How To Apply To US Universities As An International Student

04/05/202218 minute read
How To Apply To US Universities As An International Student

The US is one of the world’s most popular destinations for studying abroad, with more than one million international students studying there each year. Not only are eight of the top 10 global universities located in the US, but it’s also home to more than 5,000 higher education institutions across the country. This blog will break down everything you need to know about applying to US universities and why you should consider it as an international student.

Why Apply to US Universities

Students from all over the world choose to study in the US for several reasons:

  • Freedom and flexibility to explore classes in any subject they want and not having to declare a major until the end of the second year
  • The prestige of a US degree
  • Opportunities to engage in activities and clubs with a diverse campus community
  • Generous internship and undergraduate research opportunities
  • Specialised services that support international students
  • Superior job prospects due to their proximity to top businesses

The Common Application recently reported that the number of international applicants increased at nearly triple the rate of domestic applicants, further validating the growing interest in a US education. The challenges of the pandemic didn’t deter international students from enrolling for the first time at a US institution. Higher education institutions reported a 68% increase in international enrolment for Autumn 2021 compared to a 46% decline reported in Autumn 2020.

What You Need To Know About Applying to US Universities

Here’s what you need to know if you want to apply to American universities as an international student.

  1. Plan Early. Choose 5-8 universities and determine which type of application they accept. Many universities use the Common Application or the Coalition Application, and some require you to apply directly to the school.
  2. US universities value extracurricular activities. Choose activities you are passionate about and aim for leadership positions within them.
  3. Good grades and SAT/ACT scores are still one of the most important parts of your application.
  4. The US personal essay isn’t the same as the UK personal statement. The UK universities are looking for subject-focused content, while US universities want you to tell a compelling story and showcase your personality.
  5. Applying early has advantages. Applying early can increase your chance of acceptance to many top schools. However, you can only apply early to one university, and the decision is binding. Only apply early to a school you're 100% sure you want to attend.
  6. It’s ok to be unsure of your major. You can mark “undecided” on most US university applications.
  7. Don’t forget the application fee. It’s typically between $75-100 USD.
  8. Acceptance isn’t conditional. If you’re accepted, you’re in!

The US application process can be complicated, and some universities, like MIT and any of the University of California schools, do not use the Common Application. Others have unique requirements beyond the general application. Universities will go into detail about their requirements on their websites. Carefully read the entire application requirements before you get started.

If you’re still unsure you have everything you need, contact one of our academic advisors at Crimson Education. They will walk alongside you and help you navigate the journey. Let’s work together to achieve your academic dreams!

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How Eric Got Into Brown University

Key Requirements For US Universities

If you want to study in the USA as an international student, here is what top American colleges require:

What US universities look for in your university application

Exceptional Academics

Most US universities take a holistic approach when reviewing applications, but that doesn’t mean grades aren’t important. Grades are arguably the most crucial part of your college application, and your chances of studying in the USA are much higher if you have stellar grades. You will need to provide a copy of your high school transcript to showcase this.

The GPA requirements for US universities vary depending on the selectivity of the institution. A competitive GPA for top-tier universities is typically in the range of 3.7 to 4.0 (unweighted) on a 4.0 scale, while mid-tier universities may accept applicants with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.7. It is essential to research the specific GPA requirements for each university you plan to apply to, as these can vary significantly.

Outstanding Test Scores


The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that have traditionally played a significant role in the US university application process for both domestic and international students. These tests help universities assess a student's academic readiness and compare applicants from different educational backgrounds.

However, in recent years, many schools have adopted test-optional policies, which means that submitting SAT or ACT scores is not always required. This section will provide an overview of the SAT and ACT, discuss their importance in the application process, and offer tips for success in the context of test-optional policies.


The SAT, administered by the College Board, is a multiple-choice test that evaluates students' skills in reading, writing, and math. The test consists of two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (which combines reading and writing and language subtests) and Math. The SAT also includes an optional essay section, which some universities may require or recommend.

The total score for the SAT ranges from 400 to 1600, with each main section scored between 200 and 800. Competitive universities typically require SAT scores above 1400, while top-tier schools often expect scores above 1500.


The ACT, administered by ACT, Inc., is another widely accepted standardized test that assesses students' skills in English, math, reading, and science. The test consists of four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Like the SAT, the ACT also offers an optional Writing section, which some universities may require or recommend.

The composite ACT score ranges from 1 to 36, based on the average of the four main section scores. Competitive universities usually require ACT scores above 30, while top-tier schools often expect scores above 33.

English Language Tests

In addition to the SAT or ACT, many US universities require international students from non-English speaking countries to demonstrate their English language proficiency. Two widely accepted exams for this purpose are the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). This section will provide an overview of these tests and offer tips for success.


The TOEFL exam, administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), measures your ability to use and understand English in an academic setting. The test has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. It is primarily an internet-based test (iBT), but paper-based testing (PBT) is also available in some locations where internet testing is not possible.

Most US universities require a minimum TOEFL iBT score ranging from 80 to 100. However, more competitive schools may require higher scores. It's essential to check the specific TOEFL requirements for each university you plan to apply to.


The IELTS is another widely recognized English proficiency test, jointly administered by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English. The IELTS exam has two versions: the IELTS Academic, which is designed for higher education, and the IELTS General Training, which is typically for work or migration purposes. International students applying to US universities should take the IELTS Academic test.

The IELTS exam consists of four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. IELTS scores are reported on a 9-band scale, and most US universities require a minimum overall score of 6.5, with at least a 6.0 in each section. Similar to the TOEFL, more competitive schools may have higher IELTS score requirements.

Diverse Extracurriculars

Extracurricular activities allow students to demonstrate their interests and passions beyond the classroom, showcasing their personal qualities, leadership skills, and commitment to making a difference. By evaluating a student's extracurricular involvement, admission officers can gain a better understanding of their potential to contribute to campus life and thrive in a diverse, dynamic environment.

Thoughtful Essays

College essays allow applicants to reveal their unique voice, perspective, and experiences, helping admissions officers better understand their character, values, and potential fit within the university community. A well-written essay can set an applicant apart from others with similar academic profiles, making it an essential factor in creating a holistic and competitive application.

Strong Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters help build your holistic application by allowing people in your life to give their personal and professional opinions about your academic performance, character and drive. If you want to receive favourable and convincing recommendations, establish strong relationships with teachers, key staff, and leaders of your extracurricular activities.

Supplemental Documents

  • Your grade and predicted grades
  • Personal statement
  • Reference letters
  • Copy of passport
  • Financial evidence you can cover the cost of university
  • ‭Proof of English language proficiency (if applicable)

To learn more, download our free eBook, which provides a complete breakdown on building the perfect application to gain admission into top US universities!

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Applying for Scholarships at US Universities

International students are eligible to apply for scholarships offered through their chosen university. Some scholarships have specific requirements, so it’s important to check with the university to find out the details. Read more on Need-Blind vs Need-Aware universities in the US.

The types of scholarships international students can apply for include:

  • Crimson Scholarships
  • University scholarships
  • Financial scholarships
  • Merit scholarships
  • Country-based scholarships
  • Government-funded scholarships
  • Privately-funded scholarships

Key Deadlines for US University Applications

Many international students find the US application process complicated. By breaking down the steps into manageable pieces, you will find the process much less daunting and straightforward. Check out the chart below for a complete US admission preparation timeline.

US university application timeline and deadlines

Here are the steps you need to take to apply to American Universities as an International Student

1. Research colleges

Start researching where you might like to study one year before you start applying to universities. Check out each school’s acceptance rates, location, tuition, campus activities, etc.

2. Make a list of your top universities

Make a list of target, reach, and safety schools. Pick schools in all the categories, so you will have more options when acceptance letters come out. Our college admissions calculator can help you find the right universities!

3. Take college tours

Plan a tour (or virtual tour) of the schools on your list.

4. Start taking tests.

Take the SAT/ACT for the first time about nine months before applying to university.

5. Ask for letters of recommendation.

Start approaching teachers for recommendations about six months before you apply for university.

6. Write your essays

Start writing and refining your college essays, including the Common App essays and/or supplemental essays.

7. Test again

If you’re not happy with your SAT/ACT scores, consider retaking the tests about four months before applying for university.

8. Research financial aid and scholarships

About four months before you apply, research all your financial aid opportunities and any scholarships that will help you pay for university.

9. Put your application together

You should have all the application pieces ready about one month before it’s due. Check and double check you have all the details before submitting your application.

10. Apply for University!

Check your application one last time and press submit!

How do I find an American University that’s Right for me?

You’re the only person who can answer this question. Universities are as unique as the students who go there. If you know what you want to study, choose a university specialising in that study area. If you’re still unsure of what you want to learn, check out:

Think about your academic and personal preferences and goals. Are you interested in a liberal arts education, an Ivy League school, or maybe a school in the University of California system?

Talk with friends, family, and alumni about different schools. Consider visiting your favourite campuses or going on a virtual tour if you can. Crimson has a YouTube channel with videos about students getting into college, a day in the life of a student, and much more! Crimson counsellors can also help you find the universities that best fit your interests and goals.

If you’re wondering if you have the right grades and test scores to get into your top universities, check out our college admissions calculator.

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How Crimson Pathfinder can help you with Applying to American Universities

Introduction to Crimson Pathfinder

Applying to American universities takes time, planning, effort, and patience. It’s easy to overlook a step or miss a deadline.

Crimson recently released Pathfinder - a comprehensive in-app tool that not only helps you stay on track but helps you quantify the value of activities you do in preparation to apply to US universities.

Contained within the Crimson app, Pathfinder is a master list of everything you can do during school to increase your chances of admission to top US universities. Pathfinder includes over 280 goals, each with an assigned point value based on how much admissions officers will value that achievement.

Pathfinder ensures you stay on track between now and when you apply to university. It accurately predicts your admission results (based on your achievements) with unbelievable accuracy. Combined with guidance from your personalised strategist, you’ll become a master of your US university applications!

Crimson Education’s academic advisors walk with you through each step of the process. They keep you on track, help you get ready for testing, provide essay reviews, and more! Best of all, Crimson students are 4x more likely to gain admission into their dream university! If you’re interested in applying to a US university or getting started with Pathfinder, contact a Crimson advisor today!

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