5 Essential College Application Tips for International Students

international students

More international students are studying in the U.S. than ever before. According to the Institute of International Education, over one million international students study at U.S. colleges and universities, representing about 5 percent of the total student population.

If you’re hoping to attend a U.S. college, you’ll need to put together an application — but the American admission process may be very different than what you’re used to. Before sending off your application, consider this advice for international students.

5 tips for international students applying to a U.S. college

1. Apply to several different schools

There are over 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. Some are extremely selective and only let in students with top grades and test scores; others have a more forgiving admission process.

To maximize their chances, most American students apply to several different colleges. They apply to a few “safety schools” where they feel confident they’ll get in. They also apply to two to three “on target” schools. They’re qualified to get into these schools, but admission is not guaranteed.

Finally, students apply to two to three “reach” schools. Getting in may be a long shot, but it’s possible. Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale are considered “reach” schools for just about every student since they’re so selective.

If you’re applying as an international student, send off five to eight applications to increase your chances of admission. Even if you have your sights set on one school, make sure all the schools on your list are ones you’d be happy to attend.

If application fees are an obstacle, contact the financial aid office of your prospective schools. Financial aid officers may grant you an application fee waiver.

2. Learn about the holistic admission process

Another unique feature of American admissions is that the process at many schools is holistic. Rather than looking solely at grades and test scores, admissions officers seek to learn about you as a person.

They want to know about your interests and passions. What do you do outside of school? How have you contributed to your community? What skills have you developed outside of academics?

You can reveal your personality through your personal essay and letters of recommendation. Plus, you’ll share any extracurricular activities or community engagement on your application.

If time allows, make it a point to join some clubs or take on an internship. Many U.S. colleges are interested in what you’ve done outside of the classroom, not just within it.

3. Spend time on your personal essay

Your personal essay is an important part of your international student college application. This college essay is very different from a typical academic essay you may have written in history class.

Admissions officers want you to share a specific anecdote from your life. Maybe it was a time you experienced failure, overcame a challenge, or learned a life-changing lesson. They’re interested in how you made meaning from this experience. Your personal essay is a chance for you to reveal your identity.

Before sitting down to write it, read some sample college essays and ask for feedback from friends and family. People who know you best can help you communicate your unique voice.

4. Take the SAT and the TOEFL

Among other requirements, an American university application will likely ask that you take the SAT (or its counterpart, the ACT). The SAT is a test that measures your reasoning, verbal, and math skills.

If you grew up in a non-English speaking country, you may also need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Even if you speak English fluently, the TOEFL is a challenging exam. It’s strictly timed and asks you to deliver verbal “essays” in response to unpredictable questions.

Studying for both the SAT and the TOEFL is key. Before you start, research the average SAT and TOEFL scores of accepted students at your prospective colleges. That way, you’ll know what scores will help you get in.

5. Learn about your options for financial aid and scholarships

Most U.S. citizens apply for federal financial aid with an application called the FAFSA. If you’re an international applicant, you’re probably wondering, “Can international students apply to FAFSA?”

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Federal student aid is only available to U.S. citizens, but that doesn’t mean you have no options for financial help.

Colleges could give you aid in the form of grants or loans. If financial aid is important to you, ask colleges whether they help students with demonstrated need. You could also win scholarship money. Use one of the dozens of scholarship search tools to find free money for college.

If you need further funding, you might be able take out private student loans in the U.S. or your home country. Most U.S. lenders will likely require a cosigner, such as a parent. Be cautious about repayment plans and interest rates — interest rates on private student loans can get very high, making your student debt balloon over time.

Before accepting an offer of admission, figure out how you’ll fund your education and make sure your investment is worth the cost.

Plan early for your international student college application

Admissions officers at U.S. colleges review all four years of your high school experience. They look at your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and community involvement. Plus, they want to learn about your personality through your college essay and recommendation letters.

All of these American university application components take time, so start planning early. With enough preparation, you can submit an amazing application and get into your first choice school.

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