International Students in US Admissions

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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

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 will automatically be rejected. Minimum scores range from low 60s to above 100, depending on how deeply the college values English-speaking ability. Many UK-based schools want to see higher TOEFL scores.

The TOEFL is administered by the ETS and is scored out 120. It is administered in two formats: CBT (computer-based test) and PBT (paper-based test). The CBT has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing, and each of the sections is scored from 0 to 30. Most students take the CBT.

The PBT is scored differently, and we have a preference for the CBT.

Academic Ability

In addition to the TOEFL score, which is often viewed as a benchmark and a baseline, students also need to demonstrate academic ability and 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, although it is often just recommended by most universities. 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 also important tests, but the requirements are really not different for international students versus students from the US. 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 have regional admissions officers, or often country admissions officers, who know the region and how scores are calculated. Students do not need to worry about the conversion, but they should know relatively where they stand at their school and how many students are sent from their school to the colleges they are aiming for. Sometimes, students need to take gap years because their school ends off cycle 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 do not emphasize these types of activities or give students the time to try things outside of the classroom – especially in Asia.

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

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

The international student is viewed similarly to a candidate from the US, but with a few key differences – TOEFL requirements, the particular need to perform well in standardized tests, and a modified view of a student’s extracurricular activities that creates an opportunity for international students. For more on Empowerly or to learn about our programs, visit

Questions? Let us know!