The US has most of the world’s highest-ranking universities, including Ivy League schools that funnel graduates into elite fields with advanced networking opportunities. In the Ivy League, no college or university has an overall acceptance rate of more than 10%, and most only average 7%. Ivy League admission rates are even lower for international students.
For domestic students, the college application process is daunting and confusing, but for international students, requirements and time frames may differ from the norm in their home country. Additionally, international students are competing against the best students from other countries around the world, so aiming to attend a US university requires focus and planning early in your high school or secondary school career. Let’s outline how international students can make a plan, know what standardized tests you need to take (and why you should take them as early as possible), and focus on extracurriculars you’re genuinely interested in.
Start planning early to get into the Ivy League
In order to start planning early, you should have an understanding of the deadlines for the various core pieces of your university applications. These include:
- Application deadlines for Early Action, Early Decision, and Regular Decision
- Financial aid
- Final acceptance dates for letters of recommendation
- TOEFL or IELTS scores
- SAT or ACT scores
- SAT Level 2 Subject Tests [discontinued starting in June 2021]
However, you should not only know when these various items are due but also have a plan for when you will do them. Depending on where you live, certain tests may not be available in your country or region. For countries that do have testing centers, there are only eight total testing days each year for the SAT internationally.
Map out your application timeline well in advance
You should decide ahead of time, preferably by your second-to-last year of secondary school, what your university application timeline will be. You should know whether you want to take the SAT or ACT and which tests dates you’ll sign up for. You should also have an idea of which English Language proficiency test you’re required to take—such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)—and plan out those test dates as well.
Aim to get all this testing done as far in advance as possible. It will give you more time to focus on extracurricular activities, which are generally more important to the US application process than in other countries. It’ll also give you ample time to focus on your personal essay when you start gathering your materials for your application. Ideally, you want to aim to have all your testing done the summer before the application deadline.
Taking the SAT/ACT as an international student
While most US universities have gone testing-optional for students applying to the Class of 2025, most Ivy League schools generally require international students to still submit SAT or ACT scores with their applications. However, standardized testing requirements vary from school to school.
Harvard University isn’t requiring international students to submit SAT or ACT scores this year but is still encouraging them to submit scores, and they strongly recommend students submit SAT Subject Test scores while they’re still available. In standard school years, international students are “only exempt from the SAT/ACT requirement if these tests are not available in [their] country and traveling to take them is logistically or financially prohibitive.” Harvard also doesn’t require any international students to submit TOEFL scores.
In contrast, the University of Pennsylvania does require international students to submit TOEFL scores if “English is not the applicant’s native language or if English has not been the applicant’s primary language of instruction for the duration of high school.” However, they make no mention of the SAT or ACT in their international application guidelines. Instead, they say, “Where national examinations are required for admission to a pre-university program (e.g., GCSE, SPM, WASC, O-levels, or India's "Std X" examination), you should have received high marks on these exams and should present certified copies of the results with your Penn application.”
The trend among most Ivy Leagues and highly competitive US schools is that the SAT or ACT are either required or recommended as a demonstration of your academic prowess and mastery of English. Because these tests are only offered in English, most Ivy League schools, such as Harvard and Brown University, will accept a high score in the English and Reading portions of these tests in lieu of an English language proficiency exam score. That said, if you study and excel on the SAT/ACT English language portions, you’ll almost certainly find the TOEFL easy in comparison.
Applying to multiple schools
If you plan on applying to multiple schools, you should take the SAT or ACT at least once. Even if your prospective universities don’t require either test for International students, they can still be submitted as optional materials, which demonstrates your dedication to academic excellence.
Giving extracurriculars enough attention
Just like domestic applicants, you should focus your extracurricular activities around your authentic interests. Avoid pursuing a seemingly novel activity just because you believe it’s something admission officers want to see or because an international student recently admitted to Harvard or Yale University made it the highlight of their application. If your interests are genuine, that’ll come through in the amount and quality of time you spend doing that activity. It can further come through and distinguish you from your peers depending on how well you represent your interests through your personal essays.
Your extracurriculars also don’t need to be excessively exotic. Just because some students go to Haiti every year to work with nonprofits doesn’t mean that’s expected of every student who’s accepted to an Ivy League school. Make your activities interesting by dedicating yourself to something deeply personal or by achieving official recognition for your efforts—or some combination of both. This includes:
- Participating in national competitions or programs
- Interning at a well-established laboratory or company (especially if you develop a meaningful professional bond with your superiors, which would incline them to write a recommendation for you)
- Climbing the ranks in a group and/or holding a leadership position
We previously advised to get as much of your testing out of the way as early as possible; this is also so you can have enough time to achieve that level of recognition and/or uniqueness in your extracurriculars without also having to worry about traveling to or studying for a test at the same time.
Planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to get everything done that you need to for your university applications—whether you’re applying to the Ivies or any other school—is key to a successful and minimal stress application season. You’ll set yourself up for success and increase your chances of admission by giving yourself time to prepare your best application.
Stay tuned for part three of our international students and the Ivy League series to learn how to tackle your personal essays, review your application for key details and mistakes, and other final advice for your university search process.
Check out our International Students section for more advice that can help global students get into great universities!