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How to Study in the USA Guide for International Students

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By Shorelight Team
Last updated on May 18, 2021

This step-by-step guide on how to study 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

If you are an international student seeking help in making your college decision, keep reading our guide to US universities — we will go over all the basics on how to study in the USA and apply to US colleges and universities.

How Do I Study in the USA?

As an international student, your journey to the US will begin with selecting the university where you want to study and the academic program you want to pursue. An associate’s degree from a US university typically takes two years to complete. A bachelor’s degree usually requires three to four years of study in the USA. If you want to continue your studies after getting a bachelor’s degree, you can consider graduate school.

The options for graduate or postgraduate programs are a master’s degree (two years of study) and a doctorate or PhD (three or more years). Graduate master’s and doctorate programs are focused on a specific academic subject, while associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are typically more general. 

Research the Best Universities and Colleges

Where to Start Your Research to Study in the USA

You can start your research on how to study in the USA 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). Other sites, like College Board’s Big Future, provide ways to search for undergraduate US colleges and universities across many different programs, features, or characteristics. 

To help you find top colleges for international students, take a look at college rankings. Many countries have official government lists that rate the top universities in their own nations (e.g., league tables in the UK). However, 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 in the US 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.

As a guide for international students, a Shorelight advisor can help you find universities that are welcoming to students from around the world – and also align with your academic and professional goals.

Contact a College Advisor

Speaking to a US higher education expert can help you learn more about how to study in the USA and find colleges that match your academic interests, personal preferences, and professional plans.

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. Also, Shorelight offers sessions with enrollment counselors to help foreign students in the US find universities that meet their needs. 

If you want to meet American universities’ representatives in person, you can attend college or university fairs in your city, town, or school featuring several US higher education institutions. There may also be virtual webinars with university experts that you can attend online from home. 

Choose a University Program

For many international students in the USA, 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).

If you are unsure about what you want to study in the USA, do not worry: In the United States, most students change their minds on what their intended major will be during their time in college, and 40% of undergraduate students begin their first year in college with an undeclared major

Academics are important, but you when you think about where to study in the USA for your bachelor’s degree, 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.

Additionally, 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. 

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 have 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 international student services?

Apply to the University

Once you have selected the program you want to pursue and have prepared a short list of universities to choose from, it is time to begin applying. 

To begin applying for a program at a US university, your application 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). (Depending on the university, you may also be able to apply directly through Shorelight.) No matter which method you choose, you will be required to submit specific documents listed by the university.

Complete College Applications and Tests

Undergraduate Student Applications

While every US university has its own admissions criteria, there are several common requirements they share. In general, American universities require the following from international student applicants:

  • Transcript

  • Standardized test scores

  • Essay

  • Recommendations

  • Copy of your valid passport

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 colleges may require an interview, which you can do with staff or alumni living abroad.

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. 

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.

​​Graduate Student Applications

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

  • Copy of your 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)

Applicants may also be required to do either an on-campus or video interview (via videoconferencing or similar) with the program’s admissions committee. 

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 universities for either master’s or doctorate degrees, there is a streamlined online application process that may not require a GRE, GMAT, or Statement of Purpose to be considered for admission. 

Know the Costs of Studying Abroad

In the United States, the cost of college is charged annually, and this 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. 

Graduate programs are generally shorter than undergraduate studies (e.g., one to two years for master’s degrees), with costs that are similar, and maybe even less per year. While undergraduate students usually fund their bachelor’s degree with the support of their family, most higher education in USA international students fund their own education for a graduate degree or receive some financial assistance from the universities they plan to attend. 

Apply for Financial Aid

If you have limited funds to pay for your undergraduate and graduate degree(s), make sure to ask the advisors at the colleges where you apply about the kinds of scholarships, grants, assistantships, and fellowships that are available to foreign students in the US. If you are applying for a master’s degree program, there may be academic merit scholarships and/or graduate assistantships. For doctorate programs, funding assistantships and fellowships could also be an option. 

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

Accept an Offer of Admission

If you have applied for undergraduate study in the USA at multiple universities, it is so exciting to get good news and learn that one or more have accepted you. This means you will need to make a big decision and choose which university you want to attend. 

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. 

If you have multiple offers of admission, finalizing your choice can be challenging. 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. 

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. 

Apply for a Student Visa

Once you have made the all-important decision of where to study in the US, the next step is getting your visa. There are three main types of visas to choose from, each with their own student visa requirements:

  • F-1: This student visa permits you to study at US universities or colleges with funding from friends, family, or yourself. You are also permitted to work part-time on campus for a maximum of 20 hours per week when your academic term is in session.

  • J-1: With this student visa, you can participate in study- and work-related exchange programs at US colleges or universities approved by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Your program must be funded by an educational or nonprofit sponsor. On a J-1 visa, you have the same work restrictions as F-1 students, but cannot work off campus.

  • M-1: If you want to pursue vocational studies, you can apply for a M-1 visa which permits you to study at institutes certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Program funding may come from friends, family, or yourself. On a M-1 student visa, you will have the same work restrictions as F-1 and J-1 visas, but can only work on campus for a maximum of six months.

To apply for a F-1 or M-1 visa, you will need an I-20 form, and for a J-1 visa you will need a DS-2019 form. While each form is slightly different depending on the visa, they all cover personal information (full name, birthdate, SEVIS ID numbers, academic program, English proficiency standard, start date, and funding sources). 

Some colleges will send you an I-20 or DS-2019 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 or DS-2019 after funding is documented, any institutional financial awards are made, and a deposit is paid. 

Once you have received the I-20 or DS-2019 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 electronic SEVIS fee receipt)

  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

To learn more about the DS-160 form, check out our DS160 form explained article or speak to a Shorelight advisor. Our advisors can act as your guide to US universities and help you learn how to study in the USA for international students, provide personalized visa assistance, and prepare you for the student visa process

Prepare for Departure to the US

While you are making arrangements for 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. In addition to your academic term and orientation dates, there are two other dates that are even more important for your travel plans: (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. 

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 them in a carry-on where you can easily access them. It’s a good idea to have official copies of your transcripts, immunization records, medications, and other essential items in your carry-on, too. 

Housing for International Students

Depending on your university, you will likely know about your options and assignment for student housing before your departure. Many universities offer on-campus housing in dormitories, or have both on- and off-campus options including apartments, complexes, shared houses, and more. Carefully research each option prior to leaving and choose the option that best suits the needs of your lifestyle.

At Shorelight colleges and universities, you will take part in an orientation on arrival and ongoing advising sessions throughout your first year to ease the campus transition process. Sessions on international student housing, health insurance plans, on-campus work options, student activities and organizations, and much more will make you feel welcome. 

Important Necessities for Students 

International students in the US may find that life campus life is very different compared to life at home. Before you arrive, it can be helpful to make a list of necessities to take with you to the US. Consider bringing and/or setting up:

  • A cell phone: Check with your service provider if your cell phone will work in the US and will let you make calls. If it does not, you may have to buy a US phone and calling plan.

  • A bank account: Research potential banks near campus for you to to open an account in the US. Some banks may be affiliated with your university and give you benefits, like campus discounts or special offers at local retailers.

  • An adapter for electronics: The chargers or power cables for some of your electronics may not work with US power sockets. Consider changing your cables or bringing adapters.

  • Documentation: Make sure you have all important documents needed for your life as an international student, such as health insurance information, copies of your student visa and I-20 form, passport, recommendation letters, and test scores.

  • Personal medication: Check with your advisor if any medication you rely on is available in pharmacies near to your campus. It may be helpful to bring extra medication with you in case of emergencies.

To learn more about how to study in USA, consider visiting the USA.gov website. 

Your next steps for how to study in the USA? 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 university >