Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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How to Study in the US: A Guide for International Students

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Last updated on September 1, 2020

This step-by-step guide to studying in the USA helps you research American universities, decide where to apply, and understand the application, acceptance, and arrival processes.

A student and her professor looking at her laptop screen.

When you decide to study in the United States, you are making an incredible decision for your future and will be joining more than one million international students in the USA.

There are many reasons to study in America, including career support and cultural diversity, and you will find amazing choices as you search for the United States colleges and universities that are right for you. If you are an international student looking for help in making your college decision, keep reading—we will go over all the basics on how to apply to study at US colleges and universities.

First things first: Before we discuss the college application process, let’s go over the options for US higher education. In the United States, when students finish secondary school (usually around 18 years old), there are two possibilities if they want to go to college: they can study for an associate’s degree (two years) or a bachelor’s degree (typically four years). Then, if students want to continue their studies after getting a four-year bachelor’s degree, they can go on to graduate school. 

The options for graduate or post-graduate programs are a master’s degree (two years) and a doctorate (three or more years). While graduate master’s and doctorate programs are very focused on a specific academic subject, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are more general. For example, undergraduate students take fewer than half their total courses directly in their intended major (also known as their declared academic subject of study). 

Now, let’s go over how to apply.

Step 1: Research the best colleges and universities for you

Where to start your research to study in America

International students who want to study in the USA can start their research online at the U.S. Department of Education College Navigator site, where you can search for associate’s, bachelor’s, and advanced degrees (i.e., master’s and doctorates). (Pro tip: Give yourself extra time to go through its findings, because it is not the most user-friendly site.) Other sites, like College Board’s Big Future, provide ways to search for undergraduate US colleges and universities across many different categories. 

When beginning the college search, many foreign students are surprised to learn there are more than 4,000 accredited US colleges and universities. (Many American students are surprised to learn this, too!) If asked, many people can only name around 30 universities in the USA. 

You may know about specific United States colleges and universities from rankings, or because they are schools that your friends or family attended. As you research where to study in the United States, remember to keep an open mind, especially about schools that are new to you. There are hundreds of American universities where you can receive a high-quality education, even if you have never heard of them before.

Take a look at college rankings

College rankings are a common tool that foreign students can use to decide where to apply. While many countries have official government lists that rate the top universities in their own nations (e.g., league tables in the UK), in the United States, there are no public standardized college rankings. Instead, there are several private companies that measure and rank colleges in the USA.

One of the most recognizable ranking systems, U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, ranks universities and colleges in many categories, including Top Universities for International Students. Other popular college ranking lists include Forbes, The Princeton Review, and Times Higher Education. Foreign students can use rankings to see which colleges provide a quality education. But remember: rankings should not be the only criteria you use to choose a university.

Speak to a college advisor

Speaking to a US higher education expert is a great way to understand which colleges match your academic interests, personal preferences, and professional goals. Educational agents, if properly trained and certified by an external organization, can be good resources for international students seeking to study in the United States.  

EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network, has over 400 educational advising centers in more than 170 countries, so you can visit a center in or near your home region for more information. Additionally, Shorelight offers enrollment counselors to help foreign students find US universities that meet their needs. And, if there are college or university fairs in your city, town, or school featuring several US higher education institutions, try to attend them so you can meet these American universities’ representatives in person. 

Step 2: Decide where to apply

Undergraduate degrees

Think about the college experience

When you think about where to study in the USA, consider the kind of university experience in the United States you want. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Do I want to attend a large university or a small college?

  • Should I go to a public college or a private college?

  • Would I be happier at a college campus that is in the countryside, a small town, or a city?

  • What do I want to study?

  • Which types of campus activities and student organizations do I want to join?

How you answer these important questions will help you to make a truly informed decision, and keep these preferences in mind as you research colleges in the US.

You can also look at each college’s location in the US, climate (weather), tests required (academic standardized and English proficiency tests), costs, scholarships, international student services, campus facilities, and internships and job placement rates to target colleges and universities that meet your needs. 

Think about what you want to study

For many international students, your major (or the focus of your academic studies) might be the most important factor when choosing colleges to apply to in the United States. If you have multiple academic interests, you may be able to complete a double major at a particular college or university. Or, you may decide to add a minor (a secondary academic focus that requires about half the total classes taken for a major).

But if you are not sure about what you want to study in the USA, do not worry: In the United States, most students change their minds on what their major will be during their time in college, and 40% of undergraduate students begin their first year in college undecided about their major. 

Think about the cost of college

In the United States, the cost of college is charged by the year, and the yearly price covers college tuition, fees, living expenses, books and supplies, and health insurance. 

Simply put, studying at American universities is expensive. But what is different about paying for college in the United States is that there may be academic, athletic, artistic, and even service-based scholarships available, or need-based financial aid (like grants for international students), depending on the university or college. With your family, you will need to determine how much you can afford each year to support your study in the United States.

When it comes to paying for college, do not rule out certain universities based on their total costs. Check and see if those pricey colleges offer any financial aid for international students to help cover expenses.

Graduate or post-graduate degrees

For foreign students who have completed their bachelor’s degrees, searching for graduate or post-graduate programs is a simpler process compared to international undergraduate students. After all, you already know exactly which academic subject will be the focus of your advanced degree. 

Look at academics and the application process for your graduate degree

For graduate program rankings, there are listings like U.S. News & World Report’s Best Graduate Schools that can help you identify quality degree programs. But just like undergraduate degrees, you will want to look beyond the rankings and ask yourself some key questions:

  • When can I start my graduate degree program? Does the university bring in new students in the fall (August-September), spring (January-February), or even the summer (May-June)?

  • Will the application require any standardized tests, like the GRE or GMAT?

  • Is graduate student or married student housing available on campus?

  • Can I get an internship or co-op while in the program?

  • Are there support services for international students?

Look closely at the academic department that interests you: see which concentrations in your discipline are possible, and identify faculty members with similar research interests who could serve as potential mentors or advisors.  You will also want to know how many new students are admitted and enroll each year.

Look at the cost of your graduate degree

While graduate programs are generally shorter than undergraduate studies (e.g., one to two years for master’s degrees, three or more years for doctoral programs), the costs are similar, and maybe even less per year. Most foreign students getting a graduate degree either fund their own education or receive some financial assistance from the universities they plan to attend. 

If you know you will have limited funds to pay for your graduate or post-graduate degree(s), make sure to ask the graduate school offices at the colleges where you apply about the kinds of scholarships, assistantships, and fellowships that are available to new international students. If you are applying for a master’s degree program, there may be academic merit scholarships and/or graduate assistantships. For doctoral programs, funding assistantships and fellowships could be in place. 

Step 3: Apply to your dream college 

Undergraduate student applications

As many international students learn about the application requirements for each college, it soon becomes clear that the process of applying to study in the USA is very different from applying to colleges back home. In fact, every American university has its own admissions criteria. So, how do you make sense of it all?

At this point, you may have a short list of colleges where you want to apply—ideally, around 5-10 universities in the United States. You know which standardized tests are required, the costs to attend, and any financial assistance that might be available. 

In general, American universities require the following from international student applicants:

Some colleges and universities may also require proof of financing for international students. (You can find more details on college application requirements by reading Shorelight’s college application checklist for international students.) Additionally, some more competitive colleges may require an interview, which you can do with staff or alumni living abroad.

As to how to apply to study at United States colleges and universities, applications can be completed online either through each school’s own website or through a third-party system like the Common App (which nearly 900 colleges accept).

If you are considering a Shorelight partner university in the US, there is a separate online application you can use to apply directly to one or more colleges or universities, and many do not require foreign students to submit an essay or SAT/ACT scores.

Keep in mind that college application deadlines are important. For more selective colleges that admit students through early action or early decision, you may need to submit your applications by November or December. (Note: The only drawback to early decision is that you can only apply to one college this way and you must agree to attend that college if you are admitted.)

All US colleges and universities will admit the majority of their applicants through either regular admissions deadlines in January or February (for August/September entry) or on rolling admissions where decisions are made as completed applications come into the college.

​​Graduate student applications

For graduate or post-graduate international applicants, the “how to apply” process can be different for each program at the same US college or university, and may even be different for master’s degrees versus doctoral programs in the same department. So, be sure to pay very close attention to the details you receive in any communications from those departments or what is posted on their websites. 

It is critical that you meet the application deadlines for the graduate programs that interest you. For many doctoral programs, applicants are only considered for fall entry (August/September) and have application deadlines between December and February. If you miss the application deadline, you may have to wait a whole year before you can apply again.

Application requirements for international students applying to graduate programs are similar to undergraduate programs, with a few important differences. Here is what you may need:

  • ​​Academic transcripts from your bachelor’s degree studies

  • ​​Test scores

    • GRE/GMAT

    • TOEFL, IELTS, iTEP, or PTE Academic

  • Statement of purpose

  • Research proposal

  • Recommendations from professors

  • Valid passport

  • Proof of finances—unless you apply separately for assistantships or fellowships, you will need to show funding to cover the full cost of your education (subtracting any available scholarships)

If your master’s or doctoral program is highly regarded, applicants may be required to do either an on-campus or video interview (via Skype or similar) with the program’s admissions committee. Be prepared!

And just like with undergraduate applications, all US colleges and universities accept graduate applications online, typically through their own websites. There is no Common App for graduate applicants.

If you are considering any Shorelight partner universities for either master’s or doctoral degrees, there is a streamlined online application process that may not require a GRE, GMAT, or Statement of Purpose to be considered for admission. 

Once your application has been completed and all supporting materials received, you will generally get an email or letter notifying you when decisions are made and when you can expect to hear about next steps.

Step 4: Accept your offer and make your final decision

If you are applying for undergraduate study in the USA, it is so exciting to get good news from at least one of the colleges or universities you applied to and learn that you have been admitted. For early decision colleges, you learn whether you are admitted before January 1. If you have applied to an undergraduate institution that has a deadline in January or February, you will typically find out in late March or early April if you got in. For other institutions that offer rolling admissions, depending on when you applied, you will likely be notified of the college’s decision within a few weeks. 

International graduate or post-graduate applicants will fall into either regular decision or rolling admissions timelines for being notified about acceptance. 

If you have multiple offers of admission, congratulations! Now it is time for your big decision on where to study in America. It is helpful to go back to the criteria you used when deciding where to apply to colleges. There were probably at least one or two universities that stood out from the others, places that you felt would be good matches for what you were looking for in a US college or university. Think about what you have learned since applying—any interactions with representatives, students, or recent graduates—and what you know about life on those campuses. If you can, seek out current students, ideally from your home country, to get their opinions as you make your final decision. 

Of course, for many families, choosing where to attend university in the United States will involve a discussion on funding. If you get more financial help from one college and your net cost of education would be much lower than anywhere else, that may be the place to go. In the end, however, you are the one who has to live, eat, study, and thrive at the college or university you choose. The goal is to find the institution that fits you best across multiple criteria.

Once you have made your decision, go back to your admission letter or email. It will have next steps to accept your offer, how to receive the I-20 form needed to apply for your student visa, and the dates to arrive on campus for the beginning of classes. For many US colleges, a tuition (and possibly housing) deposit is required by a specific deadline to secure your place. After that deadline, you could lose your spot at that college if you have not paid your deposit. 

Step 5: Apply for your F-1 student visa

Once you have made the all-important decision of where to study in the US, the next step is getting your visa. While there will be some nervous moments ahead as you prepare for your eventual visa interview at the US embassy or consulate nearest you, follow these tips to apply with confidence.

The I-20 document, also known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status, begins the student visa process. Produced by the US colleges and universities that admit and enroll international students, the I-20 comes from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS was created in 2003 to serve as the central clearinghouse for all F, M, and J visa students and exchange visitors who study in the United States. This important document contains much of the personal information about you (full name, birthdate, SEVIS ID numbers, academic program, English proficiency standard, start date, and funding sources).

Some colleges will send you an I-20 with your admission letter, especially if you have documented that you have the funding available for at least one year of academic study and are not required to pay a deposit. Other US universities will only send an I-20 after funding is documented, any institutional financial awards are made, and a deposit is paid. 

Once you have received the I-20 from your college or university, there are four important steps you must complete:

  1. Pay a $350 SEVIS I-901 fee online (and keep your SEVIS fee receipt you are sent electronically)

  2. Apply for your non-immigrant visa (online DS-160 form)

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

  4. Complete the interview

Remember, if you are working with a Shorelight counselor, you will be able to get personalized assistance to prepare for the student visa process

Step 6: Prepare to arrive in the USA

Once you receive your visa, it is time to think about the actual arrival on campus! Your US college or university will tell you when you need to arrive for the beginning of the academic term or an optional orientation. Consider arriving early: it is a good idea to give yourself as much preparation time as possible before your first day of classes. 

Booking travel should now be a high priority. Be aware of two important dates when making travel arrangements: (1) immigration regulations require you to arrive in the United States no more than 30 days in advance of the program start date on your I-20; (2) you must arrive by that I-20 program start date. 

As you get ready for your flights to the United States, think about what you will need to bring to remind you of home, family, and friends. If possible, attend a pre-departure orientation or an in-country physical or virtual event with your counselor or university to prepare for travel and to meet others attending US universities. Be sure to let your counselor know when you will be arriving at the airport, and add their phone number and email address to your contact lists. 

Before you get on the plane, double-check that you have all the required documents you will need to present at the border (I-20, financial documents, admissions letter, SEVIS fee receipt, passport with an F-1 student visa). Keep official copies of your transcripts, immunization records, medications, and other essential items in your carry-on, too. At customs, you will be asked familiar questions. Answer truthfully, precisely, and confidently to have a smoother entry experience into the United States.

If you are attending a Shorelight partner university, a Shorelight counselor will pick you up and bring you to campus. 

Once you have arrived on campus, your first few days will be very busy: you will have orientation, steps to get settled in your new housing, and other programs for new students. There will likely be a mandatory orientation program just for new international students. At Shorelight partner colleges and universities, you will take part in arrival and ongoing sessions to ease your transition to campus life. Sessions on international student regulations, student housing, health insurance plans, on-campus work options, student activities and organizations, athletic events, and much more will make you feel welcome. 

Your next steps? Go to classes, study hard, and make friends from around the world. Here’s to a rewarding experience as international students in the USA!

How can we help? Talk to an advisor today about applying to a Shorelight partner university >