How Is the Admissions Process Different for International Students?

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International applicants to U.S. colleges and universities sometimes perceive a special benefit that comes along with attending college in the United States. For starters, many U.S. colleges and universities are world-renowned and highly competitive. They boast excellent academic programs and an educational diversity that is not always present in other countries.


However, in order for an international student to attend college in the United States, they must go through the same rigorous application process as domestic students and also complete some extra requirements. They are competing for very few available spots at each university for international students, so they may have to go the extra mile in order to set themselves apart.


If you’re an international student thinking that you may want to attend college in the United States, you should know how the admissions process for you is going to differ from that of a U.S. applicant. Here’s your basic guide to how the U.S. college admissions process differs for international students.


Introduction to the Admissions Process for International Students

There is a slightly paradoxical relationship between the number of international students attending American colleges and universities and the quota for international student admission at most American colleges.


On the one hand, American colleges and universities have a preset quota for the percentage of international students they will accept in any given school year. This admittance rate is fairly low for most colleges, and it is lowest for public universities. For example, UC Berkeley has an International Student admittance rate of 8.8%.


On the other hand, many U.S. colleges and universities have seen an increase in the number of international students applying to and attending in any given year. For example, in 2017, Harvard Worldwide boasted of growing their international student population by two-thirds to 20% of the student population. For more information about international students at Harvard University, see Harvard Worldwide’s official website.


Thus, the chance of an international student being admitted to a U.S. college or university really depends on which university they are applying to. Regardless, they will be facing stiff competition for those relatively few spots available to them. This means that basic indicators of performance like test scores, grades, and extracurriculars may be weighted more heavily than they would be for a domestic applicant.


Testing Requirements for International Students

If an international student does not go to high school in an English-speaking country or does not attend an English-speaking school, he/she will likely need to take a test to demonstrate his/her English proficiency to U.S. college admissions committees. The two most common English proficiency tests that U.S. colleges accept are the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System).


Different universities accept different tests, so you’ll need to check with the universities you are applying to in order to see which of the two tests you need to take.


The TOEFL is the most widely accepted English-language test in the world. It is recognized by over 9,000 colleges in more than 130 countries. It is offered both via the Internet or through a paper format in areas where testing via the Internet is not available. Regardless of which format you take it in, you will need to report to a testing site to take the test.


The entire test takes roughly 4 1/2 hours, including registration time. It tests one’s ability to understand the English language as it is heard, spoken, read, and written in a university classroom. There are four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each section is structured and graded differently.


For more information on the TOEFL test, check out the CollegeVine blog.


The IELTS, on the other hand, measures the language proficiency of those who wish to work or study in an English-speaking country using a nine-band scale. The scale ranks a person anywhere from non-user (1) to expert (9). The IELTS prides itself on avoiding cultural bias and accepting all forms of native-speaker English in its test and grading system. This provides test takers with the utmost fairness.


The IELTS has two different forms depending on what you are taking the test for. There is IELTS Academic for those taking the test to study in an English-speaking country, and there is IELTS General Training for those looking to work or migrate to an English-speaking country. If you’re taking the IELTS in order to apply to American colleges, be sure to select the IELTS Academic test.


Both tests have listening, reading, writing, and speaking sections of varying lengths. The Listening, Reading, and Writing section must be completed consecutively in one day without breaks. The speaking section, however, can be completed up to a week before or after the test date. In total, the test should take about 2 hours and 45 minutes.


For more detailed information about the IELTS, see the IELTS website.


In addition to the English-proficiency tests, international students will usually need to take the SAT as well. In some cases, an international student’s SAT score will be weighed more heavily by Admissions Committees because they are easier to interpret than grades from a foreign country.


For information about the SAT, see So, What is the SAT Anyway? (A Newbie’s Guide to the CollegeBoard SAT) or the CollegeVine’s Guide to the SAT.


To register for the SAT as an international student or learn more about the test, visit the CollegeBoard website.


If all of these test requirements seem a bit confusing, CollegeVine offers a College Application Guidance Program that can help you organize your college planning and guide you through the admissions process.

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Financial aid for international students may or may not be available to students through the university itself. The amount of aid an international student can qualify for will depend on the U.S. college. 


For information about financial aid in general, read How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid.


For information about financial aid specifically for international students, see U.S. College Scholarships for International Students.


Note that an international student’s financial need is sometimes weighed more heavily in their admissions decision than it would be for a domestic student. Domestic students are often evaluated by admissions committees on a need-blind basis, meaning that the student’s ability to pay for college will not factor into their admissions decision. However, some colleges evaluate international applicants on a need-aware basis, meaning that whether the student needs financial aid will be a factor in their admissions decision.


Note that this is not true for all universities. Oftentimes, the college will specify whether international students are evaluated on a need-blind or need-aware basis, so do some research on the specific colleges you are applying to in order to find out how important your financial need will be in your application process.


Other Tips

At the end of the day, each U.S. college or university has its own specific requirements and policies in regards to international students. It is important to do your research before applying to U.S. colleges as an international student, so that you are aware of the application requirements, acceptance rates, and financial aid available to you.


In addition, as an international student, it is important to stress in your application how you will be a unique and positive addition to a specific U.S. college or university. This means that applicants may want to consider stressing the diversity they can bring in their application through their essays and extracurriculars.


If you find yourself with more questions, College Board has put together a brief guide for studying in the U.S. as an international student. Read it on the College Board International Website.


For more information about international students applying to U.S. Schools, check out these previous blog posts:



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For more information, see our College Application Guidance Program page.

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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!