International Student's Guide to US College Applications

by Aziz Imam

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Growing up, most of us aspire to go to our dream USA school. This could be a prestigious Ivy League institution such as HarvardPrinceton or other well-known schools like MIT or CalTech. Regardless of the institution, the process for applying remains relatively consistent. This blog intends to provide step-by-step guidance for international students on applying to colleges in the United States of America.

  1. Crafting the Ideal College List

  2. SAT Exam

  3. A Level Performance

  4. Beyond Academics: Extra-Curriculars 

  5. Navigating the Common App 

  6. Securing Financial Aid

Let's now get into further details!


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Crafting the Ideal College List

Selecting the right US colleges is the first step in the college admissions process. Begin by identifying colleges that align with your professional interests. For instance, if you're leaning towards pre-med, focus on institutions with stellar medical programs. Conversely, if the humanities are your thing, consider exploring liberal arts colleges. To curate an initial list, consult your school counselor, and engage with family members or friends who've pursued college in the US. They can offer insights based on their experiences. Once you have a tentative list, dig deeper into each college's curriculum, financial offerings, and campus culture.

After shortlisting these colleges, it's wise to diversify your options. The Common App, a popular platform for undergraduate admissions in the US, permits up to 20 college applications. A balanced approach would involve applying to just a handful of top schools (those with challenging acceptance rates or tougher academic standards), 5-10 target schools (where your academic profile aligns), and many safety schools to ensure security.


SAT Exam

SAT is a standardized test taken to gain admission into US universities. It’s a vital component for international students applying to the US as the applicant pool is very competitive. Although many US universities have gone test-optional, it’s advisable to take the test to stay ahead of the curve. To prepare for SAT, you can refer to our previous blog, Breaking Down the Digital SAT, which provides useful tips. A score of around 1450 or higher on SAT is recommended for applying to top-tier universities, and once you’re satisfied with your score, you can report it to the colleges through the College Board SAT portal.


A Level Performance

When you’re in your A Levels, it's easy to feel overwhelmed with all the things you need to focus on, like your SATs, college applications, and extracurriculars. However, it's important not to lose sight of your academic performance in A Levels. Your final transcript, whether your AS result or your 2nd-year midterms, should ideally have A*/A and Bs in all your subjects. Anything lower could negatively impact your college application.

Let me dive deeper into this. In the USA, college admissions evaluate students based on the GPA system. To put it in perspective, an A*/A in the Cambridge system equates to a 4.0 GPA, whereas a B corresponds to a 3.0 GPA. The Cambridge system doesn't have distinctions like the A- (equivalent to a 3.7 GPA) or B+ (equivalent to a 3.3 GPA). Therefore, each decrement in your letter grade can cause a substantial dip in your CGPA. Given this, striving for top grades is crucial to enhance the competitiveness of your college application.


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Beyond Academics: Extra-Curriculars 

With the Common App, you can list up to 10 extracurriculars. Simply participating in extracurriculars is not enough to stand out. It's recommended that you fill the first 5-7 slots with diverse experiences such as internships, volunteer work, MUNs/Science Olympiad achievements, or research related to your intended field of study. Additionally, excelling in a particular sport at a provincial or international level can also be beneficial.

For the remaining activities, consider things like school-level participation at events or holding a school council position. Remember to be truthful and only list activities that you actually participated in. Don't sacrifice your integrity for a college admission – IT’S NOT WORTH IT!!


Navigating the Common App 

The Common App simplifies the college admissions process for students applying to the US. Below, I will provide an overview of its crucial components.

Personal Information Provide your personal and family information, including names, contacts, physical addresses, DOB, prospective enrollment year, parent occupations, and family household income.
Education Upload your official school transcripts. Also, state the courses you’re currently enrolled in.
Testing Submit your SAT or ACT scores. Additionally, you can provide scores from multiple SAT attempts, as some universities utilize super-scoring (which means they consider the highest individual section scores from multiple tests to calculate a combined score).
Common App Essay The Common App essay is a crucial part of the application that requires a 250–650-word personal statement. Consult your school counsellor to brainstorm ideas. The essay can cover various topics, such as personal growth from an experience, a valuable lesson learned, or a significant accomplishment.
Activity List Complete the activity list by including timelines for each activity. Ensure that the bullet points beneath each activity demonstrate action and highlight essential qualities such as leadership, teamwork, and learning.
Supplemental Essays When applying to certain colleges, it may be necessary to submit additional supplemental essays. It’s important to tailor these to the specific college.
Letter of Recommendation Choose recommenders familiar with the Common App system and have them personalize the letter to you.


Securing Financial Aid

For financial aid, international students must fill out the CSS. CSS is a financial aid application some colleges and universities use to award non-federal aid. It’s used by participating schools to award institutional grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid. To complete the application, you'll have to establish a College Board account, send your financial records to your desired colleges, and make a payment.


Final Thoughts

This blog would be incomplete without emphasizing the need for thoroughness and starting early. Just remember to be authentic to yourself and showcase your unique experiences and aspirations. It may not be all smooth sailing, but with the right approach, you can land that allusive admission offer.  Best of luck!


If you want to dive right in, let's start with selecting the course you want

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