What Are Some Tips for International Students Applying to U.S. Colleges?

Students applying from other countries have some unique things to keep in mind.

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College admissions is a tough game. Even the most proactive, organized, and prepared students need help with their applications, essays, and financial aid forms. Add the complexities of applying to colleges from another country, and the process can become downright unbearable. This week, we ask:

Q: What are some tips for international students to keep in mind and how are they evaluated compared to U.S. students?

A: Three things matter for U.S.-aspiring international students.

Steve Loflin, founder and CEO, National Society of Collegiate Scholars Extracurricular activities matter more than you think. U.S. colleges look for well-rounded students and grades are not enough. Showcase anything you've done outside of classes, from volunteering to work part time, or playing an instrument.

SAT scores matter. Unless you studied an internationally recognized curriculum, odds are that universities will have a hard time interpreting what your transcripts mean. Whether they admit it or not, schools will use the SATs to evaluate whether you have the academic chops to be at that school.

Finally, do well on the TOEFL or IELTS exams. International students' English-speaking abilities are scrutinized because it affects how well you can participate in class and keep up with the work. Universities want to know that you are an advanced English speaker.

A: It's a tough ball game for international students.

Michele Hernandez, president and founder, HernandezCollegeConsulting.com and ApplicationBootCamp.com International students need to realize that they can't simply look at overall admissions stats to determine their odds because most schools limit the international student population to 10 percent of the overall class. Even though colleges don't admit to quotas, these numbers don't vary much year to year, so they are what I would call virtual quotas. If you look at a school that has a 20 percent overall admissions rate, the admit rate for international students is likely to be closer to 5 percent—not to mention the fact that international students compete with other international students from 80-plus different countries, plus their own country. Schools might receive 300 applicants from China and then accept two or three!

Therefore, students should focus on lesser-known "name brand" schools that all international students apply to, schools that don't receive as many applications from international students. Rural schools for instance or schools outside the Northeast tend to get fewer applicants from international students. Study the U.S.News & World Report list of top National Liberal Arts Colleges and focus on those more than just the Harvard University/Yale University/Princeton University-level schools that have super low acceptance rates.

[See which U.S. schools have the greatest percentages of international students.]

A: Global is in: It's a good time for international students.


James Montoya, vice president of higher education, The College Board The number of students crossing national borders to pursue higher education will likely triple in the next decade. The good news is that many American colleges and universities have recently expanded their international recruitment efforts, especially for "full-pay" students. International students who will require institutionally based financial aid should not waste their time applying to those colleges and universities not offering financial aid to international students.

[See some scholarship sources for international students.]

Since colleges and universities seek international students who will contribute both inside and outside the classroom, applicants should definitely highlight in their admission applications what they will bring to the campus academically, culturally, and socially.

[See U.S. News's glossary of key terms in higher education.]

A: Applying to U.S. colleges means global competition.


Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO, IvyWise and ApplyWise.com Here are some tips to help you stand out among a highly competitive global applicant pool:

  • Emphasize your diverse background. Colleges like the perspective multinational or multicultural students bring to the classroom.
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  • Highlight what makes you different from other students at your school and explain why you have a desire to study in America.
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  • Looking for a liberal arts education? Demonstrate an understanding of what that type of education means in America. It can differ from more vertical, professionally oriented college curriculum that may be offered at the universities in your home country.
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  • Don't need financial aid? Tell the college! It's much more difficult for international students who need financial assistance to get accepted.
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  • Take a practice ACT and SAT to see which test is right for you. Our international students have performed better on the ACT in many cases.
  • Also, don't just apply to a school because of its name. Visit the schools to which you plan to apply, in person or virtually, and make sure you can see yourself spending the next four years there.

    [Find the right school for you.]

    A: Know each university's specific requirements.


    S tacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign Education in the United States is not centralized nationally as it is in many countries, so it's important to note that admission requirements will vary greatly from one university to another. Your academic credentials will be evaluated differently by different universities. Be sure you understand those differences.

    In order to maximize your chances for admission, it is a good idea to complete a program of study that qualifies you for admission to selective universities in your home country. As an international student, you may have admission requirements in addition to those for national students, including proof of English proficiency.

    Visit the Unigo Expert Network for 25 more experts giving step by step directions for international applicants, and to have your own questions answered.