How to Apply to a US College as an International Student

January 18, 2021

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,169,464 international students were studying at colleges and universities across the United States. While this number was already slightly down from previous years due, at least in part, to the political conditions in the United States, American institutions of higher education continued to draw massive levels of interest from high-achieving teens all around the globe. Unfortunately, coronavirus dealt a sharp blow to the U.S. schools, as the number of new international student enrollment fell 43% in a single year between 2019-20 and 2020-21. On the positive side, with the vaccine now being administered across the nation, there is now genuine hope that the postsecondary world (as well as the rest of the world) can finally return to some semblance of “normal” for the 2021-22 academic year.

China sends the greatest number of students to the U.S. as there presently more than 363,000 Chinese students studying at American universities. India is second with just shy of 200,000 students enrolled in U.S. colleges. Next on the list are (in order): South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan. No matter where an international student hails from, they will face common challenges as they enter the particularly complicated gauntlet that is the American college admissions process. With an aim of shedding light on a rather opaque and muddled process, we will explore:

  • Why students elect to study in the US
  • The English language requirements for foreign students
  • Standardized testing requirements
  • Getting your transcript evaluated/translated
  • The F-1 visa application process
  • An overview of the American admissions timeline
  • Common mistakes made by international applicants

First, let’s tackle why high school students from every corner of the globe are so eager to travel thousands of miles and jump through endless hoops in order to attend college in the States.

Why study in the US?

No other country has the number of top-notch research institutions and exceptional liberal arts colleges that you will find in the United States. The qualifications you can earn at an American university will be recognized and accepted around the globe. Further, you will make important connections with faculty and peers that can enhance your professional network and lead to long-term career success.

Economic mobility is certainly a top factor in deciding to attend an American school. Thus, it is no accident that the most popular areas of study for international students are typically the most lucrative professions 1) business 2) engineering and 3) math & computer science. However, there are a sizable number of foreign students currently seeking degrees in the areas of health professions, fine and applied arts, social science, and the physical & life sciences.

What are the language requirements?

Most American universities require foreign applicants to take an English as a second language exam. There are two commonly administered tests for this purpose: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The minimum TOEFL score required by most American schools is a 78 which is in the 40th percentile of all test takers. However, more competitive universities will demand higher scores. For example. UCLA requires a minimum of an 83 TOEFL score (48th percentile) merely for consideration, but the average entering international freshman actually possessed a 113, which places right at the 97th percentile. Cornell University’s engineering program recommends a minimum of 100 TOEFL score or a 7 on the IELTS which places a student in the 75th-80th percentile.

If you are a strong English speaker, taking one of these exams early in high school is good idea, just so there is one less thing to do once the admissions crunch of senior year commences. If you are still learning the language, delay taking the exam until right before the start of senior year.

Which standardized tests should I take?

The answer to this is entirely dependent on which schools you are targeting. You need to do your homework well ahead of time so you can meet these school-specific demands. For example, MIT offers two standardized testing options for international students who are not native speakers of English. The first is to take the SAT or ACT as well two SAT Subject Tests, one in math and one in science. The second option is to take the TOEFL in lieu of the SAT/ACT but still take the same Subject Test requirements. Some schools accept the IELTS in addition to the TOEFL; others like MIT, do not.

Even schools with test-optional policies for domestic applicants often do not allow international applicants the chance to apply sans-standardized tests. Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, which just went test-optional last year, is one such institution. On the other hand, Marquette University in Wisconsin is test-optional for U.S. citizens and international applicants alike. The bottom line is that you need to check the exact policies of all of the schools to which you will be applying. There is no “standardized” set of rules when it comes to standardized testing policies for those living in a foreign country.

Do I need to get my transcript evaluated?

When American citizens apply to colleges in their home country, the admissions officers instantly understand the different between AP Chemistry, honors chemistry, and regular chemistry. While some variation in curriculum may exist from state-to-state and school-to-school, college officials can quickly glean a pretty firm understanding of what an A, B, or C means in a given course—particularly when they can cross-reference this information against other known data points (both from the individual and their high school).

Contrarily, international students come from hundreds of countries with vastly different educational systems. Some institutions like Drexel University actually spell out separate transcript policies for roughly 70 different countries. In many instances, American schools will require you, the applicant, to have your credentials verified and translated by a third-party organization. The safest organizations to seek out will be:

  • Third-party agencies that are members of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES)
  • Third-party agencies that are members of the Association of International Credential Evaluators, Inc. (AICE)

Students typically pay anywhere from $75-250 dollars to have their transcript evaluated and it can take weeks to complete (so plan ahead). Some colleges will not require a full-blown transcript evaluation, but, if the materials are in a foreign language, they will most certainly need to be translated by someone other than the applicant themselves. Harvard University offers the example that they are “happy to receive letters translated by an English teacher.”

Getting a student visa

If you think the admissions process is painful, just wait for the whole extra layer of red-tape that awaits when it comes time to apply for and obtain your student visa. Once you are accepted by a U.S. school, that university will enroll you in a system called the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). You will then be sent one of two forms, depending on which visa you are eligible for. The two classifications of visa are the F and M variations. Anyone applying to a four-year school will fill out the F-1 form, since the M-1 form is for vocational studies only.

The next step is to fill out your F-1 student visa application at the U.S. embassy or consulate located in your home country. You will need to meet with an embassy official for an interview to determine your visa eligibility. Applying early is always a good bet as the bureaucratic wait-time for paperwork to be processed can be substantial and is not always easy to predict. An F-1 visa is can be issued up to 90 days prior to a student entering the country to begin their studies, so there is no reason not to start your application well ahead of time.

Know the timeline

The American college application timeline is unique and can take foreign (as well as many homegrown) students by surprise. International students need to familiarize themselves with the various deadlines for their prospective schools including, early action, early decision, early decision II, and financial aid deadlines. They also need to have a general understanding of when to:

  • Ask for recommendations.
  • Take the TOEFL/IELTS, SAT/ACT, and any required Subject Tests.
  • Fill out their FAFSA or CSS Profile for financial aid consideration.
  • Begin working in the Common App, Coalition App, or school-exclusive application.

With so much to juggle, it’s not unusual for students to get tripped up at one or more stages of this arduous journey.

Common mistakes made by international college applicants

In our experience, these are some of the most common errors we see foreign high schoolers make when applying to American universities:

  • Hyper-focusing on one or two prestige schools rather than learning about the dozens (or more) of comparable institutions that may better suit their academic/financial needs.
  • Not giving enough attention to the soft factors that are highly-valued by U.S. schools like extracurricular activities and essays.
  • Failing to “tell their story” throughout the application. Ideally, one’s essay, extracurricular participation, and academic prowess will all align with their future area of concentration.
  • In the same vein as our last bullet point, international students sometimes fail to recognize just how much passion and authenticity matter in American college admissions.

For those international students vying for a coveted spot in an Ivy League or Ivy-equivalent university or an elite liberal arts school, stellar grades are necessary but not sufficient. Begin learning about the American admissions process long before you are nearing the end of your high school journey. With a little extra research, careful adherence to timetables and boxes in need of checking, and of course, continued attention to grades and test scores, your dreams of studying at the American school of your dreams can and will come true.