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The Truth About Applying to a U.S. University as an International Student

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It's no secret that the U.S. admissions process has become more selective over the years.
Admission rates at the Ivies dipped to historic lows yet again in 2013, with 5.79 percent of applicants getting into Harvard, 6.72 percent at Yale, and 5.69 percent at Stanford.

What you may not know is that when it comes to international students, there is a common misconception that they have a distinct edge over American students when applying to highly selective institutions.

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions has grown by 23 percent in the last five years, and many predict the trend to continue. With applicant pools growing and admission rates shrinking, competition for international student spots in U.S. colleges and universities is increasing. In 2012 MIT had an overall admit rate of 8.9 percent, however the admission rate for international students was 3 percent, considerably lower than the domestic student admission rate of 10.8 percent. So how do you gain a competitive advantage as an international applicant? The key is to be well informed and actively advocate for yourself. Here is a breakdown of top factors.

Testing Requirements
In addition to the standard ACT and SAT that students applying to U.S. colleges and universities must take, some international students may also have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) in order to demonstrate proficiency in the English language.

The TOEFL, the better known of the two exams, consists of a mixture of fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and essay-style questions and can be taken online at accredited testing sites throughout the world.

The IELTS is made up of four sections (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), and takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.

Some schools may accept the ACT or SAT as proof of English proficiency, but for most schools you should plan to take the TOEFL or IELTS. It's important to do thorough research on the college or university's testing requirements.

Beyond the Numbers
The U.S. admissions process is not just about grades and test scores as it is in some countries. Admissions officers take into account "soft factors," like extracurricular activities, teacher recommendation letters, essays, community service, demonstrated interest, and so on.

Countries like the U.K. and Brazil put far greater weight on quantitative measures including grades, test scores, and the course of study to which the student is applying when evaluating applicants. U.S. colleges and universities evaluate all aspects of a student looking for well-rounded candidates. This makes it important for international students to start early on a robust applicant profile prior to applying.

If possible, visit the schools you're applying to in order to demonstrate your interest. If you are unable to travel, communicate with the admissions office to get a better sense of the admissions process. That way you get the help you need to succeed in the admissions process while also letting the school know you really want to attend. Visits can also inform essay questions focused on why you want to attend that school. Essays in general play a big role in evaluating applicants. They are a great way to express your interest in the school, demonstrate you've done your research, highlight your interests and achievements, and show off your creativity and writing skills.

At IvyWise we frequently counsel international students on how to improve the soft factors in their application. This is done by allowing them to demonstrate their value to campus community life through sharing their interests and goals, extracurricular activities, and community service in essays and supplements.

Financial Aid
Previously I've discussed the truth about need-blind and need-aware admissions. While a majority of students in an applicant pool won't have their financial need factored into their admissions decisions, some schools are very explicit that they operate on a need-aware basis for international students. This means that, as an international student, your ability to pay will be factored into whether or not you are admitted.

Schools like NYU and Vanderbilt, which have traditionally been need-blind during the application review process, do consider a family's ability to pay when reviewing international applicants. The ability to pay may give you an advantage, but it's important to make sure the schools to which are applying are also a personal and academic fit. Make sure you are familiar with a school's need-aware policy as it applies to international students when finalizing your college list.

Affirmative Action
Affirmative action in college admissions has been a hot topic all spring, and with the Supreme Court's decision to send Fisher v. UT-Austin back to the lower courts, any major decisions on AA's place in college admissions won't be short in coming. How does this affect international students? Colleges and universities do value students who bring diversity to a campus, and international students can draw upon geography, culture, and language to set themselves apart. However, this doesn't make it easier to be admitted. When applying, make sure to emphasize your diverse background and highlight what makes you different and what your background can contribute to the campus community.

The bottom line is there are no breaks for international students in the U.S. admissions process, and with the unfamiliarity of the process it can even seem daunting to apply from abroad. This need not be the case. With proper planning, organization, and the right information, families can feel at ease. IvyWise provides resources that are a great place to begin; our international guide helps to demystify the U.S. college admissions process.