Understanding US College Admissions

Do you want to attend college in the US? As you may already know, the US college admissions process is unique in many ways. Even for American high school students, university admissions are complex and at times overwhelming. For international students, there are even more aspects of the university admission process to consider. Additional considerations may include language requirements and visas.

In this article, we will give a comprehensive overview of US university admissions. Hopefully, this information will help all students, American or international, get a better handle on the college admissions process.

To give a full picture of what goes into the process, we will cover several different topics, including:

  • The different types of schools available in the US
  • A current analysis of the college admissions landscape
  • An overview of the college admissions process, including requirements and timelines
  • Planning your approach to the college admissions process, including how to build a college list and when to apply
  • Understanding who makes college admissions decisions
  • Applying to college as an international student
  • Funding your college education
  • College application resources, and more!

Rather than trying to understand all this information at once, we recommend bookmarking this article! That way, you can continue to come back to it throughout your college admissions process. As you read, keep in mind that each student’s academic profile, goals, and needs will differ. The policies of individual schools will too, but the information will still be valuable.

Now, let’s get into learning more about applying to college in the US! 

Applying to College in the US

college admissions

In the past few decades, applying to college in the US has become increasingly competitive. Each year, more applications mean the admissions committee admits fewer students. Certainly, this holds true for smaller, more selective schools in the top 50 college rankings. However, many larger state schools and public universities still admit most or all their qualified applicants. 

Before you apply to college in the US, you should understand the different types of educational experiences and degrees that are offered. Here are some of the options you have in college admissions:

Types of Colleges

Public Universities

These are schools with government funding, usually on the state level. They tend to have lower tuition, especially for students who are residents of the state where the school is located. 

Private Universities

These are schools that are funded by endowments, which mostly includes money donated by alumni of the school. They tend to be pricier but can also offer more financial aid to students thanks to their endowments. 

Community Colleges

As their name implies, community colleges are tied to a local community such as a county or city. Their tuition tends to be the lowest, but some only offer two-year degrees, known as associate’s degrees. Students who attend community colleges also have the opportunity to transfer to a school that offers four-year Bachelor’s degrees.

Trade Schools

These schools provide hands-on education, usually targeted towards a specific trade. Oftentimes, ones that involve technical skills. For example, trade schools are known for training electricians, plumbers, medical assistants, and cosmetologists, among other professions.

At each of the institutions described above, you will have different options for your degrees. It is important to understand the required curriculum and subsequent job opportunities of each. This will help you make an informed decision about your future. Here are some terms you should be familiar with in the college admissions process:

Types of Degrees

Bachelor’s degree

Commonly known as a four-year degree, the bachelor’s degree has statistically been shown to greatly improve one’s lifetime earnings, given that you weigh the cost against your intended career’s average salary. The following are types of bachelor’s degrees:

Bachelor of Arts (BA)

This is the most common type of bachelor’s degree. A BA generally requires students to take courses in a variety of core subjects, such as English and the social sciences. In general, students will work to develop their critical thinking and communication skills.

Bachelor of Science (BS)

This type of bachelor’s degree is assigned for many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. In some cases, such as in the field of psychology, students can opt between getting a BA or a BS. The choice will indicate whether the student’s psychology major focused more on the liberal arts or the sciences.

Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

The BFA is awarded to students studying visual, fine, or performing arts. A BFA often includes many courses with hands-on learning of your chosen medium.

Associate’s degree

Also sometimes called a two-year degree, an associate’s degree can be specific or general in nature. For example, some students get associate’s degrees in nursing to immediately become a nurse. Others get an associate’s in liberal arts to take foundational coursework. This sets them up to transfer elsewhere for a four-year degree.


A major is the main focus of your studies. Examples include psychology or Asian studies. Some majors require lots of credits and prerequisites to complete. Others are more flexible, giving you room to take many electives and explore other courses.


A minor reflects a secondary focus of your studies. Minors generally contain fewer classes than a major, and they don’t necessarily have to be related. For instance, a student can major in biology and minor in Spanish.

With so many terms and options, the college admissions process can be very complex. Before applying, take the time to read up on the options that interest you. In the end, you want your investment in a college education to reflect your personal and professional priorities. You can also seek the help of a college admission advisor who can provide college admissions assistance along the way.

Coming up, we will provide an overview of the US college admission process.

What Is the US College Admission Process?

college admissions

The US college admissions process for most two- and four-year programs follows a similar cadence each year. Typically, high school students go through the first-year college admissions process during the fall of their senior year. This is because applications for fall enrollment are typically due the previous November or January. Later on, we will discuss the college admissions timeline more in-depth. For now, let’s review the main components of the college admissions process.

To apply to most four-year programs in the US, you will generally need to complete, at minimum, the following components:

US College Admissions Process Components

ComponentSubmission ProcessNotes
Demographic and contact informationEnter into an online platform, such as the Common ApplicationIf a school accepts the Common Application or another college application platform, you can fill out this information just once and have it sent to every school on your list.
GradesSent by your high school to collegesAll transcripts must be sent, including grades from college courses taken during high school.
Test ScoresSelf-reported on the Common App or sent by the testing service Depending on a school’s current policies, test scores may be required or optional; also includes language testing for foreign applicants.
Extracurricular/Activities ListEnter into an online platform, such as the Common ApplicationDescribe all leadership, extracurricular, job, or familial responsibilities you have. 
Personal StatementSubmit via online platform, such as the Common ApplicationHighlights a core part of your identity that you want to share with all the schools you apply to. Check out sample personal statements in this college admission essay examples page.
Supplemental EssaysSubmit via online platform, such as the Common ApplicationSchool-specific college admissions essays such as “why do you want to attend our school?” or “why did you choose your major?” You can review supplemental college admissions essay examples here.
College recommendation lettersRequested via online platforms such as the Common Application.Plan to request between two and three college recommendation letters from teachers and mentors who know you well.
Financial Aid ApplicationsFAFSA, CSS Profile, or State Aid application platformShould be completed shortly after submitting your applications. Federal and state aid are only offered to US citizens.
Scholarship ApplicationsIndividual school platforms or private funders found onlineIf finances are a concern, be sure to start your scholarship research at the same time as your college research. You can apply for private scholarships well before you apply and all throughout your college education. 

Every school is different

It’s true the basic requirements for admissions are similar across US schools. However, each college and university may have their own unique features, like school-specific application portals. In this case, they may not accept common platforms like the Common Application or Coalition Application.

Some schools have additional application requirements, such as a portfolio or additional essays. And, while most schools follow a similar application timeline, others have unique application deadlines. To keep on top of your college admission tasks, we recommend making a list of schools. For each, be sure to note their corresponding deadlines and college admissions requirements. 

Alternatively, you can seek out college admissions assistance to ensure you don’t overlook any part of the application process. College admission advisors can also help review all your materials and make sure you are presenting yourself clearly in the process. 

Next, we will introduce you to how the US college admission process compares to college admissions abroad.

College Admissions: Comparing to College Admissions Abroad

college admissions

If you are an international student, US college admissions may seem more unfamiliar than not. This is because US college admissions differs in many ways from college admissions in other countries. Here are some of the biggest differences:

Academic flexibility

In the US, colleges offer a lot of flexibility to switch your major or combine several majors and minors to earn your degree. In many other countries, when you apply to college, you apply to a specific academic program. Trying to switch usually means you have to start your academic coursework over again. 

Holistic evaluation

In most US college admissions processes, you will hear the word “holistic” used a lot. This word means that colleges evaluate applicants on several different factors, not just their academics. While grades and test scores do matter in the US university admissions process, so do extracurriculars and your personal experiences. Most colleges in other countries use a strict grades or test-based evaluation to determine who gets admitted. In China, for example, students take the GaoKao, a national exam, to gain admission to universities. 

Tuition costs

While there is a lot of variation in tuition costs, the US is also generally one of the most expensive places to study in the world. Whereas some countries subsidize students’ education so that it is low-cost or even free, students attending college in the US regularly graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Coming up, we will discuss the specific considerations that international students must make if they wish to attend college in the US.

Applying to US Colleges as an International Student

college admissions

As the number of students applying to college in the US has increased, so has the percentage of international students enrolled in US higher education. According to Open Doors, a US Department of State-funded initiative, 5.6% of US college students are international students. 

Many of these students are Indian, as Indian universities are oversaturated with dedicated, brilliant applicants seeking educational opportunities. For example, Delhi University admits less than 2% of applicants, a lower percentage than Harvard. Prior to the surge of Indian applicants to US schools, many international students hailed from China.

For international students, there are additional hurdles related to the US college admissions process. In addition to completing all of the college admissions requirements we described above, international students must consider the following parts of the process:

Demonstrating language proficiency

To study at a US university, international students must demonstrate English proficiency. Some ways to do so are by taking the TOEFL or the IELTS exams.

Applying in English

All college admissions requirements must be completed in English. As such, international students whose documents are not in English must have them translated, such as letters of recommendation and transcripts.

Lack of government financial aid

Only some US schools offer financial aid for international students. Whereas US students can sometimes qualify for state and federal aid, international students must either be able to fund themselves or secure hard-to-get private or institutional scholarships.

Obtaining a student visa

Even after being admitted to a US university, international students have the additional hurdle of obtaining a student visa. Students must apply at their local US embassy and provide proof of their admission status and financial means to afford their education abroad. Make sure to verify what you need to apply for your visa before attending your visa appointment.

In the following section, we will share some additional behind-the-scenes information about the US college admissions process.

US College Admissions 101

college admissions

By now, we have illustrated how there are many moving pieces to the college admissions process in the US. Each of these pieces is important because of the holistic process that colleges take when evaluating applicants. Indeed, when applying to college, it is important to ensure that your application is painting a clear picture of your personal brand: the qualities, attributes, and experiences that make you unique. 

While there is no formula to getting into your dream school, the general rule of thumb is to be yourself and showcase your uniqueness and strengths. This is why you should review college admission essay examples with care to avoid copying ideas and voices that are not your own. 

Keep in mind that college admissions decisions are made based on a variety of complex and ever-changing factors, many of which will be out of your control. Copying ideas or content from other college admission essays examples, or trying to present yourself as someone you’re not, could hurt your odds. In the next section, we will share a bit more about how committees actually make college admissions decisions.

Who makes College Admissions decisions?

With so much effort required in the college admissions process, you might be wondering who decides whether you get admitted to a school. In general, colleges have a designated admissions committee that evaluates all applications and determines admissions decisions. Admissions committees can be comprised of admissions officers, deans, faculty members, current students, and alumni. Consequently, applications are typically reviewed by more than one person. 

Additionally, applications are reviewed in relation to other applications. This means that admissions officers are comparing applicants to the overall pool of applications they received. Admissions teams also account for context, including the opportunities available to students during high school. If, for example, a high school does not offer many APs or extracurriculars, admissions officers will consider that in their review in order to not unfairly punish students for their lack of access to resources or opportunities.

Reviewing applications is a huge feat for most admissions offices. In 2021, Yale had to hire two new staff members to keep up with the 33% increase in applications after they went test-optional for the year. Indeed, with tens of thousands of college admissions essays to read, the workload is high for admissions officers at many schools. Coming up, we will talk about how you can communicate with admissions officers.

Communicating with College Admissions Officers

college admissions

At most schools, admissions officers are assigned by geographic regions. As a result, they work with students and guidance counselors from their regions. Typically, you can expect your primary reader to be your regional admissions officer. For an example, check out NYU’s admissions officers and note how they work with students from different regions. 

While you are applying, you might have questions about college admissions requirements. If the school you are applying to lists your regional admissions officers contact information on their website, you can reach out to them. Otherwise, you’ll need to contact the office of undergraduate admissions to see if they can answer your question directly or provide you with your regional admissions officer’s contact information. Be sure that all your communications are formal and polite, as these are the individuals who will be deciding whether to admit you.

In the next section, we will share some tips for planning your college admissions approach.

Planning your College Admissions approach

When it comes to planning your approach to university admissions, there are two key pieces of advice: start early and get help. Whether you get formal college admissions assistance or look for college admissions essay examples, remember that there is a wealth of information about this ever-evolving process available for you online. 

Earlier, we shared a list of key college admissions requirements, from college recommendation letters to college admissions essays. In this section, we will give an overview of how to complete all these requirements.

Here are the most common steps to securing your college admission letter: 

Steps of the College Admissions Process

1. Develop a balanced college list

Make a list of schools that meet your academic needs. Later, we will share more about what makes a balanced college list. Make sure you research each school on your list using US News rankings, Niche.com reviews, virtual tours, and in-person campus visits, when possible. Consult a college admission advisor to make sure you have a balanced list.

2. Take required tests

As you research schools, take note of any required tests. If any of your schools require SAT and ACT scores, make sure you have a plan for when and how you will prepare for and take one of these tests. Additionally, if you are an international student, sign up for the TOEFL or IELTS exam to prove your English proficiency.

3. Create a college application checklist with application deadlines

Once you have a list of schools to apply to, create a checklist with requirements for each school, such as deadlines, college admissions essay topics, college recommendation letter requirements, testing requirements, and financial aid requirements. A college admission advisor can help you make and keep track of this checklist to ensure that all materials are submitted by the deadline.

4. Refine your candidate profile

Before you start reading college admission essay examples, build your own candidate profile. A candidate profile is an overview of the personal branding you hope to convey in your applications. This should include the values, attributes, and unique life experiences you wish to highlight. With this document complete, you can tell your own story without being distracted by the ideas in other college admissions essay examples. 

5. Write your college admissions essays

Once you have a strong handle on your candidate profile, begin brainstorming, drafting, and editing your essays. When you read college admissions essay examples, do so only for a sense of what makes a strong essay, such as vivid details or thoughtful ideas. Do not copy topics as admissions officers are looking for your own unique story. If possible, get college admissions assistance from an experienced counselor who can direct you towards good college admission essay examples and help you revise your essays.

6. Request college recommendation letters

Most selective colleges require at least one college recommendation letter. Prepare to ask two to three teachers who know your work well. Ideally, one will be a science or math teacher and the other will be a humanities teacher. You can give your candidate profile and resume to your recommenders to help them write stronger letters.

7. Draft your extracurricular activities list

Depending on which application platform you use, you will describe eight to ten activities. Make sure to highlight the activities that are most important to you and name specific achievements you made within each one. Use your candidate profile to guide you as you choose which activities to highlight.

8. Submit applications

Review all your documents and essays one more time before uploading them to your chosen application platform—then hit submit!

9. Complete financial aid applications

Shortly after submitting, you should begin working on your financial aid applications, such as the FAFSA or CSS profile. Be sure to involve parents and guardians in this so you are providing accurate information.

10. Apply for scholarships

Research scholarships on reliable websites like Scholarships.com, GoingMerry, Bold.Org, and Appily. Acquiring scholarships can be time-consuming, so be sure to break up the work into manageable pieces. Consider spending 10 minutes researching scholarships and 20 minutes writing your essays each week. You can also look for college admissions essay examples specifically written for scholarships. Additionally, be sure to speak with college financial aid officers about internal scholarships that might be available at each of the schools you apply to.

While these are the general steps to apply to college, you will want to make sure you carefully review each school’s requirements before you begin.

A Note on Financial Need and University Admissions 

In some cases, schools are need-blind in the admissions process. This means that they are not considering a student’s ability to pay for college when evaluating their application. However, many schools that are need-blind for American students are not need-blind for international students, such as Columbia and Brown.

As a result, international students might be more likely to be admitted if they can pay for their education. However, Columbia states that it does offer a limited number of scholarships for international students. Therefore, putting together a cohesive and compelling application is even more important if you need a scholarship to attend a US university. 

Coming up, we will go more in depth into the individual steps of the university admissions process–and provide more helpful resources and insights! 

Building your School List

A very important step in the university admissions process is building your school list. A balanced college list contains schools that are reach, target, and safety schools. You can use admissions calculators like this one from US News to determine which schools are a reach, target, or safety for you.

A reasonable list might have between 8 and 15 schools, spread between the reach, target, and safety categories. In the end, each school should be one that you would be excited to attend, regardless of how competitive it is.

Research is an important part of building a college list. Use a variety of resources, including but not limited to US News rankings, BigFuture’s college search, College Navigator, and virtual tours. While rankings might seem like the most important data point, focus on the factors that will most likely impact your educational opportunities and quality of life while in college, such as academic offerings, cost of attendance, size, or location. After you build your list, you will be ready to apply.

College Admissions Timeline

college admissions

Preparing for college can begin as early as freshman year of high school, as you begin choosing challenging coursework and exploring extracurriculars. However, the university admissions application process typically begins in spring of your junior year of high school. 

Here are some key dates in the college admissions timeline:

Time for US College Admissions

Spring of Junior Year

  • Sign up for college admissions assistance. 
  • Finalize your college list and make a list of application requirements.
  • Ask teachers for college recommendation letters. 
  • Take standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL.
  • Read college admission essay examples.

July – August

  • Most applications open for students to begin filling out. For example, ApplyTexas opens July 1 and the Common App opens August 1. However, the CalState application opens October 1 for the following Fall.
  • Begin writing college essays.
  • Take standardized tests a second time, if needed.

August – February

  • Submit applications by the Early or Regular Decision deadlines, which generally fall during these months.
  • Take standardized tests one final time, if needed.
  • Schools release Early Decision college admission letters, generally in December.
  • Complete financial aid and scholarship applications.

March – April

May 1

  • Enrollment deposits due at most schools by May 1 to secure your spot in their incoming freshman class.

Mid-May – August

  • Waitlisted students may receive college admission letters and decide to change their enrollment.
  • Begin the process of choosing housing, signing up for orientation, and planning for your first days of college.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed during this very busy time, set small goals for yourself and seek out college admissions assistance. Up next, we will explore the difference between various types of admissions deadlines.

Early Decision, Early Action, Regular Decision Application

Each college has its own set of application deadlines. Different deadlines come with different advantages and disadvantages, which we have outlined in the table below. 

Type of DeadlineAverage DateAdvantagesDisadvantages
Regular Decision (RD)January – February– Gives you fall semester to strengthen your grades, test scores, and overall application– No admissions rate advantage- Must work on applications over the holidays
Early Decision I (ED I)October – November – Can increase odds of admission, depending on the school
– Potential to receive your college admissions letter sooner (in December versus in March)
– A binding application, meaning you must attend if admitted, regardless of financial aid offered- Submitting early means colleges won’t see your final fall grades or achievements
Early Decision II (ED II)January – February – Can increase odds of admission, depending on the school
– Gives you fall semester to strengthen your grades and application
– Must work on applications over the holidays- A binding application, meaning you must attend if admitted, regardless of financial aid offered
Early Action (EA)October – November– Potential to receive your college admissions letter sooner (in December versus in March)- Can increase odds of admission, depending on the school– May be deferred, so you would still need to submit additional Regular Decision applications
Single-Choice or Restrictive Early Action (REA)October – November– Potential to receive your college admissions letter sooner (in December versus in March)- Can increase odds of admission, depending on the school– Can only apply REA to one private school (applying EA to public schools allowed)

More resources on College Admissions

To read more about the specifics of each of these types of application deadlines, check out this CollegeAdvisor article. You can also seek out college admissions assistance and work with an expert college admission advisor to develop a smart application strategy. Coming up, we will discuss rolling admissions deadlines and late college application deadlines. 

Rolling Admissions and Late College Application Deadlines

college admissions

The deadlines outlined above are some of the most common. However, some schools offer rolling admissions and other late college application deadlines. Rolling admissions means that schools evaluate applications as they receive them. Many schools, especially those with higher acceptance rates, do this to ensure they fill all the seats in their incoming class.

While seats may be available as late as the month before college starts, the earlier you apply, the better. For example, the priority deadline at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus is November 1. However, they generally continue to accept students until their seats are filled. 

So, how does rolling admissions factor into your university admissions decisions? First, you may wish to apply to a school that has rolling admissions as soon as their application opens. By applying early in the fall, you can secure a seat at that school quickly and rest easy knowing you have a college admission letter under your belt.

Conversely, you may wish to apply to a school that has rolling admission in the spring, especially if you are not admitted to any of the schools on your list. This allows you to still attend college, even if you find out later than most students. However, with the support of strong college admissions assistance, you shouldn’t need to apply to a rolling admissions college out of desperation.

In the next section, we will explore the different application platforms that are available in the college admissions process.

Common App, Coalition App, and School-Specific Applications

college admissions

When undergoing the college admission process in the U.S., there are a few different applications that you may encounter. Each of these applications for college admission is different and has slightly different requirements. Regardless, each is meant as a way for students to communicate more information about their accomplishments, their goals, and what they value. 

Common Application

The first and most frequently used college admission application is the Common Application, or the “Common App.” The Common App is a one-stop shop for college admissions—over 1,000 schools accept the Common App.

On the Common App, you fill out a profile that includes all of your demographic information, educational stats, extracurriculars, grades, and test scores. This information is submitted alongside letters of recommendation and a 500-650 word personal statement, or college admissions essay. You get to re-use this section of the Common App for every school you apply to for college admission. 

Additionally, the Common App also features school-specific sections tailored to each individual school. The school-specific section often contains more essay prompts, known as supplemental essays. Between your personal statement and the supplemental essays, prepare to be doing a lot of writing for your college admissions essays. This can seem daunting, but there are tools you can use to tackle these essays (we’ve got college admissions essay examples that you can read to know what works and what doesn’t).

Coalition Application

Some schools also take the Coalition Application. The Coalition Application is another application that asks you to fill out two separate sections: one section that will be submitted to every school you apply to and one that is specific to the school. However, unlike the Common App, the Coalition Application is only accepted by around 150 schools for college admission—as part of its mission, the Coalition Application only works with schools that provide significant need-based financial aid, or offer low in-state tuition. 

School-Specific and State-Based Applications

In some instances, the college admission process doesn’t involve either of these two applications. For universities like MIT or the California State University system, you’ll need to fill out a separate application provided by the school. There are also some college admission systems, like ApplyTexas, that you can use to apply to all colleges in one state. 

If you’re applying to a university with a school-specific college admission platform, don’t let the extra step deter you from applying. If most of your schools use the Common App for college admission, you’ll likely be able to re-use some of the material you put together for that application. 

It’s always important to research what college admission platforms the schools on your college list use ahead of time. That way, there won’t be any surprises close to the deadline. 

College Admissions Requirements

Across the board, college admission requires that you submit some kind of application. This could be the Common App, the Coalition App, school-specific applications, or others. Without a complete application, you will not gain college admission in the United States.

Transcripts and school reports

There are some requirements these applications for college admission have in common. One of these is an official transcript or school report. This is how colleges and universities learn your grades during your time in high school, or secondary school. For these academic transcripts, you will have to request them from your guidance counselor or other school officials. Don’t worry—whatever application you decide to fill out for college admission will walk you through this process. 

Letters of recommendation

Nearly all colleges also require you to submit a few letters of recommendation. These college admission letters should be from teachers who know you well. In your junior year, start thinking about teachers who could write you a strong college recommendation letter. Have you excelled in their class? Do they teach something that you’d like to study in college? What could they tell the college admissions committee about you that would make you a stronger candidate? These are all things to keep in mind regarding college recommendation letters. 

College admissions essays

For college admissions, you’ll also need to write a series of college admissions essays—certainly at least one. The main college admissions essay is also referred to as the personal statement. It is created through answering a prompt provided by the Common App, or whatever larger application format you choose. 

Application fees

Lastly, almost all colleges require an application fee. This can be a difficult part of college admission, especially when you’re applying to 10-16 schools. If the fee is prohibitive, you can apply for a fee waiver. 

Some schools also require standardized test scores—but this has changed a lot in the last few years. We’ll talk more about that in our next section. 

Transcripts and Standardized Tests

college admissions

First, let’s go over the importance of transcripts in college admissions requirements. Colleges and universities need transcripts to understand your academic journey. For college admission, admissions officers want to know not only how well you’ve done in school, but what classes you’ve taken, and what your focus has been.

Transcripts also help contextualize your academic performance. College admissions officers receive applications from all over the U.S. and all over the world, and there’s a lot of variation in classes and grades. For example, most schools in China don’t calculate GPA on a 4 point scale, and there are many schools in the U.S. that weight GPAs based on performance in honors or AP classes. With your transcript, and an understanding of how academics work at your school, college admissions officers can better understand your academic performance within the context of your school. 

To submit your transcript, you will have to request it from an administrator or guidance counselor at your school. This person should be familiar with this process, and can help you make sure that your transcript reaches your college admissions application on time. If you’re working with a college admission advisor, they can also provide you with college admissions assistance to make sure you have all the right materials. 

SAT, ACT, and test-optional policies

In the past, SAT or ACT scores were standardized college admissions requirements—even for international students. But since COVID, many schools have made SAT/ACT scores optional. This has caused a huge increase in applicants with no matching increase in open slots, which oftentimes leads to lower acceptance rates at top schools. 

Test-optional policies can be a little bit confusing—here’s how you navigate them. 

First, if you work with a college admission advisor or seek any college admissions assistance, they will almost certainly encourage you to take the SAT or ACT. Even if you take the test, you don’t have to submit your scores. However, it’s always better to have more information to provide to the college admission committee. That means a good SAT score can help your application, even if it’s optional to submit. 

SATs are available internationally, either digitally or at a recognized SAT test center. The SAT and the ACT both have pros and cons: if you’re an international student, you might be less comfortable with the Reading Comprehension section of the SAT due to not being a native English speaker. The ACT has a stronger focus on scientific concepts and reasoning, so if you’re applying as a STEM candidate, this could be a good test for you.

Submitting your test scores

Once you’ve taken your SAT or ACT (ideally more than once so that you can optimize your score), how do you know whether to submit it? 

First, check whether your score is competitive. You can see the range of SAT scores for different schools on U.S. News. For example, the middle 50% of SAT scores for students at Harvard are between 1490-1580 out of 1600. However, this means that 25% of students at Harvard have SATs below 1490—and 25% have SATs above 1580. For your SAT score to seriously improve your chances at college admission, aim for that 75% or higher (so in the case of Harvard, 1580 or higher). If your score is below the low boundary, it likely would not improve your chances at college admission. 

But remember: the SAT is not the same as tests in other countries like India or China where the score can make or break your application. And even though the Harvard range looks daunting, not every school is Harvard, and a majority of U.S. colleges admit most students who apply. 

If you ask any college admission advisor, they’d likely give you the same advice for approaching the SAT or ACT: utilize practice tests to prepare, take the SAT or ACT twice so that you can optimize your score, and just do the best that you can. 

College Recommendation Letters

college admissions

College admission letters, or college recommendation letters, are another important component of university admissions. These are not optional: they are college admissions requirements.

When considering students for admission, the college admission committee wants to know what your strengths are, where your interests lie, and what kind of student you are. College recommendation letters are the best way for them to understand that side of you. 

Unlike in some other countries where college admission is closely tied to test scores and rankings, the college admission process in the U.S. is very holistic. This means that college admission officers are looking to know more about who you are as a person, both inside and outside of school. 

One part of getting to know you better as a student is your grades, but that only paints part of the picture. Maybe you got a lower grade in one class, but you worked incredibly hard and showed up for help after school every day. A letter of recommendation from that teacher could explain the lower grade, and demonstrate your persistence and drive. 

Securing letters of recommendation

If you choose to use the Common App for college admission, you’ll need one letter of recommendation from your school counselor and one or two from your teachers. Getting to know your guidance counselor ahead of the college admission season is a great way to set yourself up for success when it comes time to request recommendations. 

For your college recommendation letters from teachers, start thinking during your third (or second-to-last) year of secondary or high school. Did you feel a strong connection to any teachers? Are there any classes you particularly enjoy, or where you’re putting in extra hours? Are there teachers who also lead clubs or organizations that you’re part of who you’ve gotten to know a little better? Be thinking about this as you participate in your classes. 

At the end of the year—or the beginning of your final year—ask two teachers to write you a college admission letter. It can feel stressful to ask a teacher to do this, but this is part of their job! They get requests from kids every year, and they know how to handle them. However, make sure you ask your teacher early enough to give them time to write you a good letter, and are polite and gracious in your request. If you are working with a college admission advisor, they can even help you decide who to ask, how to ask, and the best ways to follow up.

Typically, you enter the name and email of your recommender, and they submit your college admission letter directly to the platform or school. This means you will not have the opportunity to read the letter. This is to encourage teachers to submit honest college admission letters without influence from their students.

College Admissions Essays

college admissions

Many students feel anxious about one particular aspect of the college admissions process: the college admissions essays. In fact, they often seek guidance from college admission advisors to navigate this challenging task.

While they are challenging, you shouldn’t worry about facing them. As long as you start early, brainstorm, and take the time to edit and rewrite, you’ll submit great essays. Plus, you can read college admissions essay examples and even get personalized feedback from a college admission advisor to feel more confident in your submission. 

Types of college admissions essays

College admissions essays generally fall into two categories: the personal statement and supplemental essays. The personal statement is a longer essay where you tell a story about yourself. What do you value? What’s an experience that has shaped you? What’s a story that speaks to your goals? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you prepare to write your personal statement. 

The supplemental essays are school-specific. Some of these are long, like the personal statement, but usually they’re shorter. For supplemental essays, you’ll often see prompts asking you why you want to attend whatever specific school, about communities you’ve been a part of or your cultural background, or about your career or academic goals. These types of prompts are common, so you can even reuse parts of your supplemental essays for other schools. 

College admission advisors have seen it all, and there’s no shortage of tips, tricks, and college admissions assistance out there to take advantage of. However, if you’re in need of inspiration, try reading some college admissions essay examples. These college admissions essay examples can show you what a great essay looks like and help you prepare for the essay writing process. 

Essay writing can also be stressful if English isn’t your first language, which is the case for a lot of international students. Getting some professional college admissions assistance can help you revise and polish your essays without losing your authentic voice. 

English Language Tests for International Students

As an international student, you will also need to display your competency in the English language for university admissions. The two most popular English language tests are IELTS and TOEFL. 

The TOEFL and IELTS are similar tests designed to assess English proficiency in university admission, but they are slightly different. The TOEFL is a bit shorter, and is more geared toward academic situations. IELTS tests may also be easier for you if you’ve learned British English, whereas TOEFL is more suited to U.S.-based learners. 

Regardless of which test you take, or how good you think your English is, it’s always smart to take a practice test first. Even the best speakers can get confused in a test setting, so always get to know the material beforehand so that it doesn’t affect your university admission. 

Some schools offer other ways to demonstrate English proficiency. For example, the UC system does not require either the TOEFL or IELTS, and accepts SAT scores and other English language tests. A college admission advisor can work with you to determine the best test for you, when you should take it, and how to report your scores.

Navigating the FAFSA & CSS Profile

Beyond working with a college admission advisor to complete your application, you may be looking for someone who can help you apply for financial aid. The FAFSA and the CSS profile are ways to demonstrate financial need during the university admission process. Some schools provide need-based financial aid, and in order to get that aid, you must fill out these forms. 

However, for most international students, you will not qualify for financial aid through FAFSA. FAFSA is federal aid, and is generally only available to domestic students in the U.S. Filling out the FAFSA form requires a social security number, which many international students may not have. 

The CSS profile, however, is an essential part of university admissions for international students. The CSS Profile is filled out through the College Board, which is the same organization that runs SAT and AP tests. To fill out the CSS profile as part of your university admission application, you enter information about yourself and your family’s financial situation. 

The CSS Profile is then used to determine your eligibility for institutional financial aid—this is aid that is given through the school itself, not on a federal level. With the CSS profile, international students can apply for need-based aid without filing a FAFSA.

Generally, the CSS is due around the same time as regular university admission deadlines. You will need to work with your parents to fill out this form, so don’t leave it until the last minute. Be sure to set up a time that works for your family. You’ll need to have your parents’ tax documents available, and other information like bank statements, properties owned, and retirement account values. 

Applying to External Scholarships

college admissions

In addition to need-based aid for university admission, international students can also apply for external scholarships. These scholarships are gifts and, unlike loans, do not need to be repaid. They’re also not need-based, which means that it doesn’t matter whether your family needs financial support in order to afford university admissions. 

There are all kinds of scholarships based on who you are, where you’re from, what your career goals are, and what school you’re going to. Some require essays or other applications, and others you can enter more easily. 

To find these scholarships, start doing your research in advance. Organizations that provide college admissions assistance can help—like this CollegeAdvisor webinar on finding and applying to scholarships. Using tools like this one, you can search different scholarships and see which ones you’re eligible for. 

College Scholarships for International Students

Even with so many online resources available, it can be hard to find scholarships that are open to international students. Many international scholarships are available for graduate students, but there are still many available for international students pursuing undergraduate university admissions in the U.S. 

If you don’t know where to start, try contacting the financial aid office at your intended college and asking them about potential scholarships for international university admissions. Databases like IEFA provide comprehensive lists of scholarships for international students, and other websites like Education USA and EduPass also have lists. 

Often, these scholarships are looking for students who are leaders and can demonstrate strong writing skills. Just like with your application for university admissions, you want to sell yourself in these scholarship applications. If you’re stuck, look for organizations that provide college admissions assistance and see if there’s a college admission advisor who can help you craft your scholarship essays and applications. 

Understanding College Admissions Decisions

college admissions

So, now you’ve braved the college admissions process as an international student. You’ve prepared for and taken your SATs and the TOEFL, you’ve read college admission essay examples and crafted your own, you’ve secured your letters of recommendation, and you’ve finally submitted your Common App to targets, reaches, and safeties that you’re really excited about. Now what?

Unfortunately, the only thing you can really do in the meantime is wait. You could also apply to some schools that have rolling admissions. This means that they make decisions about applicants as they come in and generally have more than one deadline. Can’t hurt to send in a few more applications—and maybe get some acceptances while you wait! 

Rejected, accepted, deferred, waitlisted

If you applied early, you’ll receive a decision within a few months of applying. You could be accepted, rejected, or deferred. A deferral is when a school decides to look at an early applicant within the regular decision pool. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be rejected, or that your application wasn’t strong enough. 

However, if you do get deferred, you may want to write a letter of continued interest. This highlights any accomplishments you’ve had since submitting your application and emphasizes that you still are very interested in attending this school. Especially if this is your first choice school, this can be useful to say in your letter. 

Once regular decision admission dates roll around, you may be faced with another challenge: waitlisting. Being waitlisted can be incredibly stressful, especially for international students, who may worry about getting visas in time to begin school in the fall. However, most colleges say that they admit students early enough to still obtain visas, so don’t worry too much about that. 

If you are rejected from a school, do not write a letter of continued interest or attempt to change their mind. And remember, it doesn’t say anything negative about you if you don’t get into your dream school.

Once you’ve heard back from all of your schools and learned which ones you were accepted to, you’ll face another obstacle: choosing which school to attend. Do some college visits, talk to past or current students, and don’t make yourself too crazy trying to decide. The hard part is already over! 

Resources for Navigating College Admissions

There are a ton of resources available to you to take advantage of during the college admissions process. From college admissions essay examples, to webinars, to test prep, to college admissions assistance, there is support all around you—if you know where to look.

Application platforms like the Common App or the Coalition App provide FAQs, guides, articles, and even online events for applicants. Especially if you have a question about college admissions requirements with the applications, these platforms are a great place to look for answers. 

When in doubt, go to the source: the school! The schools you’re applying to will have information about their college admissions requirements, and they are the most trustworthy source when it comes to their application process. There are also blog posts, college admission essay examples, videos from students, virtual campus tours, and a wealth of other resources for you to get to know the school better. 

College advising companies, like CollegeAdvisor, offer a range of different resources. With a college admission advisor, you can receive one-on-one support all throughout the college process, including help building out your college list, creating the best personal brand, going through college admission essay examples, essay revision, and more. CollegeAdvisor also offers some resources completely free, like college admission essay examples, college rankings, and other how-to’s—like this guide! For college admissions assistance, college advising companies are a one-stop shop for guidance and support. 

Understanding US College Admissions – Takeaways

college admissions

Applying to college in the U.S. as an international student can feel incredibly intimidating. There are a ton of forms and processes, and not to mention the extra stress of writing essays that may not be in your first language. Here are some takeaways to make the process a bit more clear:

The US has a lot of different types of colleges and universities: private schools, public schools, community colleges, trade schools, and more. Generally, most international students are applying to private schools or public universities. Since there’s so much nuance to university admissions, it’s important to understand all the different elements of the admissions process.

To recap: you apply to college during the first part of your final year of college, but you should start preparing at least a year in advance. Unlike in other countries, you don’t have to apply to a specific major, but you should have an idea of what you want to study or what your goals are. US admissions tend to be more holistic, and they aren’t entirely dependent on one test score. 

College application platforms

Using platforms like the Common App, you compile an application with information about yourself, including transcripts, grades, extracurriculars, demographic information, test scores, essays, and letters of recommendation. Admissions officers then receive this information and evaluate it holistically. Your application is how these officers get to know you, so personality, authenticity, and maturity are always good to highlight.

Though international students can’t apply for the FAFSA, you can fill out the CSS Profile to receive need-based aid from some colleges. You can also apply to external scholarships. And, if you ever need college admissions assistance, like help building your college list, college admission essay examples, or help navigating scholarships, you can always try working with a college advising company like CollegeAdvisor.

The US college application process is complicated and can certainly be challenging. CollegeAdvisor can provide you with the support and guidance you need to successfully navigate it.

college admissions

This article was written by senior advisors, Courtney Ng and Rachel Kahn. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.