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Applying to study in the U.S. is a long process. Here we provide some guidelines and tips to make it as easy as possible.


In order to submit a successful application to a U.S. university or college, students should begin planning more than a year in advance. Following this suggested timeline will mitigate the stress level and will make the admissions and visa processes smoother. Read schools’ specific admissions requirements and deadlines to construct your own specific timeline.

18 months before start of study

  • Gather information about schools
  • Prepare or admission and language tests
  • Plan finances

15 months before start of study

  • Finalize list of schools to apply
  • Compile admissions materials
  • Request Transcripts
  • Take admissions and/or language tests

10 months before start of study

  • Complete application materials
  • Write application essays
  • Write personal statement
  • Request letters of recommendation

9 months before start of study

  • Request friends/family/teachers/advisors to review your application materials
  • Submit applications
  • Familiarize yourself with U.S. news

6 months before start of study

  • Celebrate your acceptance to study in your university of choice!
  • Complete school-specific paperwork as requested

3 months before start of study

  • Apply for Student Visa
  • Finalize travel plans

Required Materials

Most applications for U.S. colleges and universities require the following information:

  • Application Form: Typically includes personal and academic information, essay questions, and a personal statement. Often applications are completed and submitted online.
  • Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose: A crucial part of your application, this essay allows you to express your individuality, special accomplishments, and areas of interest. You should take plenty of time to focus on writing a strong statement. More information on writing Your Personal Statement Essay.
  • Official Academic Transcripts: If in a language other than English, official transcripts will usually need to be translated by your school or an official translation service. U.S. institutions may require BOTH original and official translated records.
  • Exam Results: Exam requirements may vary for different schools but you may be asked to submit scores from a standardized test and an test that measures your English language ability. When you take required exams, you will receive information on sending scores to schools. More information on Exams.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Request your letters early to give your recommenders enough time to write your letter. Sometimes recommenders must complete a form online. More information on Letters of Recommendation.
  • Financial Aid Application Form: Find out if your application will be reviewed for financial aid opportunities or if an additional application is required. Be sure to ask if specific scholarships or financial aid packages are available for international students.
  • Financial/Bank Statements: Only send these if required. Some schools look at your financial records to determine your eligibility for financial aid and to ensure compliance with your visa requirements. Questions can always be sent to admissions office if you are uncertain if this information is required.
  • Application Fee: Consider the application fees when thinking about costs. Each school will have a fee somewhere around US$50-100. Occasionally fees can be waived, so review admissions requirements or ask the admissions office. Keep in mind that you will also have to pay fees for your tests, including sending scores to each school. Other costs may include transcript fees, translation fees, or postage.

The Common Application

The Common Application Membership Association provides a standardized undergraduate application form for use with 488 member institutions in 46 states and the District of Columbia. A variety of public and private, large and small, highly selective and modestly selective, and geographically diverse institutions accept the Common Application. To find the list of universities accepting the common application, please visit their website.

The Common Application is highly beneficial for applicants because once it is completed, the Application for Undergraduate Admission can be sent to all participating colleges and universities, allowing the applicant to focus on writing one good general application, rather than spending time filling out the same information over and over again for different universities.

A holistic process incorporates subjective as well as objective criteria, including at least one recommendation, at least one untimed essay and broader campus diversity considerations. As part of the application process, schools require a variety of information to be provided by teachers and guidance counselors who have interacted with the applicant in the high school environment. The teacher and counselor will have the option to complete the forms online via the Common Application Online School Forms system if they desire.

It is important to note that some colleges and universities have additional requirements to the common application; they might, for example, request an extra essay or recommendation form. You may still have to pay separate fees and send transcripts and test scores separately to each school.

18 Tips for a Successful Application

Your application to U.S. colleges and universities is the key for your admission process. It talks on your behalf and therefore you must take utmost care when completing it. Below are a few useful tips for an impressive application.

1. Come to university fairs prepared to ask questions that reflect your interests and goals. Suggested questions to as university representatives.

2. Follow up with the person you met during the university fair or recruitment activity; send a Thank You Email  or ask any follow up questions you may have. They will remember you and will talk to the admissions committee about you and your interests. Make sure you leave this person with a good impression.

3. Follow directions exactly: deadlines, guidelines and requirements should be strictly followed. Do not send more information than is asked for by the institution.

4. Edit your application. Make sure your documents do not have any mistakes and/or typos. Make sure you do not accidentally reference one university while writing an application for another one.

5. Know your college. Unless completing the Common Application, mention specifics about the school that influenced your decision to apply. Even with the Common Application, you can write specific personal statements for each college, if you so choose.

6. Provide a professional email address that is easy to recognize and associate with you, for example: stephen.john@gmail.com instead of dreamwave2145@gmail.com.

7. Facebook is for recreation. It is not a professional connection. Make sure that if universities search your name they will not find anything on you that could put you in a bad light. If you do want to have a professional way of connecting with professors or advisors, then LinkedIn is a very popular professional social networking site in the U.S.

8. Do not over-exaggerate your extracurricular activities. Schools want to know the real you; representing yourself accurately will also help you find an institution that will be the best fit for your interests.

9. Always remember to indicate what acronyms stand for.

10. Take the effort to explain changes in your resume or academic record. If you have a less than desirable record (you missed a semester or have low grades etc.), accept responsibility and explain lessons learned.

11. Attempt the optional essays. These provide the scope to explain anything in your application and are another opportunity for the selection committee to get to know you as a person, not just another application. Remember, most schools look for unique individuals.

12. Be specific and creative. Do not conclude your essay by writing, “And so, I would love to join your university.”

13. Limit sorrowful emotions. Show your enthusiasm for the university, but remain professional. There is no need to apologize for any actual or perceived shortcomings; highlight your strengths and accomplishments.

14. Write professionally. Avoid slang or colloquialisms and do not use “text-speak.” Profane words are also not a good way to be noticed. Instead, write professionally and, when in doubt, lean towards more formal writing.

15. Most applications are online, be tech-savvy and click the SUBMIT button.

16. Confirm with any contacts you may have made at the university that you have submitted your entire application and look forward to its review.

17. Instead of leaving any items blank, write “not applicable”. Do not leave missing information on your application.

18. Every achievement is important. Don’t belittle or under serve your accomplishments and merits but be sure it is relevant to your application.

Your Personal Statement Essay

A personal statement is one of the best opportunities to distinguish yourself from the thousands of other students competing for the same place. Colleges and universities often use a personal statement, admission essays or a combination of both as part of their admissions selection process.

Writing an engaging and effective personal statement capturing your unique strengths and career goals is the key to success. The personal statement or essay is how colleges and universities determine if their institution is the best fit for you and if you will be able to achieve your goals through their programs; as well as how your experiences will contribute to the learning community.

Admissions committee members look for interesting, insightful, and non-generic personal statements.

Reflect prior to writing your statement:

  • Prior life experiences, events, and achievements relevant to your career choice or application to undergraduate or graduate school
  • People who have influenced your decision to pursue this field or who have had a significant impact on values as they relate to this choice
  • Research interests and prior experience and academic accomplishments/recognitions
  • Professors who have influenced you most academically
  • Previous jobs, volunteer experience, and/or extracurricular activities that have influenced your career choice or career goals.

Suggestions for writing the personal statement:

  • Practice writing and take time to answer
  • Use details and examples to make your point
  • Be concise; Do not exceed word limits
  • Be yourself
  • Do not reiterate
  • Highlight achievements, challenges and leadership opportunities
  • Avoid being verbose
  • Avoid clichés
  • Write strong conclusions – it should bring the threads of your argument together
  • Avoid inappropriate use of humor and philosophy
  • Avoid generalities
  • Mention experiences outside the classroom
  • Ask someone who knows you well – like a teacher, supervisor or friend – to read over your personal statement to provide constructive feedback

Ten Tips for Recommendation Letters

From Alice Huang, Sr. Assistant Director of Admission and Director of Engineering Recruitment
Columbia University

Recommendation letters are more important in the college admissions process than many students realize. At the end of the day, recommendation letters provide evidence that students’ achievements make an impact upon the outside world. While some students think they have no control over their recommendation letters, students recommendation etiquette can, in fact, impact the quality of the recommendation they receive.

My suggestions for students are:

  • Give recommenders plenty of time to write your letter. At least two months before your application deadlines, make appointments to speak briefly to those who will be writing your recommendations.
  • Choose teachers who can comment on your character, as well as your intellectual abilities.
  • Consider choosing teachers who have taught you in the subjects you found challenging but nonetheless worked extremely hard in.
  • Consider choosing teachers who have taught you in the areas of study you want to pursue in college.
  • Prepare an information sheet to give to recommenders when you want to meet with them with the following information:
    • The schools you are applying to, with descriptions of why you want to apply to each school.
    • Your most meaningful and long term commitments, with reasons you chose these activities.
    • The honors and achievements of which you are most proud, with a description of why they are important in general, and specifically to you.
    • Any personal issues (long commutes, after school jobs, family problems that may have affected you over your secondary school years)
  • You will likely have little choice regarding who will write the “counselor” recommendation, but put a good deal of thought behind what teachers will write your “teacher” recommendations. Thus, choose teachers:

    • With whom you have been able to communicate comfortably
    • Who are not overwhelmed with hundreds of other letters to write
    • Who know you more than as a grade on a paper
    • Who may not have given you your best grade, but who recognize and appreciate your tenacity, hard work, discipline, love of learning, collaborative spirit, and so forth
    • Who genuinely like you
  • Show your teachers your true personality.
  • Share with teachers relevant aspects of your personal life.
  • Share with teachers an assignment or exam that demonstrates your best work.
  • Remember to always send thank you notes to recommenders.

This article was previously published in EducationUSA Connections, January 2007 issue.

There are many financial resources available to help in your pursuit of U.S. study. While tuition may be expensive, the U.S. also has a wide variety of programs to help you finance your study – through both public and private organizations, as well as colleges and universities themselves.

Another option for undergraduates is to begin your studies at a community college, where tuition rates are lower, and transfer to a four-year college or university after two years. Your final degree will come from the four-year school and will be identical to a degree awarded to a student who studied there all four years.

IIE administers many scholarships and grants for international students (for more information, visit our student section), and EducationUSA advisers in your own country can also help you find viable options tailored to your own academic needs.

Top ways students found scholarships or funding include:

  1. Network (Ask professors, advisors and friends)
  2. Internet research
  3. Home institution information boards or list-serves
  4. Received assistantships (TA/RA) in their graduate program
  5. International student website of U.S. institution
  6. Newspaper, TV, other media
  7. Home country government or local corporation
  8. Posted on Facebook or social media

Applying for a Student Visa

Unless you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you will need a student visa to study in the U.S.

Common types of U.S. Student Visas

  • F-1 For academic and language students to study at an accredited U.S. college/ university - If the course is more than 18 hours a week, an F-1 or an M-1 visa is required
  • M-1 For technical or vocational students
  • J-1 For exchange visitors, including students sponsored by a government entity

Please visit the U.S. Department of state website for official information on student visas. Read this website very carefully for thorough information on How to Apply, Fees, Required Documentation, etc.

It is best to refer directly to the U.S. State Department website above for accurate, current information. However, common application steps for student visas (F/J/M) include:

1. General application instructions. Follow the general application steps for all the visa applicants. Check the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for instructions.
2. I-20 or DS-2019. Once admitted, the U.S. school will issue a Form I-20 (F-1 or M-1) or a Form DS-2019 (J-1) which allows students to apply for their visa. Review your Form I-20 or DS-2019 to make sure the U.S. school has entered correct information into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
3. Pay SEVIS fee. New students and exchange visitors must pay the SEVIS fee in addition to the regular application fee.
4. Prepare for the interview. The following documents are typical to bring to the interview :
i. Passport valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the United States
ii. Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 confirmation page
iii. Application fee payment receipt, if you are required to pay before your interview
iv. SEVIS fee receipt
v. Photo – If you did not upload a photo when completing an online visa application, you must bring one printed photo that adheres to the size specifications found online.
vi. Form I-20 or Form DS-2019
vii. Other useful documentation may include:
i. Letter of acceptance to U.S. school
ii. Evidence of your intent to depart the U.S. upon completion of the course of study
iii. Evidence of available funds to meet all expenses for the first year of study (Note: M-1 applicants must demonstrate the ability to pay all tuition and living costs for the entire period of their intended stay)
viii. Documents that show academic preparation may include:
i. School transcripts and diplomas received
ii. Standardized test scores (SAT,TOEFL, etc.)
iii. Returning students should bring official transcripts from their U.S. schools
5. Health insurance. Student visas, and many universities, require students to carry a minimum level of health insurance while in the U.S. Be sure to read visa requirements carefully for this information. Additionally, most university websites will provide information on student health insurance requirements.


A list of U.S. embassies worldwide

The U.S. Embassy or Consulate website for further details on types of visas

Check the SEVIS website for updates

EducationUSA Advising Centers

International student advisors at U.S. campuses are also a great source of information

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