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How do US universities evaluate international undergraduate student applications

interstride logo by Interstride
July 26, 2023

Colleges and universities evaluate several pieces of information in the US admissions process. For international students, it’s important to understand the way this process works, and how you will be evaluated as an international applicant. While international students are generally evaluated in the same way as American students, there can be extra requirements and specifications for you.

The acceptance rates and evaluation process for international applicants can differ school to school. For example, while Pace University has an overall acceptance rate of 88% and an international student acceptance rate of 84%, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an overall acceptance rate of about 7% and an international student acceptance rate of 3.4%.  Pace requires scores on English proficiency tests from international applicants and MIT strongly recommends that international applicants take one of these tests.

Since US schools have different criteria for accepting international students, and may be more or less competitive, you should carefully review each school’s website for relevant information. This blog offers a few different ways you will be evaluated as an international student in the US university admissions process.

Academic evaluation

One of the biggest ways undergraduate applicants are evaluated is based on academic performance. Colleges and universities may ask for transcripts, grade point average (GPA), grades, and class ranking. They might also want to know more about the courses you took, their academic rigor, and whether they were through higher level course programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB). Many colleges and universities typically require your scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. However, in recent years, some schools have become “test-optional” for undergraduates.

It’s important to note that if your transcripts are not in English, you may need to get a certified English translation. If your school does not utilize a 4.0 scale grading system like the US, your transcripts may also need to be sent to a credential evaluation agency.

English language proficiency

As an international applicant, you may also be required to take an English proficiency test, most commonly the TOEFL or IELTS test. While many schools accept both scores, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is more commonly accepted by US colleges and universities, while the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is more commonly accepted outside of the US.

It’s important to carefully review the requirements per school to see which test is required, and if they have a minimum score requirement. The English language exam is not about getting a “perfect score.” Rather, it helps admissions officers assess whether you can comfortably speak and study in English.

Extracurricular activities and leadership

Several US colleges and universities take a “holistic approach” to admissions, meaning they take into account the “whole person.” This includes not only your academic and English language proficiencies, but also your participation in extracurricular activities and leadership initiatives. College and universities want to see what you as a “whole person” will bring and contribute to the campus environment.

The extracurricular and leadership activities you choose to participate in, and share on your application, are important as they help to create a picture of who you are as an applicant. These activities also help to demonstrate your skills and abilities in time management and leadership, as well as your passion, commitment, and character outside of the classroom. Some examples of extracurricular activities and leadership initiatives that you might include on your application are:

  • Clubs
  • Sports
  • Community Service or Volunteering
  • Internships

Schools don’t just want to hear that you are a good leader or can manage your time well. They want to see how you have demonstrated these skills in your activities in professional or social capacities.

Essays and personal statements

While all components of your application are important, your essay or personal statement is perhaps the most important part of your application. This part of the application is where you have the best opportunity to “sell” yourself to admissions. Your essay should tell them why they should accept you, and demonstrate what sets you apart from other applicants.

Some things to consider as you write your personal statement are writing about a compelling topic, making sure your essay is well-structured, and ensuring your essay is authentic to you. You might even think about ways to set your application apart from others, like sending in a video essay if possible.

Remember that US schools take the “holistic approach”, so they value applicants who are genuine, authentic, and have a demonstrated involvement and awareness of the community and world around them. Colleges and universities know that you are just a teenager, so don’t worry too much about trying to overinflate your experience!

Interstride Tip: While it’s important to proofread your own essay, you’ll also want to make sure that you seek constructive feedback from a peer, teacher, and/or mentor.

Letters of recommendation

Most US colleges and universities require letters of recommendation as part of the application process. Letters of recommendation offer a “human side” to your application, and also help to tell a story of who you are as an applicant from an outside perspective. Not only is it important that these letters be submitted in a timely manner, but it’s also important that you choose the right recommender.

Your recommender should be someone who knows you well, and can speak to both your academic ability and your personal character. This could be a teacher, mentor, sports coach, guidance counselor, or anyone else that can speak to your demonstrated talents and interests. Make sure that your recommender is someone who can write a strong, personalized, and authentic letter of recommendation.

Interstride Tip: A lot of schools will ask that one of your letters of recommendation be from a guidance counselor. It’s important to build a connection with your guidance counselor early on, not just for a letter of recommendation, but also for guidance throughout your studies in high school.

Tips for a successful application

As an international student applying to colleges and universities in the US, here are a few tips to ensure your undergraduate application is as successful as possible :

  • Plan ahead and start early.
  • Research and target colleges and universities that best fit your academic and personal profile, and where you have a good chance of being admitted.
  • Carefully review academic evaluation requirements like transcripts, standardized test scores, course requirements, GPA, etc.
  • Demonstrate a strong proficiency in the English language. Aim for scores that meet or exceed the requirements.
  • Don’t just copy and paste your application. Customize your application for each college and university you apply to.
  • Most importantly, be yourself. Genuineness and authenticity are important components of your application.
Interstride Tip: Many US colleges and universities now track “demonstrated interest” among applicants. This gives the school an indication of how interested you are in the school, and how likely you are to attend if accepted. You can “demonstrate interest” in many ways such as following and interacting with the school on social media, attending webinars, visiting the school, connecting with admissions, and more.

Final thoughts

US colleges and universities utilize several components in the undergraduate admissions process. As an international student, you should understand each component and know how to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Remember that you bring a unique experience to the table as an international student. It’s important to leverage that experience along with your academic and extracurricular abilities. This will help to tell the story of who you are as an applicant, and demonstrate what you will bring to the community on campus.