How To Study in the USA: A Guide for International Students

Industry Advice Education

If you’re an international student looking for educational opportunities in the U.S., you’re not alone. Despite the aftereffects of the pandemic, nearly one million students from more than 200 different countries joined American students at U.S.-based institutions in the 2021–2022 school year.

Yet, between student visas, the application process, and cultural differences, some may second guess their resolve to experience American university life. With our comprehensive guide on how to study in the USA, you’ll be well prepared and on your way to international student status.

Applying to an American University

Applying to universities in the U.S. can be daunting, but this process can be challenging for U.S.-based prospective students, as well. Try not to get discouraged. Here are some steps you can take to make your educational journey abroad as seamless as possible.

Start Developing Your Skills

Since U.S. universities can be competitive, it’s important to develop your skill set as you begin this process of studying abroad. In addition to relevant language skills, you should also sharpen your critical thinking, communication (written and verbal), and time and resource management skills.

Research Colleges

Searching for the right program among American colleges is all about “finding the right fit for you.” Depending on your priorities, this might mean a college:

  • Offers a degree program you’re interested in
  • Accepts international students with a variety of cultural backgrounds to create a global community
  • Facilitates sports and other activities that interest you and permit international student participation
  • Is located in an ideal climate and living environment

To ensure a good fit and continued success, it’s important to research colleges before deciding which to submit applications to. If you don’t, you run the risk of attending a school that doesn’t align with your personal and professional interests.

Connect with Institutions Before Applying

One of the most resourceful steps you can take in this process (that many applicants overlook) is reaching out to institutions before applying. Most universities have a dedicated admissions office that fields incoming queries from prospective international students. Consider reaching out and asking them about available resources, such as:

  • Career counseling
  • Scholarship opportunities
  • Mental health counseling
  • Global student services

Another way to get connected with institutions of interest is to reach out to faculty, alumni, or current students through your personal network or mutual connections. If you don’t have any, don’t fret.

Tomo Yamamoto, associate director of International Enrollment Marketing at Northeastern University, says, “reaching out to a relevant department, or even professors when possible, is a really good place to start.” Generally, universities are vying for great candidates to apply to their programs—particularly international students with interesting backgrounds—so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for more inside perspectives.

Consider the Requirements

In your research, you’ll come across different requirements for different universities in the application and enrollment process. Many of these requirements apply to all students, international and otherwise. For example, while most universities are now test-optional as a result of the pandemic, some colleges still require scores from a standardized test (e.g., SAT, ACT, or GRE) as part of the application process.

As an international student, you’ll want to be vigilant as you look into these requirements since there will likely be additional prerequisites. For example, the TOEFL or IELTS exams, which are meant to demonstrate proficiency in English, are common application requirements for international students.

Obtain Your Student Visa

Obtaining your student visa can be a long and arduous process, but a good institution will have the resources to guide you. For example, Northeastern provides step-by-step instructions for those applying for an F-1 student visa and J-1 student visa, depending on whether you’re an incoming full-time international student or on an exchange program with a government, organization, or university sponsorship, respectively.

In general, you will need to take the proper steps to enter the U.S. and start your academic career. Look into the first steps of obtaining your student visa; usually, it will be to submit visa-supporting documents, such as Form I-20, Form DS-2019, and a valid passport.

Maintaining Your Status

Once you’ve embarked on student life in the U.S., your journey has only begun. Once abroad, it’s essential to maintain your status of full-time, on-ground enrollment at your institution to ensure your visa remains valid and you can legally remain in the country. Remember, failure to do so can result in serious consequences.

The good news is that most institutions have a dedicated department to ensure their international students meet their visa requirements and maintain valid immigration status. As an international student, it’s important to reach out to your Office of Global Services or equivalent resource to make sure you’re doing everything needed to maintain your status.

The full-time credit conditions vary slightly by institution, but generally, they require a certain amount of class hours or credits for the term, a certain level of performance in those classes, and a certain percentage of in-person course enrollment. For example, according to Northeastern’s Office of Global Services, guidelines on maintaining status for undergraduate students include a minimum of 12 credit hours per term and a maximum of one online course. However, because these requirements are different at each university, it’s critical that you reach out to your dedicated office.

Challenges of Studying in the USA

Moving to and living in a new country can be challenging, especially when studying abroad. However, with proper preparation and the right tools, you can overcome these obstacles.

Cost of Living

What may frighten prospective international students in many cases is the cost of living in the U.S. Cities like New York and San Francisco are infamous for their inflated housing prices and high cost of living. In addition to these high prices, tuition for U.S. universities in these cities also runs high. However, international students who maintain F-1 visa status may be eligible for on-campus work. If you’re interested in this option, it’s highly recommended to continually check on-campus job postings.

As Yamamoto puts it, “The tuition and other related costs are public on the university website. Cost of living can vary depending on each student’s lifestyle and preferences.” However, both of these aspects add up to a total investment in your education abroad. As such, it’s important to research future return-on-investment prospects as a part of your preparation process. Look into potential job opportunities that support work visas, offer a rewarding average salary, and project positive job market predictions to ensure you’ll have ROI-positive options when you graduate.

Applying for a Visa

There are several potential obstacles, based on students’ individual situations, to keep in mind while applying for your student visa. For instance, politics and global current events might impact how long it takes to get a visa. In extreme cases, this can even affect whether you are eligible to receive one. It’s important to apply for the relevant visa in a timely manner to prepare for any unexpected roadblocks.

Another tip is to utilize external resources that could also help. Yamamoto suggests that “international students check the U.S. embassy website to receive more up-to-date information from the U.S. government about student visas and the application process.”

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can be difficult to adapt to. People might speak differently than you’re used to, come off as rude or loud, or expect different social norms from you. In class, it could be difficult to speak up at the right time or take a little longer than you’d like to make friends.

But as every immigrant, ex-pat, and international student will inevitably tell you, it always gets better. In fact, assimilating into and learning about a new culture is what makes living abroad so exciting and enriching. Celebrating cultural differences is an essential part of studying in a foreign country.

At Northeastern, there are many student organizations where you can connect with peers with similar interests while safely expanding your horizons and easing your transition. Similarly, the university has dedicated support services and events to help international students succeed and feel welcome on campus, including:

  • Global Student Success: Provides high-quality English language, academic, and cultural support to international and non-native English-speaking students.
  • Global Student Mentor Program: Support incoming international students as they transition to college life at Northeastern and to the culture of the United States, to foster engagement with the Northeastern community, and to improve resource utilization.
  • OGS Events: Attend cultural events, workshops, and more, sponsored by the Office of Global Services.

Taking the Leap to Study in the USA

Preparing to study in the USA can be confusing and challenging, but with a proper guide and an institution willing to help, it can be the beginning of one of the most memorable experiences of your life. Northeastern has a dedicated team to ensure their international students are well-prepared, adjusted, and successful.

Learn more about how you can study with us today. Check out our Office of Global Studies and the support we offer for international students.