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Q&A: International Students’ Commonly Asked Questions about U.S. College Admissions

Jennifer Simons

Written by Jennifer Simonson January 3rd, 2020

My interest in the college application process stems from my own experience navigating the college process mostly by myself, albeit with supportive but hands-off parents. I was fascinated by trying to understand how colleges know how many students to accept and why. My first job in admissions at Barnard College allowed me to supervise joint programs with the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Manhattan School of Music, while also running the tour guide programs and traveling throughout the American Midwest. In my subsequent role as Associate Director of Admissions at Connecticut College, I ran the Transfer and Return to College Program for non-traditional students. It was at Connecticut College where I got my first taste of international recruitment. Subsequently, I served as the Director of International Recruitment for ten years at Tufts University, where my focus was Asia. One of the highlights of that time was leading a three-week recruitment tour for 30 admissions officers across India. One of the aspects I loved about admissions, specifically international admissions, where there is a great deal of joint and team travel, is that you learn so much about other colleges and universities, and you realize that colleges are not competitors per se but rather institutions in search of the right student, just as students are searching for the right college. I moved from Tufts to take on the Director of Recruitment position at Northeastern University, an institution I admired from across the Charles River for a long while. And in the midst of all of this, I served as a college counselor at the Ramaz School in Manhattan for a few years, and that is why I am adamant about students fostering a positive relationship with their school counselor as they navigate this process.
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Today we’re going to tackle a selection of questions frequently asked by “international” students, the answer to all of which could be: “It depends.” In fact, I put the word international in quotation marks because the answer to, “Who do colleges consider an international applicant?” is often, “It depends.”  That’s how diverse the range of responses from different colleges can be. But before I answer the questions below, as best as I can, let me tell you two things about international admissions that I know for sure: International admissions officers are interested in your particular circumstances. They, more than anyone, know that while no two colleges are identical, neither are two international students. It should be easy to get in touch with the AO assigned to your secondary school via a quick search on the admissions office website, and if you are lucky enough to have one visit your country, use them as a resource. They are the best people to answer your questions and you should not hesitate to contact them. Next, the testing landscape is changing for all students. Students can now self-report standardized tests on many applications, fewer tests are being required, and the options are greater for English language testing than ever before. The first, and most important thing for you to do, is to check the college’s website specifically for the requirements for international students. Testing requirements are often, though not always, different for students living outside the United States. When you look at a college’s testing requirements, make sure you look not only for their general requirements but specifically to see what they are for international students. And, if you are looking for a way to prove your English language fluency, there’s a relatively new, exciting option for students, called the Duolingo English Test. It’s a lower cost option that students can take on their home computers, and it is accepted by over five hundred American colleges. Now, on to your questions: Am I expected to take non-Native (but non-English) language courses to be competitive? I’m a native Spanish speaker and live in Colombia, attending the American school where I take most of my classes in Spanish. Should I also be taking French or Chinese or something?  The most selective colleges will expect you to take a language other than your native language, and in many cases, this will be your third language in addition to your native language and English. This is not true of all, or even most American colleges, but for the most selective colleges, the expectation is that you will take an additional language, if possible. Does it look “bad” if one of my SAT Subjects is in my native language? Colleges are less frequently requiring SAT Subject Tests from students. If yours does, they will generally indicate which ones they require, and most often, they will not require Subject Tests in a language.  Generally, the colleges that require Subject Tests, require them in STEM subjects. What’s a good TOEFL score? Is it always required, even if I get a good SAT ERW score? This absolutely depends on the college, as a good score for any standardized test is specific to that institution. But, institutions will often publish minimum required TOEFL scores, which they do not generally do for other standardized tests, such as the SAT. And yes, English language testing is frequently a separate requirement from the SAT ERW as it tests other things like listening and speaking. However, some colleges will waive the TOEFL requirement if a student has an especially strong SAT ERW score. What do I do with my non-English language transcripts? Great question.  Some colleges will require these be translated by a professional translation service. The colleges or your secondary school will have some resources for you. However, it is also possible to have your transcripts translated by an English teacher or counselor at your high school. As you can see, “It depends.” Don’t be shy about reaching out to admissions offices to ask questions so you can be sure you have the most accurate information about each institution you’re considering. help applying to US universities


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