How to Better Manage Your US University and Scholarship Search Process

Managing the whole US admission process while also searching for scholarships to help pay for college is a lot for any student. Use this advice to balance it all.

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 takes 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. The more effort you put into the process now the better off you'll be in the long-run in terms of feeling perpared for school and financially able to afford it, 

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 February. 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.” Starting even earlier than that is smart if you're not quite sure where to start and need some assistance in building a list of colleges you're interested in. 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 schoosl, meet representatives, and talk with local alumni. Inquire with admission officers once you find schools you’re considering to see where and when they might be in attendance.

Research everything

It often helps to begin the process by working with your school counselor and the resources they can offer. 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 purpos, and if you have no idea where you would like to study, college rankings can be a good place to start... “but they're 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's 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 US Department of State and is set up precisely to help students wishing to study in the US.  “Without question, students should look here,” says Eddie West, Director of International Initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “They are professional and ethical. Their mission is to represent all of US higher education impartially. They work closely with US 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 advising center, their website makes many resources available. 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're interested in and talk with them as well. Ceck 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.  

Related: University Search: Thinking Beyond Rankings and Name Brands


Another way to make the process easier is to know your budget. Finances are typically a big concern for most families when considering sending a student to study in the States, so have an honest conversation with your parents about what you can reasonably afford.  When determining your budget, 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's the only way to know how much you can really afford and how much scholarship money you'll need. “There's 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 as well as pressure on students to work illegally and violate their visa status.” Many students need scholarships to make studying in the US possible, and there are a lot available for international students. Many schools—though not all—have scholarships for international students, sometimes even 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

Yhe process of looking for a university is time consuming, but it's not extraordinarily difficult. It just takes some advanced planning, research, and careful attention to one’s applications. Admission officers strongly suggest 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. 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. Don't assume that an agent or agency is looking out for you and your unique needs. That means you need to do some research before working 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 an independent counselor, here's what you need to do first:

  • Get information about the agent’s financial relationship with universities. 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 by checking the school’s website or contacting the school directly.
  • Request a written contract explaining exactly what you're paying for and what will be delivered. There should be no hidden fees, and it's 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 your application. 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.

It's worth noting that some schools clearly state their policies about agents and consultants on their websites. For example, the University of Caliofnia—Los Angeles specifically states, “We 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.” So keep an eye out for these kinds of declarations when researching schools. 

Related: Do You Need to Spend Money on a College Counselor?

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.

Ready to conduct your university search? Use the articles and blogs in our International Student section to help you along the way as you go through the admission process. 

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