International Students in US Admissions

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Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

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As many students are aware, international students are applying to US colleges at an accelerating pace. In this article, we will cover tips for international students applying to college and how US students should prepare for this influx of students. At Empowerly, we have helped many international students apply and get into top US colleges.

Tips for International Students

As an international student applying to US colleges, we have to prove three things:

  • English proficiency (TOEFL)
  • Academic ability (SAT/ACT, SAT II, GPA)
  • Extracurricular interests (Activities, Essays)

For schools that take a high percentage of international students, they generally have a streamlined regional or country admissions officer who reviews applications. These schools have a process in place for helping international students acclimatize to US colleges after they arrive, and they understand the cultural nuances of attending US college.


Many colleges do not fit this mold, although they are taking a higher percentage of their class as international students. Let’s review the three key elements that international students must prove in more detail.

English Proficiency

Firstly, foreign students must prove that they can read, write, and study in the English language by taking an exam called the TOEFL. Many top universities like to a TOEFL score above 100 for admission, and often they have cut-off requirements. Below the cut-off, student applications typically get rejected. Minimum scores range from low 60s to above 100, depending on how deeply the college values English-speaking ability. For example, many UK-based schools want to see higher TOEFL scores.

The ETS administers the TOEFL. Students score on a scale of 120. This test is available in two formats: CBT (computer-based test) and PBT (paper-based test). Additionally, the CBT contains four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Each of the sections is worth from 0 to 30. Most students take the CBT.

Further, the ETS scores the PBT differently, which is why we at Empowerly have a preference for the CBT.

Academic Ability

In addition to a TOEFL score, which is viewed as a benchmark or baseline, successful applicants also demonstrate academic aptitude. This process is similar for international students as it is for students from the US, although it is often regionalized. That means that some colleges will forgive slightly lower English scores on various standardized tests because students do not speak English as their first language.

International students definitely need to take two SAT II tests. However, most universities only explicitly “recommend” two tests. This requirement is particularly true if the student is aiming for Top 50 US colleges. These colleges want to know that students have an aptitude at a standardized level in particular subjects.

The SAT and ACT are important tests, but the requirements are really not different for international students versus US students. The key difference, as mentioned above, may be a slight forgiveness for a lower essay and English/Reading score.

Letter grades and different GPA systems across the world can sometimes confuse students. Colleges often employ regional admission officers who know the applicant’s region and score calculations. Students do not need to worry about the conversion, but they should know relatively where they stand at their school. Similarly, students should know how many students are sent from your school to various colleges. Sometimes, students need to take gap years because their school ends differently from the US admissions cycle, which is fine.

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges will often forgive international students for not having a robust extracurricular profile. Many countries don’t emphasize these activities or give students time to try things outside of the classroom.

Country and regional admissions officers know about this. This is an opportunity for international students to stand out. If you start your own club, charity, or anything that sparks your interest, you will stand out from peers tremendously.

Many of the students we have helped end up participating in their own extracurricular activities and attend top US colleges. The key is to find an area that interests you, develop it, and then articulate it in the admissions process.

An international student faces similar requirements to a candidate from the US, but with a few key differences. These differences include TOEFL requirements, high performance in standardized tests, and a modified view of a student’s extracurricular activities. These metrics create an opportunity for international students. For more on Empowerly or to learn about our programs, visit

Questions? Let us know!