How to Apply to US College as an International Student

Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

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Want to attend college in the US as an international student, but don’t know how to apply? The process to admissions overseas is a lot more difficult than in your own country, since you have to complete more steps. Additionally, there are different education systems and academic environments. This disconnect makes it hard to decide what you want, and how you can get there.

Before you apply overseas, you should know what documents you’ll need for the application. This way, you can work hard on those documents to improve your chances of acceptance. As an international student from China and a student at UC Berkeley, I have shared my personal experience through college application process.

Overview: US college requirements for the international student

Here is the list of what international high school students need to apply for US colleges:
  • SAT II (optional)
  • High school GPA
  • Standard tests scores:  e.g A-Level, or IB, or Chinese primary college examination scores
  • Two recommendation letters from your high school teachers
  • Extracurricular activities and Leadership experiences
  • Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  • Application essays
  • Merit scholarship application
  • Application fees
  • Interview (optional but recommended)
  • Bank statement (amount required depends on universities)

Next, we will break each of these down.


TOEFL and IELTS are English language tests that major countries like Australia, Canada, UK and the US all accept. All international students from non-English speaking countries are required to take a language test to prove their English proficiencies. Both tests are composed by reading, listening, speaking and writing parts, while IELTS is a written exam and TOEFL a computer-based test. The other noteworthy difference is the speaking part: you will talk to a real person in the IELTS test but speak to a computer in the TOEFL test. Which test to take depends on your personal preference. However, for many years, TOEFL was the exam most U.S. colleges and universities relied on to measure and test English language skills.

Colleges look at ACT or SAT scores for college admissions and merit-based scholarships. SAT has evidence-based reading and writing, math and an option essay; ACT has English, Math, reading and science sections. Each has total marks of 1600 and 36. Both are recognized by US colleges and which one to take is totally depends on you. For those in mainland China, there actually is no SAT exam provided. The closest testing places are Hongkong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Almost all Top 50 universities require SAT/ACT scores for admission, but there are test optional and test blind colleges which do not treat SAT/ACT as a necessary application material.


Also known as SAT subject tests, SAT II is not a requirement for all school applications. For example, University of California does not require any SAT II exams to satisfy admission requirements.

High School GPA

Do not take your GPA for granted! Many of us did not realize the importance of GPA before college application as China does not have the concept. Actually, you need to submit not only your high school GPA but your Grade 9 GPA. Usually GPA is composed of your attendance rate, homework grades, exam grades and class participation. Keep reminding yourself to care about your daily performance!

Standard Test Scores

Whatever which high school system you are enrolled — A-Level, or IB transcripts (if international schools), and Chinese primary college examination reports (if normal high schools) — are asked by every university. Those are the proofs of your high school graduation.

Recommendation letters

In general, colleges will ask you to provide one to two recommendation letters. Be sure to prepare two in advance. Recommendations letters must be from two different teachers who taught you. If possible, it’s best if they’re from different fields. For example, one letter from a humanities teacher and one from a science teacher will show your comprehensiveness in every field.

Extracurricular activities and Leadership experiences

Different from traditional Chinese education, clubs and extracurricular activities — especially leadership experiences — are highly recommended in US college applications. Showing you have strong personal interests or skills beyond academics is a crucial part of showing all-round development.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Curriculum Vitae is a one page brief introduction. Any awards, clubs, voluntary activities, internships or summer camp with specific dates and locations should be included.

Application essays

The purpose of your essays is to expand on your qualities either not mentioned or mentioned very briefly on your CV. It’s crucial to have a original topic. The essays is the opportunity to show your uniqueness, strengths, and your writing skills. Proofread your essays or ask others for help if necessary! Grammar errors and misnomers should be definitely not be in your essays. Make sure you know the personality of the school beforehand, and adjust your essays to cater to different colleges’ preferences and culture when applying.

Merit scholarship application

If you have strong academic capability or want to reduce tuition expenditures, try applying for a merit scholarship! Extra application letters will be expected. Although this may not apply to every applicant, it’s important to remember this option when considering how to cut down on expenses.

Application fees

You can, of course, apply to as many schools as you want, but do not forget that you need to pay application fees for each school you apply to. The normal application fee is around $75 per school, but it can vary.


Because of cheating problems in many East Asian countries, many US colleges strongly recommend international students have interviews with their authorized interview agencies. Although it is optional, I recommend students to take the interview if offered. Initial Interview, recognized by 38 US colleges, is currently the biggest cooperative partner for interviewing in China. You will receive a report of your interview scores and evaluations after interviewing and then can decide whether to send the video to the school. The interview is a great chance to show any other additional personal information as well to prove your English ability.  

Bank statement

Amount: usually one school year tuition and living expenses 

Frozen period: 6 months to one year

Finally: US college as an international student is within your grasp

And Empowerly is here to help you get there. We know this system inside and out, and our counselors can help walk you through it. Applying to a US college as an international student can be intimidating, but with these steps, you can do it too. In conclusion, be prepared and know all the requirement to apply for US colleges. Good luck!

Questions? Let us know!