The United States boasts the world's largest international student population. Of over 1 million people currently enrolled in US colleges and universities, nearly 5% are international students. That is about 50,000 students – and the number keeps growing. The reason is not only quality education and unique research facilities but also opportunities for employment and overall experience living in America that young people around the world find attractive.
However, along with all the undisputable benefits, studying in the USA presents its unique challenges that you need to know about before you decide to apply to one of the US higher education institutions. This guide aims to inform students considering getting a degree from one of the US schools about academic and legal requirements, educational process, and other details you might want to consider when making your decision.
To apply to a US school, you will need to present one of the internationally acknowledged certificates of English proficiency, proving that you can participate in all the classes and understand the curriculum. As a rule, one of the following is accepted in most colleges and universities:
TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language, one of the most common and widely accepted certificates. Preferred by 9 out of 10 US universities.
IELTS – International English Language Testing System, another popular certification system commonly accepted in the United States.
PTE – Pearson Test of English, a popular exam among international students, accepted by the majority of colleges and universities in the USA.
The required level of English proficiency depends on the particular program or college you choose. However, usually, to obtain a student visa, your level must be no lower than B2 for the undergraduate program and higher for grad school. Examination usually tests reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills to ensure you are a competent conversationalist, listener, reader, and essay writer.
The complete list of documents required for the application and enrollment depends on the particular school. However, usually, you will need the standard package necessary for a student visa application:
- Academic transcripts from your previous program (high school if you apply to the undergraduate program; Bachelor's degree transcripts if you apply for Master's; Master's when applying for PhD program, etc.
- Test scores, including English proficiency test (see above) and SAT/ACT/GMAT/GRE depending on the program and university you are applying to.
- Statement of purpose and other essays, depending on the school. Usually, the more selective the school, the more writing supplements it will require to get a better understanding of your motivations, qualifications, and potential fit for the program. You might want to hire the help of a professional essay writing service to make sure your writing supplements show you as a candidate in the best possible light.
- Recommendations from teachers who taught you your highest academic level to date. As a rule, you will need 2 letters of recommendation, but this may depend on the school and program.
- Copy of your valid passport that is issued before your application and valid six months beyond the time of your intended program end. That means that if you are applying, for example, to a 4year Bachelor's program that ends May 2028, your international passport must be valid through November 2028. If you have a passport that expires sooner, you will need to apply for a new one, so you can submit its serial number. Without the number of a valid passport, your school won't be able to send you the forms necessary for a student visa application.
- Proof of funds sufficient to cover your living and tuition fees for at least one academic year of participation in your target program. You must provide a bank statement or other paper proving that you, your friends, family, or a nonprofit organization providing scholarships will fund your stay. Without proof of funds, you cannot apply for a student visa.
- Portfolio with your works is usually required for programs in Art, Design, and Architecture. Still, it can also be required for other majors, so make sure to check with your target school before applying.
- Extracurricular activities, volunteering experience, community work, etc.
Costs of Tuition and Living
Higher education in the United States is as desirable as it is expensive. Yearly tuition fees, on average, are about $26,000 per year in public universities and about $36,000 in private schools for international students. Other costs, such as room and board, books, supplies, health insurance, and transportation, depend on the state but nevertheless can crop up to a hefty sum, so you must consider whether you can cover studying in your target school.
Of course, tuition cost is a vital factor to consider when you decide where to apply, but don't base your decision on the size of fees in a particular school only. Even though international students aren't eligible for federal financial aid, there are other ways to supplement your funding. Many private funds and non-profits provide merit-based, need-based, major-specific, heritage-specific, gender-specific, religious, and other targeted financial support to international students. Research whether you are eligible for any scholarships or grants before you give up on the school of your dreams only because you cannot afford it independently.
Moreover, some schools go out of their way to remove financial barriers that might prevent a promising candidate from applying and adopt need-blind admission policies meaning that the applicant with an income below a certain level isn't expected to cover their tuition fees. Some universities meet 100% of demonstrated financial needs, providing full-ride scholarships, including international students. Among them are Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown University, Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and others.
Types of Programs
When choosing a program, there are some key terms to understand. The US university language can be confusing if your country uses a different system. Here is what you need to know:
Major – a subject area that is the main focus of your degree, with the majority of courses you will take contributing to your knowledge in this subject. The terms "major" and "program" are often used interchangeably.
Minor – a second area of interest that you can study parallel to your major. In many programs, you can include a minor as part of your course. Usually, it takes about 8-10 courses in a specific subject to declare it your minor (out of 40 or so required for your degree).
Concentration/specialization/option/area of emphasis – an alternative track within a major. For example, a concentration in Linguistics within the English major or an option in Molecular Cell Biology within the Biology major. The differences between those terms usually depend on the particular percentage of courses you take within your major requirements. Different schools might use other words for these.
Undergraduate degree – the first level of higher education studies that you normally start after high school. In the US, there are 2-year and 4-year programs at an undergraduate level: Associate degree and Bachelor's degree.
Associate degree – Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees are intermediate degrees awarded after 2-year programs in junior or community colleges. They are designed for students to transfer to a 4-year University with 60 credits, so it will take them less time to complete their Bachelor's in a more competitive or expensive school. Over 1,000 US colleges offer 2-year Associate programs.
Bachelor's degree – typically takes 4 years to complete if you apply immediately after high school, but can be completed in two if you have already earned an Associate degree and transferred your academic credits that school counted towards the 120-128 credit hours required to complete your degree. Bachelor's degree has common variations, such as Bachelor of Arts for Humanities (abbreviated to BA) and Bachelor of Science for STEM subjects (shortened to BS). Over 2,000 US colleges and Universities offer 4-year programs on the undergraduate level.
Graduate degrees – Master's degree and Doctoral degree. You can pursue these degrees immediately after completing a Bachelor's or return to graduate school later when you have some working experience. Some fields, such as physical therapy, require graduate degrees to find employment. Graduate degrees are essential in many fields if you want to pursue an academic career – conducting research and teaching.
Master's degree – next after Bachelor's; means you have gained deep knowledge in your field of study. Usually requires one or two years of study beyond the Bachelor's degree, with independent research that you submit as a thesis before you can graduate. Some examples include a Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Business Administration (MBA), etc.
Doctoral degree – next after Master's; means you are an expert in your field who can carry out independent research and contribute to academic knowledge. While some universities will allow you to enter doctoral programs straight after your Bachelor's, especially if you graduated with honors, others prefer candidates with completed Master's. Examples of doctorates include the most commonly awarded Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Medicine (MD), Juris Doctor (JD) for lawyers and judges, etc.
One of the most attractive features of the academic process in the United States is flexibility. First of all, the program does not depend on the number of semesters but rather on the number of academic credits. If the program is described as a "four-year" one, it only means that it would take a student, on average, 4 years to complete it, should they follow the recommended credit hours per semester academic load. However, you can take more subjects each semester and graduate sooner if you feel up to it. Alternatively, you can take fewer subjects each semester, combine your studies with work, and complete your course in five or six years. However, you must ensure that you meet the minimum requirement qualifying you as a full-time student if, for example, you receive a scholarship for full-time students.
Colleges and universities usually offer a wide variety of courses and topics to explore. Students can take any classes they find interesting, regardless of their program and major. Of course, there are compulsory and recommended courses, but there are usually four of five elective courses that are not required but still give you credits that count toward your degree. This leaves students the freedom to explore their intellectual curiosities and change the course of their studies as they discover new interests.
For example, an estimated 20-50 percent of students enroll in college with undecided majors. Even if they declare their major when applying, they can still change it. Up to 75% of students change their major at least once. You can also have a double major, a major and a minor, or a major and a concentration – depending on how many credits you earned in a particular area of study.
This might sound a bit confusing, but schools usually assign academic advisors to students to counsel and guide them in selecting courses, majors and setting career goals for the future, so you don't have to worry about it.
How Classes Are Held
If you have been researching US colleges and universities, you have probably come across terms like spring semester, fall semester, and summer semester. The academic year in the US is divided into two semesters, with the fall beginning in August or September, depending on the state and school, and running through January. The spring semester in college typically starts right after winter break in mid-to-late January and lasts through May.
The summer semester starts around June and spans two months. It is the shortest semester and is sort of auxiliary. Students take summer classes to earn academic credits, meet their degree requirements, and graduate sooner. Language courses for international students are often held in the summer to prepare them for the fall semester of their first year.
However, not all subjects are available in the summer, and sometimes summer schooling costs more than during the regular semester. Generally, students prefer to take a break in the summer and rest or find a summer job to fund their tuition. As you can see, your graduation date will depend not on the fixed number of years or semesters but on the number of credits earned. Credits are the most significant factor, representing the number of hours you have devoted to learning. Each course you take will have its assigned number of credit points based on the volume of course material you will have to study.
The coursework is mainly expected to be learned independently. You will read, study, and participate in class seminars and debates. Your grades will depend not on your attendance or the accuracy of your class notes but on your submitted assignments and discussion participation, so classes might get quite competitive with so many students striving to show off their knowledge. Don't be discouraged by that. Come prepared and take the initiative rather than waiting until the instructor asks you something.
This might seem stressful for a student outside their familiar environment and native language, especially if you are a reserved, private person. However, this system comes with upsides. Your instructors will be available outside of classes too. They have office hours dedicated to answering your question and assisting you with course materials. Meet them during office hours or email them if you struggle with the course or want to show your engagement.
Planning Your Travel
When planning your travel and booking tickets, you might want to consider arriving early to give yourself as much time as possible to adapt to campus and prepare before your first day of classes. However, make sure you comply with immigration regulations. They require you to arrive in the US no more than 30 days in advance of the program start and no later than the program start date, so you have a 30-day window for your trip.
You will need to consider your wardrobe, among other things. It can differ significantly depending on whether you start your studies in the fall or spring. However, the geographical location of your school will make the biggest difference. If you base your perception of the US on balmy Florida or sunny Los Angeles, studying somewhere in New England might be a surprisingly chilly experience.
The United States is a vast country with a very diverse climate, so you will need to read all about the area where you will live for the next several years. In fact, it's a good idea to research weather conditions in places where your prospective schools are located even before you decide where to apply since it can contribute significantly to your overall experience.
Other Important Necessities
Campus life differs from home life for all students, domestic and international alike. However, international students might find it even more challenging. Before leaving home, here is what you should consider and arrange:
Bank account. Research potential banks near your future campus where you can open an account in the US. Some local banks affiliate with universities to offer additional benefits to students, such as campus discounts and special offers at local restaurants, leisure centers, and retailers.
Documents. Ensure you have access to all the crucial documents you need to live in the US as an international student: passport, visa, I-20 form, health insurance, recommendation letters, test scores, etc. Have electronic copies of those with you on a device or in the cloud storage and a couple of printed copies in your carry-on luggage – just in case.
Medication. If you rely on personal medication, check if it is available in the US and can be obtained in pharmacies near your campus. If not, you might want to bring a supply of medication with you in case of emergencies.
Electronics. Check in with your provider to learn if your phone will work in the US or if you can place a US SIM card into your device. If not, you will need to buy a phone and a service plan in the US. Also, charges and power cables for your phone, laptop, or other devices might not be compatible with the US sockets. You might need to bring an adaptor with you to charge your devices. Otherwise, you will need to buy appropriate cables once you arrive.
For more detailed information about language courses, visa application process, legal requirements, and eligibility, head to the official website of the US government: https://www.usa.gov/study-in-US
For more information about particular schools, look at the rankings, for example, here https://www.forbes.com/top-colleges/ or here https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities.