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

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By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on August 10, 2023

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.

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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

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 degree program you want to pursue and the field you want for your future career. If you already have a specific major 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.

It’s important to ask yourself the right questions to make sure you find the right-fit university — academically, socially, and for the careers you may want to pursue:

  • What do you plan on studying? If you want to study engineering, for example, make sure the schools you are looking at have strong STEM programs.

  • What types of experiences do you want? Do you want to go to university in a bustling city or a beautiful college town? Do you want to live with 60,000 other students or somewhere where most faces are familiar?

  • What are your goals, and will this university help you reach them? What internship and career opportunities are available? Is the school well-suited technologically? What about networking, research funding, or work-study programs?

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.

Reach out to a Shorelight representative today to begin the United States university application process >

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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.

The choice between SAT or ACT depends on your individual aptitude and areas of strength. In some cases, the timing of your US college application may encourage you to take one test over the other based on available test dates. Some student college applications may require you to take a specific test, so be sure to check your preferred schools’ requirements in advance. Knowing which test is better aligned with your top schools and degree programs will make your US college admissions process go much more smoothly!

Which examination to choose – SAT or ACT >

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:

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

When selecting which English language test to take, consider your skills, as well as exam costs, availability of tests, and whether your US college application specifically requires either IELTS or TOEFL. 

Learn more about which English language proficiency test would suit you best >

Ask your advisor or admissions officer if the 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.

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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 visa interview

It’s worth noting that you can only begin your F-1 visa application 120 days before your program’s start date, so you have a small window for conducting your F-1 visa interview and completing your application. The visa interview is conducted at a US embassy or consulate, preferably the closest one to where you live. Scheduling can be difficult, as many students attempt to complete the interview process in the same time period, so it makes sense to plan as far ahead as possible. 

Students may feel intimidated by the visa interview, but the process is smooth and quick if you are well-prepared. There are five categories most US F-1 visa interview questions will be based on:

  1. Study plans

  2. University choice

  3. Academic capability

  4. Financial status

  5. Post-graduation plans

Learn more about the interview process for F-1 visa applications >

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.

Different Types of College Admissions in the US

US universities and colleges typically offer the following admissions options:

  • Regular Admission—This is the most common option for international students planning to pursue a four-year degree at a US college or university starting in the fall (i.e., the beginning of a given school year). Regular admission requires you to submit your application by a specific date — typically between November and January. After your application is reviewed, the admissions committee will send either an acceptance or rejection letter. The deadline for regular admissions would be the last date you can send in your application materials for an on-time start.

  • Rolling Admission—Large state universities in the US may allow you to apply at any time during your admissions period. As the rolling admissions process is based on a first-come, first-serve basis, it is important to submit your application as early as possible to have an opportunity to enroll. If you are considering a rolling admission, you can apply at any time during the admission period — generally September through July.

  • Open Admission—Commonly offered by community colleges, online schools, and distance-learning programs, this type of admission gives any student who meets entry requirements the opportunity to enroll. High school graduates with a diploma or a similar qualification can take advantage of this type of admissions policy.

  • Early Decision—If you are an international student and know exactly which school you want to attend (e.g., your top-choice dream university), applying early decision may make sense for you. However, you cannot apply to more than one university for early decision because if you are accepted, you commit to attending that college or university — no changing your mind. If you decide to apply through early decision, make sure to speak to your Shorelight counselor before you submit your application.

  • Early Action—Similar to early decision, early action admissions may be considered when applying to your top-choice college. However, this option allows you to apply to more than one college during the same period. If you get accepted to several colleges, you can simply confirm your offer with one college and withdraw the remaining acceptances.

  • Early Evaluation—If you want a better sense of your chances of getting accepted to a specific college or university, you can submit your application through early evaluation and get it reviewed in advance. The admissions committee will let you know if your chances of getting accepted are good, fair, or not likely.

  • Deferred Admission—With this type of admission, you can defer your enrollment for a year after being accepted at a particular college or university. This option is ideal for students who want to take a gap year to travel abroad, explore career opportunities through internships, or need additional time to save money and/or make financial aid arrangements.

  • Late Admission—Many institutions in the US continue to accept applications until the start of the fall semester. So, even if you didn’t apply during the regular admission period, you may be able to apply last minute through schools that accept late admission applications. If you plan to apply late admission, remember to check which schools are still accepting applications, take note of deadlines, and speak to a Shorelight advisor.

When you identify your goals and understand the differences between admissions options, you can choose the right process for you. Remember, not every college in the US offers every type of college admission options. However, apart from regular admission, the most popular admissions types to consider include early decision, rolling admission, and late admission.

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. 

College Application Checklist

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: Your school transcript shows whether you have the necessary academic foundation to enroll in your preferred degree program. You may be required to convert your grades to a grade point average (GPA), the most commonly used academic grading system in the US. 

  2. Application deadlines: When preparing your applying to college checklist, remember to note down application deadlines for the universities you are considering. 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. 

  3. Required financial documents: You are required 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. 

  4. Financial aid options: 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.

  5. English test scores: Consider your skills, as well as exam costs, availability of tests, and whether your US college application specifically requires either IELTS or TOEFL when selecting which English test to take. 

  6. SAT/ACT test scores: The timing of your US college application may encourage you to take one test over the other based on available test dates. Some student college applications may require you to take a specific test, so be sure to check your preferred schools’ requirements in advance.

  7. Personal statements or essays: Your personal statement or 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. 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.

  8. Letters of recommendation: The 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. Keep in mind that your recommendation letters have to be in English or translated into English before you submit them to your schools.

  9. 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

  10. Passport: 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.

  11. Application fees: The average US college application fee is $48 and will vary between universities (, 2023). Research how much your schools charge as part of your college application process checklist so you can plan in advance. Some universities may waive the application fee, so speak with a Shorelight advisor for details.

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 and plan your travel

Plan Your Travel 

You’ve picked your school, got your finances in order, and applied for your F-1 visa. It’s time to start thinking about how and when you will get to your university and what you are going to pack. Start by creating a travel checklist that begins with your visa documentation, university paperwork, and travel documents and then extends to the must-haves you want to bring with you to the United States. 

It’s hard to know what you’ll need for transitioning to campus your first year, Shorelight is here to help >

If your payments are submitted and cleared, you should be able to start registering for classes. Many students enjoy exploring the university area online before they move to their new home in the United States. Reach out to student groups through social media. It’s also a great time to order your books. Get a head start on finding a bank and signing up for orientation. 

Remember that Shorelight is always ready to answer any questions you may have, covering how to apply for college as an international student, how the college application process works, what to expect when you land, and more. Our friendly advisors are here to help!

Speak to an advisor today to learn more >>