11 tips for international students applying to U.S. universities

Here are all the tips you need to know to attain that American dream from a girl who has done it.

Applying to university is a long and complicated process that often gives a headache to a lot of students. Take that struggle and double it – no multiply by five – that’s the plight of an international student applying for universities in the USA. There’s so much to do, and sometimes you wonder what you got yourself into, but in the end, it’s all worth it when you get that admission letter from your dream university. As someone who has gone through the strenuous process of being an international student applying for a U.S. university, here are some tips to ensure the success of your application, and some secrets I wish someone told me while I was in the application process.

1. The SATs are important but don’t fret about them

For students who are used to a different curriculum, the SATs might look really complicated. But the good news is that most universities have become test-optional or have flexible test policies, which means you can omit the SATs and depend on your own university’s qualifying exam. Furthermore, sometimes your country’s exam might actually be of more worth, for example, I did the A levels, and even with a mediocre SAT score, I never found myself at a disadvantage. And if you are doing SATs, Khan Academy is your friend.

2. The common app is a lot of work, but it’s straightforward
[Image Description: A man is working on a laptop.] Via Southern Bourbon Mountains
Getting through the common app is a huge part of the application process, and a lot of students find it intimidating, however, once you get used to the interface, the application isn’t that complicated. Some of the questions might not apply to you, but colleges don’t nitpick those answers when you are an international student. You can do it yourself without the help of an advisor, but if you do need help, your country’s Fullbright commission is a good place to go, both for advice and resources.

3. Apply to a lot of schools, so you have options
[Image Description: A woman proclaiming that she’s never out of options.] Via Streamer
The big mistake international students make is that we focus on the big schools, and don’t think about having options. Make sure you apply to a lot of schools – your top choices along with a couple of back up options. I was lucky enough to get into all of the five I applied to, but it doesn’t work out for everyone. Keep your backup options affordable, and pick schools with a high acceptance rate and are generous with aid.

4. Research scholarships and aid

College is always expensive, and for international students money can be something to worry about. If you’re someone who’s depending on potential scholarships to fund part of your cost, then you really need to research well. A lot of big schools aren’t as generous as you would expect, especially when you’re not from the USA. There’s nothing worse than getting into that dream school and then realizing that you can’t afford it (trust me, I went through that). Also, check the forms you have to fill out, and get to those in time to avoid missing opportunities.

[Image Description: A student writing exams.] Via Junkee
Colleges require you to do either TOEFL or IELTS, in order to check your proficiency in English. Now here’s something that they don’t specify – while IELTS is more catered towards UK and Australian universities, it’s the TOEFL that American universities might prefer. If you do the IELTS, chances are that they might require you to do another evaluation during orientation, or make you take English classes along with your regular courses, no matter how good your scores are. So it’s better to do TOEFL and avoid all that trouble.

6. The grades matter, but in your own terms
[Image Description: A student is lamenting about her grades.] Via Bustle
Colleges require your grades from year nine to twelve, and as someone who studied in a curriculum that has no idea what GPA is, I was quite nervous about uploading my grades. However, colleges are aware that schools around the world are different. If you don’t work with GPA, you can submit your ranks. In fact, I just scanned and uploaded my very juvenile looking school reports, with grades that were on the scale of 0-100. As long as you define how your school system works properly, then colleges will accept your grades the way they are.

7. The essay matters a lot
[Image Description: A man typing on a typewriter.] Via Medium
You might be a really good writer, but the essay is not just about grammar and good spelling. So while you get the regular proofreading done, make sure you get some people who would be able to give you feedback from a college administrator’s perspective. While there are a lot of websites that offer such services, I just made a few of my US-based college student friends read my essays, and get as many comments as possible from them. Read a lot of sample essays, work on different prompts, and write an essay that will make an impression on the reader.

8. Use your minority to your advantage
[Image Description: Two girls high fiving after one’s suggestion about taking advantage of something.] Via Giphy
This one is more for the POCs – there’s nothing that will get you to college as white guilt does. The best way to use this to your advantage is your personal essay, where talking about or mentioning your minority adds some value. For example, I wrote my essay on how I struggled to learn English, and especially as someone who applied as an English major, it was bound to create an impression. I am not saying that you should write a sob story, but being a minority and achieving heights despite the struggles that come with it, is something you can be rightfully proud of.

9. Select colleges based on your major
[Image Description: A girl shaking her head while saying, “law school.”] Via Auburn Family
You might be applying for high ranked colleges with amazing reviews and a stellar reputation, but the actual thing that matters is your major. When you are flying over all the way to America to attend university, leaving behind a comfortable life back home, you have to make sure that the academics are going to be worth all the trouble. Some lesser known schools might be the best for your major and even though they might not be ivy leagues, by the end of it, you would have made a wise decision when your degree is highly recognized despite your choice of university.

10. Select a reliable teacher you can count on
[Image Description: A woman talking about teamwork.] Via Giphy
There’s quite a bit of work reserved for a guidance counselor in college applications, but here’s the problem. Most international schools don’t have such an official. In that case, select a teacher who’s reliable and someone who genuinely cares about you and your future. Chances are they might be more clueless than you are about this process, so find some articles and guidelines and explain the requirements. Or be like me, and take your laptop and go camp in said teacher’s house, and work with them so their part can be done with your supervision.

11. Take a gap year
[Image Description: An animated gif explaining break time.] Via Giphy
Yes, you’ll idle away a year of your life, but trust me, it’s absolutely necessary. Graduate from school, and take a year off to do your SATS, TOEFL/IELTs, apply and take a deep breath once you’re done. And even after you get your admission letter, you’ll have a lot of chores to do, be it getting financial documents straight, getting your I-20, obtaining your VISA, and completing any medical requirements. By the time you get to all this, you’ll feel as if the year flew away, and you’ll be able to start college without any anxiety or stress.

And those are the tips that I have to offer from my personal experience. On top of that, I would definitely recommend you to do as much research as possible and get opinions from people who know their facts about college applications. Applying for a US university can be complicated, and at times you feel really lonely and stressed out, but trust me, once you click submit, it’s all worth it. Keep these things in mind, and good luck!