Choosing to study at a U.S. college (university) is a big life decision, and one that has many implications. These range from which college to choose, to what to study and where to live, in addition to navigating the complex world of student financing. As an international student, you also have to apply for and receive a U.S. student visa.
This guide helps you navigate an application to a U.S. college as an international student, including how to choose a college, how to apply to a college, the U.S. visas available, financial aid options, and a checklist of what to remember before you leave for your exciting new life as a student in the United States.
Choosing a U.S. College
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are nearly 4,000 colleges in the United States (defined as degree-granting postsecondary institutions). These span the width and breadth of the United States, from California to New York and North Dakota to New Mexico. Every U.S. state has many universities to choose from — California comes out on tops with the most (416 colleges) and Wyoming the least (just nine colleges). There are seemingly endless choices. So where do you start?
One approach is to look at how all these colleges rank overall in the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings and apply to the ones that score top marks either broadly or in your specific field of interest. Looking at that list you’ll see some internationally recognized names. But you should go beyond the brand name and look at the underlying data: average class sizes, students to faculty ratio (how many professors there are per student), student facilities such as libraries, average cost of living in the area, and, of course, the financial aid that’s available.
Another aspect to consider are entry requirements. Competition, especially for the top U.S. colleges, is fierce and requires early and dedicated preparation. Entry requirements depend on individual colleges, but generally as an international student you can expect to be asked for your grades from high school, a standardized SAT or ACT test result, a TOEFL or IELTS English language score (if applicable), and an essay (or a personal statement) demonstrating why you want to come study at that particular college.
The tuition at many U.S. colleges will probably be greater than that in your home country, and that’s to be expected. The United States is one of the most expensive countries in which to study. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition cost in 2018-2019 was $18,383 for U.S. public universities and $44,306 for private universities. So, it’s important consider value when looking at U.S. colleges, and that goes beyond just a brand name. Make sure that you look at financing from a variety of different sources, including financial aid provided by colleges, during your university search. It might be that one college offers better value than another college because of the financial aid that they are willing to provide. You might also apply for scholarships, such as these for DACA students.
Finally, check out where the U.S. colleges you’re applying to are geographically. Some colleges are in cities with a high cost of living such as New York, Washington, D.C., or Boston, while those in rural communities will be less expensive. This will impact your budget but might also affect your ability to find internships or jobs linked to your degree, so it’s a delicate balance. The climate also varies widely across the United States, so if you don’t like hot summers or very cold winters, you might want to factor that into your search.
To recap: consider value as well as brand when you’re looking at U.S. colleges, look at the cost-of-living not just tuition, check out financial aid options, and build a shortlist of colleges that you would like to study at.
Applying to a U.S. College
So, you did your research, checked out the costs, ruled out a few places because they get too cold or hot during certain times of the year, and you have now built your shortlist of U.S. colleges. Next up is applying to them and competition is fierce. In 2019 to 2020, over one million foreign students enrolled in U.S. colleges, and that number has been increasing every year since the 1950s. So, how do you stand out from the crowd?
Well, starting your application early and preparing for each stage is critical. In the United States, high school students often begin filling out their applications between their junior and senior years of high school. U.S. News provides an in-depth overview of the steps and stages of applying for college, but here are the key takeaways:
· Start your application preparation early – The earlier that you decide to study in the United States, the more time you have to prepare and submit your applications. This is especially important if you want to use the Early Decision process (ED) offered by some U.S. colleges, which means that you might get an offer in December of the year before you want to start studying.
· Take the college essay seriously – Sure, having good grades and being a great student helps, but the college essay (also known as a personal statement) is a vitally important part of your application. In a college essay, you write about a topic or theme that the university has set for you. This could be asking why you choose to apply to the college or about a time when you overcame adversity. It’s designed to be a moment for you to shine and show a broad range of thinking and self-analysis.
· Schedule and prepare for the SAT or ACT tests – An SAT or ACT test score is a very important in the college admissions process. Many colleges look at applicants within a certain score band, so you need to target the band that your college accepts. This means a year or more of preparing for and taking the test ahead of when you apply to the college.
· Check if you need an English language test – U.S. colleges will require proof that you will be able to follow the instructions and lessons (which are all in English) by asking for an English language test. This is either the TOEFL or IELTS, although the TOEFL is a more common requirement in the United States. This test is not required for international students from certain countries (for example, the United Kingdom or Canada), so check whether an English language test is required. If it is, prepare early and take classes if required, because these tests can be as challenging as the SAT or ACT exams.
· Check out the Common App – Applying to different U.S. colleges can be time-consuming and expensive (each college will have a fee). To make it easier for applicants, 900 colleges use the Common App. This guides you through the process and makes applying to multiple colleges an easier process.
You’ve chosen your college and got an acceptance letter — congratulations! Now what? Well, if you’re a U.S. citizen or green card holder, you can skip to the financing section, but if you’re not then you’ll need a U.S. visa to come study at your college. This visa will most likely be the F-1 visa. The F-1 visa allows you to temporarily live in the United States for a defined period of time while studying at a school, college, seminary, or conservatory. The key word here is temporarily because this is not a permanent residency visa.
The requirements for an F-1 visa are:
· Apply and be accepted into a course of study at a SEVP-approved school in the United States. SEVP-approved schools are not just universities — they can also be high schools, seminaries, private elementary schools, conservatories, or a language program.
· You must be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution.
· You must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency.
· Have proof of sufficient financial funds to support study in the United States.
· Have ties to your home country that show an intent to return after you finish studying in the United States, since the F-1 visa program is a temporary visa.
· Live outside the United States when you apply.
Make sure that you plan ahead and follow the step-by-step process provided in our in-depth F-1 visa guide.
Financial aid options
One important thing to note is that international students are not eligible for federal loans from the U.S. government (for example, Stafford Loans). When you apply for your F-1 visa, you will also have to show that you can support yourself through your studies, which means that your student financing can come from the following sources:
· Financial aid or scholarships from your college – Contact your college’s financial aid department for more information about options available to you as an international student.
· Private loans – These private loans can be difficult to arrange if you don’t have a U.S. citizen or green card holder co-signer. But if you do, they can be an option depending on your financial circumstances. Make sure that you shop around for rates and terms, though.
· Your home country’s government – There might be options available to you in your home country through formal exchanges, scholarships, or grants. This will vary by country.
· Finding a job while you study – The rules around working while you study in the United States are strict. F-1 students cannot work off-campus during the first academic year, but may accept on-campus employment subject to conditions and restrictions. After the first academic year, F-1 students can engage in three types of off-campus employment:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion)
- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) OPT
There might also be other options for student financing, but these will vary from person to person. The safest approach is to have a plan to finance your studies before committing to coming to the United States to study.
Before You Leave
You’ve applied, been accepted, got the visa, and secured financing for your U.S. studies. You’re almost there, but here’s a last checklist of important items to bring with you to study in the United States:
· Health insurance – Make sure that you’ve arranged health insurance for your time in the United States. Typically, the college that you’re studying at will help you with this.
· Phone plan – Phoning home is expensive so make sure that you’ve looked into a phone plan that works for your needs.
· A way to get money to the United States – Make sure that you have a way to get money to the United States when you open a bank account.
· Copies of all your important documents – Make sure that you have copies of all your important documents, especially if some of them cannot be obtained outside your home country or its consulate and embassy.
· Clothes for all seasons – The United States has many seasons and some can be very extreme, depending on where you will live. Make sure you bring clothes for all seasons.
· …and a sense of adventure — The United States is a beautiful, rich, and varied country, with lots to offer. Bring your sense of adventure, and you won’t be disappointed!