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Studying in the U.S. – 5 Things to Know

International students have long been eager to study in the U.S., drawn by the high quality of U.S. colleges and universities. Whether your goal is to study at Harvard, to study at UCLA, or another of the more than 3,700 four-year institutions of higher education in the U.S., you’ll find a diverse array of colleges and universities from which to choose.

As reported by the Institute of International Education, about 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions in 2019-2020. This was a slight decline from the prior year following a decade of growth and impacted by factors ranging from a difficult political environment for immigrants under the Trump administration to the COVID-19 pandemic.  We anticipate that these trends will begin to reverse themselves as the political environment improves and the pandemic recedes.


One in three international students studying in the U.S. chose colleges and universities in California, New York, and Texas. Not far behind were Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Perhaps not surprisingly, more international students decide to study at NYU than any other university in the U.S. For nearly the last 10 years, NYU has been the leading host of international students in the U.S. Interestingly, Northeastern University (Boston) had the second-highest number of international students enrolled, followed by the University of South California, and Columbia University. See the chart below from the Institute of International Education for the universities that round out the top 10 most popular destinations for international students who want to study in the U.S.:

Source: IIE, “Leading Host Institutions: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors report.


If you are planning to study in the U.S., here are five things to keep in mind to guide you in the process.


Whether your interests lie in the STEM fields, business, or liberal arts, the first step is to define your goals and priorities and then research the best options that match your priorities. For prospective undergraduate students seeking to complete a four-year Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree, it is best to start your research at least 12 months before the application deadlines (typically, those range from November 1 – February 1, depending on the institution).

Today more than ever, you will find a wealth of resources online to help you research colleges and universities in the U.S. Do you like big schools or small ones? Urban or rural ones? Are you excited for a broad-based liberal arts education, or do you want to focus specifically on engineering? Because COVID-19 forced the closure of campuses across the U.S., colleges and universities have invested significant resources in virtual programming and digital outreach. If you want to study at Harvard or study at UC Berkeley, googling “Harvard + virtual visit” or “UC Berkeley + virtual visit” will yield a virtual campus tour and information session. You can repeat this Google search for every top university in the U.S.


Even before you start the admissions application process, be sure you have a plan to finance your education as the cost of a four-year degree, especially at the most coveted institutions, is significant. More importantly, you will need to provide evidence that you or your family have the resources to finance your education before you will be granted a visa to study in the U.S.

The costs to study at Harvard or NYU, for instance, range from $75,000 —$80,000 USD. At public universities, the costs are somewhat lower. The full cost to study at UCLA or another top public university will likely be $60,000—$65,000 USD per year. Top colleges and universities will offer some financial aid to international students but the competition for this funding is very high. If you hope to receive financial assistance from a university as an international undergraduate, be sure you understand that the competition is fierce.

There are a number of avenues for funding that international students can explore including International Education Financial Aid, scholarships for U.S. study offered by your home country, and international organizations ranging from the Fulbright Commission, AMIDEAST, Soros Foundation, World Health Organization, World Council of Churches, and United Nations. International students are not eligible for U.S. government-backed loans like Stafford Loans or Plus Loans, but they generally are eligible for private international student loans to study in the U.S. You will need to meet specific eligibility requirements like attending an approved school and having a co-signer in most cases.

A small handful of top universities in the U.S. are need-blind in their admissions process, meaning that students are admitted regardless of their families’ ability to finance their education. Once more common, today only five elite universities in the U.S. offer this to international applicants: MIT, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, and Amherst College.

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Like every aspect of our lives, COVID-19 disrupted standardized testing, especially the SAT and ACT, the two most common college admissions exams for U.S. students. In response, just about every college and university moved to a test-optional admissions policy for students applying to college in the fall of 2021. It does look like many of these test-optional policies will continue to be in place for students applying to college this fall.

However, international students planning on studying in the U.S. should carefully consult the policies of the colleges and universities on their list to be sure that they understand the testing policies. Your SAT or ACT score will matter, especially for students who have not pursued an internationally recognized curriculum (GCE Advanced Level, French Baccalaureate, German Abitur, International Baccalaureate or another school-leaving certificate). Even if you do not need an SAT or ACT for the admissions process, most universities will require you to submit a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System), Duolingo, or other score to document your English language abilities.


The extremely high entrance criteria at top level schools have produced a ripple effect, and now all of the top 50-100 schools have tougher admissions standards. This year, the admissions process underwent significant disruption with the adoption of test-optional or test-blind admissions policies at nearly every top school in the country. As a result, admissions applications skyrocketed, with top schools posting huge increases in application volume – UCLA topping 120,000 applicants, NYU topping 100,000 applicants, Harvard’s pool growing by 57 percent, and Colgate seeing their application volume more than double in one year. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Hopkins had low single digit admit rates for the Class of 2025. Even schools like Amherst (8 percent acceptance rate), Williams (8 percent), Georgetown (12 percent acceptance rate) and NYU (12 percent acceptance rate) were extraordinarily competitive in their admissions processes and that trend will continue.

International students need to realize that they can’t simply look at overall admissions stats to determine their odds because most schools limit the international student population to 10-15 percent of the overall class and those numbers don’t vary much from year to year. If you look at a school that has a 20 percent overall admissions rate, the admit rate for international students is likely to be closer to 5 percent—not to mention the fact that international students compete with other international students from 80-plus different countries, plus their own country. Schools might receive 300 applicants from China and then accept two or three!


Like all students applying to elite universities, international applicants will also be evaluated on the rigor of their secondary school courses and their countries’ terminal exams. You simply won’t be admitted to elite institutions if your academic record is not tops in your school, region, or country. Remember, elite colleges and universities want high-impact scholars, not just diligent kids. You want to be a passionate and active learner, demonstrating an intense curiosity about the world around you and the intrinsic motivation to explore it. It helps to remember you will be compared to top students around the world.

Your academic profile will account for about 80 percent of the admissions decision, meaning that your extracurricular activities will account for only about 20 percent of the decision. Admissions officers are no longer just looking for a traditional set of typically American activities – participation in sports, debate, and service are quite commonplace and unless you are doing them at a level that is truly distinctive, they will not make you a more competitive applicant. Instead, your goal should be to develop an extracurricular profile highlighted by leadership opportunities and a level of impact that sets you apart in a competitive admissions process.  At Top Tier, we often refer to what we call “big bang” activities, i.e., those activities that students pursue that demonstrate leadership and a high degree of impact and connect with their academic niche. This is the kind of leadership that will make your application stand out.

Top Tier has a set of expert college advisors who bring significant experience in Ivy League admissions and college counseling, and a track record of success in working with international students aspiring to study at all elite universities in the U.S.

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