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Complete Guide to the US University & College Application Process

college application
student visa
advice for students
By Matt Killorin
Last updated on May 12, 2022

Learn how and when to best prepare for college in the US, including when to take standardized tests, send in your applications, and submit your visa paperwork.

Three prospective international students at US universities, two women and a man, stand in a row in an atrium on campus while one woman holds an open book

Now that you have decided to study in the United States, it is time to figure out how you will get there. The US university application process may take longer for international students, as there are extra considerations: visa paperwork, travel arrangements, immunizations, and more. But here’s the secret: International students who prepare in advance for their USA-based studies have the best chances of finding the perfect degree program — and better likelihood of getting visa documentation, test results, travel arrangements, and finances in order, so you can start at your dream school on time and ready to go. 

“Make sure that you’ve met with your advisor, your visa is prepped, and your documents are prepared — the earlier the better,” said Tricia Ortega, director of enrollment management at Shorelight. “But also remember to be flexible — things change.” 

So, remember: Advance preparation plus a flexible attitude equals college application success! Here’s what you need to do — right now and in the months ahead — to apply to study in the USA and be ready for your first day of classes at a US university. 

18+ Months Before School Starts: Standardized Tests 

No matter where you are from, if you want to go to college or university in the United States, you will likely have to take a standardized test, such as the SAT or the ACT, to help university admissions teams determine your academic preparedness. It makes sense to learn the differences between the ACT and SAT, as their structures, components, and scoring differ. If you know well in advance which test you plan to take, you’ll have plenty of time to study and prepare with practice exams. 

However, it’s worth noting that the pandemic has led to several universities no longer requiring standardized tests for admission. FairTest.org has compiled more than 1,800 colleges and universities in the United States that no longer require the ACT or SAT for US-based applicants. FairTest only tracks domestic applicants, but this list compiled by Sarah Loring de Garcia has confirmed that about 600 schools share the same test-optional policy for international applicants. A Shorelight advisor can work with you to find the standardized testing requirements at the schools you’re considering. 

International students may also need to take an English-language proficiency test, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam. You should consider taking your language proficiency exams close enough to your application deadline that you have time to study, but not so close that you run out of time to retake the test if you are not happy with your score. 

Get answers to your English-language testing questions >

SAT vs ACT

Both SAT and ACT are popular standardized examinations designed to test your ability to read and write in English, solve mathematical problems, and make a persuasive argument through an (optional) essay. The components of both tests are similar, with a few key differences. Choosing the exam that suits you best can be easier when you understand the content, structure, timing, and scoring methods each exam uses.

  • Reading – The reading section of the SAT consists of 52 questions based on passages related to literature, history, social science, and science, with 10 minutes for each passage. The ACT tests you with 40 questions on a mix of subject areas and you have nine minutes and 36 seconds to answer each area. 

  • Writing – The ACT has 75 questions to answer in 45 minutes, giving you 36 seconds per question, while the SAT covers 44 questions you need to answer in 35 minutes, giving you 48 seconds per question. Both exams offer multiple-choice answer formats. ACT questions are text based, while SAT questions cover informational graphics such as charts and graphs.

  • Math – The ACT has 60 questions to answer in 60 minutes, giving you one minute per question. All questions are multiple choice, and you can use a calculator for the whole exam. The SAT has 58 questions to answer in 80 minutes, giving you 83 seconds per question. There are two math sections in the SAT, one in which a calculator is permitted and another in which it is not. The questions are structured in both multiple-choice and grid format.

  • Essay – The essay sections of both examinations test your ability to analyze and present ideas in a well-organized written statement. ACT provides 40 minutes to complete the essay, and SAT offers 50 minutes. 

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 > 

IELTS and TOEFL

IELTS and TOEFL examinations are English-language proficiency tests covering reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and are often required for international applicants to US colleges. Evaluators for both examinations carefully assess your academic and verbal communication skills using different structures and question types. If you are deciding which test to choose, compare exam formats to determine which better suits you.

  • Reading – The IELTS reading section is 60 minutes, with question formats including short answers and fill-in-the-blanks. The TOEFL consists of multiple-choice questions to complete in 60-80 minutes.

  • Writing –Students must complete two writing questions in 60 minutes on the IELTS. The first question requires a 150-200-word description, and the second question assesses a student’s argumentative writing style in around 250 words. Similarly, TOEFL consists of two questions — the first is a 300-word academic argument in response to a prompt, and the second an opinion-based piece no more than 150 words.

  • Speaking – The IELTS examination gives students the option of completing a 10-15-minute speaking test before the other three segments. The TOEFL speaking test is a 20-minute pre-recorded test format, to be completed with the other three sections on the same day. The IELTS speaking assessment consists of three parts. The TOEFL speaking section consists of six tasks, two of which are independent, and four integrated tasks that combine speaking with listening or reading.

  • Listening – In the IELTS exam, students can answer listening questions in 30 minutes while listening to a recording, whereas the TOEFL listening section is based on classroom lectures, where students take notes and answer a series of multiple-choice questions in 40-60 minutes.

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 >

Take Your Standardized Tests Early 

We realize that 18 months is a long time to plan in advance. You may have no idea where you want to apply to university. Or your dream school may be firmly rooted on the test-optional list. But a year and a half of lead time gives you more options in the long run. 

It’s recommended that students take either the SAT or ACT at least once, about 18 months before your projected start date of your first year of university. This lead time means that you have plenty of chances to study and retake your test if you are unhappy with your score or if it falls below the acceptable limits for your dream university. 

International testing dates and testing locations are limited, so advance planning means you can find a date/time that works with your schedule, travel plans, and upcoming university application deadlines.

Remember, you cannot take the SAT or ACT online from home. You must take the tests from a sanctioned location or testing center. 

What’s a good score on the SAT and ACT — and what do I need to know about standardized testing as an international student? >

15 Months Before School Starts: Research Universities

If you are like many international students who attend college in the US, you probably began researching schools in the United States the minute you decided you wanted to study there. That said, 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. 

According to Ortega, combine the type of college experience you want with the educational requirements you need to be successful. Don’t focus only on professional opportunities or academic programs. While those are essential to your final decision, Ortega recommends using location as your starting point. After all, you will be spending so much time on campus, location will play a big part in your university experience.  

“Do you want a big or small school? Do you want to live in a big city, or do you feel more comfortable in a smaller town? Are you looking for lots of athletics or are you more into liberal arts?” said Ortega. “It’s really helpful for you to ask yourself these questions upfront and as you go through the process.” 

Ortega recommends students remember the following questions when researching universities:

  • 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?

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

12 Months Before School Starts: Pick Your Universities

Whether you are beginning your senior year of high school or applying to university after spending some time in the workforce, you should have a pretty good idea of which schools interest you one year before you apply. 

Picking the right college can be a tough decision. There are a lot of factors to consider, and it can easily get overwhelming with all the different issues to consider: cost, academics, career options, location, and more. Also, be honest about your academic transcripts and how strong they are. Even the brightest, most accomplished students consider safety schools (i.e., universities where you think you have at least an 80% chance of being admitted). 

“Really start to narrow down the type of school you’re looking at, and then go into their majors, for instance, engineering or accounting,” said Ortega. She recommends thinking closely about what is important to you. If you say, “I want to do something STEM. Well, what does that mean? What is your outcome? What is it I want to be? Then work backwards.”

Some questions to ask yourself as you narrow down your US university choices: 

  • What are my goals?

  • How are my grades/academic performance?

  • How much will it cost?

  • Are there scholarships available?

  • Where will I live?

  • How well do I speak English?

  • Will I have access to health care?

  • If applicable, where will I practice my religion?

  • What location, climate, social life, and safety requirements do I have?

Based on how you answer these questions, narrow down your list of schools to those that fit your preferences. Include some aspirational choices (i.e., universities that, based on your academic performance and extracurriculars, may not accept you), as well as some safety schools (i.e., schools that will almost definitely take you). Research the application sections of your universities’ websites. Find out the important dates, as well as the testing, financial, and other requirements you will need to satisfy to submit your application successfully.

Find out: How much does it cost to study in the United States? >

One year out, if you need to retake your SAT or haven’t yet taken your English-language tests, now is the time to get that done. Consider your entire college application checklist. Other requirements for admission to college in the United States may include: 

  • Letters of recommendation

  • School transcripts (translated, if necessary)

  • Entrance essays (if possible)

  • Proof of finances

  • Valid passport

Make sure you are working on or have these requirements completed as you begin to apply to universities in the United States. Many schools require certified English translations if these documents were initially written in a different language; this can be a time-consuming process, so make sure you give yourself enough time. 

Ready to attend university in the United States? Read through Shorelight’s college application checklist for international students before you apply >

9 Months Before School Starts: It’s Time to Apply

By now, you should have all the documentation you need to prove you can pay for your studies, your passport is valid, and you’ve got those letters of recommendation in hand. 

Most regular-decision deadlines for domestic students at colleges and universities in the United States are in January; January 1 or January 15 tend to be the most common. Many schools, however, have later deadlines. Southwestern University, a top-100 National Liberal Arts College, according to U.S. News & World Report, accepts applications until February 1. In collaboration with Shorelight, top-rated Adelphi University in New York has a much later international student application deadline of July 22

“To avoid last minute stressors, review your admissions checklist and check items off. And if you’re not sure, you can reach out, but not the day of!” said Ortega. “It’s really about planning, not waiting until the last second.” 

In addition to helping you manage your application checklist, Shorelight’s Global and International first-year programs at many top-rated universities help international students transition to campus, build a social network, and find career-optimizing advice and support. These often have later application deadlines as well. Additionally, Shorelight advisors can even provide international students access to remote learning transfer programs such as American Collegiate Live, a digital classroom experience where students can start their university studies online from their home country until they can transition to a US campus. 

“Shorelight just works so differently,” said Ortega. “The process is very different from traditional admissions because we work to help the student bundle together the admissions and immigration pieces into the same bucket. Our global team assists students in a 24/7 capacity to guide [them] through the application journey.” 

Here are a few Shorelight-affiliated Global programs at top-rated universities in the United States that accept applications into the summer: 

What’s the Common App?

The Common App is one application that is accepted at multiple participating US universities. It has been used extensively since 1975. 

As an international student looking to navigate through your US college application, you may have many questions when you apply to college, including ‘how to apply for college as an international student?’, ‘how does the college application process work?’, or ‘which documents do I need?’. If you do not apply to US universities through Shorelight, you may find the Common App to be a useful and simplified tool. At press time, more than 900 universities and colleges in the US accept it for new student applications. 

Here is how you can use the Common App for your US college admissions process:

Step 1: Create your Common App profile. This is your chance to display your information, achievements, and skills to the universities that interest you. 

Step 2: Add colleges to your list. Consider which programs, facilities, and opportunities you would like to have. Add the institutions that best suit your needs to your list, then narrow down your top candidates.

Step 3: Once you have decided where to apply, look through university requirements and create a final list of needed documents and deadlines. Remember, most universities have different requirements, so make sure you research this information carefully.

Step 4: Submit your application, including all required docs and payments. 

There are additional considerations to the college application process, especially when it comes to timing. 

Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision

What is early decision, early action, and regular decision in US university applications? Early decision applications are when you choose to apply to just one school early with the agreement that, if you are accepted, you will enroll. Because the promise to enroll if accepted is a binding agreement, you should be absolutely certain this is your first-choice and best-fit college.

An early action application allows you to apply to several good-fit universities or colleges much earlier than a regular applicant. You usually have until early- or mid-November (depending on university deadlines) to submit application materials.

Regular decision applications go through the normal US college application deadlines. You are under no obligation to make a decision about whether to attend until the typical response date.

If you have thoroughly researched the university or college where you wish to study, have all the requirements to apply, and are sure about your final choice, consider going ahead with an early decision or early action application plan. If you need more time to make your choice and are still looking for the right academic program, a regular decision plan might be more suitable. 

Consider preparing early and keeping track of application deadlines, additional tests, and other documentation for your application. If you feel like you may need some support, you can always speak to a Shorelight advisor to guide you through the steps!

5 Months Before School Starts: Decision Time 

Even though select programs offer late application deadlines, there are plenty of reasons to get your applications in early. The most important is to give yourself enough time to get your travel documentation in order. 

By five months before you plan to start your first semester, you should begin hearing back from schools you applied to, and you should be prepared to decide which college you will attend. Hopefully, you will have enough time to consider your accepted schools, your priorities for a university, and available financing, and make an informed decision with plenty of time to get a F-1 visa

During this period, you should also consider your university’s housing options for first-year students, their costs, and which health insurance options are available to international students

Choosing a University as an International Student

Whether you want to pursue a bachelor’s degree or master’s program, as international applicants to US colleges, choosing a university or college requires a lot of research and preparation. 

Here are some factors to consider in your decision:

  • Choose a field of study that genuinely interests you. The more you enjoy your field of study, the more motivated you will be to perform better in class and achieve higher grades. This also supports you in working toward a job you will likely enjoy! 

  • Identify which universities and colleges meet your budget. This can reduce stress and pressure on you and your family. Try not to rule out more costly options immediately — opportunities for financial aid, such as scholarships, may enable initially pricey schools to become more affordable.

  • Keep an open mind. The US college admissions process may not be straightforward, but there is plenty of support. Shorelight advisors can help with any questions you have during the college research and application process! 

Once you finalize your choice and come to the end of submitting your US college application, it will soon be time to start preparing for your travel to campus! But before you begin packing, it is important to check if you have the right student visa to study at your chosen university.

4 Months Before School Starts: Visa Documentation 

Soon after you get accepted to your US university, you will receive your I-20 form and begin the F-1 student visa application process. 

There are several steps to obtaining your F-1 student visa, but the process is straightforward if you give yourself enough time to complete it. 

  1. Get accepted by a SEVP-certified institution before submitting your visa application. When you are accepted, you will receive your I-20 form, which you will need to apply for your F-1 visa.

  2. Pay your SEVIS fee.

  3. Complete your DS-160 visa application.

  4. Schedule your visa interview.

  5. Attend your visa interview.

Learn everything you need to know about the US student visa process >

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 around this time of year can be difficult, as many students attempt to complete the interview process in the same window, so it makes sense to plan as far ahead as possible. 

“For fall semester starts, April might be too early, June is a great time, and July is really the latest,” said Ortega. “Ideally, we want to send students for their visas in May, or as soon as they are eligible.” 

Many students are intimidated by the visa interview process, 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 >

3 Months Before School Starts: 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 >

“After students secure their visa, they need to book their flights and to do that, they need to know when they are expected to arrive. Make sure you are in contact with campus. Let them know your plans so that they can guide you and help you before you pay for your plane ticket,” said Ortega. “Also, maybe give yourself an easy day to get situated and deal with jet lag. I think this is really important. Lots of students wait [until] the last second to buy the ticket because [tickets] are expensive, but then they risk transportation delays.” 

1 Month Before School Starts: Plan Your Travel and Choose Your Classes

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. 

“Make sure you know the day you’re expected to be on campus. Book your [airline] ticket in advance, communicate when you’re arriving, prepare for your arrival so that you know exactly where you need to be and how you need to get there. Coordinate with your enrollment services advisor on campus,” said Ortega. “Communication is really key.” 

Lastly, Ortega recommends that incoming international students studying in the United States for the first time shouldn’t be afraid to participate. The American experience, according to Ortega, is all about communication. When in doubt, raise your hand and ask a question. Also, be flexible. A lot has changed since COVID — some orientation events will be online, other requirements will be in person. Lastly, remember to enjoy yourself and have some fun. 

“Orientation is also about moving day and moving day is exciting. You’re moving into your new home for the next nine months or the next four years. You’re meeting new friends,” Ortega said. “There’s a lot of buzz; you can’t contain the excitement around you. It’s a lot of fun.”

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

Shorelight can help with the college application process >