How to Increase your Chances of getting a U.S. Visa

If you want to attend college in the United States and you are not a U.S. citizen, you will need to obtain a student visa. The Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security share responsibility for monitoring school and exchange programs and for monitoring visa applications that are submitted.

In order to obtain a visa, there are specific requirements that must be met by each applicant. It is always a good idea to start preparing for this part of the process early on so that you can be sure you are able to meet each requirement sufficiently.

Applying for a Student Visa

Applications for visas will not be approved any more than 120 days in advance of when the first day of classes will start. Approved applicants are generally not allowed to enter the United States any sooner than 30 days prior to the start of their classes, so if you have special circumstances or you simply want to come to America sooner than that, you will need to request an exception through the consulate or embassy that you are dealing with.

Applicants should wait until they have been accepted by a college or university before they begin the application process, as it is not at all likely that an application will be approved for students who do not have concrete plans to attend a school in the United States.

As a standard part of the application process, applicants will be required to participate in an interview at an embassy or consulate. There is usually a wait for interview appointment times, so it is advisable to put in a request for an interview as early as possible. The U.S. Department of State has a listing of American embassies to help you find the one that is nearest to your location.

Documentation

Everyone who applies for a visa will have to present some documentation during their interview. There are no exceptions to this rule. The documents that are required are:

  • One 2 x 2 photograph
  • A passport that is valid for travel within the United States. It must be valid for a period of at least six months beyond an applicant’s intended period of stay in America.
  • A completed application – this is the non-immigrant visa application, number DS-156. It must be submitted along with form number DS-158. The embassy that you go to can provide you with complete, detailed information regarding any questions that you might have concerning these application forms.
  • Form I-20A-B – this is the certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant student status. This form, or another one that is similar, will be required. You must complete and sign this form, and a representative of the school you will be attending will also need to sign it.
  • Transcripts and diplomas – these are required from each institution a student has attended.
  • Scores from standardized tests such as TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.
  • Financial evidence proving that you or your parents have the financial means to support you while you are in the United States attending school.
  • Fees – application fees are always required, and they may vary. It is always best to check with your local embassy to find out the current fees in advance.

If you make sure that you have all of your information together at the time you begin the application process, you will likely find that it goes quite smoothly.

Improve Your Test Scores

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Are you stressing about testing? Most students do. Don’t worry, help is in sight! Follow these tips to improve your scores on any type of standardized test – the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, LSAT, or GMAT.

First, recognize that taking tests and preparing for tests are skills. Like any other skill, they can be learned, and they improve with practice. You will need to study for the tests, and you will need to practice taking tests.

Relax

Test scores are not the most important factors in getting into a U.S. college. Your grades in secondary school are more important to college admissions officers. They will also consider your activities outside of school, your athletic or leadership abilities, your admissions essay, and your evaluation letters. Finally, they’ll take a look at the interview. All of these factors, except possibly the interview, are more important than test grades alone.

Tests don’t carry the same significance in the U.S. as in some other countries. In Canada or the U.K., students take comprehensive tests when they are young teenagers. Only those who earn top scores go to university. That’s not true in the U.S., where tests are much less important.

Testing is stressful for many students whether they come from Africa or the U.S. The more tests that you take, the better you will be at it. Eventually, you will become an expert. Never avoid a test. If you have the opportunity to take a test, do so. It helps you to practice for the future.

Make a Plan

Start studying early for any test. Many students begin preparing for the major entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT a year or more in advance. Don’t believe anyone says that “you can’t study for these types of tests.” It’s true that studying doesn’t improve your score on an I.Q. test, but tests like the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, and GRE are as much a test of your knowledge as of your ability to reason. Students who study for these tests earn much higher grades. The TOEFL, of course, is exclusively a test of your knowledge in one subject: English.

Figure out how much time you can spend studying for tests, and still earn good grades at school. Break the test material down into blocks, and plan how much time you will use for each block. For the SAT, decide how much time you will spend studying for each section of the test.

Study your weakest subjects more than your strongest ones. In studying for the TOEFL, many international students say they wish they had spent more time practicing for the spoken part of the test. Instead, they focused on the reading and writing sections, which were easier for them. Don’t make this mistake! If math is your weakest area on the SAT, set aside extra time to study math.

Use Test Prep

There are some test preparation (or “test prep”) materials available. There are books, tapes, and online programs. Usually, they include tips and facts on each area of the test, plus practice tests.

Test prep materials also include tricks to improve your score. For example: on the SAT, if you really don’t know any answer, don’t guess. When the test is scored, a ¼ point is deducted for each wrong answer. You’re better off not answering a question than getting it wrong! On the other hand, if you can eliminate one or two of the five alternatives in a multiple-choice question, go ahead and make an “educated guess” among the others. You’re likely to improve your score that way.

Take a Practice Test

Perhaps the greatest advantage that test prep materials provide is the practice tests. They include practice tests and the correct answers. These are usually drawn from actual tests that were used in prior years. Recently, in a few widely publicized cases, international students received old SAT tests that were exactly the same as those in their test prep materials! Even if that never happens again, the more you practice taking tests, the easier it will become.

The Day Before

Don’t try to “cram” or study all night the day before the test. If you don’t already know the material on a standardized test the night before, it’s probably too late. The best way to improve your score is to get at least eight hours of sleep the night before the test, so you are at your best. The day before the exam, be sure that you know exactly where it will be given and how to get there. Before you go to bed, make sure that you have everything that you will need for the test ready. On the morning of the test, be sure to eat something. Some studies show that students perform better on tests when they eat breakfast.

Come Prepared

If you’re not taking the test online, make sure that you have any required materials like pencils and pens. Remember to bring your receipt to gain admission to the test. If the building where the test will be given is air conditioned, bring a sweater or jacket in case the room is too cold. Avoid drinking too many liquids just before the test, so you don’t have to go to the bathroom.

Reward Yourself

Schedule a special family dinner or some time to relax with friends after the test.  You’ve spent a lot of time studying, so spend some time relaxing.

If you don’t think you did well, don’t let it worry you too much. The latest psychological studies on pessimism show that many students have negative thoughts about a test in the days just before and after the test. Usually, they are less fearful about the test results as time goes on. By the time they receive their grades, they are pleasantly surprised!

Consider Testing Again

If you didn’t get a high score on the test, and you know you can do better, retake it. Some students are afraid to do this. They think, “What if I get a lower score?” Don’t let that discourage you from testing again. Almost every U.S. college or university will allow you to use whichever score is higher.  This will mean paying the test fee a second time, but it’s more than worth it if it earns you a scholarship, or gets you into the school of your dreams.