Seniors: Get a head start on your college apps this summer!

How to Apply to a U.S. College as an International Student

Monday, June 3, 2024

College students develop their language learning outside of class

High school students across the U.S. aren’t the only ones trying to navigate the often-confusing college application process — students around the world are, too. And many are thinking about coming to the U.S. for their higher education. Open Doors reported that 1,057,188 international students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2022-23 academic year, which was 5.6% of the total student population. 

For international students, the college admissions process can be more intensive and challenging than it is for American students. If you’re an international student looking to attend college in the U.S., you need to take extra steps to maximize your chance of admission and stand out from other applicants. 

How to Apply to a U.S. College as an International Student: Table of Contents

  1. Why Study in the U.S.?
  2. Can an International Student Apply for School in the USA?
  3. How to Apply for College in the USA as an International Student
  4. What International Students Should Look for in Colleges
  5. 4 Tips for International Students Applying to U.S. Colleges

Why Study in the U.S.?

International students are drawn to U.S. colleges and universities for a myriad of reasons: 

  • The U.S. is home to many of the world’s top universities known for their academic excellence, research opportunities, and innovative programs. 
  • U.S. institutions offer a wide range of programs and majors, allowing students to find specialized fields of study that might not be available in their home countries. 
  • Many U.S. universities have state-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities. 
  • The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, offering international students a chance to experience and learn from a diverse environment. 
  • Studying in the U.S. provides an immersive environment for improving English language skills, which is a valuable asset in the global job market. 
  • Graduates from U.S. universities are often highly regarded by employers worldwide, enhancing their job prospects. 
  • International students in the U.S. can take advantage of Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to be temporarily employed in the U.S. in their field of study after graduation.  


These are just a few factors that make the U.S. a highly attractive destination for international students, but it’s not a step to be taken lightly. It’s important to do your research and take advantage of international student tours whenever possible to ensure that moving to the U.S. and attending a U.S. college is the right fit for you. 

Can an International Student Apply for School in the USA?

Numerous colleges and universities across the U.S. welcome international students as part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This means you have a lot of options to consider, including public or private institutions, the size of the school, academic program offerings, geographic location, campus life and community, resources for international students, and more.  

You may have financial considerations that will also impact where you go to school. Public institutions, for example, typically have lower tuition costs than private schools. Additionally, the cost of living can vary widely depending on where you are in the U.S.  

How to Apply for College in the USA as an International Student 

One of the key differences in the U.S. college application process is that you are evaluated holistically, meaning that admissions committees want to know who you are beyond your academic performance. This includes your extracurricular activities and achievements outside of school and what you contribute to your community. You need to build your applicant profile throughout secondary school — the earlier you start preparing, the better. Understanding the latest college admission trends will also help you manage your expectations about the process.  

The admissions process itself is made up of several components, including some that are specific to foreign students. 

Build Your College List 

It’s important to create a list of schools that are the best fit for you academically and socially. To research a college effectively, prioritize what it offers academically first, then look at social factors, retention rates, diversity, housing, career development, admitted student data, and other considerations. It’s also important to check each institution’s specific requirements for international students.  

“I can’t stress enough the importance of research and fit when building a balanced college list,” says IvyWise counselor Scott. “TV, movies, social media, and glossy university pamphlets can present a wholly different experience than what students actually live day-to-day at U.S. universities.” 

Ideally, your college list should have 13-15 schools — a balanced mix of likely, target, and reach schools: 

  • Likely: Your academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50% of admitted students.  
  • Target: Your academic profile aligns with the middle 50% of admitted students.  
  • Reach: Your academic profile is not quite as strong as the middle 50% of admitted students. 

Understand the Application Timeline

It’s important to understand the application timeline before you begin your college admissions journey. Exact timelines will vary from school to school, but the typical date for applications to open is August 1 before the student’s final year of secondary school. Students typically submit their applications between November and January and receive admissions decisions several months later.  

As you are researching schools, you will encounter different application options: 

  • Rolling admission: Schools with this option generally accept applications on an ongoing basis. There are no strict deadlines.  
  • Early admission: This is typically offered as Early Decision or Early Action. Early Decision is a binding option — if you are admitted, you must enroll at that school and withdraw all other applications. Early Action is a non-binding option. Early applications are typically due in November. Students who have a clear top choice on their college list might consider applying early. 
  • Regular Decision: This is the standard admission option. It is non-binding, and applications are typically due on or around January 1. 

Take Standardized Tests

College entrance exams like the SAT and ACT help admissions committees assess your college readiness. Many U.S. colleges are currently test-optional but testing policies can change at any time. Unless you apply to test-blind schools — which do not consider test scores at all — most colleges will still look favorably upon students who submit a strong SAT or ACT score. If you choose to take a standardized exam, we recommend taking a diagnostic of both the ACT and SAT so you can decide which test is the best fit for you. Then, build your test prep strategy and start practicing. You may need to take the test more than once to reach your goal score, so allow yourself plenty of time for this process.  

The SAT has two sections — math and reading and writing — and is scored in a range from 400 to 1,600 points. The ACT tests students in four sections: English, math, science, and reading and is scored on a scale of 1-36. Both the SAT and ACT are offered internationally and can be taken as many times as you need, although at IvyWise we advise students not to take them more than three times. Visit College Board and the ACT sites for more information on testing dates and locations near you, and learn more about the SAT for international students. 

Check the Language Requirements

Most American colleges require foreign students who are non-native English speakers to take an English language proficiency exam, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Duolingo English Test. The TOEFL is the most widely accepted, but it’s a good idea to check with the admissions office to confirm if they accept other tests. You will need to have a good strategy for TOEFL prep (or whatever exam you choose) in order to maximize your score for admissions.  

Once you identify which schools are the best fit for you, check their minimum score requirement for these tests. Highly competitive institutions typically require a higher score. For example, the University of Arizona, a public institution, requires a minimum score of 70 on the TOEFL for most bachelor’s degree programs. Cornell University, an Ivy League school, requires a minimum score of 100.  

Get a Student Visa

In addition to applying to college, international students will need to navigate the visa application process. Once you gain admission to a U.S. college, you will enroll in a system called the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System. Two types of student visas are available:  

  • An F-1 visa is for non-immigrants who intend to pursue a full program at an academic institution. 
  • An M-1 visa is for non-immigrants who intend to pursue a full program at a vocational or other non-academic institution (excluding language training programs). 


Follow the instructions carefully in the visa application and call the admissions office if you have any questions. 

Get Your Transcript Evaluated and Translated

You may also need to get your school transcript evaluated and translated by a third-party organization. Transcript evaluation involves converting your academic records from your home country into a format that U.S. educational institutions can understand and compare with their own academic standards. Transcript translation involves translating your academic records from your native language into English. It’s important to select service providers that are recognized by the schools to which you are applying.   

This process can take several weeks, so it’s best to begin as early as possible. Carefully follow the instructions provided by the service provider and the schools you are applying to, and always keep copies of your original documents and translations for your records.  

Prepare Recommendation Letters 

Depending on where you apply, you may be required to submit recommendation letters from teachers or school administrators. It’s important for you to select recommenders who know you and can speak to both your academic and personal strengths. Remember, U.S. colleges use holistic review to admit their classes. They want to know who you are and what you can contribute to campus, so the letters of recommendation submitted on your behalf should reflect this.  

Each school may have different requirements regarding the number of recommendation letters you submit and how they should be translated. Check with the admissions office of each school to which you’re applying to ensure you are complying with their requirements for recommendation letters.  

Look into International Student Programs 

International student populations range in size across U.S. universities. For example, Boston University and the University of Southern California have large and robust international student communities. That said, many other colleges with smaller international student populations may also have strong and expanded programs to support international students. 

Consider how important an international community is to you. “If you want to prioritize being surrounded by many other international students, you might want to consider researching top schools for international students,” says IvyWise counselor Tasha. Some avenues of research may include: 

  • Institute of International Education Open Doors: The IIE, a research and partnerships organization that works to facilitate international education, publishes an annual report called Open Doors. International students can do research by reading Open Doors data, including the “Leading Institutions” section of the report, which shows the top institutions that international students are attending. You might be surprised to see several schools on that list that you may have never heard of! 
  • International student and international admissions websites: Most universities have an international student office that is sometimes associated with immigration processing or with their office of admissions. Reach out and ask if you can speak to either a staff member or a current international student about support for international students on campus. 
  • International student ambassador programs: Some universities have international student ambassador programs connecting current international students with prospective international students. This is a great way to make a personal connection and learn more about how you might fit in as an international student. Sometimes, you may even get the chance to speak to a current student from your country or a current student majoring in your area of interest. Take advantage of any opportunity to connect with current international students to learn about their experiences on the college campus. 

What International Students Should Look for in Colleges 

 We can’t stress enough the importance of fit when it comes to creating your college list. After all, you are moving far away from your family and friends — you want to ensure that you’re attending a college or university where you can thrive and be successful. IvyWise college counselor Katie suggests looking beyond the top-ranked schools. “By limiting themselves to only colleges that top rankings lists, international students miss out on so many fantastic schools that might offer a more specialized major that combines several interests, or maybe has a campus culture that matches better with who they are,” she says.   

These questions should help guide you in your search: 

What Do You Want to Study? 

Without a doubt, one of the most crucial factors you should be considering when deciding where to go to college is what you want to study. Students should prioritize academic offerings and interests above most other factors, including libraries, research facilities, and other resources that support your learning. Your balanced college list should only include schools that meet your academic goals and interests. 

What Type of Campus Culture Appeals to You? 

Of course, college isn’t just about academics. The social aspects of college life can make a huge difference in your emotional well-being and further develop your professional and academic skills. You have opportunities to participate in a wide variety of campus activities and events, meet diverse groups of people, and get involved in organizations and clubs. Do you want to live on a small campus with a close-knit community, or are you looking for a larger campus that offers a broad range of experiences? This is another important part of campus life in the U.S., so it’s worth doing your due diligence.  

What Do You Want to Do After College? 

As an international student, you will have some choices to make after you graduate. Most students will get the chance to stay and work in the U.S. for a specified period. However, many students return to their home countries or begin their professional lives in another country altogether.  

When building your balanced college list, it is a good idea to consider where you want to be after college. Some colleges and universities may provide more opportunities for career advancement in the U.S., while others may have better academic and career programs geared toward international contexts. These are important topics to research before applying to college.  

Thousands of universities want to build diverse student populations and part of this is welcoming more international students to their campuses. Ultimately, as an international student, you have many exciting options. 

4 Tips for International Students Applying to U.S. Colleges

1. Research

Do your homework! There are so many great universities in the U.S. that you may have never heard of that could be a great fit for you. Take a virtual tour of the schools that interest you, and even plan an in-person visit if you can. 

Many U.S. colleges also offer international families and student resources online, and on-campus, including an office for International Student Services or International Student Affairs. These offices do everything from sponsoring events for international students to socialize, to providing guidance on issues such as immigration, visas, and health insurance. 

2. Let Colleges Know You Want to Attend!

Visiting, contacting international student offices for information, and engaging with prospective schools on social media also shows your demonstrated interest as an international applicant. Your level of demonstrated interest is often considered during the admissions process and can help your chances of getting in. Colleges want to admit students who are interested in them and really want to attend their school!

3. Emphasize Your Diverse Background 

Colleges like the perspective multinational or multicultural students bring to the classroom. Take advantage of the personal statement and supplemental essays to highlight what makes you different from other students at your school and articulate how you stand out from other applicants.  

Also, don’t forget to explain why you have a desire to study in the U.S. — be specific and avoid clichés. These ideas may help: 

  • Mention details unique to each university you’re applying to that make you excited about studying there (e.g., academic programs, professors, research facilities, etc.). 
  • Highlight personal experiences that shaped your decision to study in the U.S.   
  • Articulate your academic and professional aspirations and how studying in the U.S. will help you achieve them. 
  • Discuss how studying in the U.S. can help you contribute to your home country or community. 
  • Talk about the cultural exchange aspect, not just in broad terms, but how engaging with diverse perspectives will enrich your personal and academic life. 

4. Tell Colleges if You Don’t Need Financial Aid

It’s much more difficult for international students who need financial assistance to get accepted. Therefore, if you don’t need financial aid, it’s important to clearly state this information in your application. Most college application forms, such as the Common Application, include a section where students are asked about their financial need. You can indicate in this section that you do not intend to apply for need-based financial aid. 

Other ways you can communicate this include: 

  • Mandatory financial aid forms or declarations (if applicable): Indicate on these forms that you do not need financial aid. 
  • Additional information or optional essay section: Include a statement informing the admissions committee that you do not require financial aid.  


As an international student, you do not qualify for federal or state aid. If you need financial aid, look into grants and scholarships offered by the colleges and universities to which you’re applying. Additionally, you may have to fill out the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) or the CSS Profile, which is common for private universities. It’s important to check the requirements of each institution to ensure you submit the correct documents for financial aid.  

For international students, studying in the U.S. can be a life-changing experience. Working with a private college admissions counselor can help demystify the process and increase your chances of success. IvyWise counselors have helped numerous international students get into best-fit U.S. college programs. Learn how we can help you achieve your academic goals.  

Contact Us


Related Topics

International Students
Sign Up for the IvyWise Newsletter
 简体中文 »
close wechat qr code