The United States attracts millions of international students to its universities and colleges because it offers many options and one of the best infrastructures in the world. But because of this same variety of options, the decision of which program to apply to is not an easy one. This article can give you a better idea on how to determine which type of university is best for you.

With more than 3,000 colleges in the U.S., the possibilities are virtually limitless, so you'll need to determine your priorities. One of the best features of American higher education is that there are good choices for everyone, from community colleges (two-year institutions of higher education) to professional schools, private liberal arts colleges, and large public universities. You should also consider factors such as the geographic location of the institution, its size, and the degrees it offers.

As an international applicant you have a special challenge. You may have never visited the U.S. or seen the campuses you are interested in. It is important that you pay special attention to finding out where each institution is located and what kind of people study and teach there. These considerations may be as important to you as the quality of the academic programs.

Start your search early and consider your long-term goals.

My first piece of advice is to take plenty of time to study all the possibilities. Identifying colleges that might be right for you takes a long time, so it is important to start the process 12 to 18 months before you want to begin your studies (keep in mind that in the U.S. the academic year begins in August or September). For many applicants, it is important to take into consideration that they will need to take a three to nine month English as a Second Language (ESL) program to prepare for high-level academic study. See the list of questions in the sidebar to the right.

Academic Counselors

Because of the multitude of options, it is good to know how to find valuable information to narrow that spectrum of possibilities. Many students turn to academic counselors for guidance during this search. "Academic counseling" is a fairly broad concept and many people and organizations can be of great help.

The U.S. government has counseling centers, sometimes under the Public Affairs section of a consulate or embassy, as well as in Fulbright Commission offices around the world. Perhaps your country co-sponsors a binational center with the U.S. government. And don't forget non-profit organizations such as the Institute of International Education.

Many of these organizations do not charge consulting fees but may charge for photocopying or mailing services. Most have informational brochures and catalogs and offer Internet access to find out about colleges. They also have information on important tests such as the TOEFL, SAT, ACT, GRE and GMAT. It is common for them to organize group counseling sessions where students can watch videos about U.S. universities and life there. After the videos, an advisor provides feedback and answers.

Some students prefer to talk to family members or friends who have studied in the U.S. Since you know and trust them, you can ask them very specific questions about the institutions they studied at. However, remember that these informal "academic advisors" may have information about only a couple of institutions, so it is not advisable to rely on them alone.

Many countries also have private academic counseling agencies. These firms generally have more resources than non-profit counseling centers and also have direct relationships with many intensive English programs and universities. By hiring their services, students can get help in deciding which universities are the best fit and in navigating the application and visa application process. Since many ELS Language Centers graduates go on to study at U.S. universities or colleges, we have created a website,, with information on how to get a university degree without taking the TOEFL (through ELS Language Centers). We also have a university placement service to help both students who are already in the U.S. and those who are still in their home countries. For more information, please contact


Factors to consider
  • Academic field: major or field of study
  • Degrees and graduate schools
  • Academic standards and prestige (Rankings)
  • Location and region
  • City, suburb or town?
  • Total cost of your education
  • Large or small university?
  • TOEFL requirements or
  • TOEFL waivers
  • Accreditation
  • Types of accreditation
It is clear that students today have access to much more information via the Internet than was available a generation ago. The challenge can be that there is TOO MUCH information, so in general it is best to use the web as a tool to search for information about specific institutions or careers. Many websites such as have search engines that can facilitate your research.

Websites such as and are designed especially for international students and offer a comprehensive overview of what it means to study in the U.S. These sites allow you to focus your search and can help you more easily choose from the options available. has a customizable search engine to choose the institutions and programs that best suit you. In addition to facilitating your search, these websites also provide valuable information on how to obtain a visa and calculate tuition costs. You can research in your own language, contact programs directly for more information, and apply online.

This issue of Study in the USA

This publication features many top-tier programs that welcome international students.

Factors to Consider

Because there are so many choices when considering higher education in the U.S., we have put together some criteria to help you begin your search. All of them can be important, but for each student some are more critical than others. Think about these criteria as you determine your own priorities.

Academic Field: Study Orientation, or Major

Unlike colleges in other countries, in the U.S. you are usually not required to decide your major at the time of enrollment. However, if you know exactly what you want to study, make sure that each college you apply to has a recognized program in that area. Most colleges offer popular majors such as Business Administration or Computer Science, but if you are interested in more specialized areas such as Maritime Biology or Archaeology, it is important to find out ahead of time.

Aside from a few specialized colleges, most U.S. universities offer a wide variety of majors. It is almost always possible to major in a specific discipline and take other subjects at the same time. Traditional liberal arts colleges, dedicated to the humanities and sciences, generally offer bachelor's degrees in the sciences and humanities, and have the added advantage of offering the opportunity to work alongside faculty and participate in their research projects.

You may choose a university that offers courses primarily in your field. There are universities that specialize in business administration or engineering, for example.

Degrees and Graduate Schools

During your search and application process, be sure to research and apply to the right program. If you are a high school graduate or have incomplete college education, you will be applying for an undergraduate degree (a two-year Associate's Degree or a four-year Bachelor's Degree). For most of these programs, you do not need to apply for a specific diploma or degree, only for admission to the university.

Master's and doctoral degrees are considered graduate programs. It is very important to make sure that the university you apply to has the right graduate program for you and that it is not just an evening or weekend program that does not provide enough class hours for you to maintain your full-time status (many M.B.A. programs are evening and/or weekend programs). Unlike undergraduate admissions, graduate school applications are sent directly to the academic department to which you are applying.

For most graduate programs, you will be required to submit scores on standardized tests such as the GMAT (for graduate business programs) and the GRE. To gain admission to these programs, you must have a diploma or degree equivalent to four years of college.

Academic Standards and Prestige (Rankings)

Admission to some U.S. universities-particularly the most famous and prestigious ones-is very competitive, especially for international students, so an academic advisor can be very helpful in determining whether you have a realistic chance of being admitted. For most students, it is more practical to find a quality institution that offers academic challenges rather than insisting on getting into one of the 50 most prestigious U.S. universities.

Find out about each college's admissions standards and where you stand with respect to them. Ask your counselors and professors about your chances of being admitted to the colleges you have chosen. Keep in mind that most colleges base their decisions on both academic performance and extracurricular activities. Test scores required in the admissions process are important, but your grades from previous studies are even more important.

Location and Region

Given the overwhelming number of opportunities facing international students, one way to make the choice easier is to consider the geographic region you prefer or at least which areas you find most attractive. In sheer numbers, most international students live on or near the east or west coasts. Are you coming from a tropical climate? If so, think carefully about whether you should go to New England, which has world-class universities but a cold climate.

Another factor to consider is whether you are interested in some type of cultural, sporting or recreational activity outside of class. Some are drawn to Colorado or Vermont for skiing or other snow sports, while others prefer the Atlantic coast of Florida or Southern California for surfing. Theater enthusiasts lean more toward San Francisco or New York.

Some students prefer to be close to the communities of their fellow Americans, which is why cities like New York or Los Angeles are so popular. Others prefer some deep corner in the middle of the country (often called Middle America), where the cultural immersion is almost complete. It may surprise you that many of the top research universities in the United States are located in small cities, such as Lawrence, Kansas, or Madison, Wisconsin. These cities may not be famous in other countries, but they are well-known "college towns" with relatively low costs of living and a very good quality of life.

City, Suburban Suburb OR Town?

The type of area where the university is located can be as important as the region and you should keep in mind that most universities are not located in large cities like New York, San Francisco or Chicago. As we saw earlier, many large universities, which attract thousands of international students each year, are in small cities and even towns. This can require a significant adjustment process for students coming from large cities, so think carefully about whether this is an option for you. But thousands of students settle in small towns and cities each year, proving that most people adapt easily to a new reality.

An intermediate possibility may be suburban neighborhoods-residential areas on the outskirts of large cities-where attractive universities are located. These areas offer the tranquility and space needed to enjoy a high-level infrastructure, while being close to the hectic life of the big cities. Of course, there are also hundreds of opportunities in the heart of the largest U.S. cities if you prefer.

The Total Cost Of Your Education

Try to calculate the TOTAL costs of your studies, including housing, food and travel. You can often get this information from university websites. Elite private institutions are generally more expensive than public universities. However, many private institutions have very competitive costs compared to public universities.

Generally speaking, in areas away from the east and west coasts the cost of living is lower, and in some cases is significantly lower. California's two excellent university complexes-University of California and California State University-have dozens of facilities in attractive locations with relatively low tuition, but the cost of living can be twice what it is in other states, so overall costs in California may be higher. Remember that prices increase every year.

A Big College Or A Small College?

Community Colleges

Many countries do not have a direct equivalent of a community college (also called a junior college), a public institution where students can receive a two-year Associate's Degree, equivalent to the first two years of college. These are increasingly popular with international students because they do not have very demanding entrance requirements and are very inexpensive. Some students opt for a certificate in a technical area, for example, and then return home with this credential. Many others, however, take advantage of these institutions as an inexpensive way to study the first two years of a degree program and then transfer to a nearby university.

Most international students enroll in large, research-focused universities. These are generally public universities, funded by the government of the state where they are located. These universities offer prestigious brands. Abroad, universities such as the University of California-Berkeley or Yale University are well known to families and future employers. But before you decide on these large universities, keep in mind that there are also hundreds of smaller universities that may be very good options for you.

Small colleges offer a more "sheltered" environment and smaller class sizes. The number of students per professor is beneficial in that it creates many opportunities for the international student to receive more attention, which will be helpful in educational and cultural terms. Integration into academic life may be easier at a small university. Large research-focused universities have more technical majors, such as architecture and engineering, and if they are public, they usually charge lower tuition costs. They also have more international students, so you are likely to meet compatriots, if that is a priority for you.

Toefl Requirements or Waivers

For most international students, the TOEFL test is a source of anxiety, but unless your education has been in English, taking it is almost inevitable. Each program sets its own requirements, and usually the more prestigious the university, the higher the TOEFL score it requires. Be sure to find out what the requirements are at the university or universities you are applying to.

Some universities have a TOEFL waiver option that is very attractive to many international students. This usually involves studying in the university's intensive English program (or some other English program linked to the institution) until the final level is completed. Some private language centers such as ELS have agreements with many universities to offer admission without taking the TOEFL.


Accreditation is the certification that a college or program meets certain academic standards. It is very important to know that a college is accredited. If you study at a university that is not accredited, you will not be able to transfer your academic credits to another university that is. Your own country may not recognize your degrees and you may not get the job you want. In the U.S. there is no national government authority or Department of Education that sets academic standards. Some states authorize or approve universities, but this refers to permits and financial matters, not to the quality of education.

Instead, universities have created associations that are responsible for setting standards. These associations, called "accrediting bodies," evaluate each U.S. university. If the institution meets the accrediting body's minimum standards, it receives a rating and is designated as "accredited." This means that it has earned the right to be placed on the accrediting body's list of approved colleges. A college must maintain these high standards to maintain its accreditation.

Types Of Accreditation

There are different types of accrediting bodies: institutional and professional. Your country's government may also require that you earn a degree from a university with both types of accreditation. Institutional accreditation refers to the university as a whole. Professional accreditation refers to meeting standards within a particular specialty-for example, law, medicine, engineering, or business administration-and is determined by evaluators who are professionals in the field.

You can find out if a college or university is accredited in the latest edition of a book published by the American Council on Education. This book, Accredited Institutions of Post-Secondary Education, should be available in your college library or academic advising center. Other useful addresses include the Council for Higher Education Accreditation ( and the American Educational Information Network (

The degree-granting colleges and universities listed in this issue of Study in the USA® are fully accredited. Accreditation of non-degree-granting institutions or programs, such as language centers, varies depending on their professional affiliation.

Contacting Colleges and Universities

Once you have reviewed your list of colleges, narrow it down to six to eight institutions. Write to them for more information or go to the Request Information link on to complete an online request.

Make sure you understand the distinction between undergraduate and graduate English programs. Each program has its own admissions department. If you are interested in an undergraduate program, write only to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. If you are interested in a graduate program, write only to universities with graduate schools.

For graduate programs, you should contact the admissions department of the graduate school where you wish to study. For example, if you are interested in a graduate program in engineering at a university, you should contact their admissions department for the college of engineering. If you contact universities by e-mail, you should understand that it is important for them to know how you found them, so please do not forget to mention Study in the USA® . The universities will send you an e-mail or an information brochure with descriptions of the programs and academic activities.

You now have what you need to start setting your priorities, plus you know where to find information about U.S. universities and colleges. The United States is a wonderful place to continue your education and we look forward to welcoming you to our country.