College Application Checklist for International Students

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By Shorelight Team
Last updated on July 11, 2023

Get ready to study abroad in the USA with our college application checklist.

Now that you have decided to study in the USA, you may be tempted to jump right into the college application process. But before you get started, it is important to know which documents and standardized test scores US universities require in order to process your college application. 

Take a moment to review our international student college application checklist — think of it as your first step to studying abroad in the United States!

How Is the College Application Process Different for International Students?

While many parts of the college application process are similar for all students, there are several unique considerations for international students. 

US universities require that your high school transcript be submitted in English, so you may need a certified translation if the original is in another language. Plan on having any other documents you submit, such as your letters of recommendation, also getting a certified English translation.

Additionally, if your secondary education school did not primarily teach in English, you may be required to complete an English language proficiency test and/or additional standardized tests. Depending on the university you are applying to, you need to achieve a specific minimum score on these tests to successfully enroll in your preferred degree program.

Lastly, as an international student, you may not have access to some forms of US financial aid, such as PLUS Loans or Federal Student Aid. You may still qualify for other financial aid options, such as grants or scholarships, based on your field of study and academic performance. If you want to apply for any financial aid, you will need to prepare any necessary documentation alongside your university admission application.

Each university has its own application process and, depending on the program where you want to enroll, the specific process may vary. Remember to clarify the application process with a university or Shorelight advisor so you can prepare everything that’s required. 

How Long Does the College Application Process Take?

The exact time it takes to complete a US college application process depends on each university’s requirements. Some universities may require international students to take specialized tests and/or participate in a credential evaluation, among other steps, which can make the process longer. (Similarly, some institutions may waive certain standardized tests which can make the process faster. Speak with a Shorelight advisor for expert guidance.) 

With so many different factors that can affect the college application process, preparing an applying to college checklist can help you understand how to prepare for applying to college.

College Application Checklist

By preparing a college application process checklist, you can create an organized plan to work through a US college application process without needing to rush. 

The first step in creating a college application process checklist is to finalize the list of institutions where you want to apply. Then, create a list of common parts of a university application, such as:

  1. School transcripts

  2. Application deadlines

  3. Required financial documents

  4. Financial aid options

  5. English test scores

  6. SAT/ACT test scores

  7. Personal statements or essays

  8. Letters of recommendation

  9. Passport requirements

  10. Application fees

School Transcripts

Many universities include your high school or secondary school transcript as part of the requirements to apply for college. Your transcript shows whether you have the necessary academic foundation to enroll in your preferred degree program. While applicants to undergraduate programs are not expected to have advanced qualifications, if you have applied for a specialized program, the university may look for prior courses or credentials in a similar field, like a particular course of study or relevant extracurricular activities (e.g., specific STEM courses, student clubs, etc.). Graduate programs often prioritize the bachelor’s degree you have earned and usually request post-secondary transcripts.

You may also be required to convert your grades to a grade point average (GPA), the most commonly used academic grading system in the US. Working with a credential evaluator can get these conversions, and they may also be able to translate your documents into English if necessary. When choosing a credential evaluator, make sure they are a certified evaluator with an accredited organization such as the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services, for example.

Know Your Deadlines

When preparing your applying to college checklist, remember to note down application deadlines for the universities you are considering. Each university and program will have its own deadlines and enrollment periods. Most universities offer both a fall and spring enrollment, and some may also offer summer enrollments. Depending on the university, you may also be able to study virtually.

Some of the required documents (such as academic records, bank statements, or letters of recommendation) can take a significant amount of time to collect, so it is important to make sure you know application deadlines for the universities you want to apply to and start preparing well in advance. 

Organize Your Financial Documents

As part of the US college application process, you need to submit financial documents that demonstrate your ability to pay for your program. While you are not expected to pay the total cost of the program immediately, these documents show that you have the required funds to meet expected costs over time. 

Additionally, many universities require a certificate of financial responsibility and/or proof of available funds, which includes a bank statement or list of assets. Depending on your personal circumstances, these documents can take time to collect from your bank, and it is important to start this process early (especially if you are receiving financial aid for international students).

Financial Aid

Financial aid refers to any grant, sponsorship, or funding you receive that helps pay for costs associated with your US university degree. Funding typically comes from third-party organizations (like a foundation) or even from your university, if you meet its requirements for a scholarship. 

As financial aid involves non-personal funding, there are specific forms to complete that will be different for each university. Additionally, coordinating with your sponsor can significantly lengthen the time it takes to gather the necessary documents, so be sure to factor this extra time into your university application deadlines. 

English Test Scores

Most US universities require you to take one of the major English language tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), International Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) exam. There is no ‘best’ option for English exams — most US universities accept these three exams, as well as several other options, such as the iTEP exam and PTE academic.

Though each exam aims to grade your skill in English in similar ways, there are some differences: For example, the IELTS requires you to have a face-to-face interview as part of the exam, which the TOEFL does not have. Instead, the TOEFL has more emphasis on writing out your answers at length to questions. Knowing which types of exam formats you prefer (and excel at), then matching that format to a corresponding English exam, can help you decide which test to take. 

Test Scores: SAT / ACT

In addition to your English language test, you may be required to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT). The SAT consists of reading, writing, essay, and math sections, while the ACT contains reading, writing, essay, math, and science sections. 

Both exams evaluate your academic performance, and you are only required to complete one exam as part of the US college application process. To help decide which exam you should take, consider your personal strengths and preferences — the SAT is more suited to students who are skilled in numerics, while the ACT may be better for students who prefer verbal/written reasoning.

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the test in advance of your university application deadlines. Also, be sure to review all SAT and ACT requirements with your prospective university before you schedule your tests. 

Our SAT vs ACT guide can help you learn more about each of these exams. 

Personal Statements or Essay

One of the ways colleges and universities get to know you as a student is through your personal statement or essay. Your application essay contains personal information about you such as your reason for choosing the program, why you want to study in the US, your goals and plans, and your motivations. This helps universities and colleges determine if you are a good fit.

Some schools allow you to answer a common application essay question, or one that’s used for multiple US college applications. Others require you to answer a unique question. When writing, remember to be genuine and display your personal perspective. Make sure you have addressed required areas, and proofread the document to make sure it is error-free.

Letters of Recommendation

Most schools require you to submit letters of recommendation as part of the application process. A letter of recommendation is a written statement from an individual with authority that highlights your personal, professional, and academic qualities and why you would be a good fit for your preferred program. 

Recommendation letters help institutions gain an objective understanding of who you are through another person’s perspective. Your letter of recommendation should come from someone who has experience working with and/or teaching you and it should give an honest account of who you are to the university or college. Keep in mind that your recommendation letters have to be in English or translated to English before you submit them to your schools.

Resume and CV

Depending on the program you have chosen, your university may require you to document your extracurricular, work, and volunteer experience in the form of a resume or CV. Some programs have a mandatory internship or assistantship component which gives you the opportunity to gain real working experience, and these also require you to have a cover letter and resume or CV. You may also need a resume or CV for certain volunteer and extracurricular activities at your university.

Resumes are expected to be one page long and should highlight your skills, education, and career experience, along with any awards or other notable achievements. CVs are less common in the US, but can be required for academic or research-based careers, such as teaching. A CV highlights your skills, education, career experience, awards, and achievements in two or three pages, which gives you more room to add detail if you have extensive experience.


This is one of the most important items to add to your college application process checklist. Without a valid passport, you will not be able to enter the US. In addition, if your passport is not up to date, then the school you are applying to will not be able to issue your I-20 form. You need an I-20 before you can get your student visa. Since this can take some time, you should start the passport application process right away if you do not already have a passport or if yours is expired.

Money for Application Fees

The average 2021 US college application fee ranges from $40-75 USD (The College Post) and will vary between universities. (Note that some universities may waive the application fee. Speak with a Shorelight advisor for details.) Research how much your schools charge as part of your college application process checklist so you can plan in advance.

Preparing a college application process checklist alone can be challenging, but with the help of a Shorelight advisor, you are never alone! With your advisor, learn more about how to apply to college in the US, plus get help with choosing the right university and application assistance. Advisors can also support you when you apply for your F-1 visa, give you resume tips, and more. 

Ready to apply to a Shorelight university? Talk to an advisor today >