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International Student Guide: How to Apply to College in the USA

college application
advice for students
By Deshan Mendis
Published on July 9, 2021

Hoping to earn your degree at a US college or university? Find out everything you need to know about how to apply for college in the USA for international students with this comprehensive guide.

Two female international students sit side by side in front of a laptop

Applying to college as an international student in the USA can be challenging, with many steps to follow. But you can do it! It all starts with knowing how to apply as an international student. Read on to learn more about how to apply for college in USA for international students, including the benefits of studying at a US college, application international student timelines to keep in mind, how to research colleges and universities, which major or degree to choose, required standardized and English language tests, and more.

What Is the Benefit of Studying at a US College?

Colleges and universities in the US are renowned for offering world-class liberal arts degree programs, cutting-edge research facilities, and faculty with experienced professionals. Many US institutions have programs accredited by global education authorities, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). These prestigious designations immediately convey the quality of your degree and also help you stand out to global employers.

Many US universities also offer flexible curriculum and teaching methods, giving international students like you the chance to explore different disciplines, start your degree program remotely, and/or participate in internships. With internships, co-ops, and externships, you build professional experience and expand your network of contacts while also diversifying your skill set. Additionally, some US universities (including Shorelight universities) offer accelerated degree programs where you can complete your degree at a faster pace! 

The US has a diverse, multicultural population. No matter where you are coming from, foreign students applying to US universities can find a like-minded and welcoming community of their own and make the US their second home. 

Application Timeline for International Students

To understand different application timelines and how to apply for college in USA for international students, you should be aware of the different types of academic terms US universities and colleges offer. 

If you want to begin your term later in the year, you can apply for Fall terms which begin from September (or sometimes August) and end in December. To start your term earlier in the year, you could opt for the Spring term, which starts in January and finishes in May. Depending on the program you choose, some universities may also offer a Summer term for specific programs in July, though these are usually very short.

First, you need time to research the programs that interest you, which will likely include several universities and colleges. Once you have gathered enough information about the programs and schools, you can make a final list of universities you want to apply to, based on the factors most important to you and your long-term goals.

This timeline for the international student’s college application process is different for each student and will especially depend on your top-choice schools’ application deadlines. Always remember to start the US university application process well ahead of the deadlines to account for unexpected delays. For more information about applying to American universities as an international student, visit USA.gov.

If you want to learn more about how to get into college as an international student, a Shorelight advisor is always ready to help! Your advisor can help you figure out how to study in the USA and direct you to exclusive services such as academic support and application assistance for students to help you understand how to apply as an international student.

Research Colleges and Universities

When you start thinking about how to apply for college in the USA for international students, one of the first things to consider when researching colleges and universities is the type of program you want to pursue and the field you want for your future career. If you already have a specific field you are interested in studying, you can begin narrowing down the universities that offer great programs in that area.

University rankings can also help you find the right university, including institutions on par with Ivy league schools. For example, if you want to work as an accountant, look at the rankings of university accounting programs and create a list of the highest ranked. You can then narrow this list further as you look into more details of each of their programs.

Several private organizations rank universities in the US, including Forbes and Times Higher Education, and these rankings give you a good idea of universities and colleges you can start researching. University department websites are great resources to learn more about their programs, including curriculum, opportunities, outcomes, and alumni testimonials. 

Once you have made a list of potential universities to apply to, start contacting admissions officers to learn more about how to apply for college in USA for international students, including foreign student admission, estimated costs, and how to get required documents. Remember to always check if your university adds any international student application fees. 

Choose a College Major or Degree

To help you decide the programs you want to apply to, think about your personal goals and objectives for the future. Choosing a college major can take time, but it is important as the experience and knowledge you gain in university contributes significantly toward your future career, and is a large investment both in terms of cost and time. 

For your possible major, think about your personal interests and strengths. By pursuing a degree centered around your passion in life, you naturally have more affinity for it and enjoy what you study much more.

You can also choose your degree or major based on a particular career you want to work toward. Speak to an advisor to research your career choices, employability, and pay rates as this can help you decide if your original career idea was a good fit or if you should reconsider your options.

If you plan to enroll as an undergraduate, many universities allow you to start your studies as an undeclared major. This gives you the chance to explore multiple fields of study to help you decide on your major at a later date, after gaining more experience at university.

What Standardized Testing Do I Need?

When applying to American universities as an international student, required tests for international students differ between programs and whether you are studying for an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Undergraduate programs usually only require one of two tests:

While both measure a student’s college readiness and academic performance, there are some key differences: the SAT places more focus on analytical skills such as mathematics, while the ACT focuses more on verbal skills.

Graduate students need to take more specialized tests:

  • GRE—Usually needed for liberal arts programs in the humanities or sciences

  • GMAT—For programs with a business focus, such as a Master’s in Finance

Additionally, graduate students may also have to take specialized tests depending on the program. These could include:

  • 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)

Language Requirements for International Students

Most universities require a minimum score for both undergraduate and graduate students in any English language test, though some may also prefer a specific test. The minimum score is different depending on the university and program, so check the requirements before you apply.

The most common English language tests you can take are:

  • International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS)

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

  • C1 Advanced

Each evaluates your English reading and writing skills, along with measuring your speaking and listening abilities. These tests are usually available in your country at centers certified for English language testing. You can learn more about each test by visiting their respective website, such as ielts.org.

Ask your advisor or admissions officer if a university you are applying to offers support for learning English. Some universities, such as Shorelight universities, may give you the option to improve your English skills while you study.

Transcript Evaluation for a Foreign Student

Some universities may need to evaluate transcripts of your academic records – this is part of how to apply for college in USA for international students. Because there may be a difference in subject names in your home country and the US, transcripts enable admissions officers to make sure all the subjects you have already studied are valid and recognized by the universities you may attend. 

Third-party agencies evaluate transcripts. (Keep in mind that the agency you choose needs to be certified for transcript evaluation.) You can verify agency certification by checking if they are a part of a reputable organization, such as the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) or the Association of International Credential Evaluators Inc. (AICE). 

One type of evaluation service that agencies provide is course-by-course evaluation. The agency goes over your school transcripts and any previous diplomas or certificates, then makes a report of your accumulated credit hours and performance (such as your grades).

The other available service is educational evaluation, where the agency records each of the schools and other educational institutions you have attended, including any certifications or credentials you have earned. The US equivalent of these credentials is then listed for universities to refer to.

Student Visa for International Students

To study in the US as an international student, you need to acquire a student visa. To start this process, you need to be accepted by one of the universities you have applied to, as they provide you with an important document known as the I-20 or DS-2019, depending on your visa type.

The document you receive depends on the type of program you have applied to and indicates the type of student visa you need: F-1, J-1, or M-1. If you need support, a Shorelight advisor can help with your student visa.

After you have received your I-20 or DS-2019 form, it is time to apply for your student visa. 

Here is what the process looks like:

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

  2. Apply for your student visa 

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

  4. Complete the interview

University Application Deadlines

When applying to college as an international student, each institution and program has a different deadline for international student application submission, and this can also change based on if you are applying via early admission or regular admission.

With early admission, you can apply to one college much earlier in the year for your desired start date. You will receive your response early as well. There is a condition for early admission — if you are accepted by your early admission university, you are required to attend that university and must withdraw all other applications.

Regular admission involves applying to be admitted by the standard application deadline, and being considered alongside the majority of other students. With regular admission, you are permitted to keep other applications open, even if you hear back right away. The only conditions regular admissions will be specific to the particular university or program you are applying to, so make sure to read all the fine print! 

It always is a good idea to plan ahead, especially for unexpected delays. Aim to submit your applications well in advance of the deadlines, just to be on the safe side.

Apply to the Colleges of Your Choice

Once your applications are ready, it is time to begin applying! Foreign student admission policies at US universities and colleges usually allow you to submit your international student application online, along with your supporting documents.

Before sending your applications, double check to make sure you have attached all necessary information and are sending it to the correct recipient or via the official admissions website for each university.   

If you are applying to a Shorelight university, remember we have a streamlined application process. Speak to an advisor to learn more

Accepting the University Offer as an International Student

You may receive admissions offers from more than one of the universities you have applied to. If this happens, carefully consider each of your options and choose the one that best suits your personal goals, the lifestyle you want in the US, and your long-term career plans. It’s also wise to compare which universities offer the best options to reduce your tuition costs via scholarships or other forms of financial aid for international students

When you have decided on your US university, you can confirm your acceptance by following the instructions of the admissions letter or package you received. After submitting your response, your university will contact you with next steps. Depending on the university or program, you may also be required to pay a deposit fee to secure your enrollment.

After you have completed these steps, it is time to start the process to get a student visa to travel to the US

Once you receive your visa, it’s time to celebrate with your friends and family! Your new life in the US begins soon, and with Shorelight advisors supporting you every step of the way, you can start your US university studies with confidence.

Speak to an advisor today to learn more >>