As an international student, there are so many different processes you’ll need to understand and navigate when applying to universities in the United States. Here’s a breakdown of the three most important aspects: admissions, funding and visas.
Most universities in the US require foreign applicants to take an English as a second language test, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exams for undergraduates or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for postgraduates.
You should aim to complete these exams a year before you want to start university, usually in the month of August.
The application deadlines for early decisions for your top-choice university are generally 10 months before the course starts: mid-October or early November. If you are accepted by an early decision, you are legally bound to attend that institution, so you should only apply for an early decision for one university that you are certain you would want to attend.
For all other universities, the application deadline is often in January – seven months before you intend to start university – although the latest deadlines are in March.
Your application will almost always require an application fee ($41 on average), application form, a personal essay, references, a transcript of academic achievements, SAT results and financial statements.
The Common Application – a centralised process for more than 800 US universities – opens for applications on 1 August. It is a good idea to have already narrowed down your university choices by the time the applications open, so that the entire process will take about 18 months.
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Scholarships available in the US for international students
American universities offer two types of funding: financial aid, which is needs-tested, and scholarships, which reward academic excellence. Much of this funding is reserved for domestic students and is very competitive for internationals.
Nonetheless, it is more common for international students to secure university funding after their first year of study at the college. Funding will rarely cover the full costs of tuition, and may oblige the student to work for the university as part of the funding agreement.
For merit-based scholarships, your school or college grades and test results need to be significantly higher than average. Needs-based financial aid takes into account you and your family’s ability to pay tuition fees.
Some universities offer full needs-based scholarships that cover any cost of tuition that your family cannot demonstrably pay, and only consider financial needs after you have already been accepted, rather than as a detail of your application. These universities include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Dartmouth College and Amherst College.
Financial aid applications often require a College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile Form and/or other documents to assess your financial need. This varies between universities so it is essential to check with the specific universities that you are applying to.
Some university scholarships are designated for people with specific personal qualities, such as country of origin, ethnicity, faith, gender, academic interests and talents.
The Education USA financial aid search tool can help you to find suitable funding opportunities.
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There are three types of visas for international students in the US: F1 for academic studies; J1 for practical training not available in your home country; and M1 for vocational studies.
If you are applying for an academic degree or English language course, you can be issued with an F1 visa – the most common for international students. With exceptions, you will be obliged to return to your home country within 60 days of completing your degree. You will have to pay a visa application fee and must have been accepted at a US university when you make the application.
The visa is only valid to study at that specific university, so, while it is possible to transfer to another university, there are more forms to fill out and steps that you will have to take. You will have a visa interview and will be required to prove that you have sufficient funds to support your stay, and that you have strong ties to your home country through family connections, assets, bank accounts or some other means. The visa does allow you to work in the US during your studies.
If you want to stay in the US for up to 12 months after your studies, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) Programme allows international students on F1 visas to do so if they gain employment in their field of study. Graduates of science, technology, engineering or mathematics can extend their OPT by a further 17 months, and stay for just over two years to work in these areas. You must apply for OPT before completing your studies.
The J1 visa applies to specialist programmes and projects that provide training that you could not otherwise get in your home country, for example, a business trainee programme, the internship programme and the physician programme. Some of these programmes involve university study, but many are only for practical training. For the most part, you will not apply for this visa to study in the US unless there is some agreement with an intended employer, or between your government and a project in the US.
The M1 visa is for vocational studies, and students cannot work during the visa period, although they can undertake practical training or part-time work relevant to their studies. This visa is only available to students at an accredited trade or technical school, so you will be aware that you are eligible for this status if you are applying to these institutions.