The American College Admissions Process Made Easy: a Guide for International Students
The prospect of attending college in the United States is alluring for many international students. Top American colleges feature some of the most respected faculty in the world, immense resources, exciting locations, and valuable opportunities and connections. American universities, unlike many of those outside the country, largely emphasize personal, extracurricular, and professional development alongside academic development. There are a host of resources made available to students at American universities that students who choose to study in other countries may not enjoy, such as individual academic and professional advising. The differences between American and international universities extend past student life, however – in addition to or perhaps because of the amenities offered to American students, the admissions process is much more rigorous.
It’s important to define what exactly we mean by “rigorous”. While the automatic assumption may be that a more rigorous application process implies a more competitive one, there are multiple universities all over the world with lower acceptance rates than top American schools. What makes American schools unique is the basis upon which applications are evaluated. Most top American schools, such the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, etc. feature holistic admissions. While this term has many implications, it essentially means that these colleges seek to admit students who not only demonstrate academic ability, but also who have reached a high level of personal development and extracurricular accomplishment. Students are evaluated not only on the basis of grades and test scores, but also on summer activities, extracurricular activities, personal essays, teacher recommendations, and more.
As a result of the complex and multifaceted American admissions process, students in the US who aspire to attend elite colleges begin working very early on, often even before starting high school, to develop impressive academic and extracurricular profiles. American students understand the importance of developing close relationships with teachers who can write recommendations and brainstorm potential topics for personal statements as early as their junior years. Many international students, though, aren’t as familiar with the expectations top American colleges have for applicants, and thus they can sometimes be put at a disadvantage come admissions season. We’ve compiled a list of important things you can do as an international student to make your dreams of attending a top American college a reality.
Know the Requirements. Each American school has a different set of requirements for deadlines, necessary tests, transcripts, financial materials, etc. that may vary from those typically required by international schools. Every university will have a page on their website listing specific instructions to apply as a first-year student and when each component of the application is due. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all deadlines and requirements and meet them. An important part of success for any college applicant is organization, but this is especially true for those dealing with the additional complication of being international students.
Do Your Research. From liberal arts college to professional school to research university, there are diverse paths of higher education in America. Be sure to thoroughly research any and all potential universities to gain the best understanding of what the undergraduate experience is like at each school and the strength of the program you’re applying to. In addition, it’s smart to research the surrounding area of your potential schools as well. American culture and lifestyle can vary wildly from that of other countries, and there are multiple variances in culture within America itself; avoid relying on stereotypes about schools and cities when making decisions.
Understand the Competition. Admissions to top American schools are already extremely competitive; admissions for international students are often even more so. Admissions at some schools consider students’ location; the number of students admitted from one country, state, or region may be restricted in order to ensure a fairly even geographical distribution for the entire class. If many students from your area typically seek admission to American schools, seek out ways to distinguish yourself from your peers in order to boost your chances of being accepted.
Do Well On Tests. Because grading standards can vary from country to country, universities place a large amount of importance on standardized tests as a measure of international students’ aptitude. For example, it’s crucial to do well on the SAT or ACT to prove that the skills you’ve developed in secondary school correlate to the skills and material taught in American high schools. IB tests, or APs if they’re offered in your country, are also considered, as well as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) if English is not your first language. Doing well on these tests demonstrates to colleges that you can perform on the level of American students and thus are as likely to perform just as well in a college setting.
Consider Finances. Many American schools don’t offer financial aid to international students, or may not offer “need-blind” admissions – meaning that colleges consider your family’s financial need in their admission decisions. This can make financing an education at an American school – where attendance is often already atypically expensive – even more challenging. Start searching for scholarships early if applying to American schools as an international student, as the landscape of financial aid can be foreboding otherwise.
Branch Out. While gaining admission to top international colleges is largely a matter of getting good grades and scoring well on tests, the same can’t be said for elite American colleges. A diverse extracurricular profile can play a significant role in your admissions decisions, so look for opportunities to volunteer, intern, or lead an athletic or academic team. Essays, too, are heavily weighted in the admissions process. As an international student, you may want to consider writing on why an education in the United States is appealing to you, as opposed to education in your home country (this is especially true for “Why X School” essays).
Visit If You Can. While it may be difficult to make the trip stateside, a visit to a college can be extremely valuable. Campus visits allow you to take guided tours, speak with students, and get a general “vibe” of the school that may inform your decision to attend or not. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only applying or making your final decision based off a school’s name recognition, but if you’re only attending a school for the name, that may not be the right decision. Campus visits can also allow for a potential student to have an admissions interview, something that may not be possible in one’s home country.
The most important thing you can do if considering moving to the United States for college is to get informed. Many schools have websites detailing the criteria they consider in admissions, their international financial aid policies, testing requirements, deadlines, and more; be sure to look for such sites for any schools you’re applying to. Moving abroad for college can make the transition into college even more daunting, but the amenities and academics offered at American schools outweigh other costs for many students. If you’re convinced an American school is right for you, it’s crucial to begin preparing early to prevent yourself from being put at a disadvantage. Armed with an understanding of the American admissions process, you can make your aspirations of a college education in the United States a reality.
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Latest posts by Anamaria Lopez (see all)
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
An Exchange Student at 17
It almost feels like as if it was just yesterday when I was on my own on a plane not really knowing what to expect but excited for what the future had for me. Now I'm back home with a ton of memories, e-mails to answer, and a lot of stories to share. I don't even know where to start now that I'm writing about my experience of being an exchange student in Appleton, Wisconsin for a whole school year.
Well, I've wanted to be an exchange student my whole high school life. I read about summer programs in a brochure from IFS, and I thought then that living somewhere else for a while and having friends from another country would be the coolest thing in the world. I would be on my own, have my own Indiana Jones adventure, and fulfill my dream of having something different. Pretty soon, at the end of my senior year, Mama and I were applying to IFS and we decided that a whole year would give me so much more immersion and would make the experience so much better. I had meetings in the weekends about rules, how to survive, homesickness, etc. Then I got an email. I had a host family! Next thing I knew, I had a flight booked.
I was so excited and happy and I was telling all my friends about it. I was researching about Wisconsin in books and in the Internet. Compared to what I saw on TV and what I experienced when I traveled to places like Los Angeles, California with my family, Wisconsin was different. It was more of farmland and countryside. I lived in Appleton and its population was around 70,000 and I thought it was a small town compared to our Manila. There was no traffic, they only had one major mall, and everything was in close proximity. I didn't even know what to think of the cold weather. I just brought cotton long-sleeved shirts with me. But when winter came, I needed to get a coat. During the winter, the sun would set at 4pm and it wouldn't go up until around 9. There were days when the temperature would go below freezing and I was wearing around 6 layers of clothing just to keep myself warm. I never even blow-dried my hair before. I had to do it every morning after I took a shower because if I didn't, my hair would FREEZE. The thing I liked best about the cold and the snow was being able to ski. People were so excited for me and telling me all their snow stories (since we don't have it in the Philippines). I have never skied in my life either, so I was excited and proud to learn.
I was placed with the greatest host family in the whole world. They treated me like their own and they are like real family in another part of the world. I had a host mom, a host dad, a brother and sister. Ben would always be sweet and give me hugs and kisses. I loved every minute of it because I never had a younger brother before. It was fun seeing Katie grow up since she started to be a teenager and we would always tell stories in the bathroom we shared. Through e-mails we established that I was going to call them Mom and Dad since I was never used to calling older people by their first names. I felt super loved. They made sure there was tuna in the pantry (since it was my favorite), hugged me when I needed to be hugged, let me stay out late at night with my friends, and even let me have parties in the basement.
I went to an American co-ed public high school and that was a big adjustment coming from an all-girl private Catholic school. The school was new, everyone was different and it was so diverse. I have never met so many kinds of people in just one place. I was scared during the first day of school. I didn't know anyone, I got lost since the school was huge, and people didn't think I knew how to speak in English every time my teachers would say, And here's Elaine she's a foreign exchange student. But pretty soon I started to get comfortable. It was funny how people always got surprised by how good I was at speaking in English. They're like, Wow, you even speak better English than me. I loved answering people's questions like, So, what do you do in the winter? or Where is the Philippines? Isn't that near South America somewhere? or What's it like to have a coconut tree outside your house do you have coconuts everyday? I had the chance to take fun classes like Spanish, photography, and art so I met people with similar interests as me and got to go to field trips. My favorite was going to Chicago to see my favorite painting Starry Night by Van Gogh. I was an honorary member of the International Club and there was even one time I was giving a talk about the Philippines for the school's Global Awareness Week and someone asked me to say something in Filipino. So I said, Magandang Umaga, ang pangalan ko ay Elaine. They thought it was so cool and people started clapping and giving me a standing ovation. Just for saying my name in Tagalog!!!
I made a lot of friends and met so many people. I joined a church youth group, volunteered for a group for teens with cognitive disabilities, an indoor soccer team during winter and the girls track team during spring. Friends took me out to movies, hockey games, restaurants, road trips, rock shows and concerts. Someone even took me to see the Incubus concert! I got to do my first American prank, which was writing on boys cars with lipstick. Everyone was warm, open, and never hesitant in giving hugs. I would say that as much as I missed my family and friends at home, I never really got homesick because I had friends who made sure I was okay. They were all always there for me and helping me with all the adjustments I had to make, like school, getting rides, hanging out, shopping, going to prom, learning slang terms, everything. I will forever remember all the fun times I had with them.
One of the things I had to get used to and eventually enjoyed was how people picked up on my difference. Girls would always tell me how lucky I was to have a year-round tan and ask if I went to tanning salons! I haven't even heard of tanning salons since I got there! Some boys would ask me how I got my hair to be so black. I was shy and surprised by how forward some guys were. Unlike here, guys do not court girls. It's more casual. Eventually, though I got used to it. I realized that guys all over the world are the same. I became excited to be actually hanging out with all these cute boys, getting calls, and going out. Hugging with someone from the opposite sex wasn't even a big deal, and it was something I enjoyed. Going out opened my eyes to more similarities and differences in the American culture. It was one of the times I was so proud of being Filipina. I was different, exotic, and new.
Every month, I met with other exchange students in our area. I made friends with people from Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, England, Hungary, etc. It was fun when we were together because we saw how language, skin color or height didn't matter. We were all the same. We even got to bond right away because we were all going through the same thing as exchange students so we talked about the differences at home, school, and out countries. I learned so many things about other cultures, and even got to share my own. I remember cooking the adobo for a Christmas party. I was stressed about it but everyone loved it!
Being away for 10 months and living alone in a completely different world has taught me a lot of things. I have grown and my perspective has changed in ways I never would have imagined. I now can say that I am independent, appreciate my family and friends here more, open to new ideas, aggressive, and more confident about myself. Having my own adventure has proven to me that anything is possible and that I can do anything. It was the best time of my life and I will always remember how choosing to go out and discover what the world has in store for me was life-changing and will be something I will always cherish.
Study Abroad Guide