How to Apply to International Universities as an American Student

Many college students in the U.S. end up studying abroad at some point in their four years, but some students are eyeing international universities from the beginning of the college application process. If that sounds like you, read on to learn more about how you can apply to international universities as an American student.



According to data from the Institute of International Education, about 50,000 U.S. students are currently pursuing full degrees abroad, primarily in the U.K. and Canada. Some American students realize during their college search that the best fit for them may be in another country. Maybe they’d prefer to be around family abroad, are set on creating a life and career far from home, or are applying for a specific program at a specialized school across the world.


Whatever the reason may be, applying for college outside of the U.S. can be a viable option for many students. If you’re a high school senior weighing your options for the next four or so years, you may want to consider the pros and cons of attending school in another country. However, the process of applying for an international university can be much trickier than applying to a U.S. school because of logistical differences in secondary school systems (i.e. credits not transferring between systems), finances, and more.


Read on to figure out why or why not this could be a good option for you (or not) and, if so, how you can make it happen during the college admissions process.


Why should I apply to an international school as an American student?


Finances


Some of these American students studying abroad for their four or so years find that attending college across the pond can be significantly cheaper, resulting in having fewer student loans than many students who attend American schools. Since education is nationally subsidized in many European countries, for example, going abroad could be a smart financial decision for you, although sometimes that is offered only to citizens of that country. You can often also use federal student loans at non-US colleges as well.


It’s not true for every program or school — some have even higher tuition for international students and no need-blind financial aid like top American private universities — but there are many low-tuition and even free programs in countries like Switzerland and France. Even if it’s still expensive, it could still be cheaper than a U.S. school. For instance, a school like Oxford can end up costing up to $200,000 by the time of graduation, which is comparable to what U.S. students might pay at a top public university and is still a fraction of many Ivy League tuitions.


Shorter Degree Times


Many schools abroad offer a more specialized, efficient approach to education than liberal arts schools in the U.S. This allows students who are focused on a specific career path, like law or medicine, to get their degree faster and move on to graduate school or work. It’s common in many European countries to at least have the option to finish in three years, which can also lower costs. In fact, several undergraduate programs abroad offer such focused coursework that it compares to getting a graduate degree in the U.S.


Furthermore, many international universities offer advanced degrees in law and medicine to undergraduate students, meaning that going abroad could mean a quicker path to earning the necessary qualifications, even in the U.S. So if you’re certain about your future career path and find a program that meets your professional needs abroad, it could be an ideal choice.


New Experiences


Living in a new country, even if there isn’t a language barrier or you’ve spent time there in the past, is an exciting experience for those who like to travel. It helps you broaden your horizons and step outside of your comfort zone. You can’t really get the full experience of living abroad in a three- or six-month study abroad program like you will if you’re a full-time student abroad.


And if you enjoy your experience abroad, attending an international school can be an easy way to find a job in that country and get on a path to getting citizenship if that’s something that interests you.


Why should I not apply to an international school as an American student?


Basically, if any of the above doesn’t apply to you — it’s not a viable financial option, you aren’t sure what you want to study/want more academic flexibility, don’t find a school that seems like the right fit, or you don’t feel equipped or excited to live in another country — you shouldn’t seriously consider this option. Instead, plan on studying abroad once you’re enrolled in university. Spending the entirety of your undergraduate years in another country is a large commitment, so don’t take that decision lightly!


You can even study abroad in high school if you want to get a taste of living abroad before you start your college applications. Read more on how to do that here. You could also consider applying to American universities with campuses abroad, such as NYU Abu Dhabi & Shanghai or Northwestern University Qatar. That way, you can still gain credentials and have somewhat of the experience of attending a U.S. school while still living and working abroad throughout your college experience. Some universities even offer programs where your time is split between international campuses and the U.S., such as Marist College’s First-Year Abroad program in Florence or Dublin.


How do I apply to international universities as an American student?


As expected, the application process varies widely from country to country and school to school. There isn’t necessarily an equivalent to the Common App in many other countries (or if there is, its layout and limitations may differ — i.e. the U.K.’s UCAS only allows students to apply to 5 schools), and oftentimes students apply to specific programs instead of selecting a major once admitted.


Here are some things to consider when researching application processes for your international schools of choice:


  • Prerequisites. Since many non-U.S. schools require you to submit to the specific program of your choice, you usually need to have taken a certain number of courses in related subjects during high school. Also, since many courses abroad allow you to finish in three years and often study at the professional level for subjects like medicine, dentistry, and law right after high school, you will likely need to be more advanced in your studies. Often, this involves taking standardized tests like AP exams so you can meet the equivalent of a high school diploma in the country of the school to which you are applying.


  • Interview process. Many interviews for American schools are relatively informal, but interviews for international schools, especially top schools with competitive programs, can be more intense for non-resident students. Not everyone is interviewed usually — only applicants who have been shortlisted. While they have mostly shifted to online interviews as a result of the pandemic, making them slightly less intense than the in-person interviews that used to happen, most of the questions will revolve around academics and your abilities. For instance, Cambridge says that they evaluate your “problem-solving abilities, assimilation of new ideas and information, and intellectual flexibility and analytical reasoning.” It's wise to prepare thoroughly.


  • Differences in essay requirements. While the personal statement is a large part of most applications to U.S. colleges and universities, for many non-American schools, students may not even write a single essay for their application, or if they do, it’s a brief, formal description instead of a more creative, open-ended piece. In most U.K. programs, for instance, you only have to write a 47-line academic personal statement that is strictly focused on your work in the classroom and subsequent career aspirations.


  • Deadlines. Since each program and application process is different, the deadlines may differ as well. Some are as early as October for specialized courses, so make sure you create a timeline for your application well in advance.


Need help applying to an international university and creating your application timeline? We’re here to help. Set up a free consultation with one of our expert college consultants today.