International Students' Application Process

Vice President of Enrollment Management, Cottey College

Time changes things—including the university admission process. From how students access their university applications to the standardized tests schools require, it can be hard to follow all the details that change from year to year. But applying to U.S. universities and colleges is doable, especially with this general overview to help keep you on track!

Before the application

The U.S. university application process starts long before you actually fill out any forms. Truly, you should start thinking about university when you begin secondary school, then start focusing on the logistics of applying during your second-to-last year.

Begin by taking the most challenging classes you can. Your transcripts are very important in the application review because universities want to see if you are prepared for the academic rigors of their classrooms. Consider taking IB or AP courses, if they are available during your final secondary school year. You cannot expect to take basic courses and get in to a top U.S. university. Admission officers like to see students who challenge themselves—inside and outside the classroom.

You may have a talent for sports, theater, or art. You may have volunteered at homeless shelters or hospitals. Whatever your extracurricular passion, make sure it is documented and added to your transcript and/or application. It is important to show what makes you different from other applicants with the same academic background. Colleges like to see what new students have to offer to make the campus a better experience for everyone.

Use today’s resources

There are so many tools at your disposal, not the least of which is the Internet, and most are free. For example, practically every university in the United States uses Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate campus news. Then there’s EducationUSA, a free academic advising service with offices around the globe (learn more on page 28). Or you can use Skype ( to make free international calls to admission offices, as well as current students and alumni, of the U.S. colleges and universities you’re considering. Finally, you might be able to meet with alumni who live near you; just contact the universities’ admission or alumni relations offices to coordinate the meeting.

Contact admission offices early in the process and speak to university representatives to help you step-by-step as you navigate the application process. Don’t assume all universities want the same information. Admission representatives often travel overseas to recruit students. Contact the admission office to find out if a representative will be visiting near you. Arm yourself with questions for these meetings and whenever you are around university representatives. For example, college fairs are a great way to meet many university officers at once and have your questions answered face-to-face. When you attend, try to speak with as many universities as possible—not just the largest and most well known. You may be surprised by what some of the smaller colleges have to offer in academics and scholarships.

Plan for your future

Research many universities that offer the area(s) of study you’re interested in. Once you match your academic needs, you can pursue other preferences such as location, food, and social life. These more personal choices are very important. If you prefer the mountains, beach, or the Great Plains to live and study, don’t push those feelings aside. On campus, consider your preferences regarding “fast food” (street food), gourmet fare, or standard cafeteria food. What about outside of class—are there museums, parks/nature reserves, or shopping near by? Are there fraternities and sororities, or clubs and organizations on campus that interest you? Where do you want to live? In a dormitory, suite, or off-campus apartment? You will probably spend at least four years at the university you choose, so you should like where you are, what you eat, how you socialize, and other area amenities.

You can prepare for standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, IELTS, or TOEFL by taking practice tests. Make sure you know the school codes for the universities you wish to receive your scores. In addition to test scores and transcripts, most schools require an essay or writing sample. Here are some helpful hints: tell stories using brief anecdotes; use vivid language; be specific; avoid clichés, empty words, or stereotypes; keep your focus narrow and personal; be dynamic; get feedback and revise; be yourself; and most importantly check for spelling or grammatical errors!

Every campus is different

You should also double-check items that require other people’s participation, such as your recommendation letter(s). Be sure to follow up with any teacher, coach, clerical person, etc. you asked to write and send recommendation letters. You may want to send or call the letter writers to remind them of coming deadlines. (And don’t forget to thank them for their time once your applications are completed!)

It’s also a good idea to confirm with your secondary school that your final transcripts were sent. You should make sure your universities received your application fees as well, particularly if they were not sent at the same time as your applications. Many application decisions are stalled due to missing fees. You can usually pay online with a credit card, money order, or wired through your bank. Be sure to send your fee in U.S. dollars as well.

And though this may seem obvious, make sure you completed your applications fully. Many applying students feel it doesn’t matter if they leave a question blank/unanswered. The truth is that every question on the application is important! If the college or university did not consider it relevant, then they would have left it off the application.

Finally, every university and college has its own application deadlines, but they tend to fall around the same time. Early applicants (Early Action, Early Decision, or Single Choice Early Action) generally need to get their applications in by either November 1 or November 15.

Some universities also have a second deadline for early applicants, usually January 1. Granted, that’s not very early, but Early Decision applications are binding, meaning you’re committed to attending your Early Decision school if you’re accepted. Because colleges like accepting students they feel confident will attend, an extended Early Decision process works for both the school and the applicants. Schools without a set deadline have a rolling admission policy, where applications are considered as they are received and students admitted until the school reaches capacity. Applicants usually receive a response to their completed application in six weeks or less. These differing dates make it very important that you confirm the deadlines for every university you’re applying to.

Hopefully, following these simple guidelines will bring you that much closer to enjoying your study abroad experience in the United States!

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