Selecting an American College

With all the information available for international students thinking of applying to an American college or university, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start.  A great way to meet with colleges and universities is to visit with their admissions officers when they are in your country – click here for dates and times for in country visits.

Most admissions officers we speak to tell us that 4-6 application is optimal. Any more and you are not doing your research, any less and you may be taking too many chances on variables you can’t control.  So how will you narrow down your choices? We suggest 5 main areas that can help limit your search:

1. Location: America is a big country! It is split up into 50 states and takes about 5 hours by plane to reach from the east coast to the west coast. Universities in the US are in major cities, small towns, medium sized cities, and everything in between – where will you be happiest? In a busy crowded city, quieter smaller town, or something in between?

A.M. Walzer Co. United States - CC License, Photo by Marxchivist

A.M. Walzer Co. United States - CC License, Photo by Marxchivist

Look at a map of the United States, take note of the distances between cities, New York, for example is a very large state, from Buffalo, NY to New York City it is almost a 7 hour drive.  Also, do remember that Washington DC is NOT the same as the state of Washington – in fact they are clear across the country from each other.

2. Cost – your financial situation is very crucial to the admissions process, you have to prove to the University and to the US Government when applying for your visa that you are able to pay for your college and living expenses. Without proof of this financial stability, most  schools will not admit you as there is very limited scholarship and financial aid available to international students.

Costs at community colleges, universities, English language centers and college vary greatly, (Click here for Best Values) be diligent in researching whether you want to study at a public or private university, what the cost of living in that city or town will be, and whether you should live in the dorms or not. While a school in a major city such as Chicago, Illinois may have a slightly lower tuition than one in a smaller city such as Athens, Ohio the cost of living in the two cities may make a much larger impact on your final cost per year than just the tuition.

3. Major/ Field of study – what do you want to study? Before applying to a college, be sure to check their list of undergraduate or graduate programs, not all universities offer every type of concentration. If you are thinking of studying engineering, be sure you are not applying to a liberal arts college without an engineering school.

Admissions officials will review your high school transcript to compare your grades to what you have chosen as a major. If your math and science scores are poor (for example, mostly C’s which corresponds to 60-70%), your chances of getting into an engineering or hard sciences program will be relatively low. You may still find a school to accept you, however, if you are looking at a competitive program, you should rethink your choice of major.   Likewise, if your English language and writing skills are not strong, a major with a lot of reading and writing may not be the best choice.

Evans Library at Texas A&M University CC license by sarowen

Evans Library at Texas A&M University CC license by sarowen

Some schools specialize in certain fields, its best to review the academic programs offered at each school you are considering by looking at their websites. Schools list all the majors offered, and whether they offer only a Bachelors in the field or whether they also have Masters and PhD level as well.

Remember that the United States has one of the most liberal and flexible higher education systems in the world. Each college major has a set of required course hours you must complete to graduate, allow you to take “general” courses your first year to year and a half if you are unsure of what field you want to study. This system enables you to take courses in topics you may be interested in (for example, psychology, English literature, education) that will also fulfill your general requirement – so while you remain on track to complete your bachelors degree in 4 years, you are also able to explore different options for study you may not have thought of.

4. Size – American colleges and universities come in all different sizes, from small 1000 student colleges like Pitzer College ( and Allegheny College ( to mammoth 55,000 student universities Like the University of Central Florida ( and Arizona State University ( and all the variations in between. The choice you make will depend on the type of college you feel would fit your personality best.

You may prefer to have an intimate college experience with smaller classes of 8-12 students, house dormitories with 20-30 people living in them, and a closer community on campus.  Or, you may thrive in a large campus with a mixture of 300-person classes and smaller 30-person classes, 500 person high rise dorms, and thousands of smaller clubs and activities to involve yourself in.

Either way, you will find that each campus has its own personality and will be up to you to reach out and connect with your community, expand your circle of friends and knowledge. Colleges and Universities see international students as a great way of diversifying the campus, bringing in new ideas, experiences, and points of view, which you can help by being a friendly ambassador from your country!

5. Selectivity – do your research before applying, check the university website to see if you can find a list of their requirements for admissions. Most universities post the incoming freshmen class profile, take a look at that before beginning your application. Are your grades and scores within the median? If not, do you have extremely extenuating circumstances that may add to your application?

Be realistic – while everyone has heard of Harvard, and may have hopes of attending there, anything but the top grades, test scores, and overall application package will not have any chance.  Highly selective schools may receive more than 20,000 applications and accept only about 2000!

CC License by Valley Library at Oregon State University

CC License by Valley Library at Oregon State University

Research is the best tool to improve your chances of acceptance at an American colleges and university, use it to narrow down your choices to 4-6 schools. At least one should be a “reach” school, where you have less than 50% chance of being accepted and where you may be at a lower level than the median acceptance rate. Find 3-4 schools where you are comfortably within their median score range, these should be ones you will be happy to attend. You should always apply to a “safe” school, one where you are almost certain you will be accepted and your scores are well above their requirements – this is your “just in case!” college.

Mabrook on your decision to apply to an American college, we believe you will find it to be a life changing experience. American college is not just about going to class and doing homework, but about a full lifestyle experience, so be prepared to become involved in your college and to embrace all the learning experiences available both inside and outside the classroom.

Do you have specific questions about college? Leave a message in the comments below and we will be happy to respond and help you with your decision.

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