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International Student
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Before You Apply to a US College or University

Since it can take around 2 years to get your application ready, starting early is a great first step. There are several personal factors to consider as you prepare to research colleges and universities in the United States. Finding the perfect match is not difficult once you decide how much your family can afford, what you want to study, which state or location you like, the housing choice you prefer, social options you would the school to offer, and career placement assistance needs.

Determining your preferences now will make it a lot easier to target the perfect place to earn your undergraduate or graduate degree.

Personal Factors to Consider


Getting a degree in the United States is expensive. Although many students are able to find one or two scholarships to help offset the cost, keep in mind that finding a full scholarship is not a common occurrence. This means you will need to explore all possible funding options. If money is not a factor, that’s great! However, regardless of your situation, you should know what the financial aid policy is for the colleges on your final list. Life circumstances can change suddenly, and you don’t want all your hard work to be for nothing. It’s always better to have as much knowledge as possible about your preferred colleges.

Tuition, room and board (food), books, supplies, and travel should be calculated when figuring the total cost of attendance. For tuition alone costs can range from $4,000 to $40,000 per year. Some colleges and universities offer merit aid, but some only offer need-based aid. So, what are your potential funding options?

  • Family Assistance: A majority of international students fund their education through personal and family funding. Establish early on how much of your education you or your family members will be paying. Keep in mind that as an international student you can’t rely on working in the US to fund your education. Working in the US comes with limitations including how many hours per week you can work and will not be enough to fund your education.
  • Home Country Funding: Many countries are encouraging of their citizens earning an education and new skill set in the US that they can bring home with them. Because of this, some countries will even help you pay for your degree. Contact your embassy or ministry of education to see what type of aid is available.
  • International Scholarships: Scholarships are a great way to help pay for your education. Keep in mind that scholarships are essentially free money and can be very competitive. Apply to as many scholarships as possible and as early as possible so you have a good idea how much aid you can realistically reply on from scholarships. *Tip: Although applying to just a few scholarships that offer large award amounts may be tempting, keep in mind that those are often the most competitive. Find as many scholarships as possible that only allow a specific group of students to apply (for example: students from Sweden studying biology).
  • Educational Institution Funding: It will be difficult to know exactly how much aid will come from a college or university in the beginning stages- especially prior to researching schools. When you nail down which institutions you want to consider you can explore their site and email their international student office to see what type of aid they offer international students. Schools will use different methods to obtain the information needed to establish your individual financial need, for example they may require you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)- confirm with each school which method they prefer. After you’ve been accepted into a university you will receive an aid offer that includes what type of aid you’re eligible for through the university. Figuring out how much of the tuition you’re able to cover through other funding options will allow you know exactly how much the institution will need to offer at that point to make it an affordable option.
Scholarships are free money and should not require you to pay. If a scholarship is charging money before you can apply it could be a scam.
  • Private Sponsor: This type of funding is very difficult to find so you will need to work hard and start searching early if you plan on relying on an individual or company sponsor to help fund your education.
  • US Government Funding: Although international students aren’t eligible for all student aid that the US government offers like Pell Grants and Stafford loans, they do offer aid specific to international students, like the Fulbright. A good place to begin your search for US government funding is EducationUSA.
  • Work & Study Programs: If you’re able to work in the US while you earn your degree keep in mind that it will not provide enough funds to cover your full tuition and other educational costs. Working in the US will typically provide some supplemental income, but the most rewarding part will be in the experience and connections you make. has partnered with HTIR Work-Study, USA to help international students find a program where they can work while earning their degree. These programs are available to graduate students trying to pursue a degree in a variety of programs including international business, finance management and investment, human resource management, management information systems, marketing management, healthcare leadership, engineering management, healthcare administration, analytics, technology and innovation, project management, computer science and general business.
  • International Student Loans: If you’ve tapped each of the other funding outlets and still fall short on being able to provide the funds needed to study in the US, international student loans can help you fill the remaining gap. Not all lenders work with all schools, and some do not offer loans to international students at all. Find lenders that work with both the schools you’re considering and international students, and then compare each lender to find the best terms.

Determining where your funding is coming from is crucial. You don’t want to have to change your top schools at the last minute because you can’t meet the financial expectations.

Additionally, before you can enter the US you will have to provide documents that show you have sufficient funds to cover your expenses while in the United States. Creating a personal budget plan early will help you determine a good estimate. Gathering all the important information or at least knowing what information you will eventually need and how to get it, is a necessary step you can’t avoid.

Financial Checklist

  • Personal finances
  • Home country assistance
  • School specific assistance
  • Independent general scholarships
  • International student loans

After you have a realistic idea of how much you can afford and where the money is coming from, it will help you later on to quickly eliminate any colleges that don’t meet the price tag you need.

Degree Programs

Before choosing a school it’s ideal to know which degree you want to pursue. If you’re having a difficult time choosing a profession spend some time observing a wide range of professionals in your everyday life. Ask questions when you can and try to imagine yourself in their role. Once you have a better idea of what you might like to do, you will need to research the type of education that is required. Of course you must attend a school that offers the specific track, courses and degree program you will need, has a good reputation, and a good post-graduation employment record. Our Study Guide by Subject is an excellent tool to use while researching different career paths that interest you.


Something else you will need to decide before you start searching schools is where you want to pursue your education. The United States is vast and diverse; you have 50 states plus Washington, D.C. to choose from. Some colleges and universities are located in the heart of a major city, and some are located in beautiful rural areas. If you like a vibrant lifestyle with museums, restaurants, luxury shopping, and public transportation, then be sure to center your search in big cities. If you prefer a quieter experience in a location that’s less populated, a smaller city or town might be a better option for you.

When exploring different locations around the US make sure you consider the following:

  • Cost of living
  • Fee to purchase weather appropriate clothes
  • Available transportation
  • Ease of travel to other locations throughout the US and globe
  • Safety
  • Job/internship opportunities

If you need further guidance on where to study our USA State Guide can provide more details on each state, the schools located in that area, and what you can expect while living there.

Housing Options

When you picture yourself studying in the US where do you see yourself living? Whether it’s in a residence hall with lots of other students to hang out with or in a cozy apartment with one or two close roommates it’s key to take note of the living conditions you expect. Researching the various housing options ahead of time will ensure that when you do explore schools you can confirm if they offer what you want.

Some colleges and universities require undergraduate freshmen and first year international students to live on campus in residence halls. However, during your second year (or if your school doesn’t have this requirement) you will have many other options such as off campus apartments and homestays. Universities will often have a student forum or a list of suggested off campus housing to help you find other students looking for roommates and independent apartments to rent. Alternatively, you might want to consider a homestay program. Many international students enjoy getting a firsthand look at life in the US when living with an American family through a homestay. Do your research to find a qualified homestay company that will pre-screen the family, house, and location to confirm you will have an authentic and safe experience

Social Life

With the amount of pressure around the academic side of studying in the US the social aspect is often overlooked. However, part of being an international student is the experience it’s able to offer which means you should take time to think about social expectations you have for your future college or university. If you are an athlete, musician, artist, actor, or just someone who has very specific needs when it comes to activities outside of academics, you will need to explore the available clubs and facilities available to you at each school. You don’t want to miss out on those enrichments by choosing a location or college where your favorite pastime is unavailable to you.

You will also want to explore what organized social activities your school has to offer. Many schools have a social calendar where they plan movie nights, grill-outs, karaoke and other fun (free) events where students can mingle. Check out the social calendars for each school you’re considering and make sure they offer plenty of opportunities for you to meet new friends. Also contact the international student office as they often have an additional calendar of events.

Career Placement

Employment can be even more complicated and intimidating than getting your degree, but as an international student you will want to participate in OPT or CPT if allowed. If the school doesn’t offer much advice or assistance, you may want to cross them off your list. After you’ve headed to the US, you should visit the career center as soon as you get situated on campus. The sooner you establish a relationship with an actual person in the career center the more comfortable and ready you will be when you are looking for opportunities.

Choosing a College or University

Now that you have outlined personal factors to take into account when choosing a college or university in the United States, you can build a list of schools to choose from. Make sure you follow a strict timeline and start early, stay organized, and be diligent in your research. As previously stated, it can take around 2 years to go through the entire process. Don’t forget to continue your academic excellence, take required exams, and pursue extracurricular activities you are passionate about. You will need to meet all the requirements for admission to your top college choices, so be realistic when making your school list.

Steps in Choosing a College

  • Create a spreadsheet
  • Research and record
  • Compare and narrow
  • Track acceptances
  • Track finances and required documents

Create a College Spreadsheet

The best way to keep organized is to create one central spreadsheet. Before you start your research, list each university you’re considering and include a column for each of the following:

  • Requirements
  • Deadlines
  • Cost & available financial aid
  • Personal preferences
  • Social life
    • Housing
    • Notes
  • Acceptance or denial notification

This sheet will be your command center and come in handy when you are busy with all your activities, testing, studying, and applying to colleges. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of everything without a well thought out spreadsheet. Use the categories as listed above but also add other categories specific to your needs. Notate everything when researching each school to make sure you can keep track of the small details.

Research and Record

When starting your search for a college or university our International Student USA School Search is an excellent tool to help you get started. You can search by degree level, degree program and location. When compiling schools at first, add every schools that seem like a possible fit, even if they don’t meet all your qualifications. Then, be sure to mark which preferences they meet and which they don’t on your college spreadsheet, so you can easily reference later when making a final cut.

Narrow Your Options

When you sort your spreadsheet, you will start to see a pattern that could help you select your top choices with the most matched important preferences. Sort your spreadsheet in several different ways until you get an order that you can lock into place after comparing them with each other. Be prepared for this list to change frequently in the beginning. However, eventually you should have your list sorted by your top choices.

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