in the world, and campus and off-campus life can be stimulating and fun. American schools want international students. Foreign applicants tend to be well-qualified and well-prepared. They bring diversity to American campuses. And they pay the full sticker price since they generally can’t get financial aid. Still, some schools have lower acceptance rates for international students. The Ivies clearly have lower acceptance rates and quotas for international students, even though they won’t admit it.

Nine Key Steps

There are nine key steps when applying as a an international student to an American college or university.

1. Make sure you are financially capable. 

You will be required to demonstrate that you can afford to attend school and live in America for two years. There’s no sense in applying if you can’t do that. For the most part, financial aid will not be available to you. You can get private loans, but be careful of predatory interest rates and predatory terms. Don’t borrow more than your projected first year of salary. For graduate schools, try to win an assistantship (teaching or researching).  Search for relatively inexpensive schools. Explore scholarship opportunities for international students. The Institute of International Education can be a helpful resource for obtaining grants, scholarships, and fellowships. 

2. Work hard.

Your competition will.  Take challenging courses. If you can take a curriculum internationally recognized as rigorous, do it. International Baccalaureate has 5000 programs in 150 countries. Unfortunately, IB schools are hard to find. There are only 198 IB schools in the immense country of India. Cambridge Pathway is found in 10,000 schools in 160 countries. The best bet may be the College Board’s AP International Diploma. AP courses are available online. Also, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are available, such as edX courses that are offered by some of the top universities in the United States and around the world.  Because they are actually college courses, admissions officers find them more predictive of success than IB or AP.

3. Participate in Meaningful Activities

Colleges and universities want to know that you’re spending your free time wisely, including after-school hours and summers. There are three kinds of after-school clubs: academic, interest or hobby, and community service. Academic clubs can include photography clubs, literary magazines, art clubs, or any foreign language club. These are just a few.  Many interests or hobby clubs are also academic in nature. Speech and debate club, robotics club, drama club, film club, and astronomy club can be considered in that category. Community service clubs can participate in providing assistance in soup kitchens, shelters, and hospitals. Jobs are extracurricular as well. Online or extra courses are extracurricular activities too. Definitely mention them on your application. Start a club if you’re interested in it, but your school doesn’t offer it.  Don’t get involved in too many clubs just to build your resume. You’ll spread yourself too thin, and college and university admissions officers will see through that anyway. It’s more important to have a depth of interest and depth of commitment to them.

4. Prepare for and take college entrance exams.

The college or university you’re applying to will require you to take an English proficiency exam, depending on what country you’re from.  See each institution’s requirements. They also have varying passing scores. The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam varies in cost from country to country. You may have to pay close to $200. Expect to pay around $250 for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Duolingo is much less expensive but isn’t accepted everywhere. Whichever you choose, you can find study and practice materials for all of the exams online.  The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is administered at over 1000 sites in 175 countries. You may have to travel far for one. A score out of 800 is given for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and a score out of 800 is given for Math. Many colleges and universities will super score your results, meaning that if you take the exam multiple times, they will consider your best reading & writing score and your best math score. The American College Testing (ACT) exam is an alternative to SAT that is available to International Students. The exam measures English, math, reading, and science.  A perfect score is a 36. Taking a PSAT or Pre-ACT will establish a starting benchmark, they do not count, and colleges and universities will not even see them. You may want to take one of the actual exams in the fall or possibly spring of your penultimate year in secondary school. You can do a retake in the fall of your final secondary school year. You can take either or both exam multiple times. It’s important to sign up well in advance.  You should do prep for these exams as many as three months prior, because you can be sure other students are. Kaplan and Princeton Review are regarded as top-notch test prep services that are available online. These companies and others also have test preparation books you can order online. Khan Academy offers free test preparation online. It’s not live and interactive, but it can be very helpful. Our test prep “booster shots” can supplement these other prep services very nicely.

6. Do your research.

Research and add to your list colleges and universities that are in your test range. Colleges report their median admit scores as a range from the 25th percentile of their admits to the 75th percentile. These scores are easy to find on their websites. Stanford has a median SAT range of 1440-1550. Their ACT range is 32-35. The University of Michigan has a median SAT range of 1340-1530 and an ACT range of 31-34.  If your GPA is lower than average, you will need to have a test score on the high end of the median range or even higher than that. For the top schools, high test scores aren’t necessarily enough. Harvard will typically have 500 applicants with perfect SAT scores, and it rejects more than half of them.  Before your last year in secondary school, you should have a list of colleges and universities to consider. Virtual visits (or in-person, if you can) may help you narrow your list. By the time you start applying you will want two or three safety schools (80% chance or better), three or four target schools (25-80% chance), and three or four reach schools (less than 25% chance). You can throw in a wildcard school or two.  Ivy League schools are wildcards for most students, and reach schools for the rest. To get a rough idea of your chances, there are chancing tools available online or consult with a college admissions professional.  There are many questions to consider as you build a college list: Does the institution have the program you want? And does the program have a good reputation? Is the school in your desired geographic area? Can you afford it?  Do you want to attend an urban or rural school? Do you want large or small? Is it in a nice college town or city? Does it have a large international community? What kind of support services does it have for international students? If it has an international student office, call it and ask these questions.

7. Secure recommendations.

Line up your recommenders by early in your final year in secondary school. They should know you well and think highly of you. Try showing your versatility as a student by getting teachers from different academic areas. Ask them in person,  then send a follow-up email telling them how much you enjoyed their class and reminding them of a project you did well or a learning activity you enjoyed and thought was very meaningful to you. Thank them in advance, and then thank them again afterward. It’s simple to invite teachers with the Common App. There are 900 American colleges and universities that use the Common App platform. 

8. Get your essays done.

You can start drafting your essays on August 1 when Common App prompts are released. Actually, you can start earlier, because the prompts don’t change much if at all.  Research what supplemental essays are required by the colleges and universities to which you plan on applying. Don’t wait until the last moment!  It’s vital to have someone who knows American English very well and knows what top schools are looking for in essays to review and edit your essays. And don’t hesitate to hire an admissions essay expert to help you generate ideas.

9. Apply!

Using the Common App will give you easy access to 900 American colleges and universities. (The Coalition App gives you access to 150 colleges and universities.) The Common App itself is free to use, but individual schools have their own application fees. And they can be different for international students. Fees of $100 are common. Some schools have no fees for international students or have a process for having the fee waived.  And, of course, many schools have supplemental essays and short answer questions.  It’s very important to know and keep track of your deadlines. Have a good mixture of safety, target, and reach schools. And throw in a wildcard school or two. That means applying to a total of10-12 schools. Get your essays polished. Make sure your secondary school is sending your transcripts. Colleges and universities usually want these sent directly from secondary schools. Make sure the recommendations are done. Take advantage of interview opportunities (virtual is fine) that are offered by the schools to which you are applying. This will be done after you apply. You must obtain an F1 visa to study in the United States. But you must first pay a SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information System) fee of $200. You  are required to apply and be accepted into a course of study at a SEVP-approved (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) school in the United States. You have to be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution. You are required to be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency. You must have proof of sufficient financial funds to support your study in the United States. You need to have ties to your home country that demonstrate an intent to return after you finish studying in the United States since the F-1 visa program is a temporary visa. You must reside outside the United States when you apply. You then interview for a visa at a consulate. The interview costs $200.  You must have several documents in your possession when you go to interview, including your acceptance letter, I-20 form issued by accepting school, valid passport issued by your country, 2X2 photo, SEVIS payment receipt, copy of transcripts, test scores, and financial statements. You must be able to show that you can pay for your first and second year of study. Before arriving, call the consulate to see if additional requirements apply.

Good Luck!

Lastly, good luck with the whole process. There will be many other details to deal with if you’re accepted. You’ll require a phone plan, health insurance, a way to transfer funds from your bank, just to name a few details. But you can handle them. You’ve gotten this far. Once again, good luck.