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How the College Application Process in the U.S. is Different for International Students

Currently, more than 1 million international students attend college in the United States (1,094,792, to be exact). If you hope to join this growing population, you’ll need to be informed about the college application process for international students.

In many ways, the application process is the same for international students as it is for U.S. students. However, you will take a few extra steps to account for differences in language, grading, and curriculum.

In this article, we’ll outline some basic information about the U.S. college application process. Then, we’ll look at the extra steps you need to take as an international student. This will ensure you submit a complete application and give yourself enough time to meet deadlines.

U.S. College Application Process Basics

Colleges in the United States usually have two deadlines, early decision and regular decision. The early deadline generally falls around November, while regular deadlines are typically in January or February. Some schools don’t allow international students to apply early, but most do. 

You may use the Common Application, which conveniently allows you to apply to several schools by filling out a single application. If you apply to a school that does not use the Common App or similar services, you’ll have to complete an individual application on that school’s website. Most schools charge an application fee. Costs vary, but the average is $50.

Students are encouraged to apply to multiple schools, usually 7-10, to increase their chances of acceptance. However, it’s a good idea for international students to apply to 10-15 schools. That’s because many schools offer a limited amount of spots to international students, making admissions more competitive. 

Most colleges require applicants to submit:

Some schools require additional supplemental essays, and others may ask for more tests, like the SAT II. 

How Does the Process Differ for International Students?

The basic process is the same no matter where you live. But you may encounter a few differences in transcript and testing requirements, as well as financial aid.

Note that each college or university may have a slightly different process. Carefully review each school’s website for information about admission requirements. You should be able to find an international admissions page. If not, call or email the school’s admissions office with any questions.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the differences you can expect to find for international students.

High School Transcript

Your high school grades are an extremely important factor in admission to college. Colleges require an official high school transcript. Usually, it must be sent by your school in a sealed envelope. However, some colleges will allow you to send your scores directly.

If your transcript is not in English, you will likely have to get a certified English translation. The same is true for other portions of your application, like letters of recommendation written in a language other than English. Some schools do allow you to use unofficial translators, like an English teacher, a professional translator, a local EducationUSA office, or a professional translator. 

And if your school is not patterned after the U.S. grading system, you may be asked to send your transcript to a credential evaluation agency. These agencies look at your grades and calculate your Grade Point Average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale, which is the metric used to evaluate grades in the United States.

Evaluation should be completed by a member of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services. These companies include Academic Evaluation Services, Educational Credential Evaluators, and World Education Services, Inc.

These services may take up to seven business days to complete, so be sure to send your transcripts for evaluation well before the application deadline. To avoid any last-minute issues, it’s best to take care of this task about a month in advance.

Testing Requirements

If you don’t attend an English-speaking school, don’t go to high school in an English-speaking country, and/or if English is not your native language, you will likely need to take a test to demonstrate your English proficiency.

The two most common English proficiency tests are the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Check with each individual school to see which of the two tests they accept. Many schools accept both.


The TOEFL is computer-based, but you can take a paper version in areas where online testing is not available. It tests your reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in English.

Including registration time, the test takes a total of 4 ½ hours. The scoring scale ranges from 0 to 120. Most schools have a minimum TOEFL score. This means that if your TOEFL score does not meet the school’s minimum, your application will be automatically rejected. Fortunately, you can take the TOEFL multiple times if your first score is not high enough.


There are two versions of the IELTS: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. When taking the IELTS for the purpose of applying to college, you must take the IELTS Academic.

The test measures language proficiency using a nine-band scale, meaning it ranks test-takers from non-user (1) to expert (9). Like the TOEFL, the IELTS measures reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

The IELTS takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete. Your overall score will range from 1-9. Many schools have a minimum IELTS score requirement, which you can find on the school’s website. 

Some schools that don’t have a minimum requirement still publish the average TOEFL or IELTS scores of admitted international students. For instance, NYU does not have a minimum requirement for the IELTS, but they note that most international students admitted score at least a 7.5 overall average.

In some instances, you may not have to take the IELTS or the TOEFL if you perform well on the verbal sections of the ACT or SAT. Again, you’ll have to check with each individual school for specific requirements.

Financial Aid

If you’ll need financial aid for college, note that some forms of financial aid are not available to international students. For example, you can’t receive U.S. federal aid, such as Stafford Loans or PLUS Loans. And while some colleges do offer aid for international students, it’s usually much more limited than aid for domestic students.

However, you can still qualify for many grants and scholarships. Your home country may also provide aid via the government or through various organizations and companies. In addition, there are several international organizations that offer aid to students worldwide, including the Soros Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and AMIDEAST. 

For some students, a more affordable option is enrolling in a school in your home country and then participating in an exchange program with a U.S. college or university. 

Although some financial aid options are unavailable to international students, there are still many ways to fund your education. Do research in your home country to ensure you’re taking advantage of all possible aid sources.

Final Thoughts: How the College Application Process in the U.S. is Different for International Students

For the most part, international students follow the same college application process as U.S. students. Some differences include:

  • You may have to take the TOEFL or IELTs to demonstrate English language proficiency.
  • If your high school’s grading system is different than the U.S. grading system, you may be required to send your transcript to a credit evaluation agency and/or get it translated.
  • Some colleges don’t allow international students to apply early.
  • You won’t have access to some financial aid options, like federal student loans from the United States. 

With these requirements and extra steps in mind, start your college application process several months in advance. For instance, allow yourself enough time to take the TOEFL or IELTS more than once in case your initial score disqualifies you from some of the colleges on your list. 

Remember to read the international student admissions page on each university’s website, as some schools have different policies than others. If you can’t find the answer to a question, contact the college’s admissions office. 

Throughout your application, highlight the diversity and unique cultural perspective you’ll bring to campus. Colleges strive to have a well-rounded student body with varying interests, strengths, and perspectives. By emphasizing the unique qualities you have to offer, you’ll increase your chances of joining the 1 million-plus international students currently attending U.S. colleges.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.