Counseling international students varies in significant ways from counseling domestic students. Often times, English is not their first language, their parents are back home, and they come from countries where admission to university is based on one national exam or where pursuing a bachelor’s degree is a time to specialize versus explore. Understanding the people and factors influencing an international students college choice, as well as, the unique admission requirements that international students must meet is critical.

Frequently Asked Questions by Topic

Students should strive to matriculate at a college or university which can best foster their intellectual and personal growth. Location, size, academic offerings, the student body, and campus environment, among other things, all influence whether an institution is a strong fit for a particular student.

Below are FAQs and Tips concerning how to best explain the concept of “fit” to international students and their families.


Q:  How do you describe the difference between a US college and university to an international student? A:  Although in some countries, the word “college” often refers to an institution similar to a community college, in the United States, four-year undergraduate degrees can be awarded by colleges and universities. However, some colleges do award two and/or four-year undergraduate degrees. Students should also be aware that some universities are made up of different colleges or schools.

Q:  My student is asking about a national examination. Why?
A:  In many countries, college entrance is determined by scores on a national entrance exam. For example, the Gaokao in China.

Q:  How do you convince international students and their parents to look beyond rankings? How do you balance the discussion between fit for the student and their abilities and rankings and reputation?
The idea of “fit” and self- reflection can be alien to the international family who is focused on rankings.  Initial investigation may best start with a geography lesson and understanding of size.

Ask the student to define their choice of institution with five reasons, aside from rankings, in order to identify the best fit for them. Don’t be afraid to introduce the names of more adventurous schools to the list or places where fewer of their peers may also apply. In the end parents (and agents) may have a say in the final decision.

If a student and/or their parents are stuck on rankings, use multiple rankings creatively to expand their view of “acceptable” choices. Instead of looking at overall US News & World Report College Rankings, look at rankings by major, international student numbers, and other facets of student life that the applicant may be interested in.

Q:  How do you mediate between parents and students when they conflict over what program of study or school they prefer?
A:  Help parents and students to identify areas of crossover at the institutions they are interested in or consider a compromise within a double major or major-minor combination. Be aware of professional needs or demands in their home country. For example, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program favors awarding students pursuing academic disciplines that are needed in the work market of the kingdom. If a student or parent is centered on rankings, use them creatively, by focusing on the program of study the student wants to pursue or other elements of campus life that are of interest or concern.

Q:  How can your student determine if a campus is international student friendly?
A:  An international student should attend an institution where they feel welcome. Help them determine how a campus will meet their needs by listening to the answers given by the Office of Admission, Dean of Students, other international students, and faculty.


  • Help students consider what makes them happy. Encourage them to attend college fairs, visit campuses, stay overnight, shadow students and get in touch with other international students on campus. If visiting is impossible, joining admission chats and taking virtual tours are resources at many colleges. When visiting and corresponding with prospective colleges and universities, encourage students to use their best English langauge skills and be polite.
  • Check out The College Board’s International Student Handbook designed for foreign students interested in attending college in the US.
  • Admission Matters, What Students and Parents Need to Know about Getting into College, 3rd edition, by Sally Springer, Jon Reider and Joyce Vining Morgan (2013; new edition planned for 2017) addresses specific issues faced by international students – including US students applying to universities abroad.

Q: How do you engage parents who live abroad or speak another language?
A: Translate school documents into other languages so parents can access them easier.
Some schools produce videos to explain the college guidance program 9 – 12 which are then translated and posted or taken on head of school visits.  Be aware of parental access or non-access to school communications.


  • Consider getting parents who are knowledgeable and positive about the school experience to become international parent representatives, to speak with other parents from their same country or just from the international parent perspective and be allies of the counselors.
  • Use your school alumni as a resource for engaging with parents.

Colleges and universities often have specific testing requirements for international students. For example, many institutions require applicants to submit scores from a standardized English proficiency exam like the TOEFL, IELTS, or CAE.


Q:  Should international students take the TOEFL (or other tests such as IELTS, CAE or PTE) instead of the ACT/SAT or in addition to the ACT/SAT?

A:  Information from colleges suggest any piece of testing information that may lend support to an applicant is useful. Have students take the tests and then decide how to package them in regards to individual college requirements. There are some colleges that require English proficiency exams, especially if the language spoken at home is in the native language other than English.
Q:  Should international students focus more on achieving high English Language Proficiency test scores or on the standardized exams like the SAT or ACT?
A:  One does not replace the other- they complement one another and give greater insight to strengths.
Q:  Is one standardized test more international-student-friendly than the others?
A:  No. Standardized tests cause the same level of anxiety for all students, domestic and international. Some students lean toward one test company over another because of the home country test prep cram schools’ preference. For example: students who were previously enrolled in a British educational system tend to prefer the IELTS or CAE exam instead of TOEFL. It is the preferred exam for entry to universities in the United Kingdom.
Q:  How many times should an international student attempt the SAT, ACT or English Proficiency Exams prior to applying?
A:  There is no limitation but two to three times over a period spanning the junior and senior years is usual.
Q:  Do colleges offer conditional acceptance to students who submit scores below their stated TOEFL/IELTS minimums?
A:  Yes they can do. A student could be redirected to a bridge program which could be a summer course, a semester or a yearlong program. It can be helpful to state this as an acceptable possibility in the Counselor Statement.
Q:  Should all international students take an English Language Proficiency exam or is a high school diploma from a US high school sufficient? If an international student has obtained a high school diploma from a US high school, can they waive any TOEFL requirements from a prospective university?
A:  This depends on the university in question since they all have different rules. If the standardized test scores from SATs or ACTs are very high, a university may waive the TOEFL requirement, but this needs to be checked out with each institution.
Q:  How much is TOEFL/IELTS/other testing? What if a student cannot afford it?
A:  TOEFL is around $195.00 in the US (higher abroad) and there is no fee waiver program for foreign exchange students. IELTS is around $235 and are usually offered by English language preparatory providers in major cities.


  • If registering your students for the TOEFL and figuring out that transportation to test sites is difficult to coordinate, consider becoming a TOEFL test site.
  • Anticipate the test dates that will get English Language Proficiency tests and other standardized exam scores to colleges and universities by their required deadlines.
  • Colleges and universities may or may not require a TOEFL/IELTS score results for admission. Some schools require TOEFL scores from all international students, even if they are native English speakers. Articulate clearly to international students that TOEFL/IELTS minimums are a starting point and there is an expectation by universities that English language skills are to improve if there has been a few months since the test was taken.
  • Interview services through private vendors such as Vericant or InitialView are sometimes required as a supplement to test scores or an alternative to them. Make sure your student is aware of the requirements from the school to which they are applying and the costs and timeline of these interview services.
  • It is also important to know that some colleges and universities do not require students to submit test scores to be reviewed for admission. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing provides a list of these institutions, which is updated regularly. Some institutions, however, have different requirements for domestic students than for international students so it is always best to check directly with the institution.
  • Search for schools that accept IELTS scores.
Many individuals and organizations offer students guidance on researching and applying to universities in another country. Below are FAQs about helping students interested in utilizing third party agents or independent consultants.


Q:  What is an agent?
A: A company (agency) or individual (agent) contracted and paid by universities in other countries to advise and recruit students to their institutions.

Usually, the agency/agent is paid by its partner university only if and after a student enrolls and begins taking classes. This payment is often a percentage of a student’s tuition fees, or a flat rate, and is called a commission. Agents are most likely to recommend the universities they represent, but may also be able to help students apply to universities that are not their partners.

Q: How do you acknowledge agents in the process, while still protecting student’s interests? What are a counselor’s responsibilities when working with agents and independent counselors from the student’s home country?
A:  Schools should have a written policy that is published and communicated to parents about the use of commission-based agents and independent counselors in the college counseling process.

Q: How do you encourage balanced use of the school-based counselor and the agent?
A:  This article highlights the experiences of NACAC member Peter Morgan (The Northwest School, WA) as he navigates how best to work with students and families who employ outside agents.

Q: If a parent or student insists on using an agent, how can you advise or assist them in picking an ethical one?
A:  NACAC’s Trusted Sources: Seeking  Advice on Applying to Universities in Another Country provides advice on identifying reputable agents who follow high-quality practices.

Many institutions have admission processes and requirements specific for international students.


Q: How do you convey to international students and their parents the holistic approach of American admissions?

A:  The first review takes into consideration the performance and the strength of coursework but building a well rounded student profile from grade nine onwards is also essential for US applications. Encourage student participation in extracurricular activities. Share the college updates on the admissions statistics which come out each year and highlight hours of volunteer service, leadership positions, research and project work. It is helpful to have the students hear this message when the college representatives visit.  It is also helpful to have college reps speak to this issue at parent events.

Q: When being evaluated by an admission office, are the applications from international students enrolled in US high schools subjected to a different reading process than their domestic peers?
A:  It depends on the university/college and is an excellent question to ask of your college admission representative. Some institutions read all applications from the high school, regardless of their status, and others separate international students entirely in the review process.

Q:  What happens if a student uses multiple names and they do not match on all documents being submitted in the application (ie: tests, transcripts, documents from the US and documents from abroad)?
A:  Reinforce and explain to students that they should always use the name as stated in their passport on all documents–school transcript, testing accounts, university applications, etc.  If a document is submitted using a nickname, for example, the admission office computers will not make a match between a document with the full legal name and a document with the nickname and thus, the folder will remain incomplete for review. This will cause unnecessary delays or possibly, a decision that is unfavorable. The use of names is often problematic with families with multiple names in their family/last names, such as in many Latin American countries, and often, international students may drop one of the formal names for expediency.

It is also important to reinforce and explain this policy to your faculty and staff, so that the use of given names is encouraged on formal documents (written reports, etc.) throughout the school.

Q: What address should the applicant report on their application—their home address abroad or their place of residence in the US?
A: Students should report both addresses, whenever possible.The US address is their temporary mailing address and they should list a start and end date for its use during the application process and beyond, if they are matriculating to that institution.  Their address abroad is their home address.

Q: If dual citizens of the US and another country, should a student apply as a domestic or international applicant?
A: Students must apply as a US citizen (domestic) and then they are eligible to apply for US government financial assistance programs using FAFSA.

Q: Should a student classify themselves as an international applicant if they are in the US on a green card?
A: They are still international students but they should make sure to check the box which indicates that they are a permanent resident (green card holder). It is the student and family’s responsibility to make sure that the green card is valid or renewed in a timely fashion. As permanent residents, students are eligible to apply for US government financial assistance programs using FAFSA.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to translate any transcripts from a student’s home country? The high school? The college receiving them? An outside company at the cost of the student?
A:  It is the student and family’s responsibility to provide certified translations in English of all transcripts and testing records. The school can be helpful by providing names of companies that do this. This should be done prior to the student enrolling in your school.

Q: How should US high schools provide record of previous academic work completed outside of the US high school (e.g., on the US high school’s transcript, separate official copy, etc.)
A:  The high school should have copies of every student’s high school transcript from prior schools. It is much easier to send prior transcripts as they are provided, rather than trying to make them conform to your high school transcript. Original documents should be certified true copies by a notary public and attached to the current school transcript. In some cases, the university will also want the original document sent directly from the issuing school.

Any international credential such as examination results or educational certificates should be retained by the high school counseling office/registrar’s office (by copies in the file, pdf scans, etc.) and included in the transcript packets sent to colleges.

Q: If the international student has been studying in the US for three years and is doing well in English, does s/he still need to take an English language proficiency exam?
A: It depends. If the native language spoken at home on a regular basis is not English, it is generally recommended that a student consider taking an English proficiency exam unless they are able to earn an SAT Critical Reading score of 600 or better or an ACT English subscore of 25 or better.  There are some colleges that will not require the English proficiency exams in this instance, but this is institution-dependent, so each institution’s policy will need to be verified.


  • Check out “Eight Tips for Counseling International Students at US High Schools” compiled by OACAC and NACAC member Joan Liu.
  • International students at SEVP-certified US high schools that are interested in continuing their post-secondary education in the US should only apply to SEVP-certified colleges or universities.
  • Sending award certificates along with a college application will not necessarily increase a student’s chances of admission. Encourage your student to use the application itself to highlight his/her successes.
  • Some colleges require or recommend an interview component for their international applicants, either done by a third party vendor or by the school itself. Make sure the student is aware of which category the interview falls under and how an interview is set up and takes place.
  • In many cultures, ninth grade is in middle school. Students can feel odd sending their middle school transcripts as part of their college application and sometimes have a hard time retrieving copies. However, their applications cannot be considered without them and so counselors need to insure that their students are obtaining these transcripts to account for their ninth grade year.
  • Encourage international students to take deadlines seriously. Colleges and universities do stick to them!

International students currently living outside of the US need a visa in order to attend an American college or university.


Q:  Does the visa the student is on when s/he applies to college make a difference in the application process? 
A:  Yes, it might matter. For example, a student with refugee status might be handled differently in the application process. Students who are under their parents’ working visa may not choose to transfer their visa to a student visa if they are eligible to study in the US regardless.

Q:  Are there any restrictions on an international student traveling while studying at a US college or university on a visa? 
A: There are generally no restrictions if the student is traveling within the USA. However, travel to other countries may or may not be restricted for certain international students. It is best to check with the DSO at the college or university before starting on travel plans, both for vacations and for study abroad programs.


  • EducationUSA has a wealth of information about applying to US postsecondary institutions, including information about student visas.
  • The Department of Homeland Security site Study in the States contains important information for students and institutions about international student visa regulations including for link for K-12 schools. The site also has a helpful Glossary of terms.
    • The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) graphic below explains the transfer of a student’s visa from one SEVIS-approved school to another. More information can be found at Study in the States.

Need-based financial aid is different from merit-based scholarships.

International students (non-citizens) are not eligible for the federal aid that US citizens receive.  Very few US schools offer need-based aid for international students, and the competition for that aid is strong. Check with each school or college on their admissions and/or financial aid web pages for required documents and deadlines.

Q:  What does a school mean when they say they are need blind or need aware?
A: “Need-blind” means that a college admits students on the basis of academic and personal promise, without regard to their ability to pay.  Many need-blind colleges also offer to meet 100% of need.  But need-blind for admission does not automatically mean that a college will meet an international student’s need after they are admitted.  Double-check that the stated policy applies to international students.

  • Need is determined by institutional formula and is different at each college.  There may be several different forms and documents to determine family need.
  • The CSS PROFILE, found at the College Board website, is used by many universities to determine aid for international students.

Q:  What is meant by proof of funding, Financial affidavits, and Declaration of finances certification forms (DCF).
A: Proof of funding serves several purposes, the primary one being to prove that a student can meet the cost of attendance at a particular college or university and is therefore eligible for a student visa.  It may also be required as part of a request for financial aid.

  • A number of institutions don’t need to see a Declaration of finances certification forms (DCF) — sometimes called a Financial Affidavit — and bank statements until the student is admitted and wishes to enroll.  However, many colleges ask for these documents at the time of application.  These policies are institution-specific. Research them carefully.
  • Many individual institutions require their own forms and don’t accept the generic College Board form.
  • Bank Statements:  Research the greatest cost of attendance among the universities of interest in order to prove that the student can afford the most expensive institution on their list. Advise students to obtain multiple original copies from their family’s banks* in August – no earlier – along with a few extras, and to return to school in the fall with these copies.  Statements should be recent and many colleges/universities will not accept them if they’re more than, for example, six months old.  Additional documentation may be required prior to admission, at the time of the I-20 transfer.  Some schools may require proof of funding for more than one year.
*Or from their own account, in rarer cases where the funds are held in the student’s name
Q: How does an international student qualify for financial aid? 
A:  It is difficult for international students to qualify for financial aid or student loans. There are few institutions that offer financial assistance and the number of awards is limited. The range of aid can vary from an application fee waiver to almost full assistance. Some scholarship opportunities are offered to only current, not new, international students.
Q:  How does an international student qualify for merit scholarships? 
A:  Individual institutions determine student eligibility for merit scholarship awards. Some will offer a small number to international students while others don’t offer any awards. It is best for the student to inquire at each university in which s/he is interested.
Q:  Can international students file for FAFSA? Are international students eligible for US federal financial aid? 
A:  Generally, international students cannot file FAFSA nor are they eligible for federal financial aid. The exceptions are those students with permanent residency (green card), dual citizenship in the U.S., or designated refugee/asylum seekers. International students who are applying for a green card cannot file FAFSA until the green card is issued.
Q:  How can an international student obtain total or close to total funding? 
A:  It is extremely difficult to find total or close to total funding for an international student’s education in the US. The level of financial generosity varies by college and university, and the source of funding can be alumni and other donors who endow scholarships for this purpose. But obtaining funding is not impossible if the student has an excellent academic record or has a unique talent.
Q:  Do you have tips on how best to procure bank statements and parents’ signatures for financial aid materials when the parents live abroad? How early do you recommend trying to collect these materials? 
A:  For colleges, the financial information documentation must be relatively current, with specific parameters varying by institution. As counselors, you should alert parents to this part of the process early in the fall of the senior year.  Show them examples of the forms and statements needed.  Have instructions translated or explained into their native language if possible, as this process can be very confusing and alarming to parents.  Cultural issues come to the forefront here when it comes to disclosing sources of funds to strangers.



Q:  Do international students need health insurance in the US?
A:  Yes, they do. Many colleges offer health insurance as part of their tuition, room and board packages. Check with the International Office. If the college does not offer insurance, the International Office or Residential Life office will have suggestions.


International students can participate in NCAA athletics if they meet certain eligible requirements.


Q: What are the funding realities for an international student and scholarships for athletics?
A:  The number of athletic scholarships available for Division I or II eligible athletes is limited. The percentage out of the entire athletic recruitment budget varies by sport and may depend on the ranking assigned by the coach to prospective athlete.

Q:  What is the registration timeline for potential college athletes with the NCAA?
A:  All candidates should follow the respective rules as designated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), or the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).

Q:  Are there special processes or requirements that international students must complete prior, during or following application and acceptance to be a student athlete?
A:  If the international student athlete has a high school record which includes attendance of a non-US high school, the documentation may require formal translation of the record by an approved credential evaluation agency. This is to determine if the academic eligibility requirements are being met.

Q:  What are the differences, if any, that international students and their families should know about athletic recruitment or being a student athlete?
A:  Athletic coaches may or may not know about the additional information that international students need in order to meet and keep their student visa eligibility. There may be additional requirements if the college participates in international competition such as travel to Canada. Summer training weeks may need prior approval by the DSO.

Q:  May a student use an educational consultant who specializes in athletic
recruitment? Are they considered an agent?
A:  If the individual is a consultant and is not being paid a commission by a college or university, then, generally, it is permissible. A consultant may charge a fee for his advice. Individuals or businesses who are paid a commission to direct clients to colleges and universities for admission on per head basis are agents. If an Agent does not disclose his association with educational institutions and in addition, charges a fee to client families for services AND if the knowledge later becomes public, students run the risk of being denied acceptance to colleges, the loss of their student visa, and the loss of scholarships. Under NCAA rules, the definition of an agent is clearly defined and the use of their services is not permitted. There are specific services that may not be used or received under the NCAA rules.