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A guide to choosing the right US college as an international student

interstride logo by Interstride
October 27, 2022

With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, it can be difficult to know where to begin when choosing the right school for you. Understanding the different types of colleges is key to knowing which schools you should apply to.

Application processes can be long and often come with a fee, so you will want to be strategic about which schools to apply to. Begin the process of researching colleges and universities before it’s time to start applying to give yourself enough time to make an informed decision. Whether you are a domestic or international student, think about your academic and career goals and what type of college experience you want to have. This can guide you in researching and choosing the right US college for you.

Top factors in choosing a college in the US

An important part of how to apply for college in the US for international students is choosing the right colleges to apply to. The top factors to consider when choosing a college in the US are:

  • Programs offered
  • Cost
  • Employability 
  • Ranking & Prestige
  • Selectivity
  • Size
  • Location
  • Athletics

If your long-term goal is to live and work in the US, it’s important to consider these factors. The decision of which school to attend can impact your job search process and access to career opportunities in the future.  

1) Programs Offered

When researching schools to apply to, you should look at the quantity and quality of the degree programs they offer. If you want the flexibility to explore different fields of study, you may want to attend a large university with multiple different colleges and specializations. 

For quality, look at how involved professors are in supporting students. For example, some colleges assign academic advisors to each undergraduate student. Many colleges have niche specializations that they are known for. This can help if you will be looking for a job in the US related to that niche. For any programs you are interested in, look at the core requirements and think about how much flexibility you want to take elective classes. 

2) Cost

The cost of college in the US depends largely on whether the school is public or private. Public schools receive funding from the government and are cheaper for students. Private schools are more expensive but often offer more merit and need-based financial aid to students who are accepted. Don’t be discouraged by the price of private universities in the US. There are many scholarship opportunities for international students.  

3) Employability 

Higher education in the US is more expensive than it is in many other countries. Before choosing a US college or university, students should think about the return on investment (ROI) of their education. This means looking at the career assistance that the school provides during students’ studies and especially post-graduation.

It’s important to understand that the majority of people in the US get their jobs through connections. Some colleges and universities have partnerships with employers in the area and may even have programs set up to assist international students in finding jobs after graduation. Look at any networking events, job fairs, and other employment support offered by the school and by the specific degree program you are looking at. 

4) Ranking and Prestige

The ranking and prestige of a university are big factors for international students seeking the best that US higher education has to offer. The prestige of your college also influences your employability after graduation. Generally, the higher a college or university is on the list of US News Best Colleges Rankings, the more prestige the school has in the US.

Going to a prestigious college increases your academic credibility and professional capabilities. This can boost your resume and help you when applying for jobs. Additionally, many of these colleges and universities have strong alumni associations to facilitate networking and community after graduation.

5) Selectivity

Selectivity, or acceptance rate, refers to how many students are admitted to a college or university in relation to the total number of applicants. Selectivity is one of the factors that influence ranking, and the more selective a school is, the more prestigious it is usually considered to be. For example, the acceptance rate for many top-tier universities like Harvard and Stanford is 4%. The higher a school’s acceptance rate is, the higher the probability that you will be admitted.

6) Size

There are two elements of size to consider – the size of the college and the size of the specific degree program. A large college or university may have a larger campus with more on-campus housing and work opportunities. This can be especially beneficial for students coming from another state or country. A downside to large colleges is that class sizes are often larger which may mean fewer opportunities to get one-on-one support from professors. On the other hand, small colleges may have smaller class sizes that offer a more personalized learning experience.

However, because degree programs at many US colleges have a lot of freedom over how they operate, there can even be large differences between programs and departments at the same college. Some programs are small and competitive, requiring an additional application process after admittance to the university. Other programs are large with mainly lecture-style classes. Do research online and talk to current students if possible to get a feel for the size of the school, the program, and the classes.

7) Location

Each state and region in the US is unique, and therefore, the location of the college will have a large effect on your experience there. There are pros and cons to studying in a city versus a rural area. 

Many colleges and universities in rural areas in the US, like Sewanee University in Tennessee, focus on building a close-knit, on-campus community. If you want to really get to know your classmates, professors, and other university staff, a small, rural university may be a good option for you. 

Urban areas tend to be more politically and socially liberal than rural areas. This may affect the local community’s openness to outsiders. Areas that are large professional hubs such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley tend to have larger percentages of international students and may have more career opportunities. 

  • Urban Colleges Pros:
    • More likely to have access to public transportation
    • More cultural and ethnic diversity
    • More job opportunities
  • Rural Colleges Pros:
    • More on-campus housing 
    • Lower cost of living
    • Get to know a different side of the US

A major downside to going to a rural college is that you will most likely need a car to leave campus as most rural areas do not have public transportation. International students may also find it surprising that some urban areas, especially in the southern and mid-western regions of the US, also do not have comprehensive public transportation. 

8) Athletics

Sports are a major part of college culture at many, but not all, US colleges and universities. If you are an athlete, check to see if athletic recruiting is an option and if the school provides financial aid for athletes. Large universities usually have more robust athletics departments than liberal arts colleges and other specialized schools. For high school students interested in athletic recruitment, do research on what sports recruit students the most and which ones are the least competitive for recruitment such as tennis, lacrosse, and ice hockey. 

While college coaches do recruit international students, if you are outside of the US, we recommend reaching out to coaches yourself with a recruiting profile and/or video highlighting your athletic skills. International students are often eligible for financial aid through athletic recruiting as well as other benefits like more academic support and networking opportunities. 

Tips on selecting the right institution

No two colleges in the US are the same. They vary greatly from the programs offered to the amount of cultural diversity among the student body. Starting your research early will ensure that you apply to the schools that best fit your goals and expectations for college. While factors like ranking and prestige are influential to many students and families, it’s also important to research the quality of the programs and the employability of the degrees they offer. Whether you want to stay in the US or return home after graduation, choose programs where you get the most return on investment from your education while also enjoying the experience.

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