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International Students: Follow This Guide When Applying for College in the U.S.

College • August 27, 2020 • Connor Peoples


What you’ll learn

  • How to apply to college as an international student
  • What colleges look for in an international student


Every year, more than 1 million students come from all over the world to study in the U.S. Future professors, doctors, coders, engineers, and more, all apply to some of the best colleges and universities in the world to study and set themselves up for a lifetime of success. We know that the application process for college, even as someone born and raised in the U.S., can seem a little daunting at first—for international students, it can seem downright overwhelming.

Below is a step-by-step guide for how to apply to college from outside of the U.S. along with a list of everything you need to know.

COVID-19 and its impact on international students

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education this fall is changing rapidly. For students intending to come to the U.S. from abroad, that means potential difficulty in securing a U.S. visa, and finding a flight. The good news is Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced they’ll allow international students to remain in the U.S. even if schools go online this fall. To be safe, stay informed of updates to health and legal guidelines as you consider coming to the U.S. to start or finish your education.

Community Colleges

According to the Institute of International Education, around 94,562 international students studied at community colleges in the U.S. during academic year 2017–2018. And for good reason - community colleges provide an excellent opportunity to get a quality education at a low price, and if you’re unsure what you want to do after college, community college gives you an opportunity to explore different areas of study before completing your degree or transferring to a traditional four-year college Did you know? Just 35% of high school students planning to attend a 2- or 4-year school know what the exact job they’d like to have, according to Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education.

If you’re consider applying to a community college in the U.S., there are a few key materials you need to provide:

  1. An English Test: Most community colleges require their international students to take an English speaking, reading, and writing test, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This is an essential test for any school looking to gauge students’ aptitude with English. If you’re nervous about taking it, there are countless practice tests available online, along with apps, remote tutoring, and other resources to help you prepare.
  2. An English Transcript: Every school handles primary, intermediate, and secondary school—or what America calls K-12 education—differently. Colleges are fully aware of that and expect international transcripts and grades to look different than applicants from American schools. The single biggest rule is that foreign transcripts have to be translated into English so admissions offices can read and understand them. It is important they are able to review transcripts quickly because they are reading through so many applications each day—they need to be able to quickly identify the most qualified applicants.
  3. Proof of Payment: Some schools may ask for proof that international students can cover the cost of attendance. Depending on the institution, this could include bank statements, pay stubs, or other indications of your or your family’s financial status.

Four-year Colleges and Universities

For traditional four-year colleges and universities, along with graduate programs, the requirements to apply can include everything listed above and more.

Below are some of the additional requirements for applications:

  1. Testing: Before you apply to each school, look at their admissions page and figure out which tests they require or “strongly recommend.” Some schools require the SAT, while others require the ACT.

    Once you’ve determined which test you need to take, start studying and become familiar with the content, structure, and time requirements. In some cases, the ACT and SAT are weighted less heavily than they used to be, but you should still strive to put your best foot forward and get the best score you can manage.

    Just like with the TOEFL, there are prep courses available to help get you ready to take the SAT or ACT. Don’t forget to check if each school’s standardized testing requirements have changed due to COVID-19. Some schools are no longer requiring standardized testing at all.
  2. The Common App: Thousands of American schools use the Common App to simplify the process for prospective students and maximize high school seniors’ chances of getting accepted into the school of their dreams.

    In order to properly prepare for the Common App, you have to write an original college application essay. These essays are a way for the school to get to know you a little better, so take the time to consider what is important to you and how you can answer the prompt using your own life experiences.
  3. Documentation: Depending on your country of origin and the school you’re applying to, you might be asked to provide additional documentation upfront.

    First and foremost, ensure you have an up-to-date passport. Most colleges want to know you can leave your country before they grant admission.

    Second, start putting together the materials you need for a visa application sooner rather than later—there is a lot of uncertainty right now surrounding international travel and students who are considering college abroad. The sooner you can submit the paperwork necessary for a visa, the better.

These pieces of the college application process are important, but many admissions counselors are also interested in getting to know students’ interests and passions. College admissions look for holistic applicants, not just academic all-stars. They want to see students who are smart and hard workers, but also have interests outside of class and will have meaningful contributions to the cultures and success of their schools. Be sure to highlight the accomplishments that you’re proud of to stand out from other students vying for the same spots.

Each step of the college application process may take more time than you might initially assume, so plan ahead and carve out time in your schedule. For international students, the college application process usually takes about 18 months of researching, preparing, and actual work.

Throughout the application process, keep your eye out for any scholarships or grants available for international students. Schools may have different requirements for international students who are applying for financial aid, so be sure to do your research and follow up with each school individually.

Remember, there’s no “right way” to apply for college, but hopefully, with this advice, the application process to get a U.S. college experience will be a little easier. If you still have questions, connect with other international students who have come to study in the U.S. on LinkedIn, or find students you can turn to for advice through connections. With luck, you’ll be on your way to earning a degree from a college in the U.S. in no time.


Connor is a Sallie Mae employee and a graduate of the University of Delaware. In his free time, you can find him cheering for Philadelphia’s professional sports teams and exploring the world with his dog, Moose.


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