Preparing for American University Admissions as an International Student

August 31, 2022
College Admissions
Ivy League

Students from all over the world travel to the U.S. every year in hopes of obtaining a degree from a reputable university or college. In 2021 alone, nearly one million international students were enrolled in American universities according to the most recent annual Open Doors report. Most of these students came from China (317,299), followed by India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Vietnam. Bear in mind that these numbers are actually slightly lower than in previous years due to the pandemic.

There are many reasons international students choose to study in the U.S. First and foremost is the prestige, as many American universities rank amongst the best in the world. Engineering, computer science, business, and life sciences are some subjects in which American universities famously offer world-class degrees. Not surprisingly, these are also the most frequently sought-after degrees for many international students. Earning a college degree in the United States can boost a student’s career prospects and enrich their life in other meaningful ways. But gaining admission and successfully graduating from an American college is not easy. There are many steps that international students must take in preparation for their academic journey to the U.S. We’ve outlined the important ones below.

English Language Requirements

For international students from countries where English is not the first language, one of the first and most essential steps in planning to attend an American university is obtaining a satisfactory English proficiency exam score. Schools accept scores from the TOEFL, IELTS, and Duolingo. Each university may require whichever minimum scores they deem appropriate on each exam for an international student to gain admission. For example, some schools require a minimum TOEFL score of 80 or IELTS score of 6.5, while others require a TOEFL score above 100 or an IELTS score of at least 7.5. Additionally, colleges often have separate requirements for each of the speaking, listening, reading, and writing sections of an exam.

This is intended for schools to ensure a student’s level of English proficiency is high enough to demonstrate they can effectively read, write, speak, and listen at a high academic level as soon as they arrive in the U.S. So, despite these considerable disparities in English exam score requirements, students serious about applying to American colleges should begin their exam preparation early, in preparation for testing in 11th grade. Those for whom English is not their native language should also plan to take the exam several times, starting a year and a half before graduation, and aim for a TOEFL score of no less than 90 or an IELTS score of 6.5 for most elite colleges.

Even students who achieve the highest possible scores on these English proficiency exams can still struggle with English comprehension during their first several months in the U.S. So international students should always be working towards improving their English aptitude. And while most American schools accept the IELTS and Duolingo exams, the TOEFL exam has long been the primary means for learning North American English and demonstrating a strong English ability and comprehension. The TOEFL exam is the best of the three options.

Below are the minimum English proficiency exam score requirements for some of the most prominent U.S. universities.

Stanford University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.0

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): TOEFL 90; IELTS 7.0; Duolingo 120

Cornell University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.5; Duolingo 120

Columbia University: TOEFL 105; IELTS 7.5; Duolingo 135

Dartmouth University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.0; Duolingo 120

Brown University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 8.0; Duolingo 125

University of California (system): TOEFL 80; IELTS 6.5; Duolingo 115

New York University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.5; Duolingo 125

Johns Hopkins University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.0

Duke University: TOEFL 100; IELTS 7.0; Duolingo 120

Standardized Testing

While many schools (including the entire University of California system) are going test-blind or test-optional, most schools still require international applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Colleges often cannot determine an international applicant’s academic abilities from their transcripts alone. Obtaining a strong SAT or ACT score is an effective way to demonstrate proficiency not only with English further but also with standard academic subjects. Universities can more definitely and accurately frame and gauge an international student’s aptitude within an admissions pool with these exam scores available to them. Highly competitive international applicants (i.e. applicants to schools along the lines of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago) should strive for an ACT score above a 33 or an SAT score above 1520.

Additionally, preparation for the SAT or ACT is an excellent way for international students to gain more knowledge and understanding of a range of subjects they will encounter while attending an American university. These policies, however, are subject to change, so the best thing you can do is check with each specific school. Generally, we recommend that international students take the SAT/ACT and submit their scores.

Extracurricular Activities

Involvement in activities outside the classroom — such as community service, internships, sports, and student government — is another significant way universities assess applicants. Schools value well-roundedness and want to see that a student has a variety of interests and actively engages in them. While many international students attend schools and follow schedules that may limit their ability to participate in extracurricular activities during the school year, summer breaks provide an excellent opportunity to do so. Many universities and other prominent institutions either offer online student programs or partner with local organizations in different countries to provide pathways for international student involvement. Workplace internships and volunteering through local community programs particularly impress admissions committees.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with engaging in extracurricular activities online, showing up in person remains the clearest way to demonstrate commitment and impact. Working with others meaningfully and in person will make an activity stand out more to admissions officers.

Transcript Evaluation

A foreign school transcript will inevitably look quite different from that of an American student. Different courses and grading systems can further complicate things. But don’t worry. Getting a transcript evaluated and translated is something that third-party organizations can do quite easily. Just be sure they are accredited by either the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services or the Association of International Credential Evaluators. The cost of a transcript evaluation ranges from $75 to $200.

Student Visa

Upon admission to a university in the United States, you will need to enroll in a system called Students and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), after which you will receive a form for your F-1 student visa. You must fill out this form at the U.S. embassy or consulate in your respective country, where you also will be interviewed by a U.S. government official. Due to bureaucratic wait times, it is best to fill out visa information as soon as possible.


It is essential that you know the various deadlines of the schools to which you are applying. Familiarize yourself with the difference between early action, early decision, and regular decision. We suggest that students apply to any reach schools early. This will also provide extra time to work out any potential bureaucratic issues that may arise while applying for a student visa.

In Summary

It is customary for international students to be drawn immediately to the top schools in the U.S. Ivy League schools, the U.C.s, MIT, and Stanford are all at the top of the list. International students, however, should seek out other high-quality schools. State schools and liberal arts colleges often offer international students excellent opportunities and even scholarships.

U.S. college admissions also require a different approach and mindset from college admissions in other countries. While colleges in many countries evaluate students strictly based on their standardized exam scores and class academic performance, U.S. schools have a more holistic approach. They want to see that your English proficiency is high enough for you to excel academically and that you are a well-rounded person who will bring value to their institution and be successful after graduation. Do everything you can to score well on your English proficiency exams and the SAT or ACT exam, write compelling personal statements and supplemental essays, and engage in impactful extracurricular activities.

It is vital to pursue all these endeavors strategically and with purpose in order to prove to admissions committees that you are an international student who is eager to enroll at their school. With the proper care and preparation, your goal of attending an American college can be met! The team at AtomicMind is well versed in the many nuances involved in applying to U.S. schools as an international student. Contact us to schedule a complimentary consultation about how we can help you with this process and ensure your applications are as effective as they can be. Remember, the earlier you start, the better!