In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide we discussed how to apply for financial aid and the many options available to your student to help pay for college. While college is undeniably expensive, there are ways to make it more affordable for everyone.
This final chapter is directed towards international students planning on applying to college in the US and their parents. Nearly 4% of all students enrolled in higher-level education in the US are international and that number is continuously growing. It’s very likely that the application process will vary greatly depending on what country these students are from. We know the US application process can be confusing. Here we’ll talk about what you need to know to make sure no important steps are missed in the process, so you can successfully apply and attend a US university.
The College Board, which is the organization that manages many of the standardized tests within the US, has some great resources for international students. We’ve modeled our article after their framework to give students a basic timeline of when things should be completed.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter.
Two-Years Before University: Fulfilling Requirements
The application process for university is long even for students from the US. Students applying from other countries should start the process two years before they plan to go to university — if not sooner.
Explore Universities and Build a List
The first step is actually figuring out which universities your student is interested in. This may be difficult because they may not be familiar with any of the cities or available programs. They should take some time to do their research. The College Board’s Big Future website is a great place to start the search for universities.
Make sure students are comparing schools not just by what field they may be interested in, but also the campus size and location. The student body size and city will definitely have an impact on their college experience. If possible, find out if your student can visit or even spend a few days at the college campus for a truly immersive experience.
- The Times Higher Education World University Rankings which lets students sort top ranked colleges by subject
- InternationalStudent.com which provides searches based on field of study, location, and degree level
Take the SAT/ACT
Most US schools will require some form of standardized academic examination as part of the application. These exams help show to the colleges that students are academically ready for higher education.
The two most widely used forms of college admissions tests are the SAT and ACT. Both exams test reading, math and writing skills but differ slightly in terms of topics covered and skills emphasized. Your student should figure out which exam they think will allow them to better show their abilities before deciding which to take. Make sure they set their test date for a few months away so they have time to really prepare for it and showcase their strengths to the fullest extent.
Once your student has decided which test to take, they will need to register with College Board for the SAT or with the ACT and find somewhere to take the exam. Keep in mind your student may need to travel to the nearest location that offers the exam.
Other Admissions Requirements
There are many factors and requirements that US universities take into consideration when reviewing an application. Make sure your student is aware of any additional requirements (specific to colleges in the US) that they may need to fulfill so that they aren’t scrambling at the last minute.
One example of a potential additional requirement is English language proficiency. If your student’s first language isn’t English or if their education was not in English, they may also be required to take an English language proficiency exam like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), the Michigan English Language Assessment Battery (MELAB), or the Pearson Test of English (PTE).
These exams are all designed to measure a student’s ability to use and understand English at the college and university level. The most common of those is the TOEFL. It’s offered on over 50 test dates in a wide range of locations, and students are allowed to retake it as many times as they like.
One-Year Before University: Finalizing Plans
With a year left, it’s time to made some final decisions. Hopefully within the year, your student will commit to a college or university and soon be on their way to the States!
Make a Financial Plan
Applying for and going to university in the US is an expensive process. From application and visa fees to the actual tuition fees and living expenses, it’s a very financially taxing process.
Take some time to figure out tuition costs and living expenses before applying so that you aren’t blind-sided when the bill comes in. Big Future by College Board has some great resources to learn more about college costs.
Assemble And Submit Application Materials
As we mentioned before, applications can be extensive and require that your student compile and submit a wide range of materials. These will likely include:
- Recommendation letters. These will be letters from a few of your student’s teachers or mentors. Make sure you follow the timeline we’ve suggested to give teachers plenty of time to write a strong recommendation.
- Transcript. Of course, universities will want to see your student’s academic performance. Your student’s high school grades will give admissions committees an idea of how well they’ll be able to keep up in their studies.
- Essays. Your student will likely be required to write at least one personal essay as part of their application, if not more. These essays should be very anecdotal and present an interesting side of your student.
- Others. While these may not be required, there are a few more things your student can do to make their application stronger. These include:
- SAT Subject Tests
- College Interviews
Because there are so many elements to the application, it’s easy to miss one. Make sure your student takes the time to check that everything is filled out before they submit. Most applications will be submitted through the Common Application, but application deadlines vary by university. It is therefore extremely important that your student is clear on when everything is due.
Commit to a University
Depending on when students decide to apply, decisions should start coming in as early as mid-December and no later than March. The final deadline to commit will be no later than May 1st. As the decisions come in, make sure to keep an open conversation with your students about their preferences. And make sure not to miss any specified final decision deadlines! Remember if your student is accepted by an early decision, they are legally bound to attend that institution.
Visa and Passport Requirements
- F1 visa for academic studies. This allows students to be in the US during their time of study, as well as an OPT program that adds an additional 12 months after graduation if they gain employment in their field of study, or for 17 months instead of 12 if the student majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
- J1 visa for practical training not available in the home country. This visa is valid for students pursuing specialist programs and projects not available in their home country. These usually only involve practical training, though some may involve university study.
- M1 visa for vocational studies. This visa is only available to students attending an accredited trade or technical school. Students aren’t allowed to work while on this visa.
Whichever university your student commits to should help your student get the right visa, but the student and their family are responsible for paying for the visa fees and going to the embassy to get the visa itself.
Start the process of getting a visa as soon as you know your student will need it because the process can take a long time. You should build in time for troubleshooting. Learn more about the requirements and how to apply at U.S. Visa Requirements.
Apply for Financial Aid if Necessary
US universities are undeniably expensive, but there are options available to help make it more affordable. Most universities have financial aid or scholarships that can help students pay for college, but most of this funding is usually reserved for domestic students and is very competitive to international students.
It’s more common for international students to get some university funding after their first year. However it’s unlikely that this funding will cover the full cost and may include some portion of student contribution in which the student needs to find a job on campus.
The EducationUSA financial aid search tool is a good resource to search for any potential financial aid opportunities your student may qualify for.
Going to University
Congratulations, they’ve made it! Now that your student has started the next chapter of their life, it’s time to make sure they can make the most of the next four (or so) years.
Arriving on Campus
Before actually stepping on that plane to the US, your student should have already figured out where they’re going to live. On-campus dormitories are the most common and probably the easiest option. In some cases, first-year students may even be required to live in the dorms. The dorms are also a great way to easily meet their peers and start building a sense of community.
Once students have been on campus for a year or two, they may feel more comfortable finding an off-campus housing option. Some US schools don’t provide on-campus accommodations for international students. In these cases the off-campus housing office can usually help your student explore other housing options and nail down any logistics.
When your student actually gets on campus, it’s a good idea for them to go and check in at the school’s international office. This will give them a chance to meet their rep or officer, check over their documents, and make sure they start the year on the right foot.
Setting up Essentials
Because they are moving to an entirely new country, there are a few essentials your student will need to figure out in their first few months in the country:
- Getting a phone. Your student will need to either get a US phone or SIM card so that they’ll have a means of communication. Some phone companies will have International Student Programs specifically tailored to international students.
- Managing money. Within the first few days of arriving on campus, your student may want to open a checking account with a bank near campus. This will allow them to deposit any traveler’s checks they brought from home or receive a wire transfer. Make sure they bring some form of identification. If your student is asked for a Social Security Number and doesn’t have one, they can fill out an IRS Form W-8 at the bank which will help take care of that. It may also be useful for your student to get a MAC (Money Access Card) or ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) card from the bank so that they can have easy and secure access to their money.
- Finding a job. If your student holds an F-1 visa, then they’re allowed to work in the US under certain conditions determined by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). On-Campus Employment is the most freely available type of employment because it usually doesn’t require any approval from the USCIS. But these jobs are usually unrelated to a student’s studies and students can’t work more than 20 hours a week. Off-campus employment options include Optional Practical Training (OPT), Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Economic Hardship and International Institutions, each of which your student must meet a certain number of requirements to be able to pursue.
One likely challenge your student will face while on campus is culture shock. This is defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”. Culture shock may be due a combination of homesickness and not being familiar with the culture of the US.
Symptoms of culture shock may include:
- Sadness or loneliness
- Lack of confidence
While culture shock may be hard to avoid, there are lots of ways your student can help make this process a bit easier. Make sure to keep in contact with your student so they know they have a strong support system. Encourage them to keep in touch with friends from home, but also to go out and try to make some new friends on campus. Suggest that they join an extracurricular, religious, or ethnic group on campus that can help them find a community.
Culture shock may be hard for your student, but it won’t last forever and it may even help them find a community that they participate in for the rest of their time at the school.