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Last updated December 5, 2023

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A Complete Guide to Applying to College as an International Student

Key Takeaway

If you're an international student applying to college in the United States, you'll have more factors to consider than domestic students. In addition to your application materials and essays, you may need to think about things like legal documents, English proficiency exams, transcript translations, and financial aid.

We hear from a ton of students around the world who dream of attending college in the United States. They are often concerned about costs, financial aid, culture and language differences, and the competitiveness of some of the most selective colleges and universities in the US. 

Our team put together this comprehensive guide for international students applying to colleges and universities in the United States. We want to help prospective international students understand the many requirements to apply to US colleges, how to finance their education, and some tips and tricks on how to apply to college or university in the US.

Note that different colleges and universities may have variations or additional requirements for international students, so you should check the international admissions website at each school. This is a general guide based on our experience in admission offices and consulting with international students applying to university in the US.

What do you need to apply to university in the US?

International students have many of the same requirements as US citizens when applying to colleges and universities in the US.

Most US colleges and universities accept the Common Application. You will fill this out just like any other student. Some schools accept other applications like the Coalition Application or the college’s own application.

Applying to college in the US requires a personal statementan essay that is like the thesis of your application. It is personal to you and does not necessarily need to be academic in nature. Most schools also require supplemental essays through their application. The application will also require you to fill out demographic and personal information, family information, awards, extracurricular activities, answer some school-specific questions, and list teacher(s) and a school counselor or administrator for letters of recommendation.

Beyond those basics, there are several things to consider and application requirements for international students we will cover in this guide.

Application requirements for international students:

  • English proficiency tests
  • Student visa or
  • Green Card (Permanent Resident Card) for domestic non-citizens
  • Transcript translation (if transcript is not in English)

Other considerations for international students:

  • Funding your education as an international student
  • Types of colleges and universities in the US and how they differ from other countries
  • Interviewing as an international student

Read on to learn more about these requirements, or click on the one you are interested in to skip to that section.

Application requirements for international students

English proficiency tests

International students whose high school instruction was not in English will need to show proficiency in English when applying to study in the US. Different schools have different scores they require on these tests. Most schools accept at least one of the following tests, with the first two being the most common:

  • SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section
  • ACT English and/or Reading sections
  • Cambridge English C1 Advanced or C2 Proficiency
  • PTE Academic
  • Duolingo English Test

You should be able to search “[University Name] international admissions English requirements” to learn which tests your school accepts and what scores they want to see.

Student Visa

An F-1 student visa is the most common student visa for international students studying in the US. It allows students to enter the US to study in a full-time, accredited, degree-granting program. Learn more about applying for an F-1 student visa from the official US Dept of State website here.

Green Card (for non-citizens residing in the US)

A Permanent Resident Card, commonly referred to as a “Green Card,” allows one to permanently live, work, and study in the US. Learn more about Green Cards here.

The biggest problem we’ve seen with students and Green Card holders is having an expired card or an application in progress but not yet approved. Getting approved for a Green Card can be a long and unpredictable process. In our experience, you will need to have an active Green Card in order to be considered a domestic (non-international) student. If you apply with an expired Green Card or an application only, you will be considered an international student.

If you are in the Green Card application or renewal process while applying to university, reach out directly to the admissions office at the schools you are applying to. They will be able to give you instructions. Often, they will instruct a student to go ahead and apply and send an updated active Green Card once you have it.

Remember, if you don’t have an active Green Card, you will not be considered a domestic student and, at many schools, that will mean you are not eligible for financial aid.

Transcript translation

If your high school transcript is in a language other than English, you will need to have it translated into English at most schools. Ask your school counselor or a school administrator for a recommendation of a service, or see what the admissions office at a university you are interested in recommends. There are many services available, and you’ll want to choose a reputable one.

Financial statement

Many international students will be required to submit a proof of ability to pay for the entirety of their school’s tuition, fees, and living expenses out-of-pocket. These required financial statements can vary some school to school, so it will be important to look up the requirements for your school of choice. See the next section to learn more about financial aid for international students.

Other considerations for international students

Financial aid for international students

Financial aid is broken into need-based and merit-based aid. See the linked article to learn more about each. Universities approach financial aid for international students differently.

Most US colleges and universities do not offer need-based aid to international students. Some do offer merit-based scholarships that international students can qualify for. That means that international students at these schools must pay full price for their education in the US unless they receive a merit-based scholarship, which are limited.

You can search “[College Name] international student financial aid” to learn more about each school’s policy for international students. Most schools that do offer need-based aid for international students are exceptionally competitive to earn that aid. It is not uncommon at the most selective schools in the US to see upwards of 10,000 international applications for perhaps 10-40 students who receive need-based aid. You should not count on need-based aid at most schools.

Interviewing as an international student

Some schools offer the opportunity for applicants to interview with an admission officer or alumni of the school as part of their admissions process. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the school and share more of a narrative about you. Check out our article on preparing for an admissions interview to learn more.

There is also a relatively new way to add a video interview to your application as an international student. Initial View is a company that offers international students, especially those for whom English is not their first language, to record an interview with an independent interviewer and submit it to colleges.

If it is possible for you, we recommend international students whose schooling is not in English, or from whom English is not their first language, to consider submitting an Initial View interview. This helps the admissions office learn about you and, most importantly, it is a way for them to verify your English proficiency. Frankly, there is a lot of fraud in international admissions, and this helps universities protect against it while also learning more about their applicants.

Types of colleges and universities in the US and how they differ from other countries

We want you to be aware of some of the important differences between higher education in the United States and some other countries. Here are a few to consider:

  • The United States education system often embraces a broad education in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and arts over a very narrow education. Some students in other countries expect to study only one subject in college, or to not be able to change their minds. In fact, it is common for US students to change their major, take many general education courses, and study multiple disciplines.
  • The US has many public and private universities that offer an excellent education to both domestic and international students. Public universities receive some of their funding from the state, while private universities do not. Either could be a great option.
  • In the US, people often refer to “colleges” and “universities” interchangeably. Technically, there is a difference, but it isn’t something that most people think much about, and many schools that are closer to the definition of a “college” are called “university”, and vice versa.
    • Technically, a “college” is a school that teaches primarily or exclusively undergraduate students.
    • A “university” is a school that focuses on graduate education, research, and teaching undergraduate students.
    • Often, but not always, colleges have a smaller student body than universities.
  • Which brings us to the difference between research universities and liberal arts colleges.
    • Liberal arts colleges teach undergraduate students. They tend to be smaller, offer small classes, hands-on learning, and close relationships with professors and other students. These schools offer a well-rounded education. Expect to take general education courses along with your major, and not be rushed to pick your major. The vast majority of liberal arts colleges are private.
      • Examples of liberal arts colleges include Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Davidson, and Grinnell.
    • Research Universities focus on graduate education, research, and then teaching undergraduates. These schools are usually much larger, and some students may have a more narrow focus on their academic program, while others explore majors. Some of the best-known universities worldwide are American research universities. But, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best fit for you. Research universities can be public or private.
      • Private research universities include Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Rice University.
      • Public research universities include most universities with the State’s name, like the University of California schools, University of Virginia, Michigan University, or Ohio State.
  • US colleges and universities focus on a lot of life beyond academics. Most students live on campus for at least their first one or two years. Schools put a lot of emphasis on student life, including clubs and organizations, community service, recreation and relaxation, athletics, and mental health care. As an applicant, they’ll want to picture you as not just a student, but an engaged member of their social and academic community.

Whichever type of college or university you chose, we want you to explore their academic offerings, student support services, and specific support for international students. You can Google “[College Name] international students” to see the types of support they offer students like you and what their international community is like. We wish you the best in your college search and application process!

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