What International Students Applying to US Schools Should Know About the US Admissions

April 20, 2022
By AdmissionSight

What International Students Should Know About the US Admissions Process

Victoria Rosenthal is a former international student who attended Boston University for undergraduate and Florida International University and Miami Ad School for graduate. She was born and raised in Honduras, and she graduated with both a Honduran and a US HS diploma, making it easier to apply to US schools. She participated in college prep programs during the summers to supplement her school’s offerings. It’s important to know about international students applying to US schools.

One of her most important bits of advice for international students applying to US schools is to start preparing early to seek out assistance and help, identify resources, complete requirements, and submit applications by the deadlines. Victoria also emphasized that students look for support from outside their high schools, especially for completing the visa and finding financial aid sources.

Two people having a one-on-one talk

At AdmissionSight, our college admission experts have helped thousands of international students earn admission to prestigious schools across the US. Are you an international student wondering how to apply to US colleges, what are the requirements for international students to study in the USA, and what do US universities look for in international students. International students applying to US schools use our strategies and tips to successfully gain admission and secure your place at the top schools in the US.

Start Early

As always, time is of the essence, especially for international students applying to US schools. You’ll have additional steps and requirements to take before you can enroll, so you’ll need to start even sooner, perhaps in your junior year. Victoria suggests taking your standardized tests in your junior year of high school or college, so that if your scores are not as high as you’d like, you have time to schedule another test before your deadlines.

Additionally, international students will need to pay special attention to the deadlines for each of their schools. Start working in the Common App, Coalition App, or school-exclusive applications as soon as you can. You will also need to decide if you are applying for early action, early decision 1, early decision 2, along with other deadlines related to scholarships.

Your deadlines will likely be in October or November if you are applying early for the next year’s fall admissions. You’ll need to submit all your materials by February and March, if you are only seeking regular admissions for the fall of the same year.

For graduate and post-graduate students, deadlines may be a little different with deadlines varying depending if students are applying for fall or spring admissions. The regular decision deadline may be between January and March for fall admission of the same year. On the other hand, the regular decision deadline may be anywhere between July and September for spring admission of the next year.

Based on these deadlines, international students applying to US schools will need to also calculate how much time they’ll need to:

Request and receive recommendation letters.

Your recommenders will need time to prepare and submit your recommendation letters to each of the schools. As a rule, you should give them at least four weeks’ notice before your deadlines. This will ensure they have time to write your letters of recommendation, review them, and send them through to the appropriate channels.
Register for and take language tests and standardized tests.

A man writing on a piece of paper

Most international students will be required to take more standardized tests, including a language requirement to demonstrate strong English-language skills. The standardized tests that international students applying to US schools might be required to take: Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), International English Language Testing Service (IELTS), Pearson Test of English (PTE), and the test formerly known as the Cambridge English Advanced (C1 Advanced).

Of course, international students will also still have to take the SAT or ACT, and any required Subject Tests, depending on the program you are applying to. So, you’ll need to be strategic about scheduling your test dates or being sure that certain test scores will or will not be required.

Find scholarships and alternative funding sources.

International students quite often get the short end of the stick when it comes to being considered for financial aid. Many schools do not offer international students any form of financial aid, so students who are admitted will need to either fund their education on their own or work to find scholarships for international students.

You may still need to complete the FAFSA or CSS Profile for certain scholarships or other funding sources. Through research, you should be able to identify whether your choice schools offer financial aid to international students to better prepare and plan for how you will fund your overseas education.

Choosing US Colleges

When making your college list of US schools, you might be tempted to follow the decisions of your peers. Victoria recommends applying to unknown schools, what she calls hidden gems, that your peers and yourself may be unfamiliar with, but which have their own prestige and notoriety. These are schools that your peers will not be applying to, which improves your odds and chances of admission. Some of the factors you might consider when choosing US international schools include rankings, eligibility, tuition, and location.


You can do your own research to find top schools for your desired major or program. This will show your different scores based on a variety of measures, like graduation rates, class sizes, student facilities, and net costs, among other data. Using rankings can help you to filter schools that rank high in areas of specific interest to you or general recognition.


The competition for admission to highly selective schools is always fierce, but for international students, it is even fiercer. The standards are even higher, with more required standardized tests for students to take and additional legal requirements to even accept an offer of admission.

A female student very focused in writing

Victoria said international students have to prove themselves even more than US students because they have to stand out amongst a wider pool of students from a wider range of schools outside the typical US format. According to Victoria, international students applying to US schools have to be even better than their American peers.


Because many US schools do not offer financial aid, the net costs of attending are even higher for international students. Students from other countries can expect to pay even higher costs than the average, as much as $25,000 to $50,000, depending on whether they attend a public or private school.
Victoria encourages international students to only apply to schools that offer international students some form of financial aid, especially if it is merit scholarships. She advised against applying to schools that expressly state they do not give financial aid to international students, unless they have financial support from other sources, like parents or saved funds.


There are many considerations to make when it comes to the location of US schools. Victoria mentioned culture shock and the weather as being two things she struggled to get used to as an international student.

If you’re used to living in a rural area, then suddenly moving to an urban or city will be a drastic shock. If you are from a warmer or tropical climate, attending school in a location where it snows for half the year will require an entirely new wardrobe. These are considerations you’ll need to make when applying to US schools as an international student.

Applying to US Colleges

When applying to US colleges, you’ll have the follow a process that is both similar to and different from US students. International students will still need to submit their application materials and take standardized tests. But, additionally, international students applying to US schools may have to get their transcript evaluated and apply for a student visa.

Application materials

A typical application will require international students to submit:

  • Transcripts or equivalent records of high school grades and college credits
    Résumé or CV
  • Standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT)
  • Proof of English-language proficiency (TOEFL, IELTS, PTE, C1)
  • Purpose statement
  • Application fee
  • Writing sample
  • Passport and passport photo

Transcript Evaluation

Depending on the curriculum used by your school, you may be required to submit your academic record or transcript for a transcript evaluation. This evaluation will provide the school with an equivalency calculation of how your courses compare to US courses typically taken in high school. It is possible that you may have a similar experience to Victoria’s in that you are able to complete both your country’s educational requirements and those of the US to receive a HS diploma. This kind of foresight may help you avoid having to get your transcript evaluated.

a female student studying outside with her laptop on her lap

For transcript evaluation, we recommend seeking the assistance of third-party agencies that are members of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) or the Association of International Credential Evaluators, Inc. (AICE). They will be equipped to provide you with a certified transcript evaluation that schools will accept.

Student Visa

Along with a passport, international students who are admitted to a US school will need to apply for a student visa. The visa is required for almost all international travel, with exceptions for certain countries. Most international students will require a visa, but there are other types of visas they can apply for as well.

The two classifications of visa that apply in this case are the F-1 visa and the M-1 visa. If you are an international student applying to a four-year US school, you will fill out the F-1 form. The M-1 form is for nonacademic and vocational studies only, such as flight school or business school, but they may also be issued for students admitted to junior and community colleges.

To receive an F-1 visa, internationals will need to meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Apply and receive admission to an accredited US school that is SEVP-approved, which includes high schools, universities, conservatories, elementary schools, seminaries, and language schools.
  • Enroll as a full-time student at an accredited institution.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in English or enroll in classes to develop English proficiency.
  • Show proof of funding or financial aid for tuition and other costs of school in the US.
  • Maintain ties to the country of origin to provide enough evidence of intent to return after studies in the US are completed. Students should be aware that an F-1 visa is temporary, and students wanting to work or remain in the US after graduating will need to apply for a different visa.
  • Be living overseas in a different country besides the US.

Because of the time required to submit and receive a student visa, students should be sure they plan ahead, follow all the steps of the process, and apply with enough time to receive a decision before enrollment is required. Victoria cautions students to be aware that visa decisions are made by a government agency based on a random lottery that may or may not admit them depending on a variety of factors, like quotas and daily limits.

Not being approved for a visa could completely derail international students applying to US schools, so be mindful of this and work with your school on submitting the correct application and the best one possible.

Financial Aid

Because the amount of financial aid offered to international students may be limited, students will need to consider seeking sources of financial aid from scholarships and other sources. You should start by connecting with your college’s financial aid department to find more information on what financial aid is available to international students, if any.

Then, you should ask your parents, as they may have funds set aside or access to funding for your education through their career or your local government. Scholarships are another way that international students can fund their education, focusing on those offered to students from overseas countries. Other ways to fund your international education include private loans, but these may be difficult to access without a cosigner who is a US citizen or green card holder.

Outside of these options for financial aid, you may be able to apply for different exchange programs offered through your local government. These programs may include scholarships and grants, and they will vary depending on your home country. Try using your high school as a resource for these kinds of awards, but remember that you may have to seek elsewhere outside of your school, too.

Working as an International student

The rules for studying while on a student visa are rigid and students must follow them to the letter. The rules for working are the strictest, with much working activity restricted or outright prohibited. F-1 visa students cannot work any off-campus jobs during their freshman or first year.

A two women are conducting an interview

They may work on-campus employment, but the position will be subject to conditions and restrictions based on the type of job, hours they can work, tasks they can perform, and a host of other specifics. After the first academic year is complete, F-1 students are then given permission to participate in three different types of off-campus employment:

1. Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

CPT gives international students the opportunity to work in a job related to their major that is a required part of their major or program and results in course credit at minimum. For most CPT, the employment is in the form of a job, a paid or unpaid internships, or cooperative (co-op) education. The work is apart of the course or program curriculum, and it is a requirement for students to complete. Students have 12 months to complete their CPT requirements, and they must finish them before they graduate.

2. Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion)

With OPT, international students have the option to work at any job for which they can receive approval. They have 12 months to complete, but they can receive an extension of up to 24 months. Students can finish before or after graduating, and you are not required to earn course credit.

Mistakes to avoid

When applying as an international student to US schools, you may be tempted to make some of these common mistakes:

  • Avoid obsessing about or spending your time and energy on just one or two prestigious and well-known schools. These types of schools will likely get numerous applicants from your same schools. Instead, spend time learning about and researching other schools with comparable offerings that might provide a better match with your academic goals and financial needs.
  • Think carefully about the other important factors when applying as an international student to US schools. You want to think about the “soft factors” that factor in, Not giving enough attention to the soft factors that are how your background can be fully leveraged to make you stand out from other international students and American students.
  • Construct a personal narrative that is honest and authentic. Failing to “tell your story” as you put together your application materials can make you ordinary and just like every other applicant. Ideally, your essay responses, extracurricular activities and leadership involvement, and academic rigor and excellence will all align with your future major or concentration and the school’s goals for their incoming admitted student population.
  • Plan to follow your passion. Many international students may come from cultures that value professional success over creativity and passion. However, it is important to understand that passion and authenticity are very important to American college admissions. You may need to dig deep to truly identify and follow your passions, but most schools will only be moved by you when you do.

AdmissionSight supports international students

Over the last 10 years, we have helped thousands of international students secure their spots at prestigious and highly selective universities and colleges. Join their ranks by scheduling a consultation with one of our college admissions experts today.




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