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Apply to Be an International Student in the USA

Your goal is to study abroad in the USA. Your dream became a reality for more than 670,000 foreign students in 2009. The USA hosts the most international students for many reasons: academic excellence, large variety of programs of study, use of newest technologies, research possibilities, gain work experience in your field of study, and immersing yourself in American culture. Having a degree from an American university will certainly boost your career opportunities. So how aware are you of the process to successfully apply and get accepted at an American university? We hope to help you. We're going to tell you the necessary steps on how to study abroad in the USA.

Before you start looking into schools and programs of study, there are 2 important factors you have to consider: English proficiency and money. You're already studying for the TOEFL test right? Working towards a high score in TOEFL is one important factor. You must be able to understand, speak and write English with ease. Great English skills will make it easier for you to handle being in a different culture. You'll be able to get help adapting to your new English environment from the school's ESL (English as a Second Language) services as well as from your fellow international students. Now the costs. You can expect to pay $10 - 25,000US a year for school costs (tuition, administration fees, textbooks). Getting a job is difficult as the laws are very strict. Scholarships and financial aid from the schools are also limited. In order to be granted an international student visa (F-1 visa), you must prove you have the finances to support yourself while you attend school.

Presuming these 2 factors are not a concern for you, let's get you prepared for becoming a student at an American university. You will need to be organized, and be ready to devote time and energy to get yourself accepted into the school and program of study you want. Here is a quick summary of the process: determine what's your field of study, choose several accredited schools that have the program in the city/state you want go, determine what each school's requirements are, decide on which school's you will apply to, do the applications, wait for replies, choose the school from your offers, get your visa, finalize what you need before leaving, arrive in the USA, and go to school. How do you accomplish all this? Planning, patience and some hard work will get you to your goal. Our overview guide below is for someone seeking an undergraduate degree at an American university.



Necessary Steps to Get Accepted:

1.  Organize your schedule and create your task list.

Lots and lots of preparation time. You might be surprised to learn that it can take over a year to complete the admissions process. Gathering information about schools, taking the TOEFL test, getting recommendations, waiting for school's to process your applications, waiting for your visa to be granted, it all adds up. Be careful not to think you have lots of time to get your applications in though. Being early for deadlines is best. The idiom, "The early bird catches the worm," holds true. There are lots of other hopeful students who want to study abroad. Not everyone can get accepted each year.


2.  Choose your degree and your program of study.

What's your program of study? What degree do you want? You must know. Different majors can have different requirements and deadlines.

Study USA

3.  Choose your top five colleges and universities to apply to.

What school should you choose? There are thousands of universities in the USA. Where you want to study? Climate type, campus size, big city or small, recreational activities are all factors in your decision beyond how good a school and its programs are. You might want to study in California, but what if there isn't a school that doesn't fit your goals? So get ready to do some research! You want to know as much as you can to choose the school that's a great match for you. There are many websites with directories of schools to supply you with the information you need. If you're already attending a college or university in your home country, they should have resources on schools in other countries.

Space for international students is usually limited. Some big universities, like UCLA, have thousands of foreign students, but most only have hundreds if even that. Competition, especially for well known schools, is fierce! It's best you have around 3-6 schools you'd like to attend so you have some options.

Once you have some schools in mind, make sure they are accredited. An accredited school means it meets the education standards required by the American government. It also means your degree will be recognized.

Go to this US government website to check.


4.  Determine the schools' admissions requirements.

Now go to the websites of the schools you're interested in. Go to your favorite search engine and type in the name of the university. Find the international students section on their webpage which is usually part of the Admissions area. Find the school's requirements for admitting foreign students. Try to find an international advisor to contact. If you can't find the information, call the school. Or e-mail. Some schools even have online chats.

Yes, every school can have different requirements! Although a university's own requirements can vary, others are mandatory by law. Each of these requirements can take months to finish.

Requirements to expect:

  • Proof of English proficiency. Is your TOEFL score good enough to get you accepted into your top picks of schools? You may have to retake the test, or study harder if you haven't taken it yet, to meet their requirements.
  • Having a high TOEFL score may not be enough. The school may have a placement test (standardized admissions test) of its own you have to take which may cover math and other subjects, not just test your English skills. SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, COMPASS are examples of standardized tests. Some of these tests are done AFTER you arrive at the school. Others you need to have completed before you can apply. Scores from standardized tests are usually valid for 2-5 years.
  • Transcripts of you grades. Are they high enough to get you accepted? As well, transcripts not in English must be accompanied by a certified English translation.
  • Recommendation letters. Ones from teachers are the best to have.
  • Most schools require an application essay (or personal statement). The goal of the essay is to show why the school should accept you. You need to show who you are, what drives you, your beliefs, abilities and achievements. You want to make a lasting impression. This essay is the part of the application that lets you stand out as a real person instead of just being a bunch of facts.


5.  Obtain the admissions forms and other necessary information from the schools you chose.

After you've decided upon what schools you want apply to, you need to start the application process. You need to start LONG before the deadlines! You can download the application from some schools, others you need to write to them before you can get the application. Make sure you find out what the fee is to submit the application.

What else does each school require? WHEN do they require it by? Ask if you're unsure. Having an advisor you can contact to help you is a must.

If you're in college/university already in your own country, you need to find out if you will be given any credit for the courses you've completed.

Also ask about what possible financial aid or scholarships there might be that you can apply for.

If you have not taken, or need to retake, TOEFL or whichever standardized tests the schools require scores for, this is when you should register to take them. This is especially true if the tests are only offered in your country as the paper based version instead of the online version as there are less dates and locations available, and getting your scores will take longer.


6.  What to prepare while you wait for acceptance offers.

Once you get the applications for each school sent off, you will now have to wait to be approved. It will take months! During your wait, there is still lots to do. You need to look into housing. Where are you going to stay? How much will it cost? You have know where you'll be living BEFORE you can apply for the F-1 visa.

Try to learn more about the schools you applied to, the city and state they are in. Stay in contact with your advisor. Maybe they can connect you with an international student already studying there who you can ask what it's like to be there, or ask for some advice.

Find out when you have to be there by and what their orientation is like. Will their orientation get you completely settled in and ready to attend class, or will you be expected to do some tasks yourself? Maybe obtaining your student identification for instance.

Something else to ask the advisor is if you can get a driver's licence. How are you going to get around? How much can you expect to spend on transportation? What about meals? What are typical food costs?

How are you going to pay for your daily needs? Will your credit card be accepted in the USA? Will you need to set up a banking account? A banking account can only be set up after you arrive, but you should find out how long it will take to create it and get funds transferred into it. Most banks, and there are a lot to choose from in the USA, require 2 pieces of identification in order to create an account. You can use your passport as ID.

Travel arrangements, medical/health insurance you have to start planning for. Also start getting your passport, especially if you've never had one. It must be valid for 6 months beyond your intended amount of time for your stay in the USA. Note that your name on your passport must match what you put on the school application forms.

This wait period is when you should contact your US embassy or consulate to find out how long it will take before you can have an initial entry visa interview and what you are required to have ready by then. Make sure to ask if there are any additional government forms you need to fill out. Find out how much the fees (there's one just to apply and one to pay after it's issued) will be.

You can learn about applying for a student visa and all the requirements at this government website.


7.  Choose which school you will attend.

Get your applications accepted by schools. If you applied to a school and did not hear back from them within the time they said it would take, contact them. Decisions are usually made 5 months before classes will start. After you receive all your offers from schools, you need to decide which one you will accept. Inform the school you decide upon. Make sure you tell the school before their deadline! You might need to make a deposit to secure spot along with your acceptance. You should inform the other schools you are declining their offer as this will free up a spot for someone else.

During this time is when you need to get your accommodation decided, and if you didn't already, apply for your passport.


8.  Start applying for your visa.

Now that you are a registered student, you can begin to apply for your F-1 visa. This is the type of visa you need to be authorised to study at a university in the USA. First you need to get the I-20 form from the DSO (Designated School Official) as well as pay the SEVIS (= Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) I-901 fee to SEVP. The school might help you pay this fee, but the school may charge you its own fee to do so. Paying the fee to SEVP means you will get a receipt, be added to the SEVIS database, and be given an ID number.

SEVP is the government run Student and Exchange Visitor Program. At their website, you can learn all about the SEVIS I-901, F-1 and other visas and the fees. The site also has a list of SEVIS approved schools, tips on what a student can expect upon arriving in the United States, required immigration documents, how to maintain your status, and more.

You can download the F-1 visa application form at this government page. The current fee is $49.95US. You need a VISA, MasterCard, AMEX or Discovery credit card in order to pay. As well, this form can be obtained from your US embassy or consulate.


9.  Prepare for you visa application interview.

While you wait to receive your I-20 form and I-901 SEVIS receipt, contact your US embassy or consulate to arrange your initial entry visa interview. Make sure everything you need will be ready by the time you go for the interview:

  • Proof of your finances. If you will be sponsored by someone in the USA like a relative, they need to complete form I-134. You can get the form (PDF file) here.
  • Your I-20 form
  • Your SEVIS I-901 receipt
  • A completed and signed DS-160 (Nonimmigrant Visa Application) form. It used to be the DS-156 form. For detailed information, go to this government website. You can also download the form (PDF file) from here. Note that for a PC, you need IE5 or higher (you need a browser with 128-bit encryption and JavaScript enabled), with service pack 2 or higher.
  • Valid and signed passport
  • A 1 and 1/2 inches square (37x37mm) photograph showing your full face
  • Description of your program of study
  • Transcripts from your most recent school
  • Test scores from any standard entrance exams, like TOEFL
  • Your accommodation information
  • Money to pay the application fee


10.  Finalize your trip to the United States.

If all goes well, you will be granted your F-1 visa. Once you have it, inform your school of your expected arrival date. Also make certain your I-20 form doesn't require any changes.

Before you can leave for the United States, you need to get your health insurance and finalize your travel plans. Where will you stay upon arriving? How will you get there? You should try to arrive 10-15 days before the school's orientation date. Note that you cannot enter the United States sooner than 30 days before your classes will start.


11.  Gain entry into the United States.

You arrive at the United States. You need to get through Customs and Immigration. A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspector can deny your entry into the United States even if you have everything in order. You must have your I-20, your F-1 visa, your passport and financial documentation. Upon arriving, you must complete the I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) form. You can learn the details of how to fill one out at this government webpage.

When you have been allowed entry, the CBP inspector will stamp your I-20 and I-94 form. Your I-94 is your proof that you're legally in the USA. Make sure you keep the document safe!


12.  Get accustomed to your school.

Your long journey is now complete. You've made it! Get acquainted with your new home and school. Attend orientation and become familiar with the campus. Classes will start soon. Begin immersing yourself in a foreign culture for an experience that will change your life. It'll be challenging for sure, but it'll be worth every effort you put into it.


13.  Remaining a student at school.

Even though you're in the USA now as a student, you have to maintain your status:

  • Your passport must always be valid
  • Your I-20 form must always be valid
  • You must be enrolled full-time
  • Make sure your school always has your current address
  • Make sure your health insurance is up to date
  • You can only work on campus 20 hours a week
  • You must have permission from the USCIS to work off campus

If you're unsure about anything, ask your advisor or DSO, they are there to help you. Go get your degree and secure your future dreams!


This has been a basic guide to make you aware of everything involved in successfully becoming an international undergraduate student at an American higher educational institution. What we have provided you with is more of a starting point instead of an in depth guide. We hope you have found it helpful. To augment what you have learned from us, check out this up to date USA government website designed to help prospective international students answer their questions about choosing a school, taking standardized test, getting your visa and more.

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