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How to apply to college in the USA for international students 

International students at University of the Pacific

Are you hoping to earn your degree from a university in the United States? As an international student, applying to colleges in the U.S. can be an exciting and daunting experience. In addition to the regular application materials that domestic students submit, you may also have to consider things like language proficiency, transcript evaluations, which legal documents you need, what the campus culture will be like and how to pay for an international education. 
 
At Pacific, you’ll be immersed in a vibrant and diverse community where international students make up 8% of the student body. 

To help you get started, we’ve put together this guide to break down the application process so you can study abroad in the United States.  

Decide on a degree program

Your academic journey will depend on the type of degree program you pursue.  

  • Where do you want to live? Are you drawn to calm suburban settings or the hustle and bustle of city life? Do you want to be close to a beach or have easy access to mountains—or both? Take a close look at a map and explore each university’s surroundings. And if you can, take a virtual tour of the campus so you can really visualize what life will be like.   
  • Do you want to attend a big or small school? Will you thrive in a smaller, more personalized environment or do you want to experience the energy of a large university? Knowing this can make a world of difference.  
  • What extracurricular activities would you like to be able to do? Look at the student clubs and recreational activities offered at each school. Whether you like rugby, rock climbing, archery or cricket, you may be pleasantly surprised to see what familiar pastimes U.S. universities offer.  

Participating in extracurricular activities is also a great way to connect with other students. 
 
“Join the clubs and try to attend as many activities as you can. At Pacific, there are trips like Tiger Escapes that take you to different places like San Francisco and national parks,” says Sushmith Naik Banoth, an international student from India studying business analytics. “Just come out of your comfort zone and greet people with a smile.”   

  • What hands-on experience would you like to gain? Research the types of internships or CO-OP programs that are available to help you gain real-world skills that you can apply to your future career.  

Experience a day in the life of finance intern Sahil Radadiya 

  • Do you want to work while you’re in school? International students with F-1 visas are limited to on-campus jobs during their first academic year. After that, students may engage in practical training opportunities. 

 
Banoth recommends having reserve funds in your account to relieve initial financial stress. “Know the fee structure and try to have three to six months of backup funds in savings. That way you can concentrate on academics when you arrive.” 
 
See how these international students made the most of their Curricular Practical Training experiences 

Decide where to apply

Now that you’ve considered these key aspects of the university experience, it’s time to decide on the program you’d like to pursue or what career path you’re interested in. If you have a specific field in mind, start by narrowing down universities that excel in that area. 
 

There are several organizations that allow you to filter universities for different criteria like subject, cost, region and enrollment numbers. The following tools also let you see how universities rank in certain areas and help you narrow down your search: 
 

 
If you’re pursuing an undergraduate degree, you may want to prioritize the overall reputation of a university and its culture when you begin your search. If you’re applying for graduate studies, you may be more concerned with the reputation of the specific program you’re looking for. It’s also wise to get in touch with the chair of the department to begin building a rapport.  

Once you have identified potential universities, take the initiative to gather more information. Tap into your network of friends or acquaintances who have studied abroad. They will be able to give you first-hand accounts of their experiences and offer important advice.  

This is also a great time to contact a college adviser for additional guidance. EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State network, has over 430 international student advising centers across more than 175 countries. These centers provide in-person and virtual services to students and their families covering topics including the admissions process, testing requirements and how to secure a student visa. Additionally, you can look for opportunities to attend a college fair near your city or reach out to admissions counselors at your preferred universities for more information. 

Begin the application process

Start getting your application materials ready, schedule any tests and get your finances in order. 

  • Take your English language proficiency tests. Most universities will require an English language proficiency test like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS). Determine which test your schools require and figure out what their minimum score requirements are.  
     
    If you need to improve your English language skills, some universities also offer intensive English programs that help students become more proficient in reading, writing and speaking English. At University of the Pacific, English overview courses are available to international students at the undergraduate and graduate level. 
  • Take any standardized tests required by your schools. Test requirements depend on the program and whether you are pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. Undergraduate applicants may need to take the SAT, ACT or SAT subject tests while graduate students may be required to complete the GRE or GMAT. Professional programs like law or medicine may require the LSAT or MCAT. 
  • Determine if you need to have your transcripts evaluated. Some international students are required to provide an evaluation of their academic records which must be derived from official transcripts. This evaluation ensures that subjects studied in another country align with those recognized by universities in the United States. There are several third-party agencies like World Education Services and Educational Credential Evaluators that offer credential evaluation services. 
  • Ask for recommendation letters. Some universities may ask you to submit letters of recommendation. These documents help round out your application and speak to your skills, academic performance and unique personal qualities. These letters are typically written by someone who has worked closely with you during your academic journey, like teachers, mentors, coaches or someone from your community. 
  • Work on application essays. Most college applications will have an essay section asking you to write a response to one of several prompts. This is known as your personal statement. Before you begin writing, consider your life experiences and how they relate to the essay topic. Ask yourself what you would want others to know about you. Be authentic, talk about your interests and values and why you are a great fit for the school. This is your chance to let your personality shine. And if you’re struggling to get started, we’ve put together some helpful tips on how to write a personal statement that stands out

Figure out how to finance your education

While international students aren’t eligible to receive federal or state aid, there are still other options available:  

  • Apply for scholarships for international students through your school or outside organizations. Some schools, like University of the Pacific, offer merit scholarships for international first-year students
  • Some schools may require you to submit the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) or create a CSS Profile to determine eligibility for scholarships and other benefits. 
  • Apply for international student loans as needed. 

Submit your application

Now that you’ve prepared all your application materials, it’s time to apply. Some schools will ask you to apply directly through their website, or through a standardized application like the Common App that allows you to apply to multiple colleges at once. At Pacific, students looking for extra English proficiency resources should apply through UOP International.  

Get your student visa

Once you’ve been accepted to the university of your choice, you will need to provide documentation that you have the finances to live and study in the United States. This can include bank statements, financial sponsor letters or other forms. Requirements vary from school to school, so be sure to contact the university to verify which documents you need to provide. 

Upon providing the proper documentation, you will receive an I-20 form to verify your eligibility for an F-1 student visa. Having a student visa is like having a key to enter the country. While the F-1 visa is the most common for students studying in the United States, you can determine which type of visa you should apply for on the Department of State website.  

The next step is to schedule a visa interview with the U.S. embassy or consulate in your country to determine your visa eligibility. Once your visa is approved and you’ve paid the issuance fee, it’s time to celebrate and plan for your arrival in the United States as an international student.  

Ready to get started? Apply today. 

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