First Steps: Deciding to Come to the US is the Easy Part

Pharmacy student Mohamed Mostafa asked us on Facebook about how to get started once you decide you want to study in the U.S.

Deciding you want to study in the U.S. is a big decision, but making it is the easy part – it’s what comes next that’s hard.  Our blogger Nareg says he definitely sympathizes with Mohamed’s need for guidance:

It can definitely feel overwhelming having to deal with all sorts of research, paperwork, and bureaucracy when you’ve decided to apply for higher education in the US. The simplest but truest advice is: hang in there! It takes a lot of patience, but there’s no reason why you can’t make it if all is in order. Of course, getting things in order takes work, but I doubt anyone who wants to go to a whole new country to study would be incapable of some well-directed efforts.

Luckily, some very nice folks at EducationUSA saw me talking about this on Twitter, and shared with me the step-by-step guide that they use. And now I’m going to share it with you!  The stuff in bold comes straight from their guide – everything else is my (hopefully useful) commentary.

1. How do I start?

–        Step 1: Research choices & tests

You will need to first research your choices and find a school that best fits your needs.  Every student is different, and when making your choices you should consider the factors that are most important to you in both your education and your lifestyle.

Maybe it’s important to you that you end up in a particular city, like it was for Tara, or maybe, like Nick, you want to find the best academic department for the subject you want to study.  There are many criteria you can use to narrow down your options and find the schools you want to apply to.

If money is a big concern, you can also look into schools that are more likely to offer financial assistance to international students.

EducationUSA has a list of many resources you can use to research schools and decide where to apply.

Nareg suggests that once you have a list of schools you might be interested in applying to, you should look at each of their websites for more information.

I’d say get your start, though, by combing through each page of your candidate schools’ websites. Very often, just by going through different presentations or designs, one can get a feel for schools and compare their traits. If there is anything on there you don’t understand, or if you have special considerations, then do not hesitate to e-mail or telephone the college or university directly. Again, patience is always a virtue when it comes to these sorts of things.

While you’re researching, also look into specific exchange programs that might support your studies and could determine where you end up.

That’s what Sadia did – she now participates in the Community College Initiative, run through the Fulbright Commission:

to my scenario, as State department itself chosen the school for me based on my majors so literally I had never gone into experience of searching on websites.

– Step 1b: Schedule and Take Standardized Tests

EducationUSA lists this as part of step 1, but I know for lots of students, figuring out the right standardized tests to take and the scores you need to achieve is its own separate challenge.


Creative commons photo by Flickr user tripu

For undergraduate studies, many schools require you to take the SAT exam or the ACT exam (although this is not required at every school).   For graduate school, you might be required to take the GRE, or a specialized exam   (LSAT for law school, GMAT for business school, MCAT for medical school).

You’ll need to find out from each individual school what tests are required.  Luckily, most schools have this information on their admissions website. EducationUSA offers some guidance on the standardized tests you might be required to take.

You will probably also have to take a test to prove your English proficiency.  This is typically the TOEFL or the IELTS.   I know, it’s all a lot of letters and acronyms, but you’ll get used to them eventually.

On to EducationUSA’s second step!

2. How do I apply?

–        Step 2: Apply & Be Admitted

Application packages require a great deal of preparation and planning, and there are benefits to starting this process and applying early.

EducationUSA has a bunch of information on how to prepare your application and the deadlines you should be following.

If you’re not sure how your academic credentials translate to the U.S. university system, there’s a useful guide put together by the University of Michigan.

3. What does it cost/How do I pay for it?

–        Step 3: Finance Your Studies

The good news is that each year international students receive significant amounts of financial assistance toward their studies in the U.S.  The most recent report produced by NAFSA: The Association of International Educators estimates that $7.223 billion was received by over 690,000 international students studying in the U.S. in 2009-10.

Creative commons photo by Flickr user p373

There are a lot of different places you can look for financial aid, and our bloggers are proof of that, so make sure you’re looking into all your options.  Some of our bloggers are getting aid from their universities, some from their home governments, some from the U.S. government, and some from private sources.

They also made decisions like spending their first two years at a community college or their first year at home in order to cut costs.

EducationUSA has a list of resources you can use to research financial aid options, as do we .

So there you go. That’s how you should get started once you decide to study in the U.S.

EducationUSA’s step-by-step guide contains two additional steps, by the way.  They are: (4) Get a Visa; and (5) Get Ready to Go (prepare for departure).  But you’ve got to get into a school before you have to worry about those steps!

EducationUSA advisers can help guide you through this process, and Nareg also suggests:

Different colleges and universities work differently, but many have very helpful international student support staff. They can guide you through the process, from applying to be admitted, all the way up to getting visas and booking flights.


  1. I want to thank you for the information given
    but I was wondering if there are any information about rooming or finding a place to live in
    I am an American citizen but I have lived almost all of my life outside of the States, I am willing to study college there but there is no one that can help with that so I’m doing my best to work it out on my own .. but I really could use a hand with this please !

  2. hi Awais her from Pakistan, i have completed my 12 years eduation with good grades here in Pk, now i want to study software engineering in US, need a bit of assistane in finding scholarship for my programe,

  3. hello,…my name is yahya i leve in afghanistan ,i want that get higher edjucation in madical faculta in usa .i am grujvated from high school in afghanistan.what i do that study in usa .?answer me ok have a good time

  4. It was useful and helpful to go America Universities.
    Get a Visa, and International students can get a scholarship etc;;;
    But what if some international students cannot recieve their scholarship?

  5. Dear sir/Madam,

    Please help me how to study in U.S ,as I have studied only one Russian language in Sankt Piterburg Russia, for 2nd yr I couldn,t afford the high cost of College in Sankt Piterburg, or either the high cost of accomodation in Russia, that,safter returned to my Country Afghanistan, to carry on my job. so after the job i will be able to pay for the education in U.S.
    Please help me how to carry on my study in English and I want to improve my English, bcz i,m familiar with English language .

    I tried too much to take benificial information from sites but got no benifit of them,,,,,

    Mohd Salim

  6. I really admire the way you put your efforts in counselling us. I’m a 17- year old from Pakistan and currently studying under gcse based high school system. Can you tell me what medical undergraduate programs in the US offer to high achievers in A-levels specifically(Generally, and scholarship wise)….And what about loans? Are loans easily available to international applicants coming from Advanced-levels?….One last one. Having *completed* our medical edu outside US and being fully licensed to practice medicine , can getting employed in US as a full-fledge doctor(or even as an intern) be that much difficult? Any piece of advice from you will be appreciateed.

    1. Hi Hamza. That’s a lot of questions. Let me try to address them one by one. First, what do undergraduate programs offer high achievers. Unless you are applying to a joint BA/MD program, you will be applying as an undergraduate with an intent to major in pre-med. The availability of scholarship money and the criteria by which is awarded vary greatly by school. Some schools give a lot of aid based on need, others give very little based on merit. Take a look at these two articles for information on how scholarship money works:
      1) Net Cost Comparison (looks at which schools have the cheapest cost after aid is factored in): //
      2) Financial Aid Options Explained: //
      Other sources of aid to look into would be government-sponsored programs (talk to EducationUSA to find out the options for Pakistani students), and private/non-profit scholarships (some databases you can use to find these: // As for loans, international students cannot get private loans without a US cosigner, but loans may be included as part of a financial aid package from your school.

      Finally, here’s some information on how to practice medicine in the U.S. with a degree from a foreign school:

  7. Is it okay for me to be a doctor in USA, eventough i am not a citizen? If yes, then what college is suitable for me? Thanks for your help.

    1. Hi Yuri,

      I don’t know the answer to your question, but I will try to find out and get back to you. I do know that many international students study health professions in the US – over 32,000 in the 2009/2010 school year.

    2. So, after doing a little research, it looks like you can do a residency in the U.S. on either a J-1 or H-1B visa. Here are two useful resources for you to look at:

      1) The American Medical Association’s page for international medical graduates:

      2) A thread in a forum for medical students about the visa requirements for doing a residency in the US after medical school:

  8. The information is very useful for me as a financial aid representative. Although our institution has an International Programs office we encounter a great deal of students that need assistance and direction in funding their educations. After reviewing the information provided I believe that you have managed to cover the most essential elements of the process from admissions to enrollment. Thanks!!!!!!

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