U.S. College Admissions Checklist

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As an international student, you will want to start planning for your education at a U.S. College early. It’s good to find financing for your education early. The U.S. State Department suggests that international students have financing in place one year before beginning college. Many experts recommend that international students take required college admissions tests like the ACT or SAT in their next-to-last year of secondary school. This allows you to focus on the application process, writing your college essay, and your grades, in your final year in secondary school.

Depending upon the part of Africa that you call home, you may attend secondary school for 2 to 5 years. We’ve adjusted this checklist so it applies to students from all African nations.

4 Years Before College

  • Research colleges in the U.S. in books and online
  • Send away for brochures from different colleges
  • Collect information about different U.S. regions and choose one or two
  • Begin studying for the TOEFL if needed
  • Network with other international students in person or online
  • Begin activities that will demonstrate your leadership, academic abilities and unique talents
  • Remember to keep your grades high

This is the perfect time to begin researching U.S. colleges. Most students develop a list of two or three “dream schools” that they would love to get into. They also choose 4 to 7 other schools, including 1 or 2 “fallback schools” A fallback school is usually one accepts lower test scores, so students feel confident that even if they aren’t accepted anywhere else, they can attend their fallback school. Research the schools’ websites online, and send for brochures. Talk to other students who have studied in the U.S. and ask their opinions. If you don’t know any international students, visit student forums online to network.

If English is not your first language, many schools will require that you take a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) for admission. Now is the perfect time to begin studying English intensively with a tutor or friends. You can find information on the TOEFL scores that different schools require online. You can also learn what ACT or SAT scores they prefer.

Admissions officers like to see students who demonstrate leadership, academic achievement and talent. Think about what activities you can become involved in now, to demonstrate those qualities. Can you tutor younger students? Enter a competition? Work in your community? It all helps.

The admission process is long and time-consuming. Don’t let it distract you from your studies! Your grades in secondary school are the most important factor that U.S. schools will consider.

3 Years Before College

  • Learn about financial aid from your home country, including loans, scholarships and sponsorship
  • Research U.S. scholarships, including athletic, academic and special interest
  • Identify 3 to 10 U.S. colleges that you will apply to
  • Continue to study for the TOEFL
  • Start Studying for the ACT or SAT admissions test

If English is not your first language, you may find that studying for the TOEFL is the most difficult part of getting into a U.S. College. Consider getting a private tutor or forming a study group with friends. Be sure to practice speaking English as well as reading and writing it. This is also the ideal time to begin studying for your entrance exam.

By narrowing your college choices down early, you can focus your attention on the testing and application processes later. Start studying for the SAT or ACT test. There are many online test prep (short for “preparation”) materials and books that you can use. As an international student, it’s great to have the extra study time.

Now is the best time to explore funding for your U.S. college education so it will be in place well before your university career begins.

2 Years Before College

  • Begin applying for scholarships
  • Check requirements for a student visa in your country
  • Consider taking the PSAT
  • Continue studying for the TOEFL
  • Consider taking the ACT or SAT early
  • Visit a few U.S. colleges, if possible
  • Send for updated brochures and applications for your favorite schools
  • Start writing admissions essays

Some scholarships will accept applications as early as 2 years before you start school. By beginning early, you will be able to apply to every scholarship you’re interested in, on time. Every scholarship has its own deadline. Apply online or by email if possible. If you’re mailing information, be sure to allow enough time for it to arrive before the deadline. Apply for every scholarship that you think you might qualify for. Sometimes scholarships go unclaimed, just because no one applies.

Consider taking tests like the ACT or SAT towards the end of the school year. Test scores are just one factor that admissions officers consider. If you score poorly on these tests, you can always take them again. Focusing on tests this year leaves you free to focus on applications next year. The PSAT or “Pre-SAT” is a good way to practice taking a real exam.

Consider visiting the U.S. during the summer. It’s great to actually walk around a few colleges and meet some of the students. Contact the office for international students. They will arrange for someone to give you a tour, and help you meet other students.

1 Year Before College

  • Continue applying for scholarships
  • Take (or retake, if necessary) the SAT or ACT
  • Take the TOEFL
  • Take the GED if required by schools you’re applying for
  • Organize your applications
  • Put all the due dates for applications on a calendar
  • Complete your essays
  • Mail applications early—be sure to allow enough time for them to arrive
  • Early admissions applications must be received in November
  • Most other applications are due in January
  • Begin receiving admissions letters in March and April
  • Apply for a student visa as soon as you are accepted
  • Compare financial offers from different schools
  • Talk with your parents and advisors
  • Choose a school
  • Inform all the schools of your decision by May 1
  • Put any housing or financial deadlines on your calendar
  • When the school term ends, have a final transcript sent to the college of your choice
  • Complete a student visa interview, if required
  • Make tentative travel plans
  • Receive your student visa 30 to 120 days before school starts
  • Make final travel plans

This is a busy year! Now you see why we recommend testing early, if possible. If you took the SAT or ACT last year, but think you can score better, retake the test.

Early in the school year, create a calendar with all the admission deadlines for each school on it. Use online, emailed or faxed application forms whenever possible. If that’s not an option, remember to add extra time for your applications to be delivered by mail. Be sure to request letters from community leaders and teachers 4 to 6 weeks before you actually need them.