Group of five students in brightly lit classroom raising hands and smiling

7 Questions International Students Should Ask to Start the US University Search

The US is a popular college destination, but the admission process is work. Ask these questions as an international student to start the university search.

The United States has become the academic destination of choice for international students, welcoming over 700,000 learners to colleges and universities across its extraordinarily diverse landscape. International study allows students to gain an understanding of other cultures and a global perspective in their chosen field. The best way to understand globalization and its impact on the world is to immerse yourself in other cultures. As you begin your college search, take a closer look at what universities in America have to offer.

1. How do I begin the search?

At the start of your search, your options can seem overwhelming, but with some time, patience, and hard work, it will pay off in the end. The purpose of the college search is to find the right match for you. While you may face uncertainty and confusion, with such a wide selection, you’ll probably find a school that’s more than suitable. The trick is to start your search early, well before your final year of secondary school. It’s never too soon to start researching colleges and universities! Over the next couple of months, visit different college search websites. Try to get a good sense of each school’s mission and student body. Then, contact schools that interest you directly—they will be more than happy to send you promotional materials, including information about tuition and financial aid opportunities, as well as the average test scores of successful applicants.

Related: University Search: Thinking Beyond Rankings and Name Brands

2. Where do I want to study?

A school’s environment can vary drastically. You will find schools with just a few hundred students and some with more than 40,000. There are universities in urban areas, small towns, and very rural locations. Select a school that fits your individual living and learning needs. Consider where you want to live over the next four years and the campus environment of your desired school. Schools in urban settings require navigating public transportation on a regular basis, but they also offer the excitement of city culture, arts, food, and nightlife. Each city in the United States enjoys its own unique culture and feel, from the vitality of New York City to charming Durham, North Carolina, to artistic Portland, Oregon. At the other end of the spectrum, schools in rural or suburban settings can dominate the character of the local community, where the campus serves as the town’s social and cultural hub. Each area comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. You should carefully consider what type of environment is right for you.

3. What is the application process like?

The application process will differ slightly from school to school, so it’s important to pay attention to the requirements. Unlike applying to university in your home country, there is no single set of requirements or a universal application you can fill out for all US colleges and universities. However, many US institutions accept The Common Application, which could cut down the time spent filling out forms. Take any necessary standardized tests well before the application deadlines. You will also probably need to solicit recommendation letters, so start thinking of two or three professors, school counselors, and employers who know you well enough to speak to your character. Talk to them in advance and give any writers at least two full months to write the piece, so they can mail it in well before the application deadlines. 

After finding a group of schools that appeal to you, research their tuition and average financial aid packages. Financing your education is a significant factor of the admission process for many students and their families, and public and private institutions vary considerably in cost. Before applying to any colleges or universities, you should assess the total cost of attending each one. This includes tuition, lodging, meals, registration and lab fees, and other miscellaneous expenses. Most universities provide an up-to-date estimate of these expenses. In addition, when you apply for your F-1 (student) visa, you are required to demonstrate your ability to meet these costs.

Related: Top Tips for Writing and Editing Your University Apps

4. What admission requirements should I meet?

Take a close look at the admission requirements for each potential school to decide where you fit best. You want to narrow down your choices to a set of realistic options before applying; pick your top five to seven schools. Try this formula for choosing this core group of universities (it takes into consideration your academic and extracurricular credentials and how they align with the schools’ admission requirements): apply to one or two “safety” schools, where your credentials are highly desirable, and you're therefore very likely to be admitted; three or four schools that are a perfect match for your credentials, and you will probably be admitted; and one or two “reach” schools, where your credentials may be substandard, but you think you might still have a chance of admission. All of these schools should capture your interest in some way. You should be able to imagine yourself at each one and feel confident you would be happy there.

5. How do I want to study?

It's also important to consider your learning style and what type of student you are. Will you be most comfortable at a school with small classes, where you will be expected to actively participate in class every day? Would you prefer large lectures, with smaller study groups and tutorials? Do you work best surrounded by students with the same academic interests? Are you hoping to have a close relationship with your professors? If you give some thought to what type of academic environment allows you to be the most confident and successful student, then you can narrow down your options considerably.

Studying in the United States offers an academic and intellectual flexibility rarely found in other higher education systems. Students don't need to know exactly what they want to study at the start of their university careers because they have freedom to explore several academic subjects before determining a major or a course of study. Most institutions encourage students to try different fields through some type of general education or core curriculum. Students can usually choose a major course of study in one discipline and a second major or a minor, specialization, or concentration in another field. This enables them to craft a curriculum that best matches their academic goals and future career plans. You can also start university “undecided” to explore a number of different academic fields before officially declaring a major.

Related: How to Choose Your Major and Explore All Your Options

6. How diverse are US campuses?

Students at American universities come from diverse backgrounds, and your experience is sure to be rich and multicultural. Although you might attend classes with other students from your native country, you will meet students from throughout the United States and around the world. Bringing together people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds enriches the university community and students’ overall learning experiences. For example, this past academic year, Fordham University welcomed students from 47 states and 55 countries.

7. What kinds of extracurricular activities are available?

Many international students are especially interested in the cocurricular aspects of American university life. Students are encouraged to join intramural sports teams; participate in student government; and attend evening lectures, films, and other campus events in addition to meeting their academic obligations. You may be interested in playing football (or soccer, as it’s referred to in America) at the varsity, intramural, or club level, or perhaps you want to participate in theater or musical ensembles. Maybe you see yourself volunteering with community service projects around campus, or even as student body president! Universities have so much to offer outside the classroom, and you can get involved in countless activities, so use these extracurricular interests to help narrow down your choices even further. If you need additional advice on which schools might be a good match for you, there are many online resources, and personal help is also available at the EducationUSA centers throughout the world. Ultimately, you need to take all of your needs into account to discover which school will be the best match. In the United States, it’s not always the university with the most famous name—schools have unique personalities, just like their students.

Related: The Best Ways to Get Involved at US Universities

You are about to embark on a potentially life-changing experience. Living in a foreign country and experiencing a different culture while studying under the tutelage of some of the world’s greatest professors is an exciting and rewarding adventure. The decision to study abroad takes courage and determination. It also yields great rewards, both personally and academically. Are you ready to begin your adventure? Visit our college search for a complete listing of US universities and colleges and their wide range of program offerings. Be bold, and take a step that will likely change your life and shape your professional future.

If you're concerned about university based on what you've been told about it, learn about 6 Common Misconceptions About US Colleges and Universities to dispel your worries. 

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress


High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me find the school I am currently attending by consistently sending me emails of other schools. This allowed me to do research on other schools as well as the one I am in now!

Elizabeth Stafford

Elizabeth Stafford

High School Class of 2021

As a UK student moving to California due to my dad's job in the military, when I first signed up for CollegeXpress a few months ago, the college process ahead seemed daunting and incredibly stressful. That all changed after I started to explore what this website had to offer. Not only was I helped by the vast array of resources available to me, but through being a CollegeXpress member, there have been so many more benefits. There have been emails with college tips—all of which I found incredibly helpful—as well as invitations to events and notifications of scholarships that'll make college possible for me. Overall, I'm very grateful to CollegeXpress for all of these things and more. Not only have they helped me grow my understanding of the college process, but they've also helped me to grow as a person, giving me new skills that I can take with me through life.

Joan Franklin

Joan Franklin


I love this website and have been using it for years with my students. I originally bought products through Wintergreen Orchard House and appreciated having key facts at my fingertips when advising students. Your site is easy to access and offers a wide array of topics I need as a busy college counselor.

Maurice Whan

Maurice Whan

$2,000 Spring Scholarship Contest Winner, 2021

This year has been tough for my family and myself, so receiving this scholarship has been a blessing in disguise! CollegeXpress has been an excellent resource in helping me prepare financially for college. Thank you again for this amazing opportunity!

Hailey Riddile

Hailey Riddile

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me find scholarships to apply for and look into more colleges. While there are many websites similar to CollegeXpress, every website is different, and I've found a lot of good insight on this website. Receiving emails from CollegeXpress about scholarships is extremely useful, and getting insight about colleges near, far, and anywhere in between helps me narrow down my choices to what I want, which is also super helpful. The articles are always really good reads, and I can't stress enough how helpful this website has been to me. Anything related to college is beneficial to me as a senior, and I have learned lots of useful things to help me on my college journey this year.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Samford University

Birmingham, AL

Canisius College

Buffalo, NY

Hillsdale College

Hillsdale, MI

Fordham University

Bronx, NY