The process of applying to a foreign university may seem daunting and confusing. In an already competitive field, being an international applicant may also add stress and angst as higher education in the United States draws in hundreds of thousands of intellectually competitive students.

Amidst the battlefield that is college admissions, you also find yourself applying to a system that you have no idea how to navigate. It can also be stressful for parents or guardians to help their children, as they are even more unaware of the process than the students themselves most of the time. This is where a comprehensive guide to applying to college in the United States becomes a great tool to understand the in’s and out’s of the application process in the United States.

First of all, you should become very familiarized with deadlines and create an appropriate timeline for you to follow to give yourself enough time to accomplish everything that needs to get done. Below you can find a general timeline of applying to college as an international student. Note that this timeline may vary but in general, it is a great starting point to sketch out your own personal timeline.

Timeline for Applying to U.S. Schools As An International Student

11th Grade

Start preparing for standardized tests.

Summer Before 12th Grade

At this point, you should consider contacting a consultant to help you navigate the U.S. college application process. You should also start researching colleges and programs. It is recommended to start a spreadsheet with college information, that way narrowing down options and tracking deadlines is easier. A few more things you should get started on are: searching for scholarships, starting the Common Application or Coalition Application, your personal essay (Personal Statement), registering for standardized exams, gathering the legal documents you are going to need to apply for a student visa.

12th Grade (1st Semester)

This is when you should take all tests necessary. This includes your American standardized testing and English proficiency tests. You should also request recommendation letters and get them translated (if needed). Don't forget to continue applying for scholarships!

12th Grade (2nd Semester):

If your standardized tests didn't go well, retake them until your scores are satisfactory! You should also begin applying for a student visa and tying up any loose ends on your remaining applications.

As an international student, you are going to have to consider the following things:



One of the most overlooked obstacles that international students encounter is how time-intensive and time-sensitive applying to higher education in the United States is. Completing the application profile, personal essay, supplements, and recommendations that a lot of the top universities in the country demand can take months to complete. It’s always crucial to start early, especially when you are not very sure about how the process works exactly. You should dedicate some of the summers between 11th and 12th grade to work on the essays and applications and consider what teachers you want to ask for a recommendation form from.

Most of the deadlines for competitive schools are due several months before the decisions are released. If you are not tracking the deadlines and making sure that you will be able to turn in your application and the required attachments by the deadline, then you might be late and lose the chance to apply.


Standardized tests and other school requirements

For the recommendation letters, it is best to request them in advance, as sometimes a translation to English is required. It also gives time to the teacher you asked to write you a recommendation letter to research how to do it.

Make sure to get your transcripts also translated if they are in another language. Even if they are in English, decide whether they need to be assessed to make them comparable to American high school scoring systems. You might need to hire a third-party company like the World Education Services to translate these scores. These services cost you between $75 and $300 and take up to 2 weeks. Using the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an example, a lot of international schools that use it have a grading scale of 1 to 7. These companies help you translate those scores into a more American traditional 1 to 100 scale.

You should also see what English proficiency tests you will need to take. Some schools require the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)  or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Most American schools will require at least a 78 on the TOEFL. This is near the 50th percentile. Top universities will require you to be at least in the 80th percentile.

If you are confident in your English skills, it is recommended to take these tests before senior year, as in senior year you’ll most likely be frantically trying to handle your life as a student and a college applicant. 

One of the things that might take most of your time is taking and studying for the SAT or ACT. These are American standardized tests that are required by most top schools and are taken by most of the population of higher education in the USA.

Do research on the institutions you want to apply to and deliberate whether taking them is required or beneficial.


Legal documentation and immigration details

To be able to become an international student in the United States, you will most likely need an F-1 Visa. This visa permits you to study in the country for 4 years. To get a visa, the school you decide to attend needs to enroll you in the Student visitor information system (SEVIS). After submitting the form at a local US embassy or consulate, you will probably be interviewed. The process can take up to a month and a half before being allowed into the USA, so make sure you take that into consideration before booking flights and setting move-in dates. 

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The application in general, scholarships, and financial aid

The Common Application is the main application that colleges and universities accept. Over 900 colleges use this service, so make this application a priority. The application opens on August 1st of every year. By then, it is recommendable that you already know what colleges you will be applying to so you can start working on supplemental essays and whatever else is required by the specific school or program you are interested in.

There is also The Coalition Application to consider if one of your school choices is not on The Common Application. Although not very time-consuming, you should not leave this for the last minute because there are some documents that you might need for the applications, so make sure you gather them before starting.

Scholarships for international students are only a search away. Make sure to look for scholarships you are eligible for being an international student. You can find some scholarship opportunities in the following databases.

You can also read more about scholarships here.

As an international student, you can also receive financial aid from international student debts, universities themselves, and your own country. International students’ best bet to finding loans within the US is through private international student loan organizations. There will be a lot of things you will have to consider before applying for a loan like this. You need to meet specific requirements and you will most likely need a cosigner. Only borrow what you know you will be able to pay off, otherwise, you will rack up a lot of debt. 

Universities sometimes will offer scholarships for international applicants, but they are usually very few, so make sure to have backups. Research and ask all the schools you will be applying to if they offer scholarships, certain discounts, or loans to international students. 

A lot of international governments offer to fund international education, so make sure to investigate if your home country is able to subsidize some of your education. However, a lot of them may have stipulations, such as requiring you to return home after your education. 


Culture shock and American life

It is not uncommon for a lot of international students to have an expectation of what it is to study in the United States. From the growing stereotypes of fraternities and sororities and attending college in the US in general, it is hard not to have a certain idealization of what it is to study here. Make sure to adjust your expectations and understand that the cultural difference might come as a shock at first. However, Don’t let this deter you from enjoying your time here. It is sometimes beneficial to ask people who are in your same shoes about their experiences.

Prepory is great to help you navigate the college application process as an international student. We connect you with near-peers and our diversity of coaches will allow us to pair you up with someone who can best guide you. You can learn more here.

Coming to study in the United States is a great opportunity. Remember it’s crucial to make an agenda according to the timeline of your applications. One of the biggest mistakes international students make is applying to only competitive schools. You will need to be more open-minded and do research on other options that may best represent what you want to study better, don’t only apply to a certain place because of the ‘fame’ of the university.

One last tip is to focus on the essays, they are what makes you different. Never overlook how holistic application processes are in competitive colleges. 

The process seems complicated, but as long as you are determined and break down what you need to do on a timeline and follow up on the requirements, the application process should feel less scary and more exciting.