2018 Guide for International Students Applying to American Universities

college admissions college search student life Sep 28, 2018


If you are planning to apply to an American university as an international student, you probably already have a few ideas on how to start. Many of you will take the TOEFL after years of English classes, but it takes more than excellent TOEFL scores to succeed and thrive. Here is your guide on how to be on top of applying to American colleges.

It’s More Than Just Grades

The United States does not have a university entrance examination system, like the A levels in the United Kingdom or the gaokao in China. Most international students are required to take the TOEFL and sometimes the SAT or ACT depending on the school. A few universities, like the University of Southern California , even allow you to take the SAT or ACT instead of the TOEFL if you are nervous about the verbal section.

However, a high standardized test score won’t guarantee admission. Some American universities are even making standardized test scores optional. It does not mean that your test scores don’t matter. It just means that you have a choice as to whether or not submit your test scores as part of your overall profile when applying for American universities.

So how do universities choose who to admit and who to reject? Well, it depends. Each college or university actually has different standards and methods. If you are feeling panicked, don’t worry! There’s a helpful website called Big Future, hosted by the College Board, where you can discover what’s important to your top schools. Here’s how to find that information:

First, search for your top university. For this example, we’ll use Yale University. Click on this link to follow along!


Next, once we get to Yale University’s home page, we want to click on the tab on the left side that says, “Applying.” (If you have time later, you should check out the International Student tab too!)


Finally, if you scroll down, you will see a tab labeled “What’s Important?”, which will list the importance of a variety of factors. In this case, we see that Yale University highly values GPA, application essay, and extracurricular activities, among other items.  

However, it’s not just Yale University. Almost all American universities and colleges value an application that demonstrates more than just good grades. If you search through any number of colleges listed on Big Future, you’ll see that extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and your application essay are ranked just has important as test scores or GPA to most schools.

If you are thinking about applying to an American university, ask yourself - what else can you write about besides school? Situations demonstrating your leadership, like club president or founding a charity, are especially valuable.

Just Because it’s an Ivy League School, Doesn’t Mean it’s the Best Fit for You

Everyone knows about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Many have their sights set on other top schools, like Stanford, MIT, or Johns Hopkins. These are elite schools, but that doesn’t mean they are the best schools for you.

You should look at specific programs that you are interested in. If you want to become a veterinarian, Colorado State University is one of the top 3 schools. If you want to work for the United Nations, Lehigh University has a special partnership with the United Nations. Rice University, known for its engineering programs, is currently ranked the #16 university in the country - but its international name recognition is not nearly as high as others in the Top 20 schools.  

In some countries, the name recognition of the university you attended matters more than what you actually studied or even the grades you achieved. However, that is not the case in the United States. American university courses tend to be far more rigorous than high school courses, which is not the norm globally. When you apply for jobs in the United States, they want to know your GPA, your major, and even specific courses you took. The name brand of your university matters, but it isn’t everything. If you plan to work in the United States after graduation, consider factors more than just name when crafting your top choices for university.

There are also different resources available for international students at different schools. If you are the only student from your country in your university, it may be easy to get homesick and you may begin to do poorly in classes. Some universities will have specific international student counselors to help guide you through the transition of moving to the United States. Others may have smaller classes, which will give you the hands-on time you need to fully comprehend the material.

If the resources are available to you, try to visit the schools before you make your final decision. Sit in on a class, explore the campus, and see if the university is one where you will thrive and find your best self.

It Will Be More Expensive Than You Think

Sometimes people watch TV shows to learn about life in other places. However, TV shows about American life don’t always accurately reflect the actual costs! There are long-running jokes about how popular TV characters would not actually be able to afford the apartments or homes shown. Life in the United States can be much more expensive than your home country. However, it’s extremely dependent on where in the United States you live. Rural areas will have inexpensive housing options, but food may cost more unless it is local. Urban areas can be more expensive, but you generally have more options.

Universities may offer you an estimate of expected costs, but it’s also good to do additional research yourself since costs can fluctuate and your personal circumstances may be different than the norm. If you don’t have an unlimited income, think about what factors are most important to you before starting your research.

Apartment qualities vary dramatically, especially those located near universities. How much do apartments cost that are a 5-minute walk from the school? What about apartments that are a 20-minute bus ride away? If you plan on renting or buying a car, that can open up or limit your options. If you want covered parking, there may only be several housing complexes that offer that service. However, if you have a car, you may not mind living further away from your school, which could result in better quality apartments or lower prices.

Speaking of cars, some international students may consider purchasing one. Automobile taxes used to be much lower in the United States than certain countries, but changing taxes may shift that in the future. Be sure to keep an eye on the news to make sure buying a car is still feasible for you. Foreign cars may cost more next year due to potential tariffs and other tariffs recently imposed may increase the costs of domestic automakers, such as General Motors.

Food costs are something that also change dramatically depending on the region. Even comparing cities only 30 miles apart in the same state will result in vastly different grocery bills. An average student budget, for someone who knows how to cook and has access to a kitchen, can vary from $100 to $300 a month. Restaurants are generally more expensive in the United States, especially due to tipping culture.

Thankfully, there are some helpful tools out there that can help give you an idea of a city you’re considering moving to. Numbeo hosts a cost of living comparison tool that looks at everything from food to clothing to taxis. For an interesting example, check out how much it costs to live in Beijing, China versus Seattle, WA, USA. This tool allows you to compare major international cities. There is also an application created by NerdWallet to compare major U.S. cities and areas.

There Are Scholarships Available for You

If you’ve done the research suggested above, you may be suffering from sticker shock - living in America can be expensive! However, there are scholarships available for you, though they aren’t as common as those for local students.

Public universities don’t often award scholarships to international students since the money comes from public funds, usually raised by taxing locals. Thus, their scholarships generally go to local students. However, private universities get their funding from investments and donations, so they generally do not have the same restrictions when allocating scholarships to their students. If there’s a specific university you are interested in, you can research whether they host an overseas program where you can meet with admissions representatives and ask questions. The University of Southern California hosts this kind of program in a variety of places, and you would be able to ask specific questions about scholarships and funding.

There are also scholarships that aren’t tied to a specific college. Your home country may offer scholarships that can be used at any school, and there are scholarship foundations in the United States that offer funding to international students, generally to those who demonstrate strong leadership skills and potential. Study in the USA compiles lists of funding available for international students, and International Student hosts an entire database.

Talk to Your Peers Who Are Already in the United States

The best way to understand the expectations of American universities, American life, and resources available to you is by talking to someone who has already gone through all of this. If you don’t know anyone personally, ask a friend of a friend, or see if a teacher knows someone. Have a list of specific questions ready, and be willing to do something nice for them in return. Offer to take them out for coffee or send them a favorite treat from home if they’re currently abroad.

To help you get started, we talked to a few international students who either currently study in the United States or recently graduated. We asked them what they wish they had known before applying to study at universities in the United States.

Can, who recently graduated from the University of Washington, says, “I wish I had known the prospects of my major at that time.” This results in a great idea - look into the job market for the major you’re interested in. What kind of jobs do people with your intended degree get? How difficult are they to obtain, and how much do they pay? Places like Glassdoor can give you insight into information like this.

Ziwen, who studies at The University of Southern California, says, “I wish I had known there are not that many companies who offer visa sponsorship for international students.” It’s important to be realistic with your options. This is also why schools in big cities may be a better fit - there may be more job opportunities there. Ziwen, despite his fears, is currently a paid intern at a major retail business.

Yinong, who studies at Georgetown University, says, “I wish I had some trivial but also important tips such as what is a SSN, how to get a drivers license, how to find off-campus apartments… And before applying, maybe a broad introduction to what classes are typically like in an American university.” Yinong’s regrets are very common. Some of these answers can be found in message boards online. Companies like Transcend Academy can also help answer these questions in a one-on-one setting, and help prepare you for college beyond tests.

If you are an international student or the parent of one and have any other questions, please feel free to send us a note at [email protected] or register for our Lifestyle Coaching course! The course consists of a 30-minute, one-on-one meeting to answer any questions you might have. Let us help you get into your best university, and have the best experience possible.

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