Apply to US schools as a non-resident international student

By Will Stafford

This is a quick guide to applying to gradate school in the USA as a non-resident international student.  If you are in the US and want to study elsewhere go to the guide on [maybe it’ll come later].

Note on costs: applying to graduate school is expensive; applying as an international student is even more expensive. On top of normal costs, you will have ESL tests, transcript translations, money transfer fee, visa fees, and travel and relocation costs. You will likely not be eligible for any application fee waivers. And once you get there your income will likely be lower than your peers due to the tax system. It is important to think carefully about how you will fund application before you start. All in all, I borrowed around $2000 from family members to apply and get to the USA.

ESL tests

Are you going to need one?

This is not as obvious as it may seem. Do not assume that you automatically will have this requirement waived because you studied at an English-speaking country or university. It is not unheard of for universities to require the test even for a native English speaker.

Check the specific policies of each university and contact them early to see if they will waive the need for one.

What test?

Most places accept TOEFL or IELTS. There is also the PTE Academic, CAE/CPE, and Duolingo English Test (which is taken at home and is cheaper. You can see which universities accept it here: https://englishtest.duolingo.com/institutions).

Note if you are disabled, TOEFL is run by the same company that runs the GRE and the same system is used to get accommodations for both.

What scores?

It differs for each university. Unfortunately, prestige appears to correlate with score requirements.

For example (as of 2021):

  • Cornell University requires a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 100, IELTS score of 7.5, Duolingo score of 120, PTE score of 70, and CAE/CPE of 191 (this appear indicative of “prestigious” universities).
  • Colorado State University requires a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 79, IELTS score of 6.5, or PTE Academic score of 53.
  • California State University requires a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 61 (though some campuses require higher scores).

Transcripts

Universities are going to require that you send your transcript as part of your application.  Additional requirements are often placed on transcripts from other countries, particularly if the transcript is not in English. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Cornell University requires official transcripts, certificated copies of the degree certificate (if confirmed), and certificated or notarized English translations.
  • Colorado State University requires official transcripts, copies of the degree certificate (if confirmed), certificated English translations, and all documents sent through post or certified, secure document service.
  • California State University requires official transcripts and certificated English translations.

From this we can draw up a list of common requirements:

Even if nothing is required, keep in mind that the university you apply to may not have anyone who understand what your transcript means and any naïve conversion into GPA may make you appear unfavourable. Consider asking your references to clearly state what your scores mean in the context of your degree. For example, that you got the highest score possible and only 15% of students get this score. You can also attach an information sheet to your transcript and, if you are lucky, your university may supply such a sheet already.

Certified vs Notarized

A certified translation means that the translator or the language service provider (LSP) has issued a signed statement declaring that the translation that has been done is an accurate and true representation of the original document. This is done by the translator.

A notary public is authorized by the government to authenticate and oversee different legal formalities, which include notarized translations. This is not done by the translator and does not concern the accuracy of the translation but rather that the translator is who they say they are.

What if I don’t have and cannot get a transcript?

See if your university can produce something for you that meets the requirements for a transcript even if it is something they create just for you. For example, an official letter reporting your degree, enrolment, and grades. If this is not possible, contact the universities you want to apply to.

Questions once admitted

Access to funding

You may not be eligible for some of the recruitment funding the university gives. You will likely not be eligible for some of the funding in the form of grants and awards during your PHD. Try and get an accurate picture of what funding is likely to be available to you. Not all funding will necessarily be on the website, so you should ask about this. Watch out for lies about this during recruitment.

Country specific funding

The slightly bright side is that there might be funding specifically for international students either in general or from specific countries or regions. Check the website, but also ask other international students. Students who will bring funding from their home country upon admissions might find it work in their favour with admissions, since this alleviates the school’s burden to fund them. So, if you are bringing funding with you, you should either put it in the application somewhere (if confirmed) or let the admission’s officer know if you are put on the waitlist.

International or out of state fees

Generally, there will be an extra fee for international students (or in some cases everyone who counts as out of state). You should ask how your international or out of state fees are being covered and what impact this will have on you during your time in the program. Specific questions that can be useful to ask: Do you need to complete milestones before other students? Will your funding be cut if you don’t pass qualifying exams the first time? Is it impossible for you to get funding past your last year?

Health insurance

While health insurance is an issue for all US students, there are some extra questions you might want to ask.  For example: Does your health insurance cover you when travelling back home? And rather more grimly, what happens if you become sufficiently ill that you need to be transferred home; does insurance cover medical transport out of the country?

What happens when things go wrong

You are likely to be in a more precarious situation with regards to funding than resident students. It can be useful to find out what is likely to happen with regards to student status, funding, and visa if something goes wrong. Examples of what could happen include failing a class, not meeting the conditions for employment, needing to take a medical leave of absence, or needing to travel home at very short notice.

Working

As an international student you will likely be on an F1 visa. You can only work off campus in very specific circumstances where the work counts as practical training. This means it is important to check that the university will be able to offer you employment during summer if you are not funded during that time. More info on when you can work here: https://www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/students-and-exchange-visitors/students-and-employment

Find your own funding

Given the lack of funding you might find at the university, one option is to find external funding. Unfortunately, you are likely ineligible for a lot of these as well. There are some exceptions, however. One prominent example is Fulbright https://foreign.fulbrightonline.org/about/foreign-student-program which will fund your first year of graduate school. You should also check for funding from government, charities and other organisations in countries you are a citizen of, are or were resident in, or studied in.

Visas

If you are Canadian or Bermudan you do not need one.

You cannot apply for a US visa in the USA.

You will likely get an F1 student visa. You can have dependents, but they cannot work. (If you get a J1, dependent can work but you will not be able to get another US visa for a period after.)

Here is a very brief overview of the visa process just to give you an insight into what studying in the US will entail:

  1. Be registered with the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) by your university. (watch out for delays here)
  2. Pay $200 fee to register with SEVIS and get an I-901.
  3. Get a 1-20 from your university (more potential delays).
  4. Apply online. Print completed DS-160 and get photo taken.
  5. Pay $160 to schedule and attend interview at US Embassy or Consulate (must be in person).
  6. Receive visa (even more potential delays)

Check official guidelines on the US Department of State website for more information.

Tax

The US tax system is different for non-resident international students. You will have to file taxes in the US yourself, like everyone else. But the university will withhold 14% of your income for tax purposes. You will get some of this back most likely. However, you will pay more tax than your resident peers because you do not get the same tax-free income. Your country might have a tax treaty with the US which can change all of the above.