International Students: Applying to a U.S. College

Many international students have dreams of attending a college within the United States. Colleges and universities in the United States have seen a rise in their international student base in recent years. Even private high schools and community colleges have seen a rise in international students seeking admission.

An education from a U.S. university is prized in many countries.

An education from a U.S. university is prized in many countries.

Students from other countries seek a U.S. education for many reasons. For one, the U.S. higher education system is considered to be one of the best and most rigorous in the world. American education tends to focus on teaching students to be critical thinkers and come up with creative solutions to problems. These are seen as a highly valued skills in a fast moving economy.

Students from other countries also value the experience and insight into another culture they can gain by spending time in the U.S. Not only will learning in the United States dramatically improve their English skills, it will help them gain friends and powerful networks that will come in handy later on in their careers in their home country or abroad.

Are you an international student seeking admission to a U.S. college or university? There are a few mitigating factors of which you and your families need to be aware.

Applying to a U.S. College: What You Need to Know

College or University?

The word "college" in the U.S. is most often used to refer to an institution that offers a four-year bachelor degree program.

A "university" is a school that offers graduate programs in addition to undergraduate programs.

When a student says they are "applying to college" they usually mean they are applying to an undergraduate program. An undergraduate program may be offered at Amherst College, or at Stanford University; the name of the school simply reflects whether or not a graduate program is available there.

This article is referring to the application process for an undergraduate program, the purpose of which is to earn a bachelor's degree. The process may be different for students who are seeking admission for graduate school.

Preparing for Tests

When it comes to testing, U.S. students are required to take the SAT and/or the ACT in order to pursue admission. You may want to take those tests as well, which assess your skills comprehension and readiness for college.

Many U.S. universities will require the TOEFL

Many U.S. universities will require the TOEFL

Even more importantly, many schools will also ask that you take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Your performance on one of these exams will demonstrate to the schools to which you apply how proficient you are in the English language.

If you have a decent mastery of the English language, neither test should prove to be too challenging. The IELTS, which has four sections, assesses your listening, writing, speaking and reading skills in English. Many students will opt to take the TOFEL as it can be taken via an online, accredited test site throughout the globe. This exam will assess your ability to understand English using a mix of multiple choice, fill in the blank and essay questions.

Are there U.S. schools that don’t ask for the TOFEL or IELTS? Yes, there are. However, even if you are intimidated by the test, it will be better for you to try your best with the test and apply to be accepted to one of the schools that require it. This is generally a sign of a more rigorous school where you will have a better chance of succeeding after graduation.

Funding Your Education

The next factor that needs to be given serious consideration is the ability to fund a college education in the United States. International students usually do not qualify for any state or local financial aid, nor will you qualify for federal financial aid. The burden of paying the tuition, the housing expenses, and all other fees associated with four years of college. Food, travel, books, and graduation expenses should be factored in as well, and these will vary depending on the school you decide to attend.

Some schools may have scholarships set aside for international students. If you do need the money, strive to get very good grades on all of your tests and seek out and apply for scholarships early. They can be very competitive.

While some colleges will be very forthcoming and state that their policy on international students is “need-aware”, others will not, but that does not mean they will consider your financial need. A college who has a “need-aware” policy will consider your ability to pay for your education before an acceptance offer is made.

Understandly, many international students are concerned about making their money stretch far. However, I would caution you not to make your choice based on dollars alone. Investigate quality metrics of the school to make sure you are getting a good deal. The college that seems most affordable may not be the best fit academically for you; there is a great deal to consider when choosing a college.

Self Promotion

Finally, just as students within the United States do, part of your application process will be to promote yourself to the colleges that you most wish to attend.

In the United States, college admissions spend a great deal of time looking at the “whole student”, not just grades. So in addition to looking at test scores, admissions officers will want to know about your extracurricular activities, hobbies, interests, passions and areas were you have demonstrated leadership skills. 

This concept of self-promotion can be a difficult concept for students from other countries depending on your background and culture. Here are some tips on distinguishing yourself from other applicants:

Make contact with the admissions office: Although a campus visit or in-person interview may not be possible, you can request a Skype interview to meet with an Admissions person. You want your application to consist of more than the application form and your stellar test scores and grades. 

Highlight any special skills: What you consider as an ordinary skill, may actually be something unique and special to another culture. Highlight your interest in local history and culture, your skills as a musician, athletic performance, or participation in community events. What special do you bring to campus?  What are you going to do with your education once it is complete?

Beef up your application essay: The essay is where you have the chance to fully articulate yourself to the admissions representative. Paint a full, bright, and robust picture of all you have to offer the college and never sell yourself short! You only have one chance to make a great first impression.

While there is no doubt that there are some challenges to applying to a United States school as an international student, I am sure you will soon come to see that the benefits are truly worth the extra work.  Best of luck on the application process!