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Guidance for International Students on College Applications

If you are an international student hoping to study in the USA, you may find the application process a little overwhelming. Luckily, there are many universities and colleges looking to enroll international students like you – and Shorelight can help with college admission assistance. If you need guidance in deciding which US university is right for you, a Shorelight enrollment counselor can answer all your questions about the application process, documents required, and more.

Read on to learn more about the US college application process for international students, including timelines, requirements, tips, and how Shorelight can help you.

US College Application Process for International Students

To take the first step toward studying in the US, think about your goals, what you want to study, and the types of experiences you want to have in the US. Using this information, you can narrow down your search and only look at the specific universities or colleges that fit you best.

For example, if you want to study engineering or computer science, you can start your search by looking at universities and colleges that are known for these programs. You can also research top-ranked STEM schools on U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review. Make sure to double-check if the universities or colleges you are interested in are accredited by the U.S. Department of Education.

Once you have made a list of institutions with programs that will help you work toward your personal goals, you can start applying!

Here are a few steps to keep in mind:

1. First, remember to keep your options open when applying to study in the US. In case you don’t get accepted to your first-choice school, you will still have plenty of great options to choose from.

Each institution has its own application form for you to fill out and all US universities which accept international students give you the option to apply online through their website. Keep in mind that many US institutions charge an application fee. You may also be able to apply via a standardized application that multiple schools use, such as the Common App. (Additionally, you may be able to simplify the application and fees process when you apply to Shorelight universities. Speak to a Shorelight counselor to learn more.)

Depending on which university or college you apply to, you will need to provide different types of information (e.g., personal background, essays, etc.) and documentation (e.g., transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation). To fully understand the requirements, speak to the institution’s admissions office or get in touch with a Shorelight advisor.

2. Many US universities and programs require you to take certain admission exams and achieve a specific score to enroll in a degree program. These examinations are available at specialized test centers in your country, or can be taken online.

When you register for the examinations, you will usually be asked to provide the names of the institutions you are applying to, and your test scores will be sent directly to them. Make sure to research testing centers before you register to make sure they provide up-to-date and certified examinations that are accepted by US colleges and universities.

When you apply to a US university or college, you may be given an estimation of when you will receive a response. Many universities inform you several months after their deadlines, some may inform you shortly after receiving your application.

If you receive multiple offers of admission, carefully review each of your options and choose the institution that suits your personal objectives the best.

By applying through Shorelight, you benefit from college admission assistance. Our universities have simplified the application process for international students and often waive the application fee.

You will work directly with Shorelight education advisors who will help you with the application process: how to apply for university in the US, review the specific admissions requirements, and what you need to do to complete your application on time.

Undergraduate vs Graduate Applications

While the application process is similar for the undergraduate and graduate application for international students, there are some key differences.

Undergraduate programs do not require work experience and only need some foundational courses for certain fields (such as accounting, computer science, or biology). As graduate programs are mostly aimed at experienced individuals, the application requirements for some graduate programs may require students to have earned a specific undergraduate degree, completed prerequisite coursework, or have working experience in a related field. Prospective graduate students may also be required to submit a resume in their application.

Another key difference is the admission selection; undergraduate programs tend to provide an introduction into specialized fields, which make them more accessible, resulting in many applicants for a larger enrollment. With graduate programs being significantly more specialized, there are fewer applicants and class sizes tend to be smaller, so the admission process is more selective.

While some universities allow you to apply for an undergraduate program while you are undecided on a major, you need to select a specialization in a specific field to apply for most graduate programs. As a result, graduate programs require students to submit certain standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

US College Application Timeline

The best time for you to prepare your application depends on when you want to start your studies. Universities and colleges in the US usually offer two main academic terms: Spring terms run from January to May and Fall terms (also known as Autumn) run from mid-August or September to December. Some universities also offer short Summer terms between June and July.

While each US university and college will have different dates for applying to programs, application submissions are usually open and accepted 10 months before the program starts. Plan accordingly for your own applications: It can be helpful to start preparing to apply at least 10 months before application submission deadlines.

Depending on how many universities you are considering, it can take weeks or even months to research all your options and prepare your applications. By starting well in advance, you can give yourself time to evaluate all your options and apply without rushing.

Make sure you are aware of the application for international students’ deadlines for programs you are considering and factor in the waiting time for the results of your required tests and supporting documents. Planning in advance helps you meet all set deadlines so (ideally) you can enroll in the semester of your choice.

US College Application Requirements for International Students

The required documents for your international college application depend on the institute you are applying to, the program, and whether you are applying as an undergraduate or graduate. These documents need to be submitted with your application as part of the admissions process. 

For undergraduate programs, you will usually be required to submit:

  • Test scores such as SAT, ACT, TOEFL, or IELTS

  • Academic transcripts

  • A personal essay

  • One or more letters of recommendation

  • A copy of your valid passport

Graduate programs typically require:

  • ​​Test scores such as GRE/GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS, iTEP, or PTE Academic

  • Academic transcripts from your bachelor’s degree studies

  • A statement of purpose

  • Research proposal

  • Letters of recommendation from professors

  • Copy of your valid passport

  • Proof of funding for your program

Types of Tests Required

For both undergraduate and graduate programs, you will be required to achieve the minimum scores listed by the program where you hope to enroll. Undergraduate students usually have to complete a few general tests, while graduate students may have more specialized tests, depending on the program.

English Tests

These tests can usually be taken at certified English language centers in your country. The three main types of English tests accepted by US universities are: 

  • C1 Advanced

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

  • International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS)

You should also check to see if online English language exams, such as iTEP International and Duolingo, are accepted by the universities you are applying to. Online English language exams can offer more affordable and flexible options to meet this admissions testing requirement. 

These tests examine a student’s listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in English. Both undergraduate and graduate students need to achieve a certain score in one of these tests as a mandatory part of the application process. 

Want to learn more about TOEFL or IELTS and other English tests? A Shorelight enrollment advisor is always ready to help with college application assistance.

Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are used to measure a student’s current academic performance. Most undergraduate students are required to achieve a specific score for either the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) exam.

Graduate students are required to provide GRE/GMAT scores, depending on what they are studying. The GRE is often required for liberal arts courses, such as science or math, while the GMAT is required for business-related courses such as a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). Some universities allow graduate students to apply without a required GRE/GMAT, so be sure to confirm the program’s requirements. 

Graduate students may be required to take additional tests depending on their specialization, such as:

  • Dental Admission Testing Program (DAT)

  • Law School Admission Testing Program (LSAT)

  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

  • Optometry Admission Testing Program (OAT)

  • Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)

Test Prep

When preparing for your tests, understand the format and timing for questions in each examination. For example, while English language tests tend to measure the same skills, each exam has different types of questions (short answer, essays, multiple choice) and have different time limits.

Knowing the format and timing helps you understand the areas you need to focus on studying and prepares you to answer each question on time. Many institutions that issue these tests also offer dedicated study guides and tips on their websites for each of their respective tests. Some also offer practice tests and sample questions — these are great resources you can use for your preparation. 

Our guides for undergraduate and graduate standardized tests can help you learn more about each of these tests and the best ways you can prepare.

Application Essays

As part of the admission process, you may be required to write an essay or personal statement. The topic you have to write about depends on the school you are applying to, and some universities may give you the option to choose your own topic.

One of the most common requirements is for you to write about yourself and your interest in the program you want to attend. In this case, your essay should convey unique, interesting, and informative details about yourself to help you stand out from other applicants. 

Credential Evaluators 

Credential evaluators are agencies that evaluate your application documents to ensure they are legitimate and acceptable by the university where you are applying for admission. Some universities may ask you to evaluate the documents you are submitting through these evaluators before sending your international college application.

There are usually two types of academic credential evaluations:

  1. Course-by-course credential evaluation—The agency reviews your diplomas, certificates, and school transcripts. After reviewing, they create a detailed report about your overall academic performance and credit hours.

  2. Educational credential evaluation (document by document)—The agency lists the educational institutions you have attended and the credentials you earned in your own country, and states the equivalent US qualification.

When researching credential evaluators, make sure to confirm the legitimacy of their evaluation and if it satisfies your university’s requirements. Keep in mind that your credential evaluation can take time, so consider this extra step in relation to the university’s application deadline.

Application Fees

Application fees are different based on the school and whether you are using a standardized application. For example, many Shorelight universities do not require you to pay an application fee. 

The average application fee charged by US universities and colleges was $44 in 2020, but some universities charged as much as $100 (U.S. News & World Report). Remember to check the application fee with the university’s admission office or advisor before you apply. 

Financial Aid Assistance

When you are choosing the universities you want to attend, do not limit your options based on cost! Many universities offer financial aid with funding support for your studies in the US, including directly funding a part of your education, your daily expenses, and more. 

Financial aid such as grants can come from both federal and state governments, or the institution you attend. Some colleges and universities can also help you find student loans specifically for international students. Keep in mind the terms and conditions for financial aid are different based on where the institution is located and their own policies regarding financial aid. Carefully research each option and request more information from the university or college before you make a final choice.


Many US universities and colleges also offer different types of scholarships, assistantships, or fellowships if you can maintain certain requirements, for example, a high grade point average (GPA). 

Both undergraduate and graduate students can access a wide variety of scholarships, including  general options, available across all programs, or specific scholarships that only apply to certain programs and disciplines (e.g., art, STEM, athletics). 

Scholarships are also available from local institutions and organizations outside of the university or college you attend, and there are many types available, including academic, sports, and need-based scholarships.

Accepting a US College Admissions Offer

When you have been accepted by one or more of the universities you have applied to, you will need to compare your options and make your final choice. The admissions letter you receive will give you instructions on how you can accept your enrollment, whether you need to submit a deposit to secure your placement, and any additional paperwork you may need to submit.

Once you confirm your acceptance, inform the university, and pay your deposit, you will receive an admission letter or email with important information for your next steps. This includes the I-20 or DS-2019 form needed for your student visa, and the date you should arrive on campus.

With the international students college admission assistance available through Shorelight, our advisors work with you to help you confirm your enrollment and complete the documents required to obtain your visa, such as the certificate of finance and your bank statements, and prepare you for your visa interview.

Student Visa Requirements

After you decide where you want to study and accept an admission offer, the next step is to obtain your student visa. Depending on the program you have applied for, you can choose from either a F-1, J-1, or M-1 visa:

  • F-1: for students who want to enter the US and study at institutions certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) with funding from friends, family, or themselves.

  • J-1: for students enrolled in study- and work-related exchange programs at US institutions approved by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, with funding from an educational or nonprofit sponsor.

  • M-1: for students participating in vocational studies at institutes certified by the SEVP.

To learn more about these types of visas and the conditions they carry, visit

With your I-20 or DS-2019 form, you can apply for your chosen student visa:

  1. Pay a $350 SEVIS I-901 fee online (keep the electronic SEVIS fee receipt)

  2. Apply for your student visa

  3. Schedule your visa interview at the US embassy or consulate

  4. Complete the interview

To apply for your student visas, you will need to prepare the following documents:

  • For F-1 visa: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students, Form I-20

  • For J-1 visa: Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status, Form DS-2019

  • For M-1 visa: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students, Form I-20

  • Your valid passport

  • A copy of the photo used for your visa

  • DS-160 and I-901 SEVIS payment receipts can help you learn more about the student visa process and its requirements.

Once you receive your student visa, it is time to prepare for your journey for higher education in the US.

Get help with your F-1 student visa >

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College Admissions Assistance FAQs

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    What is college admission assistance?

    College admission assistance helps international students apply to US higher education institutions. Through college admission assistance services, learn more about US universities, college application requirements, how you can prepare to apply, and seek guidance from an advisor at any stage of the application process.

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    How does Shorelight help with college applications?

    Your personal enrollment advisor supports you through every step of the application process. They will help you research university options, select your degree major, decide which English and standardized tests you need to take, help you prepare an application checklist, and more.

    You can also work together and explore your options for financial aid and review your application. They will also help you finalize your enrollment, and advise you on the required information and documentation you need.

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    What is the college application process like for international students?

    US universities and colleges require international students to provide different types of documents and paperwork with their international college application. Shorelight enrollment advisors know the application requirements for each university and will help gather important paperwork such as school transcripts, test scores, and bank statements. 

    With your advisor’s help, you can begin preparing your applications early and submit your required documents to universities and colleges on time.

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    How do international students choose a US college?

    When choosing the ideal US university or college to study, consider your interests and goals. Your dedicated Shorelight advisor works closely with you and helps you research universities and programs that will help you grow and thrive as you work toward your dream school and/or academic plan.

    Programs at Shorelight universities are designed especially for international students. Your advisor will help you choose universities that offer opportunities to conduct research with the support of expert professors, connect with industry professionals in the US, and gain real-world working experience.

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    Should international students apply to multiple colleges?

    Applying to multiple colleges and universities gives you several options when you start receiving admission offers. Additionally, each college and university can only receive a limited number of students. By applying to multiple institutions, you can improve your chances of securing a place at a university of your choice and starting your degree on time.

    US universities and colleges also offer different types of financial aid, including scholarships. When you receive multiple admission offers from institutions you have applied to, you can compare financial aid options to narrow your options further. The average university acceptance rate for international students is 45%, but some institutions accept up to 99% of international applications!

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    What other services does Shorelight offer international students?

    Along with college application assistance, Shorelight helps you learn how to study in the USA and provides a wide range of services designed to help international students. 

    Shorelight offers services such as: 

    • F-1 student visa services

    • Support in choosing a program and major

    • Pre- and post-arrival support for transitioning to life on campus

    • Academic and English language support

    • Career counseling and career development advising