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Searching for Schools and Scholarships From Afar

Finding an American college or university to attend can seem like a daunting task, but there are a few simple steps you can take to make your dream of studying in the U.S. a reality.

For students living outside the United States, finding an American college or university to attend can seem like a daunting task, in part because the education system is different than in most other countries. The process does take time, but there are a few simple steps for you and your parents to take to make your dream of studying in the United States a reality.

“It’s a process,” says Ray Marx, Director of College Counseling at Colegio Americano de Quito and past President of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling. “And the more informed families are and the more time they take to research and ask questions, the better off they will be in the long run.”

Start early

The best way to make this process as easy as possible is to start early. In the United States, students submit their university applications in the fall of their senior year of high school, usually no later than early January. But international students need to start much earlier than that to identify the best school for them.

“Students should begin to look in their late sophomore or junior years,” says Jason Nevinger, Associate Director of Admission at Carnegie Mellon University. “Whatever educational system in their country, they should start about 18–24 months before graduation.”

Marx agrees and suggests starting even earlier. “We meet with families and students beginning in ninth grade, to allow them to see the big picture and talk about the process of studying outside the country,” he says.


It often helps to begin the process by working with your school counselor. “We advise students to start with the counselor at the local high school,” says Eddie West, Director of International Initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Many schools have a full range of resources for students.”

Online research is also helpful in these early stages, especially if your school does not have counselors available to help in this process. There is a plethora of websites designed for just this purpose (and CollegeXpress is one of them!). And if you have no idea where you would like to study, college rankings can be a good place to start . . . “but they are a terrible place to finish,” says Marjorie Smith, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Admission at the University of Denver. “They measure a school’s academic reputation, but they may not measure what is important to an individual student.”

Because of these published rankings, students often focus on a very small number of schools. That’s a mistake. “There are [approximately] 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and each has its strengths,” says Nevinger. “There are many schools where students can have wonderful, positive experiences with a great return on investment.”

An excellent resource for anyone wishing to study in the States is EducationUSA. This network of advising centers is supported by the U.S. Department of State and is set up precisely to help students wishing to study in the United States.  

“Without question, students should look here,” says West. “They are professional and ethical. Their mission is to represent all of U.S. higher education impartially. They work closely with U.S. colleges and university officials, but none of their advice is influenced toward one school.”

EducationUSA has counselors in 400 centers in 170 countries, and they work with students at no cost. For students who don’t live near an EducationUSA advising center, their website makes many resources available. “Talk to the advisors often,” West says. “They can be a source of information not commonly known that you might not find on a school’s website.”

Once you identify schools that fit your needs, start researching them. Most schools have information for international students on their websites, and you can also get information by connecting with the school via social media. Contact the admission departments of schools you are interested in and talk with them as well. And maintain contact; check in once a month and let them know you are interested in completing the application and being admitted to the school. “That kind of personal interaction can make a difference at some schools,” Smith says.

Finally, many schools participate in university tours and fairs in cities around the world. For students who live near these cities, attending such events is a wonderful chance to learn about a school, meet representatives, and talk with local alumni. Inquire with admission officers at the schools you’re considering to see where and when they might be in attendance.


Another way to make the process easier is to know your budget. “Have a conversation with your parents about how much you can afford,” Smith says. “That will help you determine the colleges you can attend. And once you know how much you have to spend and what schools fit that budget, you are well on your way.”

Finances are typically a big concern for most families when considering sending a student to study in the States. “It is always a question of the investment versus the return,” Marx says. “Concern about money can even hold students back from applying to schools
in the U.S.”

When determining your budget, it can be difficult to think past the first year of university. However, it’s important to make sure you have a financial plan in place for all four years. It may not seem fun to discuss money and budgets with your parents, but it is the only way to know how much you can really afford and how much scholarship money you will need.

“There is a risk in cobbling together enough resources for the first year and not having a plan after that,” says Smith. “That can put stress on parents and students and pressure on students to work illegally and violate their visa status.”

Many students need scholarships to make studying in the United States possible, and there are a lot available for international students. Many schools—though not all—have scholarships for international students, sometimes for students from specific countries or regions.

Other organizations, including some government and international groups, have scholarship programs to help students pay for school in the States. The Institute of International Education offers an online database of funding for international students.  

EducationUSA is also a good resource for scholarship information. Schools keep them informed of all their opportunities and sometimes share information exclusively with them.

Third-party agents and representatives

A note and word of caution: the process of looking for a university from afar is time consuming, but it is not extraordinarily difficult. It just takes some advanced planning, research, and careful attention to one’s applications. Admission officers strongly suggest that students and parents do this work on their own. However, if you choose to work with an agent or third-party representative, there are some things to know.

There are several concerns about working with a consultant or agent to find and apply to U.S. schools. Many of these agents are paid by individual schools to recruit students; because of that, they look out for the interests of the school and may not pay attention to a student’s best interests. Do not assume that an agent or agency is looking out for you and your unique needs. That means you need to do some research if you wish to work with a third-party representative. A good resource to identify ethical consultants is the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

If you do choose to work with a recruiter or agent:

  • Get information about the agent’s financial relationship with schools. Is a school paying them to recruit students?
  • If a recruiter represents a school, get verification from the school that they have a formal relationship with that agent. Check the school’s website or contact the school directly.
  • Request a written contract explaining exactly what you are paying for and what the agent will deliver. There should be no hidden fees.
  • It is never appropriate for an agent or consultant to charge a percentage of scholarship or financial aid money.
  • Walk away immediately if the agent or consultant offers to write or embellish any part of the application: the application form, personal statements or essays, high school transcripts, financial documents, etc. Colleges and universities expect you to be the sole author of the application, and they can rescind an offer of admission if they discover you submitted a fraudulent application.

Some schools clearly state their policies about agents and consultants on their websites. For example, UCLA specifically states that they “do not partner with agents to represent the school or to administer any part of the application process.” And Cornell University “expects all applicants to complete their application materials without the use of paid agents or credentialing services.”

As you can see, searching for a school in the United States takes a lot of time and attention. But if you start early and find a way to enjoy the process, you are well on your way to a bright future studying at the perfect college or university for you.

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