Navigating College Admissions as an International Student

Sheetal Madnani Chemical, College Applications, Sheetal, Uncategorized Leave a Comment

First off, take a deep breath. 

It will all work out the way it is supposed to. That’s perhaps the most frustrating advice I received during my college admissions process, but having come out the other side, I finally understand why it really is the most important piece of advice. College admissions are rough, and there are no two ways about it. Yes, the SATs are hard, and yes, personal essays are hard. But just as hard is the aftermath; the waiting, the emails you’re almost too worried to click on, and often, the rejection letter that you really just did not see coming. 

Applying to colleges in the US as an international student was harder still because I felt like I was going into the process with blinders on; my high school experience and support I received from my teachers and counselors, while invaluable, was simply not catered towards the US application process. I spent most of my college application process trying to figure it out on my own, and with the huge amount of information out there (think university rankings, information on scholarships or lack thereof, additional requirements for international students, and the daunting spectre of the visa process), the experience was often overwhelming. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of some tips that I hope will prove useful to anyone currently navigating the process; everyone’s admissions process is different, but these are some things I wish I knew going into it: 

Financial Aid is Different for International Students

It’s an unfortunate reality, but for most universities, the financial aid mechanism for domestic students does not extend to international students. As a result, when applying always be sure to check whether ‘need-blind’ designations on application pages are for all students, or whether that designation is restricted to domestic students only. Need-blind simply means that your financial information is not a factor in your admissions decision, and that you will be admitted regardless of whether you can afford to attend a university or whether you will need substantial aid. The more common designation for international students is need-aware, which simply means that if you do need financial aid, that may factor into your admissions decision. As a result, be aware that you may be required to submit financial records for some applications, even if you have not been admitted yet. 

That being said, there are some universities that do offer financial aid for international students, and some that offer other non-need based forms of aid, such as merit scholarships. The process for finding out which universities have these opportunities is unfortunately not a streamlined one; I would simply suggest checking out the Financial Aid and /or Scholarship webpages for all universities you are interested in. (As someone who loves Excel spreadsheets, I simply had one column in my college spreadsheet focused entirely on what type of aid was offered, and when applying, compared this category to other categories such as location, tuition, and what types of programs were offered; so perhaps this is one way to structure it!). 

There are also external scholarships available, which require separate applications; some notable webpages that can help with that search include Scholarship Positions and Collegeboard. That being said, something to be aware of is that often external scholarships are targeted to graduate students or professionals, and so the search is not always as productive as you may hope. Just keep at it, and eventually you will find a school that is able to meet your financial needs. 

Rankings are a Lot More Complicated than they Seem

When I was applying to colleges, as someone outside the United States who had not grown up around conversations about which school had the most academic clout, which school had the most cut-throat environment, which school had the best hireability, and so on, when deciding where to apply, I inevitably ended up relying on secondary ‘authority’ sources such as webpages that ranked universities. While these can be helpful in creating an initial list to further peruse, there are so many factors that need to be taken into account that not all rankings account for. My suggestion would be to, instead of using just one list that you may have heard is the ‘best list’, use at least three to four, and note down which schools pop up on several of them. 

College rankings seem like a great way to legitimize your choices on where to apply, but until you actually go onto webpages for individual schools and learn more about the programs they offer and what specific opportunities they highlight, you will not be able to really get a feel for what that university is like. And that’s what’s important. At the end of the day, rankings can only do so much to quantify schools; they often are very all-encompassing and are not a clear indication of how good the opportunities surrounding the specific program you are interested in would actually be. So yes, look at rankings and use them to curate perhaps an initial list, but definitely do not treat them as an end all, be all.  


The Visa Process is NOT As Complicated as it Seems

Without getting into too many details, while the student visa process seems confusing while applying, for the most part, as an undergraduate student, you do not even need to worry about the visa requirements until after you have been admitted. After admission, all schools will likely have an office dedicated to aiding international students, and they will likely be very heavily involved in the process of getting you all necessary documentation. Point being: visa upon entering college is not something you should be spending your time worrying about! 🙂 

Keep Your Eye on: English Language Requirements

This one is a bit of a hard one to give general advice on, because it depends on university to university. As someone who grew up with Engish as my first language, attending an English-instructional school for my entire life, I found it quite frustrating when I first began looking at college applications, when some had additional requirements to test proficiency in English for international students. While some schools may ask you to submit TOEFL or IELTS (other standardized tests) scores, some will allow you to waive the English proficiency requirement if your SAT scores are high enough or if you provide proof of having studied in an English language instruction institution for long enough. This does depend on the college (some do NOT allow you to waive these requirements), so make sure you do your research on the college webpage beforehand. 

Trust in Yourself

While the process is hard, (and for all my international applicants out there, I’m sorry but it truly just is that slightest bit harder), trust in the fact that if you put in the effort and tell your most authentic story, wherever you end up will be the right place for you. Dream schools are unfortunately simply just that; there is no ‘perfect’ university for you to end up at; at the end of the day, regardless of where you are, there is ample opportunity for you to make your college experience whatever you have dreamed it would be.

Me at orientation the summer before my freshman year, after I had just committed to USC!

About the Author

Sheetal is a junior studying Chemical Engineering. Her favourite topics to talk endlessly about are politics, international relations, and classical mythology!


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