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How to Study in the USA with financial aid - Guide for International Students

May 4, 2023
4 mins read

Embarking on the journey to study in the United States as an international student is an exciting and life-changing opportunity. With a diverse range of universities and programs to choose from, it's essential to carefully plan and research your options to ensure the best possible experience. This comprehensive guide aims to provide you with valuable insights and steps to follow when pursuing higher education in the USA, from selecting the right university and program to understanding the costs and financial aid opportunities.

Understand the US Education System

The first step to studying in the United States as an international student is to familiarize yourself with the American education system and understand the different types of colleges and universities available. The US offers a variety of higher education institutions, including public and private colleges, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research universities, and specialized institutions. You'll be surprised how different these options are! A simple 5-minute Google search will give you lots of clarity for your future steps.

Find a university

Next, choose a university that aligns with your interests and goals. Research universities and colleges using resources like College Board's Big Future, ranking lists from U.S. News, and posts on Borderless.

When researching universities, consider factors like:

  • Majors - what can you study?

  • Location & campus size - where will you live?

  • Costs and availability of financial aid - can you afford it?

  • Student life - will you have fun?

  • Career goals - will this degree be useful in the future?

Reflect on your academic interests, personal preferences, and talk to your family about finances. Assess each college against the criteria mention above, and follow our guide on building your college list to shortlist universities. You should aim to have 10-15 universities that you will be applying to.

Apply to universities

Once you have chosen your desired universities, start the application process. Applications can be completed online through Common App, or a university's own website. Common App is a very lengthy application, here is the official guide on how to fill it out.

Documents you will have to submit:

  • Transcripts aka your high school grades

  • Standardized test scores: SAT or ACT (many universities now are test-optional)

  • English proficiency test scores (TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo)

  • Essays: Personal Statement + Supplemental Essay

  • Recommendation letters

This is a standard document set, always check the list of requirements on each university's website. If something is not clear, email the admissions officer with your question.

Be aware that most universities require an application fee, but you can request a fee waiver if you're facing financial constraints. A fee waiver lets you apply to a college without paying an application fee. You can request one through Common App, or reach out to the university's admissions office to inquire about fee waiver eligibility and the application process for obtaining one.

Personal Statement Essay

A personal statement is a unique essay which lets applicants showcase their personality. Here are the official prompts for 2023-2024. They usually don't change!

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Watch the lecture on How to write a Personal Statement

Supplemental Essays

A supplemental essay is an additional, program-specific writing component required by most US colleges during the application process. These essays allow applicants to provide more detailed information about their interests, experiences, and fit for a particular college or program. Supplemental essays often address topics such as "Why this college?" Watch the lecture on How to write a Supplemental Essay.

When to apply

You always apply during your last year of high school. The application process for US universities typically includes three admission types: Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD).

  1. Early Decision (ED): Early Decision is binding, which means that if you are accepted to a university, you are committed to attending that institution. Students who choose ED are typically confident that the university is their top choice and are willing to commit to it. The deadlines for ED applications are usually in November, and decisions are typically released in mid-December. Some universities also offer ED II, which has a slightly later deadline (usually in January) and still requires a binding commitment.

  2. Early Action (EA): Early Action is non-binding application, allowing you to apply to a university early (usually with a November deadline) and receive a decision ahead of Regular Decision applicants (typically by mid-December). Unlike Early Decision, Early Action does not require a commitment to attend the university if accepted. This means you can apply EA to multiple universities and compare offers, including financial aid packages, before making a final decision by the common May 1 deadline.

  3. Regular Decision (RD): Regular Decision is the most common application plan and is non-binding. Deadlines for RD applications typically fall between January and February, with decisions released around late March or early April. Regular Decision applicants have until May 1 to compare offers from all the universities they have been accepted to, evaluate financial aid packages, and make a final decision on where to attend.

Apply for financial aid

As an international student, you generally have two funding options:

  1. Receive need-based financial aid

  2. Win merit-base scholarship

You can explore these options in more detail in our guide, but the key takeaway is that financial aid can help you cover college expenses if you cannot afford them. The College Board's CSS Profile is a widely used online application that allows students to apply for financial aid. To complete the CSS Profile, create a College Board account, gather relevant financial information, and submit the application by the specified deadlines. Be sure to research each university's specific requirements and deadlines for financial aid applications.

Need aware vs. need-blind universities

Need-blind and need-aware universities differ in their approach to considering an applicant's financial situation during the admissions process. Need-blind universities evaluate applicants without taking their financial needs into account, focusing solely on their academic and extracurricular achievements. Here is the list of need-blind unviersities for international students.

In contrast, need-aware universities factor in an applicant's financial needs when making admission decisions, which may impact their chances of acceptance, particularly for international students or those requiring significant financial aid. However, you can still get accepted and receive full aid at need-aware universities! For example, Stanford is need-aware, but here are stories of students getting full aid.

Receive acceptance & Commit to a university

Once you have received offers from one or more universities, carefully evaluate each option, considering factors such as academic programs, location, campus life, and financial aid packages. Reach out to current students or alumni, particularly those from your home country, to gain insights into their experiences at the university. Be sure to explore posts on Borderless!

If you feel that your financial aid package is not sufficient, you may try negotiating with the university, but be reasonable in your expectations. It is not possible for a $20k scholarship to increase to a $100k scholarship.

After thoroughly examining your options and making an informed decision, commit to your chosen university by accepting their offer of admission. Once you have committed, prepare for the next steps, including applying for a student visa and planning your arrival on campus.

Apply for a Student Visa

Once you have accepted an offer from a university and received your I-20 form, you can begin the student visa application process. Apply for an F-1 visa, which is the most common visa type for international students pursuing full-time academic programs. Start by paying the SEVIS fee and scheduling an appointment with the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country. Before your appointment, gather the required documents, such as a valid passport, your I-20 form, a visa application form (DS-160), and proof of financial support. During your visa interview, be prepared to answer questions about your academic background, study plans, and ties to your home country. If your visa application is approved, you can finalize your travel plans and look forward to beginning your academic journey in the USA!πŸŽ‰

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