4 Common Challenges of the U.S. College Application Process


Being an international student and applying to U.S. colleges for the first time can be a challenging experience. People you have never met will read your application, and they will evaluate you not just on your academic record, but on your interests and professionalism.

There are steps in the admission process that I wish I could have done better when I was a high school senior. The following are a few challenges that many international students face during the college application process. 

1. Paying application expenses: Most U.S. colleges require students to pay more than $50 just to apply. This is understandable, as admissions counselors spend a lot of time reading applications.

However, for students under financial pressure – who need a lot of financial aid – planning to apply to multiple schools, the money can be a real challenge. U.S. colleges understand this. Therefore, some offer what’s called a fee waiver for students who are not able to afford application expenses.

With that in mind, there is no need to cross a school with a high application fee off your list. You can apply for a fee waiver and may be able to avoid payment.

2. Writing supplemental essays: A lot of colleges, such as the University of Chicago, require students to write supplemental essays to show their interest and demonstrate the characteristics that make them stand out. While these essays may be a good chance for students to show their defining qualities, they also add deadlines, proofreading time and pressure – which can be especially challenging for international students whose first language isn’t English.

Despite the added stress, these essays are worth your time and energy. The earlier you start and the more effort you put into them, the higher the chances that you will get into your dream school.

3. Choosing between final exams and college applications: Students in countries where schools follow a semester calendar will likely have early decision application deadlines and their final exams overlap. This leaves them in a difficult situation: Should they spend the majority of their time preparing their applications and just a minimum studying for their exams, or the reverse?

When I was applying, I saw many of my peers choose to spend slightly more time on the applications than on their exams. Not doing as well on these final exams as others, as the logic goes, was less important than maximizing the chances of getting into college.

However, pay careful attention to each college’s policy, since if you get accepted and your grades drop significantly, schools may frown upon your academic inconsistency.

4. Applying for scholarships: Financial aid is an important aspect of the college application process. Some international students strive to minimize their college expenses by as much as possible. They do this by submitting their essays and resumes to every single organization that offers scholarships – a competitive process for international students.

While doing this can show they are putting effort into preparing for their future, students also need to keep their eye on the main goal: getting into college. If you spend too much time working on other materials before you’re accepted and less time on college essays and other documents, you will not be able to perform well on either. I’ve always found it is best to focus on your primary goal.

I did not participate in any scholarship competitions, even though there were plenty at the time, but focused more on talking to admissions counselors and writing thoughtful supplemental essays. One of the schools I applied to offered me a large scholarship, and I believe it was because I showed genuine interest in becoming a student through my essays.

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