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International Students, Find Your Best Prestige College

advice for students
college application
By Selene Angier
Last updated on March 19, 2021

Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale are all top-rated, but rankings are just one part of your US university research process. Explore prestige colleges with reputations for strong programs, research and innovation, diversity, and support systems, and that are welcoming to international students.

A female international student holds notebooks and a cup of coffee in front of a university hall on campus in the USA

Harvard University, Yale, Princeton — as an international student, you have likely heard of these top Ivy League schools. These prestige colleges are among the top universities in the USA and consistently sit at the top of ranking lists like U.S. News & World Report, Shanghai Ranking, and QS World Rankings for a reason: they are among the best in the world. 

One problem: they are also really difficult to get into. According to IvyWise, Harvard University had an acceptance rate of only 4.7% in 2018. That means 42,749 students applied and only 2,024 were accepted. That makes Harvard one of the hardest schools to get into, second only to Stanford University, a non-Ivy school with an acceptance rate of 4.3%. Among Ivy League schools, acceptance rates range from Harvard’s 4.7% low to Cornell University’s 10.5%. That means 90-95% of students who apply to Ivy League schools get rejected. 

So, what is a smart, ambitious international student to do? Dig deeper and explore other prestige college options. The United States is a top destination for international students for many reasons. First and foremost, choice: the US is home to more than 5,000 colleges and universities — compare that to 875 in India and 2,663 universities in China — and many offer excellent academics and campus life.

As you start to research prestige colleges in the USA, here are a few questions you should ask:

  • How does my chosen major or course of study rank?

  • What is the reputation of the faculty and instructors?

  • Does the campus have a diverse student body and strong community spirit?

  • What research and facility resources will I have access to?

  • What are the career outcomes? Can I get my dream internship?

Program Ranking Over School Ranking

U.S. News & World Report is a leading ranking system for American colleges — it is exhaustive, detailed, and free to research online. 

  • The National Universities list consists of 389 colleges and universities (again, out of nearly 5,000 schools in the US).

  • The Top 250 schools on the National Universities list are generally referred to as “Tier 1.”

  • U.S. News ranks everything from most popular majors — like engineering and business — to niche courses of study like ceramics and midwifery.

  • They detail other helpful learning and campus categories like best first-year experience, most international students, and undergraduate research projects.

Again, when you begin your research of top universities in the USA, look beyond the top 20 and explore individual programs, too. Let’s look at a few Tier 1 universities with strong academic programs and diverse cultural experiences. 

International Business at UofSC and FIU

When you go beyond the eight Ivy League schools and other prestige colleges like Johns Hopkins and New York University, you have access to more course majors and, in many cases, courses with better rankings than Harvard and Princeton. (Really!) 

Take international business programs. If you are looking to an earn an undergraduate degree in international business, you have probably already looked at U.S. News & World Report’s international business ranking list. Did you notice there is only one Ivy League school on the list? (That’s The University of Pennsylvania at number five.)

Now look at the number one and two spots. The University of South Carolina (UofSC) tops the list (and has done so for 21 years running) and Florida International University (FIU) holds the number-two spot. (We are also proud to say they are both Shorelight universities.) 

“I applied because of [UofSC]’s highly-ranked business school and I knew the program would help me, as an international student, adapt to the university and American culture,” says Chinese student, Fei. 

UofSC has the number-one [international business] program, above all the other universities. That’s why I [decided to study] here.”—Yehor, Ukraine 

Engineering at Auburn, Dayton, LSU, UIC, Utah, and More 

According to U.S. News & World Report, the top graduate engineering program in the US is at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is also among the most competitive — requiring high GRE scores and English proficiency. (And note: there are no Ivy League colleges among the top 10 engineering programs.)

That’s overall engineering programs — but start looking down the list of engineering specialties, and you will discover highly ranked programs that go beyond the Ivies: 

So, do rankings matter? Absolutely. There is a reason good schools earn places on these lists: faculty, rigorous curriculum, facility resources, and job prospects. But we encourage you to look at specialty program rankings, too, not just overall program rankings. 

(All engineering rankings are U.S. News & World Report, 2021.)

Nonprofit Management at American, UCF, CSU, and UIC

Gen Z students consider social causes to be very important, so it makes sense that nonprofit management and public administration are popular degrees among graduate students. If you want to pursue a career at a nonprofit organization like Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, or the United Way, you will need a top-ranked education to compete in the field. 

In 2021, U.S. News & World Report gave top marks to only 28 nonprofit management graduate programs. (And only one Ivy League school appears on the list: Columbia University, tied in the final spot at #26.) That means 25 other schools outranked the Ivies. A few of them are Shorelight universities:

  • University of Central Florida — ranked number five for graduate nonprofit management — aims to develop students’ ethical decision-making skills and benevolent leadership capabilities.

  • American University (#11) — located in the US capital, Washington, DC — is also lauded as a top university for internships and co-ops (U.S. News & World Report, 2020), giving graduates access to thousands of positions at DC-based US federal government agencies, non-governmental agencies (NGOs), and nonprofits.

  • Cleveland State University (CSU) and the University of Illinois Chicago (tied for #20) also offer highly ranked MPA programs and are known for their commitment to diversity and to international students with global viewpoints.

(All nonprofit management rankings are U.S. News & World Report, 2021.)

Master’s in Nursing at UIC and Utah

There are more than three million registered nurses employed in the US alone, so it is no surprise that nursing is one of the most popular undergraduate majors. If you want to advance your career in this high-demand sector, you may want to pursue an advanced degree. 

A master’s degree in nursing can position you for a role in management or academia — and potentially boost your annual salary. According to, a master’s in nursing might mean as much as a 46% increase in annual salary ($64,806 average for a registered nurse versus $94,673 with a master’s in nursing).  

Looking beyond Ivy League schools, you will see two Shorelight universities on the top 50 of U.S. News & World Report’s graduate nursing programs list — the University of Illinois Chicago at #19* and the University of Utah at #30 (tied).

Cesar Osorio chose to purse an advanced degree at UIC because of its strong reputation, renowned staff, and commitment to developing effective leaders. As the director of nursing at a retirement community outside Chicago, Cesar oversees a staff of 100 nurses and nursing assistants. 

“As I grew into my leadership role, I realized I needed a lot more knowledge,” says Cesar. “UIC is geared toward leadership exposure and interdisciplinary collaboration. I have the passion and the willingness to teach others, but I did not have the confidence or level of expertise. This program has given that to me.” 

Beyond Program Rankings

When you look beyond rankings, a non-Ivy school may be a better fit for your goals and preferences. For instance, Cornell University is an Ivy League school — but if you want to major in hospitality and do not like cold weather, then Ithaca, New York (average -9 degrees Celsius in January) may not be your top pick. 


Weather, geography, big city versus small college town — where you will spend the next two to four years of your life matters. Do your research on each campus and its host city to see how welcoming it is for international students, along with food and entertainment happenings, outdoor activities, and whatever else is most important to you. 

Research and Innovation

If your career plans involve engineering, medicine, sciences, entrepreneurship, or computer science, be sure to research a prospective university’s commitment to innovation and research opportunities. This reveals how a university approaches — and advances — its investments in technology, pursuit of grants, strategic partnerships, and resource/facilities improvements. 

Shorelight school the University of Central Florida — #16 on U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 Most Innovative Schools list — is on par with Ivy League school Cornell University (tied at 16). American University and Auburn University (tied for 35) and the University of Kansas (tied for 68) also get innovation nods. 

The Association of American Universities is a consortium of 65 leading research universities in the US and Canada. In 2018, AAU members — among them, all eight Ivy League universities, plus Shorelight universities the University of Kansas and the University of Utah — received $25.6 billion in research funding from the US government, that’s 61% of all federal R&D expenditures going to just 65 elite research colleges. 

Student Support Services 

When researching top universities in the USA, imagine your entire journey — from day one at orientation to the final day of graduation. Ask yourself: is the university welcoming and supportive? Do they have special services for international students like me? Will I have access to free English tutoring? Will this school help me get an internship or job? 

When it comes to Shorelight universities, the answer is a resounding yes. We only work with top-ranked schools that are international student friendly. Our staff pick you up at the airport, settle you in at your dorm, and give you a campus tour. You have access to English language and grammar classes, course tutors, and personal advisors. You might not get personal attention like that at Yale or Penn, where competition can overwhelm students. 

Applying to university in the US and traveling thousands of miles from home to a new country can be daunting. That is why we created Signature Student Experience, an award-winning set of support services designed specifically to help international students acclimate and succeed at our partner universities. 

Internships and Job Placements

A key component of Shorelight’s Signature Student Experience is the Career Accelerator Program (CAP), a four-semester professional preparation program focused on internship placements, resume building, interview skills, and more. 

Indian student and finance major Adit chose the University of Illinois Chicago over Harvard University because of UIC’s strong rankings, diverse student body, and CAP’s commitment to career outcomes. 

“Traveling 12,000 miles to the United States for college was one of the biggest decisions I have ever made,” says Adit. “I think of UIC as a superior academic institution that supports the development of all its diverse students. I came to the UIC finance department to develop skills for a career in investment banking.” 

And with the help of CAP, he is well on his way — Adit is currently working at his third internship and building a standout resume that features positions at American Express, Ernst & Young, and Citigroup. 

“My CAP advisor and mentor has been my go-to resource at UIC,” says Adit. “Whenever I need advice about professional opportunities, [he] would always share valuable insights and help me along the way. He carefully reviewed my resume and applications to make sure I secured the positions I was interested in.”

A Personal Approach

While Ivy League schools may be considered the “best” of the US higher education system, there are many other excellent options on the list of Tier 1 universities. These US universities are worth a closer look, even if you may not have heard of them before. Take into consideration career services, faculty, campus location, research funding, student diversity, and personalized support services. 

“Be open to all the different choices and definitely do your research,” says Nimeesha, a computer science and mathematics major at UIC. She recommends contacting staff and students to get a better sense of whether a school is right for you. “By reaching out to people on campus—UIC Global staff, anybody that can give you a sense of [what] the school is like, [what] the culture is like—you’ll be able to make your decision.”

Build your future with a US university degree. Shorelight can help

*Not all Global or International Accelerator programs may include top-ranked programs. For specific details about the program that interests you, please reach out to a Shorelight advisor.