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How to Thrive in the Common App Application Process As an International Student

Student Life

September 19, 2023

Every year, millions of students internationally apply to universities abroad with the dream of getting a world-class education that will help them grow as an independent individual . While there are several countries preferred among students to continue their education abroad, the U.S tops the list.

US universities are primarily known to attract a large number of international students across the world because of the flexibility in the educational curriculum that they offer. If you are also an international student planning to apply abroad, then read this article till the end to get a review of the application process.

Understanding the Semesters and Application Period

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Based on the starting and ending season of the school year, the Semester at US college can be divided into Fall and Spring semesters respectively . However, few colleges in the country also offer admission during the summer . The duration and the starting months of these semesters are mentioned below :

Fall semester: The fall intake in the U.S.A is the most opted one by International students. The fall months in the USA are from September to December.

Spring semester: The spring semester starts in January and ends in May. The spring intake in the US begins in October or November.

Summer semester: This intake is for limited programs and courses and usually starts in May

Each semester is about 15 weeks long with a summer break where, every semester, students typically register for 4-5 subjects.

Application Process

The US, on an average, is home to around 4000 higher academic institutions. Most of these institutions offer a vast variety of majors and degree programmes. These universities are open to international students and receive thousands of applications from students all around the world .

To ease the overall application process for students, a platform called Common App was developed. Its basically a kind of app that is connected to a large number of these universities and, with the help of a common app, you can apply to all of these universities with a common application and send the application to a set of universities you want to apply to. We will talk more about the Common App and how to use it later in the article. While there are many universities using the Common App as a medium of receiving applications, there are some other alternatives to the traditional common app use and they are as follows:

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The Coalition Application

While the concept of Coalition Application is new in the market, it has over 140 partner schools to apply to. Coalition application is mainly for students who want to start early on their journey of applying to collages .

The app allows you to maintain a locker - a feature that enables students to store files, images and videos which they think are an important part of their high school life, which includes skills they might like to showcase to colleges, and in this way they might not be able to forget their important academic milestones when the time actually comes to apply to the university. , the Coalition Application might however pose problems for students who do not have access to school advisors at their schools as filling an application in the app might require you to use take some professional guidance. As compared to the common app, which has around thousands of partner colleges applications, on the other hand, the Coalition Application only allows the student to develop their application profile for only a few colleges, while the students'interest might shift towards applying to other universities during the whole duration of their high school.

University Application System

With the Common App and Coalition Application being the famous method of applying to popular colleges, there are still a large number of colleges which have their own personalized application portals. Here are some universities and state colleges with their own personalized application portals.

  • MIT - The school has its own application portal called MyMIT . According to the university, the application platform, unlike other application platforms, provides students with a much better opportunity to introduce themselves as an individual to the Admission Committee . While the MyMIT application looks a bit different, with little effort you can build a stellar application for the university.

  • Cal State Apply - Its an application platform mainly developed to cater to the needs of students applying to State Universities of California

  • applySUNY - This platform is mainly used to apply to the 64 state universities present in New York. You can apply to multiple colleges by completing a common applySUNY application . If a certain college requires you to submit any supplemental material, then you might add that to your existing SUNY application.

Common Application

From the above-mentioned University Application System it becomes quite clear that the Common App overall turns out to be a much better option for international students planning their education at a US university. Here are a few points that will guide you towards setting up a Common App student account.

  • Start with setting up your account either on the website of the Common App or by downloading the App on your proffered device[Its better to download the app in order to work effectively on your application for a longer period of time]

  • Next, start with collecting the following materials:

  1. High school transcript

  2. List of extracurricular or out of school activities, including family responsibilities and part-time jobs

  3. Scores from standardized testing like SAT and ACT (There are certain colleges that have waived off the requirement of submitting a standardized test score)

  4. Make a desired list of colleges on the app where you are willing to apply .

  5. You also need to submit your recommenders and school counselors details like their name, role and E-mail Id

Note - Be careful while selecting your list of colleges and enter the right keywords to improve your search results. While asking for a recommendation, try insisting on the names of teachers who know you well as a student and can write a strong letter of recommendation.

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Selecting the right college

As an international student, you need to keep affordability, inclusiveness, graduation rate and curriculum in mind before applying to a certain university. Here is a list of things you might consider before shortlisting universities to apply to:

Affordability - Paying the full expenses of a university can pose a big financial problem for international students, resulting in massive student debts with high interest. To protect yourself from situations like these, try applying to colleges providing financial aid to international students. This aid can come in different forms under the financial aid package and, therefore, can be further divided mainly into three major parts :

  • Merit based aid - These kinds of aids are offered by the institute based on the academic performance or predicted high school GPA and grades of the students. Generally, students with a GPA of more than 3 on a scale of four are eligible to apply for these kinds of aid. These aids might help you apart from your tuition, but they are not responsible for covering the full cost of attendance.

  • Need based aid- These kinds of aids are generally based on the needs of the family, so suppose the total cost of attendance is A and your family need is B . Then A-B=C here C is the total amount that would be granted by the institution to the student to complete their education at the respective institution .

  • Full ride scholarship- Unlike other scholarships, it not only covers your tuition but also your housing, meals , books , lab fees and sometimes even the living costs.

Inclusiveness - Inclusive learning includes experimental learning and a representation of students from different cultures and educational backgrounds. It considers a variety of needs and preferences.


  • Courses offered at the university and their rankings

  • Societies related to subjects and various other clubs related to the field of sports and music

  • Study abroad programmes and internships offered in your field of study

Applying for financial Aid

Paying for tuition as an international student can be difficult and this is the time where financial assistance offered by colleges can help you. While most of the need-based colleges often consider candidates automatically for aid on being accepted by the college, there are few colleges that require you to complete either a financial aid form listing several sources of income of your family or the standard CSS profile.

CSS Profile

The CSS profile is being used by financial administrators to assist financial aid applications of candidates applying to their colleges . The CSS profile is currently being used by 250 colleges and is being administered by the college board. Students eligible for federal aid fill FAFSA instead of CSS, which is free of cost, but as international students are not eligible for federal aid they are supposed to fill the CSS profile, which costs around $25 for each submission.

Note: For students not able to fill out the CSS profile, try filling out the personalized financial forms offered by the colleges as they are mostly free of cost . If your desired university doesn't offer this kind of form, try contacting the Admission Office

Here are a few steps to help you get started with building your CSS profile.

  • Create an account - If you already made your college board account, then log in to the CSS profile website using the same username and password

  • Fill out the details- While filling out the details of the profile, you will need certain documents like the income sources of your parents, their recent income tax return , monthly and yearly expenses of your household etc . If you don't have all of that information while filling in, you might save your application and return to fill in the rest of the details.

  • Submit your application

  • Check your dashboard for any further details.

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Colleges providing need-based financial aid

Here is the list of some colleges that provide need-based financial aid to students:

1. Amherst College

2. Babson College

3. Barnard College

4. Bates College

5. Yale University

6. Harvard University

7. Princeton University

8. Berea College

9. Bryn Mawr College

10. Middlebury College

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Schools With the largest International Student body

1. New York University

2. Coloumbia University

3. Northeastern University

4. Boston University

5. UC- San Diego

6. Arizona State University

Few FAQs to help you navigate the application process:

Are there any specific exams I need to give for applying to U.S universities?

While applying to universities for undergraduation, you need not submit any specific test results apart from your high school transcripts, but if you are willing to, you might give exams offered to high school students like:

  • A.P exams (Offered by the College Board)
  • SAT and ACT
  • Certain academic olympiads conducted at national or school level
  • Schoolhouseworld certification by Khan Academy

NOTE: While these exams are not necessary, it might help colleges to assess you academically as a student

What if I am not sure about my major while applying to college?

Well, it's totally normal not to be able to decide what major you want to apply to and there are many students out there facing the same dilemma as you, so don't worry ! Considering the college application, you might choose the option of being an undecided major.

Note- Freshman year at most of the colleges is seen as a year of exploration and, according to the colleges, more than 30% of students are seen changing their majors.

Applying to colleges abroad as an international student can be a daunting process, but by taking a few steps at one time and breaking the steps into small chunks, one can easily navigate the whole process of applying to colleges. The most important thing to keep in mind is not to compare yourself with other candidates . Everyone in the world is unique.

Applying to colleges is not a competition to prove yourself better than others, instead, see it as a process of self reflection where you get a chance to explore yourself and to present yourself to the admission officers in a way you want to be presented. So be confident! Don't worry about the results! Good luck!

Charu Yadav
1,000+ pageviews

Writer since Aug, 2023 · 6 published articles

Hello ! I'm Charu a recent high school graduate from India. My work as an online peer tutor for middle school US & World History eventually made me intrested in the research and observational skills you get to use in journalism to voice your opinions. In future I see myself working in the field of science at the same time pursuing my dream of voicing opinions of people majorly teens that still remain unheard.