If you’re considering coming to the United States for college, you’ve come to the right place!
This page is intended to provide an introduction to the American higher-education system: it contains an overview of school and degree types, testing requirements, application plans, and the undergraduate admissions process.
Types of Schools
There are four main types of post-secondary establishments in the United States. Universities, liberal arts, colleges, and conservatories all offer four-year bachelor’s programs, whereas community colleges offer two-year associate degrees.
Most institutions operate on a semester system, with the fall semester lasting from early September through mid-December, and the spring semester lasting from January through May. A small number of schools operate according to quarter or trimester systems.
In terms of size, smaller universities may enroll around 5,000 students; at the higher end, they may have tens of thousands.
Universities educate undergraduates studying for their Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.), as well as graduate students (Master’s and Ph.D.). They offer majors in the liberal arts and sciences (English, Political Science, Chemistry) as well as pre-professional majors such as Business and Engineering; they may also have conservatory-level music or theater schools that offer specialized arts degrees (B.M. or B.F.A).
While these schools offer a wide range of opportunities, they may also rely heavily on graduate teaching assistants and/or adjunct professors to teach undergraduates. Introductory courses may also be extremely large, particularly in very popular majors.
2) Liberal Arts Colleges
Liberal arts colleges generally confer only the B.A. and offer majors primarily in traditional humanities, social science, and natural fields; they do not normally offer pre-professional degrees (although many of their students go on to enroll in graduate-level programs in business, law, medicine, etc.).
These institutions have a strong focus on undergraduate education and typically do not offer graduate programs. Classes are taught primarily by professors and are often conducted seminar-style. Liberal arts colleges are considerably smaller than most universities, usually enrolling between 2,000 and 4,000 students.
There are liberal arts colleges located across the United States, but they are primarily concentrated throughout the Northeast and Midwest, often in suburban or rural areas. While these institutions may have less name recognition outside the United States than large universities, top liberal arts schools as Amherst and Williams compete with the Ivies for students. They generally offer an excellent education, and some, such as Macalester and Mount Holyoke, enroll a high percentage of students from abroad.
Although course offerings and extracurricular options are usually more limited than at universities, these schools offer advantages in the form of greater access to professors, smaller classes sizes, and opportunities to become involved with projects at a higher level earlier on.
3) Community Colleges
Community colleges are found across the United States and offer a two-year associate degree (A.A.). They serve primarily members of local communities but do also enroll international students.
Students who graduate from community college often transfer to four-year schools to complete their B.A. Because community colleges offer much lower tuition than their four-year counterparts, they represent a cost-effective option for beginning a degree.
Some well-known universities, including members of the University of California system, have partnerships with community colleges and accept many transfer students each year.
4) Conservatories and Art Schools
Students at these standalone schools for art, music, theater, and dance follow a narrow pre-professional program designed to prepare them for careers in the arts. They offer specialized degrees such as the B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts, for art, theater, dance) and B.M. (Bachelor of Music). Entry is by audition or portfolio only.
With the exception of selective programs in specific majors (usually in the arts, engineering, and computer science), applicants to American colleges and universities apply to a general undergraduate school rather than to a specific major. At most schools, students are not required to declare a major until their sophomore year and may be given substantial leeway to change it thereafter.
Note that unlike in many other countries, in the United States prospective undergraduates cannot normally apply directly to program in law and medicine. These degrees are offered exclusively at the graduate level and, with the exception of a small number of universities that ofter 7-year joint B.A./M.D. programs (guaranteed admission to medical school), students graduating from high school cannot apply.
Note also that because American high school students follow a less specialized program than many of their international counterparts, the first year of university may include material that students in other countries cover in their last year of high school. Colleges do, however, offer placement tests for entering freshman and make an effort to ensure they are enrolled in classes at the appropriate level.
TOEFL & IELTS
If you are not a native English speaker or did not attend and English-language high school, you will most likely need to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System, Academic Training module). These exams are offered numerous times around the world and are intended for students in their last years of secondary school and above.
Register for TOEFL.
Register for IELTS.
SAT & ACT
Although standardized test scores are now optional for undergraduate applicants at many colleges and universities, it is still a good idea to submit results from one of two multiple-choice standardized tests: the SAT®, administered by the College Board, or the ACT®, administered by ACT, Inc. In addition, some schools may still require one of these exams for international applicants, or for admission to specific programs or scholarships, and you will need to check on a school-by-school basis.
The SAT has separate reading and writing (grammar) sections, plus two math sections (one with calculator, one without); the optional essay has been eliminated. It lasts three hours and is offered internationally several times each year. The cost is $55, plus an additional regional fee of about $45-50.
The ACT has four sections covering English (grammar), math, reading, and science (chart and graph-reading). It lasts two-hours-and-fifty-five minutes (3:35 with essay). Internationally, it is offered on seven dates, in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. The cost is $168.50 without Writing, $188.50 with.
Although the two tests have become much more similar since the SAT was redesigned in 2016, there are still some important differences between them. If you’re not sure which one to take, try this quiz.
In some cases, international applicants may be permitted to substitute their country’s high school-exit exam for the SAT or ACT, but you will need to check individual schools’ policies to see whether this option offered.
Although Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) scores are not required for admission, you are free to submit scores from any exams on which you have performed well. If you are planning to major in a STEM-related field, you should admit scores from exams taken for any national or international competition. Note, however, that language tests carry little weight if you are a native speaker.
How the Admissions Process Works
Whereas university-level admission in other countries is based exclusively, or almost exclusively, on academic factors—typically scores on a high-school exit exam/series of exams—American colleges and universities consider a much wider range of factors.
- High school transcript (classes and grades)
- Test scores: SAT/ACT, AP or IB (optional), plus any exams required in your home country
- Extracurricular activities (clubs, sports, etc.) and achievements awards
- Personal statement (essay), plus any supplemental essays specific colleges require
- Teacher and guidance-counselor recommendations
- Supplemental art or music materials (optional, only if demonstrates a very high level of achievement)
The most important thing to understand is that while large, less-selective public universities are more likely to focus on basic academic criteria, the most selective colleges and universities admit according to a “best graduates” rather than a “best students” model.
Decisions are informed by a wide range of institutional needs—athletic, financial, demographic, artistic—which, to make matters more complicated, may change from year to year. Consequently, there are no fixed cutoff for grades or test scores, although the vast majority of successful applicants fall into a fairly narrow (and very high) range.
Because so many applicants are academically admissible, most decisions ultimately hinge on other factors—including some that are beyond applicants’ control. If you are aiming for top schools, you should spend time researching each one and trying to understand its institutional culture so that you can make clear in your applications why you are a good match and how you would take advantage of the opportunities provided.
Candidates under serious consideration typically have their applications read by multiple members of the admissions committee, including the international or regional coordinator. Every piece of the application is considered, and final decisions are normally made by the committee as a whole.
Students applying to American universities must submit their applications in the fall or winter of their final year of high school—that is, the academic year before they enroll.
Some schools, usually less selective ones, may offer rolling admissions—that is, on an ongoing basis, without a firm deadline—but at more selective colleges, deadlines are extremely firm.
Applications can be submitted via the Common Application (www.commonapp.org) or the Universal Common App (https://www.universalcollegeapp.com). Because more colleges accept the Common App, it is likely to be the more convenient choice for most applicants.
US universities offer several rounds of admission. As an international student, you should always make sure to check individual colleges’ specific policies: they may differ from those for US applicants. At some schools, for example, international students may only be allowed to apply Regular Decision.
Note: the dates listed below are for the most competitive tier of colleges. Less-selective institutions may have later deadlines.
Early Decision (ED)
Deadline: early-mid November
Notification: early to mid-December
Students may only apply to one college Early Decision, although they may also apply elsewhere Early Action (non-binding) and Regular Decision. If accepted ED in December, students are expected to withdraw all other applications.
Some schools may also offer a January-deadline ED II option for students who decide later in the process that they are comfortable committing to a top-choice school. Again, accepted students must withdraw other applications.
Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA)
Deadline: early-mid November
Notification: early to mid-December
Students may apply to only one school through SCEA; however, they may also apply to non-binding EA programs. In addition, they are notrequired to withdraw their Regular Decision applications if accepted, giving them the option of delaying their final decision until the spring.
Non-Binding Early Action (EA)
Deadline: early-mid November
Notification: early to mid-December
There are no restrictions on how many non-binding EA schools applicants can apply to, nor are there any restrictions on Regular Decision applications.
Regular Decision (RD)
Deadline: early January-early February
This is the plan under which most applicants apply. Note that because a significant portion of the class may already be filled with students who applied early, acceptance rates may be lower than the officially published statistics. A school whose overall admit rate is 10% may in fact accept more like 5-6% of RD applicants. For international students, the real figure may be closer to 1%; in a given year, an institution may only accept a few applicants from an entire country. For this reason, even applicants with very high levels of achievement should not count on being accepted at very top schools during the RD round.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
As you are probably aware, college in the United States is far more expensive than in other countries: one year of tuition and fees may run well over $70,000.
While these prices are well out of reach for the vast majority of families, they are also somewhat misleading: American colleges provide enormous discounts to many students. On some campuses, less than half the study body may pay anything close to sticker price.
Unfortunately, though, most aid is reserved for domestic applicants; scholarship money for internationals is extremely restricted at all but a handful of the most selective institutions. In addition, international students are not eligible for work-study programs.
American colleges offer two types of grants (money that does not need to be repaid):
1) Need-based: determined by family income
2) Merit-based: determined by grades and/or test-scores
The members of the Ivy League and its peer schools offer need-based aid only. Merit aid is more common among schools that are attempting to improve their rankings by luring top applicants away from higher-ranked competitors.
As of 2021, only five schools admit international students without consideration of their ability to pay (“need blind”). None of these schools offer merit scholarships; all aid is determined exclusively by family income.
At all other schools, international students’ finances are taken into account when making admissions decisions (“need aware”).
That said, there many colleges that do offer some level of aid. Click here for an extended list of schools, plus their average awards.
And see this page for a more detailed discussion of how financial aid for international students works.