Gauge Goals, Dreams to Find the Right U.S. College

Prospective international students should keep their goals in mind to find a good fit at a U.S. college.

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Know yourself and what you hope to get out of studying in the U.S. as you research colleges.

For many international students who wish to study in the U.S., now is the time you need to begin thinking about where you are going to apply.

If you are going to the U.S. for a semester or for a year of study, then you should expect to receive guidance from the people organizing your exchange. If, however, you are going into this experience solo, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin researching the vast array of American colleges, and find out what is the right place for you.

Start by asking people in the know. If your home university works on exchange programs with American colleges and you're hoping to make an exchange, it's always useful to network with older students who have previously been out there. If there are students from your hometown who have studied in the U.S., get in touch to find out about their experiences.

[See an infographic about international students in the U.S.]

If you're planning an exchange program, speak with exchange program alumni and with any American students who might have visited your home university. They'll be able to offer you advice and information about their experiences that might be useful to you.

When applying to schools, think about what you want to get out of the experience. The school system can be very different from the system in your home country. Some people claim to find American study easier than other international forms, but this is not necessarily the case.

Some schools will have a very strong academic drive, while others will have a more relaxed atmosphere, so you should take this into account as you research colleges and universities. Many colleges excel in specific areas, whether it is research, arts or sciences, so you should start thinking about what you want to major in and look into schools that specialize in your interests to find the right college fit.

Remember that just because a college doesn't have a big name, it doesn't mean it's a bad institution. You may find a good fit at a place you'd never heard of. There are online resources and college guides you can tap into that rank and provide information about colleges around America.

[Learn where international students get the most financial aid.]

Make sure you're researching the whole package, not just the college. Know yourself and what you are looking to get out of your time in America when you are applying to your college.

Every school is going to be unique in what it offers its students, so it's worth asking yourselves some questions like: Do you want to attend a school with a very large community of international students, or immerse yourself in American culture by being one of a select few?

[Avoid these common U.S. college admissions mistakes.]

Of course everyone wants a valuable learning experience. But beyond that, do you want to be part of a fast-paced city experience with a lively nightlife, somewhere secluded in the country or some middle ground in between the two?

You may think that it's the school itself that's the most important factor, and to some degree that's true. But the environment you're living in will have a big effect on your experience in America, so make sure you take it into account. I've known several international students who had their experiences in America ruined by being in a place they didn't enjoy.

It seems daunting but sometimes beginning this important research process can be as simple as asking yourself: Is there anywhere in America you've always really wanted to visit? What piqued my interest in Berkeley was a dream of living in San Francisco. If you're feeling unsure about the school itself, start with a place you've always wanted to visit and work from there.

Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, studied at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.