The In's and Outs of Applying to US Colleges- Advice from an International Student

How do you get admitted to a top college or university in the US? College application essays, GPA, Honors and AP courses, TOEFL, SAT, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, early decision, ranking, majors, best programs, faculty-student ratio, location, and student-college “fit” – there’s so much to think about when applying to US colleges, and it can be more than a little intimidating, especially for international students. 

To help answer some of those questions swirling around your brain, we interviewed a series of successful international students who are graduating from US high schools this year about their college preparation and application experience. Each student we interviewed was accepted at a top school, and often their first choice. They told us how they prepared and approached the application process, explained the challenges, and shared some very useful advice for younger international students who are just beginning to think about college in the US. 

One thing we heard, again and again, is how important it is to start early – as in, start working on your applications the summer before your senior year, and start preparing and researching long before that.  But they gave us a lot of other good advice, too. Read the whole series or skip to the key findings.  

Preparing Well for College in a US High School

A lot can happen in three short years, and, especially in the case of an international high school student, what you do in those years can make a big difference in your college opportunities. 

Chinese international student Rancy Duan arrived in the US in 10th grade, and from the beginning kept an eye and her mind on college preparation. She studied interesting and challenging Honors and AP courses, worked hard and did well throughout high school, started one club and was active in others. She TOEFL and SAT preparation courses to ensure she did her best, and, in the summer between 11th and 12th grade, she started working on her college applications. 

Now an acculturated and fluent US English speaker with a great relationship with her host family. this month Duan will graduate from St. Mary Bay View Academy in Rhode Island, and in the fall, she will begin the next chapter of her US adventure as a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where she plans to major in Applied Math.  

Duan was admitted to several top 60 schools, so we asked her if she had any advice for younger and new international students on preparing for college and the college applications process.  

Here is the transcript of our conversation: 

So, how did you decide which university to attend?  

It was a tough decision for me! I was struggling to decide between the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The University of Washington is a good school too, and it’s in Seattle, a bigger city, and it has a warmer climate, but I finally chose the University of Wisconsin because of academics. I plan to major in Math or Applied Math, and Wisconsin’s math programs had more flexibility and options. You can do Applied Math in any area you want to, you just get approval from your advisor. I might want to focus on Economics, but I’m not sure yet. I wanted to have other options. 

What’s the difference between studying Math and Applied Math? 

Math is pure math – principles -- and Applied Math is practical math for economics, finance, engineering, data science . . . 

So, maybe Economics?  

Yes. I studied Economics in high school at Bay View, and I still feel interested in learning more about it. It was one semester of macroeconomics and one of microeconomics.  I may choose a double major – it depends on the workload.  

Did you apply to many schools? 

Yes, I applied to several “reach” schools, that I knew were very competitive, and others that I felt more sure I could get into. I did not get into my first choice, but University of Wisconsin is a very good school.  

This year was an especially hard year because so many students applied.  Some schools said this year was the largest applicant pool ever, and that will probably continue.  

How did you decide which schools to apply to? 

I decided based on ranking, location, which majors they offered, and which majors were the best at the schools.  

What about the college application process?  

Wow. I think I wrote 25 essays because I applied to many colleges and some required more than one essay. One university wanted 8 essays. 

I started working on my applications in the summer. For some schools, I applied for early decision before November 1.  I had until January 1 to apply to other schools for regular decision. Some colleges have only one due date.

It’s good to make a form with dates and the colleges’ requirements.  Actually, I had to finish them all by December because I went on a cruise to Mexico with my host family for Christmas.

A cruise! That’s a nice rest and reward after all that work on applications!

That was the second cruise I went on with my host family.  

Sounds like a good host family! 

Yes. They treat me really nice!  

How long have you been with them? 

Since my Junior year, so two years. I had another host mom before that. She was really nice, too. 

And, what did you do to get into such good schools? 

Well, my grades are not bad.

What do you mean by “not bad”?! They must be pretty good to get into top 50 schools. 

My weighted GPA was 4.59 when I applied.  

(a 4.0 is an “A” average. You can get better than 4.0 if you take honors classes.)


Honors classes count for more. My GPA wasn’t as good as I wanted. Each year I had one class that was harder and brought down my GPA, but my grades got better and better each year, as my English improved.  

But it’s not all about GPA. There are many things – SAT and TOEFL scores, the application essays, and extracurricular activities are really important.  

You mentioned “Honors” classes. Can you talk about that and explain what they are?   

I was always wondering why they made me take honors classes!  OK, they didn’t really make me, my counselor at Bay View asked me to take honors classes – it’s really up to the students to decide.  You take honors courses if you want to challenge yourself; they are more difficult than standard courses. That means you might not do as well as you would in a standard class. The grades are “weighted,” which means you get more points for a grade in an honors class than for the same grade in a standard class. If you get an A in a standard class, you get 4 points, but an A in an Honors or AP course gives you 5 points. If you get a B in an Honors class, you get 4 points. 

I’d say, if you know a subject will be difficult for you, it might make sense to take a standard class instead of an honor class, even with a weighted GPA, an A in a standard class is better than a B in an honors class.  

(By the way, here’s an interesting article about just that – Is It Better to Get a B in an Honors Course or an A in a Regular Course?)

What about AP classes, I know you took a lot of AP classes too?  

AP or Advanced Placement classes are like honors courses, the grades are weighted, but you can also get college credit if you do well enough on the AP exams. Some colleges will give you credit if you get a 3 on the AP exam, others require a 4 or 5 out of 5.  You can only get credit for the same class / subject if it’s a requirement. You can’t use an AP credit for a college elective.    

I took 3 AP classes and 4 AP exams my junior year at Bay View, so I will be able to transfer those credits, and I took 4 AP courses and 5 AP exams my senior year. I’m waiting to receive my AP exam results for this year – I won’t know until July.  

I think the University of Wisconsin doesn’t limit how many you can get transfer credit for. (Some colleges do.)  

Not every high school has so many AP courses. But if I do well and get credit for all those exams, that’s a lot of college credits. 

(Read more about AP courses and AP exams.)

Did you take any test preparation courses?  

I did. I took prep courses to learn what’s on the TOEFL and the SAT and become familiar with the types of questions. It’s good to have a teacher so you practice more. I took the SAT course online, and the a TOEFL prep course during my summer vacation in China.  

I thought if you studied high school in the US you didn’t need the TOEFL?

Some schools still require it.  

So, you mentioned getting into college requires more than a good GPA and good test scores.  What advice would you give to younger students who are just coming to the US to study or beginning to think about applying to college someday?

Activities are really important. If you can do a sport, do it!  Do a variety of activities -- all kinds of activities. Clubs are good too, but I think sports are especially good because you have to practice a lot every day.  Because you do it every day, you meet people, get to know them, and become friends. It helps you fit in the environment at your school, learn about the culture, and it’s good for your health! If you do sports, you might not have time for as many clubs. 

(Rancy started a Craft Club at Bay View, and she was also on the school’s competitive math team, took part in the chess club and the school’s cultural sharing club, and served as a student ambassador, leading tours and sharing information about the school at open houses for parents and prospective students. ) 

Are you looking forward to graduating from high school and starting college in the fall? 

I like Bay View!  I don’t want to graduate! (Laughing) Time goes very fast!  I think college will be harder, but you also have more freedom – and freedom with your schedule.  We think if she continues with her habits of the last three years, she will do very well at U Wisconsin.  

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