written by
Julia Riew

International Student College Application Guide

10 min read
Fighting for the top spot
Photographer: Kaung Myat Min | Source: Unsplash

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions expert Lara walks us through the college application process for the international student. For more guidance on the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


Note: in this article, the word college is taken to mean a 4-year program normally completed after high school and before postgraduate degrees such as Masters or Doctorate degrees. While many countries make a distinction between ‘university’ and ‘college,’ where ‘colleges’ are often 2-year programs that do not grant Bachelor’s degrees, for the purposes of this article, ‘college’ in the U.S. is equivalent to what is termed ‘university’ elsewhere.

Why apply internationally?

Applying to college in the United States can be a daunting process, especially if you’re an international student who may not have access to a college counselor or advisor at your school. As an international student, you likely don’t have the same insight into the application process as a domestic applicant might.

However, international students have so much to offer to colleges. The different perspectives and cultural insights they bring can enrich any campus community. Studying in the U.S. might also allow you to take part in research as an undergraduate, apply to prestigious internships and summer programs, and explore a wide variety of academic disciplines.

International student application requirements

If you’re considering a U.S. college, the most important thing to do early on is to learn the application requirements. Typically, this includes a standardized testing requirement—either the ACT or SAT—as well as an English proficiency test like the IELTS or TOEFL.

ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT are both standardized tests that students in the U.S. take in order to apply to college. They assess your academic skills in English and math (as well as science, in the case of the ACT).

You might choose whether to take the SAT or ACT based on which is available in your area. Most colleges do not have a preference for which of these test scores you submit. Applicants usually choose by taking practice tests and assessing which score is better. They may also consider which score they foresee being able to improve the most.

You can take these tests multiple times, and you will only submit the best score(s) to colleges.

Applicants from the U.S. usually take their first standardized test in the spring of their junior year. This corresponds to the first half of grade 11 out of 12 in many international systems. Depending on their scores, students usually take the test 2 or 3 more times until they are satisfied. For students in countries where these tests are not offered regularly, it is especially important to plan ahead depending on available testing dates.

IELTS and TOEFL

The IELTS and TOEFL are standardized tests that assess your English proficiency. Colleges generally require you to submit one of these scores if English is not your first language or the primary language in which you were taught throughout high school. If you have a score of over a certain threshold in the English section of the ACT or SAT (this threshold varies between institutions), you may not need to take these tests.

Both tests contain reading, listening, speaking, and writing components. There is usually a minimum overall score you need to obtain in order to apply to any specific college. Similar to the ACT and SAT, you can take the IELTS and TOEFL multiple times and will only submit your best score(s).

High School Transcript and GPA

To apply to college you will also need to submit your transcript, which is your high school academic record. Since high school in the U.S. is four years long, spanning from grade 9 to grade 12, your marks from these four years will be assessed in your application.

Domestic applicants usually also report a GPA, or Grade Point Average, which is often on a scale from 1.0 to 4.0 (where 4.0 is the best). The GPA reflects one’s average academic performance throughout their high school career.

How to convert grades as an international student

Many international students will have different grading systems, whether this is a letter grade (A+, A, A-, B+, B, etc.), a percentage (score out of a 100), or a GPA on a different scale. Furthermore, it is often difficult to interconvert accurately between these different grading scales, since an ‘A’ in the U.S. is often 90% or above, while some international students might only need to achieve a score of 70% or above to reach the most prestigious grading category.

When reporting your grades in the Common Application, you should not attempt to convert to the U.S. system. Instead, report your grades as-is. Rest assured that Admissions Officers likely have the experience required to evaluate your academic achievements relative to your own educational system. If your transcript is in a language other than English, you might also need to get a certified English translation.

Recommendation Letters for International Students

Another required component of the application process is the submission of letters of recommendation. These letters should come from teachers or school counsellors who know you well and can attest to your ability to thrive in the rigorous academic environment and diverse community of U.S. colleges. Your recommenders should be able to speak positively about your personal qualities as well as your academic abilities.

As an international student, it is especially important to ask your recommenders for their letters far ahead of the deadline, since they might not know how to format their letters and what to include. In general, meaningful anecdotes illustrating your positive qualities are better than abstract mentions of these qualities.

Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Who you ask for letters of recommendation depends on your academic interests and what qualities you want to emphasize.

For example, if you hope to study physics, it will be more impactful to get a letter from your physics or mathematics teacher than from your foreign language teacher. Similarly, if you are not as confident about your ability to get an excellent English score on your standardized or English proficiency tests, it could be beneficial to get a recommendation from your English teacher about your eagerness to master the language.

International Student College Essays

The essays you submit through the Common Application form another crucial aspect of your application. This includes the standard CommonApp essay (650 word maximum) as well as supplementary essays for each college.

It is important to plan ahead, especially since the format of these essays might be unfamiliar to you. For the 2021-2022 application cycle, there are 7 CommonApp essay prompts. These prompts ask you to discuss your identity, recount a formative experience, or reflect on your interests.

Regardless of what you choose to write about, you should use this space to show facets of yourself that may not appear in your academic or extracurricular record. Possibly the single most important piece of advice for writing this essay is to “show, not tell” — show your qualities through anecdotes instead of simply telling the Admissions Officers what your positive attributes are. Use your chosen topic to convey how you approach problems and add value to the lives of those around you, as well as who you see yourself to be.

For international students, it can sometimes be particularly impactful to include some cultural context in the essay where relevant. This helps Admissions Officers understand how your upbringing shaped your identity and what you might bring to their community.

Photographer: Michael Marsh | Source: Unsplash

International Student College Application Timeline

It is important to understand the application timeline, especially if your country has an academic schedule that is different from the U.S. system where the academic year starts in late August or early September and ends in May. The vast majority of students will apply for fall intake (to start their university studies in September). However, some do apply for spring intake, meaning that they will start in January.

ED, EA, and RD

There are three methods of applying to college – Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD).

Regular Decision applications are normally due in early January (often January 1). However, some may be due earlier, as in the case of colleges in the University of California system. Regular Decision applicants are usually notified of their admissions decision in late March or early April.

For both Early Decision and Early Action applications, you have an early deadline (usually November 1 or November 15) and also get your admissions decision back earlier. However, Early Decision is different from Early Action in that if you are accepted to a school under their Early Decision program, you are obligated to attend.

Building a college list for international students

It is important to choose the colleges you will apply to strategically. Colleges are often categorized as either ‘safety schools’, ‘target schools’, or ‘reach schools’, depending on how your application compares to that of the average accepted student at that institution.

‘Safety schools’ are colleges where you are likely to be admitted, taking your grades in high school, standardized testing scores, extracurricular involvement, and other application components into account. ‘Reach schools,’ in contrast, are those that would be difficult, but possible, for you to get accepted to.

How to measure your chances as an international student

For international students who may have different grading systems and varying levels of extracurricular opportunities available to them, one of the easiest ways to roughly determine which schools would fall under which category for you is to compare your standardized testing scores with that of previously accepted students.

If your SAT or ACT score is better than the 75th percentile score for a particular institution (meaning that you did better on your standardized tests than 75% of students who were accepted), this is potentially a safety school for you. However, this also depends on how your extracurriculars, essays, and letters of recommendation compare. It should be kept in mind that outstanding test scores do not in any way guarantee your admission to a particular college, so you should have several of these ‘backup options.’

What to consider when building a college list

However, you should not only consider your likelihood of getting accepted — many other factors will help you determine where to apply. As you build your school list, consider various attributes including weather, accommodations, financial aid and tuition cost, and types of extracurriculars or academic strengths.

For international students, it can be useful to follow schools you might be interested in on social media. Colleges might post photos of students enjoying activities on campus, inform you about research opportunities, and generally give you a better idea of college life.

Virtual campus tours can be particularly helpful. These tours allow you to explore campus and learn what makes that institution unique (who knows, you might even use a fun fact from a tour in a supplementary essay!). Virtual information sessions provide a complementary opportunity to hear from admissions officers, and sometimes even current students, about campus life. Here you might be able to ask the more specific application-related questions you have, as well as gain a more detailed insight into what qualities the college is looking for in applicants.

Final thoughts

Lastly, though applying to college as an international student might be a challenging endeavor, keep your reasons for doing so in mind. Whether you hope to pursue graduate school or employment in the U.S., do undergraduate research, or just take advantage of a flexible but rigorous academic system, attending college in the U.S. can be incredibly rewarding.

Once you complete the extensive and often stressful application process, you can look forward to the prospect of engaging with bright minds from around the world on a college campus in the United States.


This university guide for international students was written by Lara Van Rooyen, Harvard ‘23. If you want to get help with your college applications from Lara or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.