An international student’s guide to US college applications

college admissions international students strategy

International students (who typically require an F-1 visa to study in the United States) account for an increasing percentage of matriculated undergraduate and graduate students each year. I was an international undergraduate student myself, and I remember that the process of applying to colleges in the US seemed so intimidating and overwhelming compared with my home country. There are just so many more components to the US application process! Fortunately, I had excellent support from my higher education counselors and helpful alumni from my high school. Fundamentally, however, the college application process belongs solely to the applicant, and you should be making all the important decisions for yourself. Often, the first step is to build a tailored college list that suits you and your needs. 

Typically, students should start building a preliminary college list during the beginning or middle of their penultimate year of high school. For all the international students with whom I have worked over the years, I always suggest building a list that includes equal parts reach (dream schools that are highly selective), match (schools to which students with your profile are often admitted), and safe (schools to which students with your profile are usually admitted) schools. Consider starting with a list of around 20 and whittling it down to the 10 to which you will ultimately submit applications.

To start building your college list, try answering the following questions: 

1. Do you have a dream school or are you interested in attending a particular institution?

I am the first to admit that I first heard about Brown University, my alma mater, from pop culture! But my interest in the college grew as I continued to do research, which led me to realize it was the perfect place for me. Write down every institution you may have heard of, and don’t rule anything out yet – now is the time to make lists and do research. 

2. Would you like to attend a larger research university or a smaller liberal arts college? 

Another question you could ask is: are you interested in a liberal arts education or a professional degree? Part of what makes going to college in the US so special is the diverse range of institutions that do not exist anywhere else in the world. But some universities can offer professional degrees in business, nursing, or engineering, while smaller liberal arts colleges often cannot. Depending on what you want to study, some schools may not be suitable. 

3. How often are you planning on traveling back home?

There are excellent colleges and universities located all across the United States, but not all are in major cities nor near large international airports. Being close to international travel facilities may be important to you and your family. As a busy college student, you probably do not want to deal with long layovers during your breaks. 

4. Do you need financial aid?

Most colleges and universities in the US are NOT “need blind” for international students – that is, they take your financial need into account when reviewing your application. If you apply for financial aid at one of these schools, your aid application could negatively affect your chances for admission. However, there are an increasing number of schools that are becoming need blind or offer substantial scholarships for international students. If you and your family need financial assistance, you may consider adding schools from this list to yours. You should also check if there are scholarships from the government or organizations in your home country.

5. Do you intend to get a part time job?

Students on a F-1 Student Visa are allowed to work part time on campus ONLY. While all colleges will have some opportunities for students to work on campus, not all these opportunities are equally lucrative. Some states in the US have higher or lower hourly wages and some colleges are bound by local laws to hire students for certain roles but not others. It is a good idea to do some research and talk to current students and alumni.

6. How do your grades and test scores compare?

I saved the most “quantitative” question for last because grades and standardized test scores can be improved while the other features of the colleges on your list are often immutable. Use resources such as the College Board, College Confidential, and US News & World Report to learn about each college’s typical students. This research will give you an idea of how likely you will get accepted. Some schools are even “test optional,” which may be good options for students who are unable to travel easily to SAT/ACT testing facilities.

Find out as much as you can about the schools on your list! Get in touch with your local alumni organization and the admissions office. Schedule a campus tour in-person or virtually with a student tour guide. Share your list with your teachers, mentors, parents, and older siblings, and discuss your research with them. Knowing as much as you can about the schools on your list will not only ensure that you find your best fit, but also help you craft the best possible applications.

Good luck – and have fun!

Sarah graduated from Brown with a BA in History & International Relations. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Pennsylvania.

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