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How to Study Abroad in the U.S. as an International Student

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

As an “ex-patriot” who grew up in California, attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, and who now lives in London, I absolutely love to work with students who have questions about how best to navigate the international student experience. As a college counselor, I hear a lot of questions about international study. With the help of David Hawkins, founder of The University Guys, I've pulled together a list of my answers to the most common and most pressing questions about studying abroad in the United States.

Why would I want to go to university so far from home? The US is a pretty long flight away.

Every international student has their own reasons for wanting to study in America. What it comes down to is that if you’re the kind of student who wants an international experience, you will not stop until you scratch that itch. You will gain a lot from the experience - personal growth and independent thought, and cultural competence beyond your home country are just the start.

How would a U.S. education benefit me?

If you're coming from outside the US, you may like the idea of a different structure of universities in America. Some students will benefit from the classic “college try” that American universities provide. Due to the flexible General Education requirements and broad major choices, the ability to ‘try out’ a few different things and balance subjects can be appealing to students in Europe or the UK who are more attuned to choosing a subject during A-Levels (or before) and sticking with it for three more years. Sometimes that level of commitment can be daunting, or maybe even frustrating when placement year comes around and you don’t like the look of those physics labs after all.

Not only are courses and majors a bit more flexible, but your choice of campus is wide and broad. The U.S. is a big country, and has thousands of universities to choose from, all offering a unique and intriguing experience. Students can thus pick from a wide range of climates, cultural attitudes and experiences that fits their needs and career goals. 

Alumni groups in the States are also a big plus - they can have roots not only in America, but all over the world. If you go to school in the U.S., you will always be tied to alumni of a university. This alumni network is especially strong if you are keen to break into an industry in the states. They're a fantastic opportunity to meet industry professionals and set yourself up for a job in some very famous sectors such as the film studios of Hollywood, the theaters of New York, the tech start-ups of Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, or the customer service industry of Florida’s resorts.

How can I handle the cost? 

In our webinar, David Hawkins outlines some thought-provoking ideas about paying international student fees if you are coming to the US. He says, “In general, there is a huge amount of money [to be won as a scholarship] and lots of people get it, but the problem with going to school in the US is that 'in general' doesn’t work.” It is much more complicated to make all of the pieces fit together and there is so much that comes into the school’s decision to award aid, but it can be done.

"Anyone who needs a significant amount of funding in the US needs to be extraordinarily humble.”

Which is to say, you may get a full ride, but it may not be exactly where you had thought you’d end up. David says, “There will always be a student that says ‘I came here because I got a full ride.’” Sometimes the university that offers you the most aid is not the sort of dream you had in mind, but with so many universities and experiences to choose from, you would be surprised by how life-changing the “unexpected" can be. Depending on your situation, you may qualify for athletics scholarships, funding at the Ivies, or merit aid. Unfortunately, if you do need a large amount of aid, your journey could be a bit more stressful, and you should definitely have a back-up in your home country.

What would it be like to go to school in the US?

David and I agree: the more research you can do before applying, the better. If you can fly out, that’s great, but you can find out a lot about your choices by researching universities. David recommends Googling “Day in the life of a _____ university student” so you can get a real insight into what it’s really like to go there.

I also recommend communicating with the university - yes, reach out to them directly, even well before you send in your application. Find your admissions representative on their website, and send them an email. You can even ask to meet with them over Zoom to ask some questions in lieu of being able to fly out to visit - and you could also ask if they could allow you to meet with a current student so that you can learn more about the university from the student perspective. In times of COVID-19, one of the few positive developments have been the myriad virtual information sessions and campus tours colleges now offer - sign up and attend to bring these colleges into your home and get a sense for what differentiates them, and what your life there might be like.

What makes a US application different?

Applying to American universities can be daunting - there are a lot more moving parts to the process than in many other countries. To keep on task, I recommend that you take the time to create an overview of application deadlines and tasks you need to complete in order to apply successfully (some applications are due as early as the Fall before you start - almost a full year before you would enter university). The most important aspects of applying to U.S. universities are:

  • taking standardized tests (the TOEFL or IELTS is mandatory for every international student, the SAT or ACT may also be needed depending on the university) and sending your official scores to each college

  • filling out online applications (some schools use the Common App, others have their own application portals)

  • creating a compelling resume/activities list

  • writing very personal, even vulnerable, essays (prompts differ depending on the university, and many students have to write upwards of 10 short essays - usually the maximum word count is 650, and some are as short as 50 or 100 word)

  • sending a professionally translated transcript of your high school progress and grades to each college

  • asking for and sending letters of recommendation from teachers and from a counselor (many international students do not have a high school counseling office, so this part can get tricky!)

As far as the overall application goes, the first rule of thumb is to be genuine. As David says, “this is not an achievement race. The extracurriculars are there to show who you’d be on their campus. If you’re really boring and only interested in one thing, do more of that. You don’t want to do something for the sake of it. If the college doesn’t like you, that’s okay.” David recommends taking a look at “Applying Sideways," the MIT blog post giving advice about the application process.

Overall, both David and I are international student college consultant because we love helping students make sense of all of these somewhat complicated and differing aspects that students need to keep in mind. We help students build what we call a "good-fit" college list that takes into account the student's learning style and academic curiosities as well as the family's financial needs, and then we guide our students through the process of successfully applying - without all of the stress.

COVID-19 is messing everything up. What do I do?

The university experience may not look the same this year, or next year, as one would expect. But, there is nothing that is going to change the quality of education an American university offers, or the strong networks that schools provide. If COVID-19 has impacted your education or quality of your application, say so! Admissions officials understand that this year has had an unprecedented effect on students, and that they cannot expect fully normal circumstances. Communicate with admissions officials, ask for assistance, work on compromising in regard to application requirements that you feel you cannot meet.

What should my takeaway be?

Studying as an international student has challenges that studying in your home country may not, but studying in your home country has challenges too. It is up to you which challenges you would like to overcome and which outcomes you’d like to gain. What learning environment are you seeking, where will you truly blossom into who you want to become? Please do not hesitate to reach out to me to discuss your plans and concerns at I offer a complimentary consultation to all students via Zoom, and I'd love to help you understand what your journey to your dream of studying abroad in the U.S. might look like - no strings attached.


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