International Students: Top 10 Tips for U.S. College Applications

The reward comes long after you've done the work. Don't wait until the night before -- or the month before -- to create a game plan.
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International applicants to U.S. colleges and universities face unique challenges. Standardized tests are not offered as frequently, test prep is not widely available outside the U.S., and the entire process is more complex than it is in most other countries. Elizabeth and Josh have teamed off to offer these ten tips on testing, essays, and school choice for students thinking about applying to the US from abroad.

1. Don't Overestimate the SAT/ACT
In many countries, a single exam -- lasting three days in some countries -- determines students' college placement. Grades, extracurricular activities, application essays, and teacher recommendations count for little. The SAT and ACT are modest tests by comparison. The tests last only four hours, and, unlike most other entrance exams, students can take them multiple times. They aren't even the most important part of the US application. They're rarely as difficult as they seem, and they evaluate students on just a handful of skills. The best reason not to dedicate too much time and energy to testing is that colleges value many things other than the SAT, and they're looking for students who approach academics gracefully, not mechanically.

2. Don't Underestimate the SAT/ACT
A low score -- one well below a university's average -- often leads to rejection. A high score helps, of course, but it never guarantees admission. So, students should take the SAT seriously. But they shouldn't over-do it, and they shouldn't stress out unduly. Students should check their target universities' average SAT/ACT scores and try to be in the same range.

3. Plan Early
In America, almost everyone takes the SAT at the same time, and there's a lot of mutual support. An international applicant might be on her own. As well, application deadlines for US colleges often come far earlier than deadlines elsewhere do. Students need to anticipate deadlines well in advance and plan accordingly. Usually that means working backwards six to twelve months from the November 1 early decision/early action deadline or the January 1 regular application deadline.

Students should take note of the SAT's and ACT's international test dates and make sure that they can take it two or three times. They should register as soon as possible. Testing centers often fill up, especially overseas.

4. Study Smart
The SAT and ACT often strike international students as mysterious. Students might not have learned the material in school, and they might not even be familiar with multiple-choice testing. In some countries, students often resort to furious, time-consuming memorization of test questions. In other countries, they resign themselves to low scores and disappointing admissions results.

It doesn't have to be this way. Scores aren't arbitrary: every student has a unique score profile. A diagnostic exam can help students discern exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are. When they know their weaknesses, they can address them through smart, efficient studying.

5. Know the Tests
The SAT is the most well known of the US college entrance exams, but the ACT is a fully equivalent substitute. They have significant differences; some students will have greater success on one than the other. The ACT not as widely available in some countries, but it's worth looking into. Students should also decide whether to take Subject Tests, which are required by a few highly selective universities. Finally, check each school's TOEFL policy.

6. Stay positive!
Many students view standardized testing as an ordeal and a barrier. They shouldn't. Students who set reasonable goals will find that the SAT offers a tremendous opportunity. Many other elements of a student's application -- such as their grades -- are immutable, but students have control over their test scores. They therefore should view exams as a chance to strengthen their applications.

7. Application Essays
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Common Application essay -- the single 250-650-word essay required by the Common Application, used by more than 500 schools. Please note: Several state universities do not use the Common App -- and require other essays -- including the Universities of California, Wisconsin, and Texas; conservatories and other art schools often do not use it either. Beyond the Common App essay, many colleges require additional essays and statements, from 500 words to 25 words. There are no right answers; the schools are trying to get to know you.

How much do the essays matter? They are one piece of the puzzle that reveals who you are and whether you will thrive at a school. An impressive application to a top school can be marred by mediocre essays. Terrific essays can help a student on the fence. But, like great test scores, even great essays cannot salvage a student who just doesn't make the academic cut.

8. Getting Ready to Write
College application essays are reflective and often personal in nature. You probably have little to no practice in this during high school. Learning how to write these essays in the short period of time when submitting applications can be daunting. You can prepare in advance -- years in advance, if you like -- by reading and writing beyond your assigned texts.

Speaking of texts: Text messaging, or doing much of anything else on your phone, will not prepare you for writing meaningful college application essays. Reading literature and good journalism -- whether it's fiction, history, or memoir -- will help. Keeping a diary and reflecting on your experiences will too. And so will reading a good book or two about writing. Some of our favorites: Sin and Syntax; On Writing Well; Shrunk and White; and the Best American Essays of the 20th Century. (See Josh's HuffPost piece on Essential Reading.)

9. Choosing Colleges
Students in the U.S. can fairly easily visit many schools, but international students have fewer opportunities. We are especially fond of two guidebooks, one written by students for students, available on Kindle, and put out every year by the Yale Daily News, The Insider's Guide to the Colleges. It examines 330 schools with lively, informed and sometimes irreverent descriptions.It's a terrific place to start looking. Though not available on Kindle, The Best 378 Colleges, by Princeton Review, is packed with essential information.

10. The Right Attitude
Applying to college from the U.S. and abroad requires time, patience, diligence, and a great deal of concentrated work over a long period. There is little instant gratification. The reward comes long after you've done the work. Don't wait until the night before -- or the month before -- to create a game plan. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Elizabeth Benedict's Don't Sweat the Essay provides essay guidance to students around the world. She is a bestselling novelist, former Ivy League writing professor, and editor of the New York Times bestselling anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.

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