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How to Successfully Apply to College in the USA

Admissions Office
Admissions Office
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Studying in the United States has become a very popular choice for students from around the world. The desire to learn from top research and academic institutions, explore a different culture, and achieve success abroad drive international students into applying to the best US universities and colleges.

However, getting admitted to top universities has become very competitive due to a limited number of spaces and an increasing number of qualified applicants.

To improve your odds of getting accepted at the college or university of your choice, you need to plan ahead, be highly motivated and creative, be organized, and follow these steps and recommendations to successfully apply to college.

Step 1: Select the Right Universities and Undergraduate Programs for You

The first step is choosing the college or university you want to attend. You should check whether your dream college offers the undergraduate degree program or programs you want to study. It is advisable to select multiple schools since your primary or secondary choice might not accept your application.

Remember that other potential international students from different countries are also competing for the same limited spaces. Think about selecting institutions that you and your advisor would consider safe bets based on your selection criteria. But, let’s back up a bit and discuss the factors involved in your selection criteria: What’s really important to you? Which schools reflect your goals and values? Don’t select universities just because your relatives and friends want you to go there.

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Explore Different Schools

Research and explore colleges based on your academic and professional goals. For example, if you are interested in pursuing a degree in Biotechnology, look for research and internship opportunities available at these schools. Review faculty credentials and achievements to see whether there is a good match with your own interests.

Explore the different career options available through these universities. Specifically, you need to ask: What are recent graduates currently doing? Are they working for specific companies and organizations, or are they launching their own start-ups? Other factors to consider are tuition fees, location, local culture, school diversity, and college life to see whether these align with your personal resources, goals, and values.

Harvard University

After selecting your top choices, contact the admissions office directly and request more information about university admissions. If possible, ask the admissions officer to connect you with current students and graduates. It’s important to get their perspectives (they might also share some tips for a successful application). Sign up for a college tour and visit the school if you can. There is nothing like actually meeting other students, observing a class, and feeling the campus environment.

Most colleges encourage prospective students to contact the admissions department at least 12 months before they start planning to join the school. Your takeaway here is: Research, explore and ask, ask, ask!

Step 2: Gather Application Requirements

Each higher education institution in the USA has unique application requirements for undergraduate students, so make sure you get a list directly from the admissions office. You may need to submit different types of documents and test results as part of your application process.

Personal Information

You must provide your personal information in the first section of the college application. This includes information about your family and school.

STEM Student
STEM Student

High School Transcripts

Your school transcripts are very important. Admissions officers usually review the subjects you have covered and the grades you have earned in high school or secondary school as part of your application package. They may also evaluate your results from national secondary school examinations.

You will need to request your former secondary school or the school you are attending to send your official transcripts or a certified copy of your academic records directly to the admissions office. If your transcripts are written in a language other than English, you will probably need to request certified translations. Contact the university admissions office to get their exact requirements for international transcripts.

Admissions Standardized Tests

If English is not your language, then you should plan to take an English proficiency test such as IELTS or TOEFL. Most 4-year universities also require SAT or ACT tests to measure your math, language, and critical thinking skills. Depending on the school’s admissions requirements, you may also need to submit scores for SAT subject tests.

Although some universities may claim that they don’t require minimum scores, you need to be realistic and review the average test scores of the incoming class. This information will help you as you study and prepare for these standardized tests. Remember that your score will enable the admissions office to compare your ability with other potential students.

You can take these exams at different test centers around the world. They are standardized to ensure that all learners take the same test. The testing agencies usually send the scores directly to your selected colleges and universities.

Ultimately, your test scores are an important part of your admissions package, but they are just another item in your package and do not reflect who you are as an individual and everything you can offer. Plan to set aside a few months to properly study for these tests, practice multiple times, and do your best, but don’t overstress about your scores. Also, the number of colleges requiring standardized tests has reduced dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic due to many testing centers being closed. However, you should inquire about current testing policies at the universities you have selected.

Admissions Essay

Most US colleges require prospective students to submit an admissions essay or statement of purpose. Writing this essay is a very important step since it allows you to share more of your personality, background, goals, values, and everything that makes you a successful college applicant. Therefore, consider putting a lot of effort when writing it.

Also called a personal statement, this writing sample offers you the opportunity to convince the admissions officers that you are the right candidate for their undergraduate program. You should also let them see what you can bring to the table, how you can add value to the university, and how the degree you are pursuing will benefit you and others in the future. See How to Write a Winning Admissions Essay.

Sometimes, writing a college essay might seem stressful. However, application platforms offer broad and open-ended application essay prompts that you can use to make the process easier.

The admissions essay usually has a word limit. In most cases, the limit depends on the application platform that the student is using. For example, the main essay written on the Common App has a limit of approximately 650 words. 

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are essential admission requirements for international students. In most cases, the recommenders are teachers or counselors who know you very well. They should also be able to comment on your academic abilities, achievements, and personal qualities.

You should consider providing the recommenders with a copy of your resume to enable them to cover all the basics. Plan to request your letters of recommendation at least two months before the application deadline. This will give the authors more time to write a thorough and helpful recommendation.

Activities Section

The college application section requires you to provide details on how you spend your time when you are not in class. You should list all your extracurricular activities, including sports, clubs, part-time employment, volunteering, study abroad, and community involvement. Other family obligations like caring for grandparents or younger siblings are also important.

Some colleges give students the option to upload their resumes during the application. This document should include important details, such as your work experience, awards, and extracurricular activities.

Step 3: Review Your Visa Requirements

As a global student, you will probably need a student visa to attend college in the USA. It is important to understand that the type of visa you acquire will significantly affect your life broad. 

The US government issues F1 visas to students attending academic programs. The F1 visa is the most common type of international student visa in this country. You have to maintain the minimum course load for full-time students to qualify for this document.

This visa also allows you to legally work part-time on campus for less than 20 hours a week. Additionally, you can participate in paid internships related to your degree program after a certain amount of time. You can also apply for optional practical training (OPT) during your last semester before graduation. The OPT program allows you to work full-time for 12 months after graduation. You can work for a company or organization anywhere in the US, however, the job must be related to your degree program. The STEM OPT program allows international students to work for 24 months, however, the job must be related to their degree in science, technology, engineering, or math.

As part of your college application, ensure that you first contact the international students office to inquire about specific US student visa requirements. General visa requirements include:

Academic Eligibility

You should prove that you have met your school’s academic eligibility criteria, including test scores and general academic standing. Once you are admitted to a US college or university and fulfill their visa requirements, the office of international students/admissions will send you an I-20 form. This form is necessary to start processing your student visa at the US embassy/consulate in your region.

Financial Eligibility

As an international student, you need to prove that you have the necessary funds to support yourself without having to work in the US. You cannot count on working in the US as a source of money for your educational and living expenses unless you receive a teaching or research assistantship (most assistantships are awarded to Master’s and Doctoral students only). Undergraduate international students must show that their US college funds come from personal funds, family, sponsors, scholarships, or government programs to study abroad.

International students should know that immigration guidelines are stringent on working while holding a student visa. Therefore, having adequate financial resources during the application process will increase your odds of qualifying for the visa. The office of international students/admissions should be able to provide you with information on the total amount of fees and expenses (USD) for the academic year and the required proof of funds to get your I-20 form.

Note: Since financial eligibility plays such an important factor in getting a student visa, make sure that your college selection involves schools that you can afford. There are some available scholarships for undergraduate international students, but these are very limited, so it is best to be realistic about your funding and apply to universities that are within your financial reach.

You may also like: How to Submit a Winning Scholarship Application

Health Insurance

International students also have to show that they will have active health insurance that can cover their medical expenses abroad in case they need medical assistance. Most universities will offer health insurance as part of the student package.

You can apply for a student visa at US consular offices. However, it is difficult to qualify for this visa if you are outside the country of your permanent residence, so plan accordingly.

Step 4: Send the Application Form

Send the application forms after filling out the required information. Ensure that you contact the admissions office to see whether they received your application. Sending these forms before the deadline gives you more time to resolve any potential errors and delays.

As previously mentioned, most colleges and universities encourage students to contact the admissions department at least 12 months before they start their first year of college. Students are also required to pay an application fee of between $35 and $100, depending on the institution. This money is non-refundable, even if you do not get accepted into the school.

The Common App

International students can use the Common App to apply to US universities. This App streamlines the application process and enables students to apply to several colleges from a central location. Using the Common App involves the following steps:

  • Creating a Profile: In this step, you include basic information about yourself. It includes parental, educational, and work information.
  • Choose your Colleges: After creating a thorough profile, the Common App will request you to select the colleges that you are interested in applying to. It will provide you with all the relevant information about the participating schools.
  • Get the Requirements: After creating the “My Colleges” list, you will check whether you have submitted all the necessary information for each college.
  • Submit the Applications: This is the final step. Almost every institution requires students to pay an application fee. The Common App allows students with financial hardships to request an application fee waiver.

And there you have it…we have reached the end of the college application process. All things considered, getting an acceptance letter from the college of your choice might seem difficult at first. However, planning ahead, organizing your requirements, showing your best version, and following these recommendations will help you succeed.

Comments? Questions? Share your comments below.


Author: Denisse Romero, MS, EdM. is an international consultant with decades of experience in global communications, education, and technology. As a former international student, she provides advice and resources that help students in multiple countries achieve their educational and career goals. She holds a Master’s of Science in Information Systems from The George Washington University and a Master’s in Education from Harvard University.

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