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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

The American College Admissions Process Made Easy: a Guide for International Students

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The prospect of attending college in the United States is alluring for many international students. Top American colleges feature some of the most respected faculty in the world, immense resources, exciting locations, and valuable opportunities and connections. American universities, unlike many of those outside the country, largely emphasize personal, extracurricular, and professional development alongside academic development. There are a host of resources made available to students at American universities that students who choose to study in other countries may not enjoy, such as individual academic and professional advising. The differences between American and international universities extend past student life, however – in addition to or perhaps because of the amenities offered to American students, the admissions process is much more rigorous.


It’s important to define what exactly we mean by “rigorous”. While the automatic assumption may be that a more rigorous application process implies a more competitive one, there are multiple universities all over the world with lower acceptance rates than top American schools. What makes American schools unique is the basis upon which applications are evaluated. Most top American schools, such the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, etc. feature holistic admissions. While this term has many implications, it essentially means that these colleges seek to admit students who not only demonstrate academic ability, but also who have reached a high level of personal development and extracurricular accomplishment. Students are evaluated not only on the basis of grades and test scores, but also on summer activities, extracurricular activities, personal essays, teacher recommendations, and more.


As a result of the complex and multifaceted American admissions process, students in the US who aspire to attend elite colleges begin working very early on, often even before starting high school, to develop impressive academic and extracurricular profiles. American students understand the importance of developing close relationships with teachers who can write recommendations and brainstorm potential topics for personal statements as early as their junior years. Many international students, though, aren’t as familiar with the expectations top American colleges have for applicants, and thus they can sometimes be put at a disadvantage come admissions season. We’ve compiled a list of important things you can do as an international student to make your dreams of attending a top American college a reality.


Know the Requirements. Each American school has a different set of requirements for deadlines, necessary tests, transcripts, financial materials, etc. that may vary from those typically required by international schools. Every university will have a page on their website listing specific instructions to apply as a first-year student and when each component of the application is due. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all deadlines and requirements and meet them. An important part of success for any college applicant is organization, but this is especially true for those dealing with the additional complication of being international students.


Do Your Research. From liberal arts college to professional school to research university, there are diverse paths of higher education in America. Be sure to thoroughly research any and all potential universities to gain the best understanding of what the undergraduate experience is like at each school and the strength of the program you’re applying to. In addition, it’s smart to research the surrounding area of your potential schools as well. American culture and lifestyle can vary wildly from that of other countries, and there are multiple variances in culture within America itself; avoid relying on stereotypes about schools and cities when making decisions.


Understand the Competition. Admissions to top American schools are already extremely competitive; admissions for international students are often even more so. Admissions at some schools consider students’ location; the number of students admitted from one country, state, or region may be restricted in order to ensure a fairly even geographical distribution for the entire class. If many students from your area typically seek admission to American schools, seek out ways to distinguish yourself from your peers in order to boost your chances of being accepted.


Do Well On Tests. Because grading standards can vary from country to country, universities place a large amount of importance on standardized tests as a measure of international students’ aptitude. For example, it’s crucial to do well on the SAT or ACT to prove that the skills you’ve developed in secondary school correlate to the skills and material taught in American high schools. IB tests, or APs if they’re offered in your country, are also considered, as well as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) if English is not your first language. Doing well on these tests demonstrates to colleges that you can perform on the level of American students and thus are as likely to perform just as well in a college setting.


Consider Finances. Many American schools don’t offer financial aid to international students, or may not offer “need-blind” admissions – meaning that colleges consider your family’s financial need in their admission decisions. This can make financing an education at an American school – where attendance is often already atypically expensive – even more challenging. Start searching for scholarships early if applying to American schools as an international student, as the landscape of financial aid can be foreboding otherwise.


Branch Out. While gaining admission to top international colleges is largely a matter of getting good grades and scoring well on tests, the same can’t be said for elite American colleges. A diverse extracurricular profile can play a significant role in your admissions decisions, so look for opportunities to volunteer, intern, or lead an athletic or academic team. Essays, too, are heavily weighted in the admissions process. As an international student, you may want to consider writing on why an education in the United States is appealing to you, as opposed to education in your home country (this is especially true for “Why X School” essays).


Visit If You Can. While it may be difficult to make the trip stateside, a visit to a college can be extremely valuable. Campus visits allow you to take guided tours, speak with students, and get a general “vibe” of the school that may inform your decision to attend or not. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only applying or making your final decision based off a school’s name recognition, but if you’re only attending a school for the name, that may not be the right decision. Campus visits can also allow for a potential student to have an admissions interview, something that may not be possible in one’s home country.


The most important thing you can do if considering moving to the United States for college is to get informed. Many schools have websites detailing the criteria they consider in admissions, their international financial aid policies, testing requirements, deadlines, and more; be sure to look for such sites for any schools you’re applying to. Moving abroad for college can make the transition into college even more daunting, but the amenities and academics offered at American schools outweigh other costs for many students. If you’re convinced an American school is right for you, it’s crucial to begin preparing early to prevent yourself from being put at a disadvantage. Armed with an understanding of the American admissions process, you can make your aspirations of a college education in the United States a reality.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.