US College Guide for International Students

Students from around the world are attracted to study in the US, drawn by the appeal of the traditional American college experience and the employment opportunities awaiting graduates. Nearly one million international students attended college in the United States in the 2014/2015 school year, establishing a new record for attendance.

Prospective students who are unable to physically relocate to the U.S. may also pursue a degree online. These programs cover the same information as residential courses, and material is delivered by campus-based faculty members. Studying online is also more affordable, offering international students savings on relocation, transportation, and living costs.

international_students_globeIn the United States, online programs for domestic and international students are standardized according to several key factors. Regulations, such as accreditation, can help students identify quality programs. Accredited programs meet the rigorous standards set forth by accrediting bodies in the U.S. Below, we explain the indicators of program quality.

  • Accreditation: The first thing a prospective applicant should review when considering and American college or university is its accreditation status. Schools in the U.S. receive accreditation after undergoing a lengthy evaluation conducted by a regionally or nationally based agency, including an exhaustive audit of a school's academic offerings, resources, and student outcomes. Additionally, some graduate schools – including those offering degrees in business, nursing, and law – receive individual accreditation from organizations focused on that particular field. Any school that has not received accreditation from a legitimate agency (phony accreditors do exist) should be immediately discarded as a potential academic option. You can check the list of recognized accreditors through the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Student Support Systems: Most online schools offer special services for international students ― but that's not always the case. Before applying to a school, make sure it offers a 24-hour help desk, tutors trained to work with international students, and a career advisory center. Colleges should also have a support staff capable of answering any questions you may have.
  • Relevant Statistical Information: Before applying to an online program, check to see what their typical graduation and retention rates are for online students. These numbers can often be found on the fact sheet or ‘About' section on the school's main site. You can also quickly view general information about a school using the U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator tool. Here, you can compare student graduation rates, retention rates, loan default rates, and more between different schools. These statistics offer a simple overview of a school's performance.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students across the world take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. A passing score allows non-native English speakers to attend college in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other English-speaking nations.

According to the official TOEFL website, more than 30 million people have successfully completed the test. It is currently offered at more than 4,500 testing centers in 165 different countries. More than 9,000 colleges, universities, and vocational training centers worldwide accept TOEFL results.

The TOEFL was originally developed more than 50 years ago by the National Council on the Testing of English as a Foreign Language, an American-based consortium of educators and government officials. Their goal was to create a comprehensive exam that effectively evaluated English proficiency among international students.

Test Registration and Requirements

Before registering, students must first locate a TOEFL center in their area. Anyone can register online at anytime during the week (Chinese citizens should register here). Prospective students must pay the testing fee, which ranges from $160 to $250, depending on country of residence. Regular registration for any given TOEFL will close seven days prior to the test date. Students can opt for late registration (and incur a $35 surcharge) or wait until the next exam is offered. Late registration closes three days prior to the test date.

On the day of the test, students must bring a valid form of identification (ID) that meets a strict set of criteria. The ID must be a valid, original document (no photocopies) that includes the individual's full name, photograph, and signature. The document must be printed in English-language letters, otherwise the student will not be granted permission to take the test and their testing fee will not be refunded. Although specific requirements vary between countries, certain forms of ID, such as student ID cards, international driver's licenses, credit/debit cards, or birth certificates are never accepted. Prospective test-takers who cannot produce a valid ID should contact the ETS Office of Testing Integrity (OTI) for more information.

TOEFL Format

The test's original format included multiple-choice questions covering four general areas: vocabulary, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, and grammatical structure. Exam makers added two new sections in 1979: the Test of Spoken English and the Test of Written English. The former evaluates the oral speaking skills of graduate-level international students seeking teacher-assistant positions, while the latter requires test-takers to craft a thoughtful, grammatically correct essay.

The technology used to administer the TOEFL has evolved alongside curriculum changes. A computerized version of the test replaced the paper iteration in the late 1990s, before becoming an Internet-based test in 2005. For the last eight years, the TOEFL has been offered almost exclusively online.

Currently, the test includes four major sections, each worth up to 30 points.

  • Reading (60-80 minutes): Test-takers must read three or four excerpts from academic texts, and then answer up to 56 questions to measure their reading comprehension.
  • Listening (60-90 minutes): Test-takers listen to audio recordings from academic lectures, classroom discussions, and casual conversations, and then answer up to 51 questions based on what they heard.
  • Speaking (20 minutes): Test-takers must orate opinions on up to six topics.
  • Writing (50 minutes): Test-takers must write two full-length, opinionated responses to a pair of prompts, one written and one audio-based.

A 10-minute break is given between the listening and speaking sections. The exam typically requires between four and five hours to complete. Final scores are released to both the test-takers and their prospective schools approximately two weeks after testing. All TOEFL scores are valid for up to two years, after which point, you must retake the test.

Scoring

Minimum scoring requirements for the TOEFL vary between U.S. colleges and universities, but most schools require a minimum score of 80 points (or roughly 67%). Students may register for the TOEFL as often as they wish, provided that they take the exam no more than once during a 12-day period. At the conclusion of the testing session, students may opt to cancel their entire score if they are not satisfied with their performance; canceled scores may be reinstated up to 10 days after the testing session.

Preparing for the Test

The TOEFL offers a relatively fair assessment of your English-speaking capabilities. There are a few ways, however, to enhance what you already know. Regardless of your proficiency in the language, adhering to the following tips can help you add points to your score:

  • Master the QWERTY: Students complete the test using a standard QWERTY keyboard configuration. Those who are unfamiliar with this format should practice using online typing tests prior to the TOEFL.
  • Understand accent differences: Since March 2013, the TOEFL has incorporated a variety of accents used by native English-speakers (including American, British, and Australian). Although the vocabulary and grammar conventions are the same, students are encouraged to study pronunciation differences between different nationalities.
  • Review sample essays: While students should thoroughly rehearse all four TOEFL sections, the essay-writing portion tends to be the area where most test-takers struggle. More than 200 past essay prompts are listed online, along with examples of high-scoring responses. Students should take time to form original answers to as many of these prompts as possible, and then compare their essays with the sample responses provided.
  • Strategies for test day: Be sure to get enough sleep prior to the morning of the test, and eat a full breakfast beforehand. Also, try to effectively budget bathroom breaks; test-takers are allowed to visit the restroom at any time, but the clock does not stop while you are gone.
  • Use official TOEFL study materials: More than a dozen skill-building guides, sample tests, interactive programs, and other study guides are available on the TOEFL website. Some of these materials are free of charge.

For international students looking to study in English-speaking countries, the TOEFL is one of the most important tests they will ever take. By familiarizing yourself with the test format, using effective study techniques, and reviewing admissions criteria for all of your prospective colleges, you should have little trouble earning a passing score.

IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

The IELTS test is not as common as the TOEFL, though many American schools accept its scores in lieu of the TOEFL. The IELTS tests your listening, reading, writing, and speaking abilities. Test takers must pass a written test and a face-to-face interview to demonstrate their proficiency in English.

Approximately 3,000 U.S. educational institutions accept IELTS scores, while over 9,000 accept the TOEFL. However, the IELTS is the standard test used by colleges and universities in the United Kingdom and Canada. Unlike the TOEFL, the IELTS measures student proficiency in British English, not American English. The IELTS test is also characterized by a constantly changing format, which makes it more difficult to prepare for than the TOEFL.

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Juniors and seniors in U.S. high schools take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The test measures their knowledge of basic academic skills and potential for success in postsecondary education.
The SAT is a timed, standardized test that evaluates reading, math, and writing competencies on a 1600-point scale. Submitting SAT scores is a common requirement in the college application process for international and domestic students. The test was redesigned for 2016 to encompass more cross-cultural concepts, including international texts and diverse student experiences. International students have six opportunities annually to take the test; they must register at least three weeks in advance. Registration and test prep can be completed online at CollegeBoard.org.

American College Testing (ACT) scores are also commonly accepted by U.S. colleges and universities as a measure of scholastic aptitude and English-language proficiency. The ACT comprises five sections: English, math, reading, science and an optional writing test. International students may register for one of five ACT testing opportunities throughout the year, held at several testing locations outside of the U.S. High school students who live more than 75 miles from the nearest international testing center may be able to schedule an arranged testing appointment. Like the SAT, low-income students may be eligible to waive registration and late registration fees for this exam.

The college application process

Applying to college is often lengthy and tedious, and it may seem especially daunting for international students. The first step is finding the right college, and fortunately, international students can easily research U.S. colleges and universities online. You should start by researching degree types or academic areas that interest you, and choosing schools strong in that particular subject. Beyond key factors like accreditation, academic reputation, and affordability, prospective students should consider applying to schools with extensive resources for international learners. Some U.S. colleges and universities have received recognition for their continued support of their international student populations.

Once you start narrowing down your list of schools, you'll want to learn about their admission policies for international students. Begin by searching the school's website for the "admissions" page. The site may contain a separate page for "international admissions," or this may simply be a section within the main admissions content. Typically, the admissions section will outline the materials needed to apply and provide deadlines and instructions for submitting your application. If you have any questions, be sure to contact the school over the phone or through email. Some schools may even have international admissions counselors or staff members dedicated to handling queries from international applicants.

Though individual requirements vary, most U.S. colleges and universities require students to submit a few basic documents. These include:

  • Completed school admissions application
  • Application fee (varies by school)
  • Official academic credentials (transcripts, diplomas/certificates)
  • Official test scores (TOEFL and/or IELTS; SAT and/or ACT)
  • I-20 documents to apply for F-1 Visa:
    • Letter of financial backing form
    • Bank statement
    • Copy of your passport
    • International address form

Though not always required for admission, students may be asked to submit supplemental materials, such as personal statements, letters of recommendation, or other written essays. For international students, these documents may help to further convey their academic and postgraduate intentions and expectations.

Students who have completed their college applications and all necessary entrance exams are ready to begin their visa application. If you plan to return home after studying, you should apply for one of two non-immigrant Visas: the Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status – For Academic and Language Students, or the Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students.


F-1 Visa

  • Permanent Residence: Must prove permanent residency in country of origin, with the intention to return to this residence after completing education in the U.S.
  • Length of Terms: Valid for the duration of a full-time, post-secondary program; does not include immigration status post-graduation
  • Financial Support: Must demonstrate sufficient financial support from a non-employment source while studying in the U.S. for the duration of the program
  • Sponsoring Institution: Valid only for the school granting the visa

M-1 Visa

  • Permanent Residence: Must prove permanent residency in country of origin, with the intention to return to this residence after completing education in the U.S.
  • Length of Terms: Valid for non-academic vocational study only; valid for up to one year with optional extension period of up to three years
  • Financial Support: Must demonstrate sufficient financial support from a non-employment source while studying in the U.S. for the duration of the program
  • Sponsoring Institution: Visa sponsorship may be transferred to non-original institution within the first six months of study only

The F-1 Visa is most common among students accepted into U.S. college programs. The application process begins with proof of acceptance from a school approved by the Student Exchange Visitor Program, after which the student must pay a fee to enroll in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Once enrolled, the student can obtain the 1-20 student status form, which must be brought to their in-person interview. They should also complete the DS-160 student visa application and pay the non-refundable application fee, all of which can be accessed online. Students should bring copies of these forms along with a receipt of payment.

While there are other visas available, only the F-1 and M-1 Visas are acceptable for those entering the U.S. for academic purposes. Visa waivers and visitor visa programs, for example, are valid only for temporary travel and specifically exclude international visitors traveling for education. Visa waivers maintain strict status requirements with a mandate that temporary travelers do not exceed a 90-day stay in the U.S.

Student Visas: The Interview

If you are between the ages of 14 and 79, your student visa application will require an in-person interview; this will be scheduled once you have completed the visa application form and paid the application fee. It is your responsibility to make the appointment for your interview with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate nearest to you.

Once your interview is scheduled, you should prepare the following items:

  • A valid passport
  • A current passport photo
  • A Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status (Form I-20) OR Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students, Form I-20
  • Receipt of application fee payment
  • Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160

When you arrive for your interview, be prepared to discuss your plans while studying in the U.S. Your interviewer will conduct the conversation with you in English, which serves to further indicate whether you have mastered the language. The questions in your interview are designed to help U.S. officials determine your intentions for academic or vocational study. They may ask you about the school you chose, your financial situation, and your plans after college. Possible questions may include:

  • Why are you going to the U.S.?
  • How many colleges did you apply to?
  • Why do you want to pursue a degree in the U.S.?
  • What is your monthly income?
  • Can I see your tax returns?
  • Do you have relatives or friends currently in the U.S.?
  • Will you continue to work for your current employer after you graduate?

Interviewers may require additional documentation, such as school transcripts, standardized test scores, or financial records. If possible, bring these supplemental documents with you to the interview. Your interviewer will also arrange to have you take ink-free, digital fingerprint scans during the interview. You will be notified at the end of your interview whether your student visa is approved or denied. If approved, you must maintain your student visa status. Follow these steps to remain legal as a nonimmigrant student in the United States:

  • Notify your international office within 30 days of your arrival and make sure your address is current on SEVIS
  • Keep your passport up-to-date and carry it with you, along with a I-94 card
  • Maintain full-time student status
  • Apply to extend your I-20 if you need more time to complete your program
  • Depart the U.S. within 60 days of completing your education as regulated by visa guidelines, or apply for a work visa and/or immigrant status after graduation

If denied, do not take this decision personally. Student visas may be denied for a variety of reasons under U.S. immigration law, and you will be notified why your application was non-compliant. For example, if the interviewer is not satisfied that the student feels a strong enough influence to return home after graduating, their visa may be denied.

Additionally, things like insufficient documentation, criminal history, or fraud can adversely affect your visa application. If you are told you were missing necessary documentation, or are able to "fix" the problem that caused your application's denial, you may be eligible to reapply. To submit your application again, simply begin the process at step one and make sure to carefully gather all of the necessary materials. Notify your sponsoring institution immediately if you were denied the visa; you may need to either decline or defer admission, depending on their policies and whether or not you plan to reapply.

Additional Process for Applicants with a Family

Students who are both applying for an F-1 or M-1 student visa and looking to travel with their family to the U.S. must submit an additional application for each family member. The legal spouse and dependent(s) of the student or children under 21 years of age may apply for F-2 or M-2 status to travel with the student to the U.S. The student must verify the identity of their relatives through official marriage and birth certificates. They must also prove that no family member presents any health or criminal risk to American citizens or national security. While the F-2 and M-2 forms are intended only for spouses and dependents, unmarried domestic partners, children over the age of 21, and elderly family members in the student's care can apply for a tourist visa if they wish to travel.

Students from around the world share the dream of earning an American degree. To attend school in the United States, international students must overcome several obstacles, including the challenge of paying for school. College in the U.S. is much more expensive than in most other countries, and troublingly, U.S. tuition rates have steadily risen over the past decade.

While financial aid is available to anyone attending school in the U.S., eligibility requirements for international students are complicated. Below, we've offered a few tips to help students secure the financial aid they need.

Federal Aid

Most international students do not qualify for financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. However, anyone who qualifies under one of these five categories is considered an ‘eligible noncitizen' and they may receive federally sponsored aid:

  • U.S. nationals and permanent residents: These people have entered the country as legal immigrants and received a Green Card that permits them to permanently live and work within the U.S.
  • I-94 holders: An arrival-departure record (I-94) indicates the individual has passed through U.S. Customs and Immigration with one or more of the following statuses:
    • ‘Refugee'
    • ‘Asylum Granted'
    • ‘Cuban-Haitian Entrant' (Status Pending)
    • ‘Conditional Entrant' (only valid if issued since 1980)
    • ‘Parolee' (must be paroled for at least one year, and planning to gain status as a permanent resident)
  • T-Visa holders: This visa is granted to victims of human trafficking who enter the U.S. to live and work on a permanent basis. A T1-Visa, granted to children of adults who are given T-Visas, also qualifies individuals for federal aid.
  • Battered immigrant-qualified aliens: This status applies to people who have been granted resident status from their marriage to a U.S. citizen; if they become a victim of domestic violence, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) ensures that the abused person and their children remain eligible for federal benefits.
  • Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau: Citizens from these countries may qualify for Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, or Federal Work-Study programs.

Eligible non-citizens whose permanent status has expired will not qualify for federal aid; those with an expired Green Card must renew their documentation in order to be eligible. Additionally, the following groups are ineligible for federal assistance:

  • Legal immigrants who have only received a ‘Notice of Approval to Apply for Permanent Residence' (I-171 or I-464)
  • Students who enter the U.S. with a F-1 or F-2 student visa, or a J-1 or J-2 Exchange Visitor Visa
  • Employees or volunteers with a G series visa, denoting involvement with an international organization

It's important to note that most forms of financial aid (particularly federal assistance) are only available to students who enroll at accredited colleges and universities. Schools that have not received accreditation and have not received passing assessments should be regarded as substandard academic institutions.

If you do not meet any of the criteria listed above, then you are most likely ineligible to receive financial assistance from the U.S. federal government. If this is the case, there are still plenty of other student aid opportunities available to you.

School-Sponsored Aid and Private Loans

Some schools, particularly large colleges that already boast a significant international population, award aid to students from abroad. These awards are often relatively small, and will generally not cover the entire cost of tuition. Students may also pursue private loans from independent creditors, though these often come with high interest rates.

Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants

Due to the complicated nature of federal aid and loan assistance programs available to international students, most students rely on scholarships, fellowships, and grants to fund their tuition. While each scholarship comes with its own criteria, they are generally available to international students with or without a Green Card.

These three types of awards are similar, with a few notable differences. Generally speaking, scholarships are used exclusively to finance undergraduate or graduate level education. Grants are offered in exchange for a specific purpose or academic project, and fellowships support supplemental, graduate-level activities conducted outside the school's standard curriculum.

If you are searching for scholarships, fellowships, and grant opportunities available to international students, be sure to consult the following resources:

  • EducationUSA: This list features scholarships available to international students by school. The list from the most recent academic year features 170 different accredited colleges and universities.
  • ScholarshipExperts.com: This site aggregates aid opportunities from a database of more than two million scholarships. Site visitors fill out a brief registration form, which helps the site present relevant scholarships to you.
  • International Education Financial Aid (IEFA): Visitors to this site can browse nearly 1,000 different scholarships and fellowships available in English-speaking countries. Students can narrow their search by entering their country of origin, major field of study, and the country where they intend to attend college.
  • Organization of American States' Financial Guide for Education in the Americas: This report lists country-specific contact information for government agencies and organizations that provide scholarships to students in Central and South America.
  • Aga Khan Foundation: This organization provides postgraduate assistance on a half-scholarship, half-loan basis to students who exhibit exemplary academic standing. Awards are available to students from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Madagascar, France, Portugal, United Kingdom, and Canada.

Minority StudentsWith many career opportunities available to college graduates, some international students educated in the U.S. decide to stay in the country to find work after graduation. While this process requires students to obtain a work visa, the prospect of earning a good salary in their career of choice justifies the difficulty. As of 2011, more than 31% of foreign-born U.S. workers earned a bachelor's degree or higher; and the majority were employed in service, sales, and office occupations.

Many employers in the U.S. will look for credentials beyond your degree or certificate. While you are in school, you should look for opportunities to enhance your resume and separate yourself from other job candidates. It is never too early to gain valuable experience outside of the classroom, research potential internship opportunities and participate in extracurricular activities that will help you make connections. Reach out to your school's student advising office, international counselor, or alumni director to learn about networking opportunities.

International students should also get a jumpstart on their search for employment. Before graduating, make an appointment with your school's career counselor or a member of the career services staff. These counselors are trained to guide you through your job options. As an international student, you may also have questions about how to obtain legal status after graduation. If this applies to you, you may want to meet with your international student advisor or counselor. You can also look through GlobalJobs.org and International Student Organization for networking opportunities and other helpful resources.

U.S. Work Visas

Once you have decided to live and work in the United States, you should research your post-graduation visa options. There are several types of visas, including:

  • Practical Training on an F-1 Visa
  • Non-Immigrant H-3 Visa (Trainee)
  • Non-Immigrant H-1B Visa Specialty Occupation
  • Non-Immigrant R-1 Visa Religious Worker

The H-1B is the most common visa for college graduates. To obtain H-1B Visa status, a student must have an employer sponsor in the U.S. and at least a bachelor's degree. They must demonstrate a correlation between their prospective job and their education/experience. Further, they need to obtain an approval of labor condition attestation from the Department of Labor, ensuring that foreign and American workers receive the same employment considerations. If granted, the H-1B is valid for three years, and can be extended up to three more years, not to exceed six years total. Spouses and dependents of non-immigrants with H-1B status are automatically granted H-4 Visas to accompany their family and attend school (but not work) in the U.S.

Finding a sponsor and applying for the H-1B or any work-related visa can be challenging. Though circumstances vary, some U.S. employers are not eager to sponsor an international candidate because they are simply uninformed about visa regulations, or have concerns about visa candidates leaving the job too soon after being hired. To maximize your chances of finding a reliable work sponsor in the U.S., experts recommend that you start looking for jobs as early as possible. Additionally, it is your responsibility to provide accurate and current information to employers about your visa status and your intentions for working in the U.S.

In the event that your visa is denied, you may be able to remedy the situation and re-apply. Consult the U.S. Department of State – U.S. Visas website to research the numerous types of visas and re-evaluate which kind you need for your prospective line of work. For example, if you decide to pursue further training in your area of interest after your initial work visa application is denied, you may qualify for a visa that allows additional training, such as the H-3 for Special Education. Additionally, there are work visa options for international college graduates interested in agricultural work, seasonal non-agricultural work, and participation in international cultural exchange programs.