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Six Steps for International Students

U.S. colleges and universities have long recognized the important contributions of international students to the scientific and cultural life of this country and to their own institutions. For reasons of national security, the U.S. government has made the immigration process for students more rigorous, and therefore more complicated and time-consuming. We will discuss some of these requirements in detail later in this website; the most important thing to remember is that you are still most welcome in the United States and in our graduate programs! We have developed a series of suggestions designed to help you select a college or university for study. Many of these are the same suggestions that we make for domestic students. An excellent source of information is an online booklet called If You Want to Study in the United States, which is available in six languages.

You should pay special attention to the sections regarding admissions and applications. For most institutions, the graduate curriculum and admissions are oriented around a sequence that starts in the fall semester.

You should plan to enter graduate school in August or September, as that is traditionally the beginning of the university year in the United States. The admissions process can take a year or more, and missing deadines may mean that you will not be admitted to the institution of your choice.

Photo by Mike Ciesielski

Step One (more than a year in advance)

Your choice of institution will depend on a number of factors, including matching your interests with those of the faculty; possibilities for future employment; location of the institution; financial aid; and admission requirements. The research interests of particular faculty members can be found in the free online ACS Directory of Graduate Research. Additional information concerning a department and its admission policies and deadlines can be found on its respective web site. YOU will need to establish which examinations (the Graduate Record Examination verbal and quantitative tests, and possible subject-area tests) are required for applications. You may also find useful information concerning living expenses, living arrangements, and other such details, on web sites devoted to international student programs.

At many U.S. institutions, initial financial support is provided in the form of a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, or GTA. In order to be eligible for this kind of support, it may be necessary for you to pass the Test of Spoken English, or TSE, exam. After June 2006, this examination will not be offered separately, but will be included as part of the TOEFL Internet-based Test in most countries. Some U.S. institutions now require locally-administered exams known by various names such as SPEAK (Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit) and TAST (TOEFL Academic Speaking Test). Successful passing of these exams often determine eligibility for a GTA appointment. You should inquire about these requirements. Admission to graduate programs will not be granted until results of these examinations are received, and that is a process that can take several months. Applications to sit for these exams should be timed so that the results are in the hands of the institution by February, which is when most admission decisions are made.


  • Identify 5 or 6 possible institutions that meet your needs.
  • Make applications for the GRE exam and the TOEFL iBT exam
  • Check on institutional requirements for tests of spoken English

Step Two (September-December)

In choosing a graduate program, most of the criteria already mentioned in the previous portions of this website apply to you as well. Since visiting the institution is not normally an option, you might wish to communicate via e-mail with the graduate admissions officer. You may also wish to contact specific faculty about research and academic programs. It is important to note, however, that individual faculty do not normally have the authority to admit you to departmental programs. That is a decision that is typically assigned to a committee, which works in conjunction with the institutional admissions office.


  • Obtain and submit application forms to the institutions of your choice. IMPORTANT NOTE: The name that appears on your application should be IDENTICAL to that which appears on your passport.
  • Identify three persons familiar with your academic performance, who can provide recommendations for you. The institution to which you are applying will generally provide forms for these recommendations.
  • An OFFICIAL copy of your transcript should be sent to the institutions you have chosen.
  • The Educational Testing Service (ETS) should be instructed to send the results of the GRE and TOEFL iBT exams to the relevant institutions.
  • Make applications for financial aid. This process may be separate, yet related, to graduate school admission

Step Three (January-March)

During this time period, the institution will be making decisions concerning both domestic and international admissions. These decisions can be delayed because of incomplete information. Things that are very necessary, but often missing, include requisite letters of recommendation, transcripts, or the results of required GRE or TOEFL exams.


  • Check with the institutions to which you are applying to make sure that all of your required information is complete.

Step Four (April-May)

Most institutions make their admission decisions and expect a response from successful applicants by mid-April Usually around April 15th, but don’t panic if you haven’t heard by that date. You are likely to hear one way or the other by mid-May. You should make your choice as soon as you can, and inform all institutions to which you have applied about your decision. It is NOT considered acceptable to accept one institution’s offer, then turn it down later if “something better” comes along. This is considered evidence of unreliability and untrustworthiness. Such practices may jeopardize opportunites for admission, since positions for international students in a particular institution are often limited.


  • Decide on your choice of graduate school. Notify the school you choose of your acceptance as soon as possible.

Step Five (May-June)

After you have been accepted and indicated your intention to enroll, the institution you have chosen will submit the information necessary to grant you a visa to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is simply an on-line government database for recording information related to your program of study and U.S. immigration status. The institution will then provide you with a Form I-20 (F-1 visa) or Form DS-2019 (J-1 visa). If dependents such as a spouse or children are accompanying you, you will be required to provide the institution with the necessary information for the SEVIS database so that they will also be eligible for visas. The advantages, disadvantages, and eligibility for these two different types of visas are complicated. You are strongly advised to consult with an Advising Center if you have questions. Locations of these centers may be found on the educationUSA website. Procedures and regulations for entry to the United States may change at any time. It is essential that you be fully prepared for your interview at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy. The consular or embassy officer responsible for immigration will make a decision based on your specific case.

In approaching the interview, keep the following points in mind:

  • You will need to pay a $100 SEVIS fee prior to your visa interview (and after getting your I-20 or DS-2019). Students who are unable to show a receipt of payment, are immediately turned away by the consular official. F-1 and J-1 student visas are temporary visas designed to enable study (not long-term employment) in the United States. Due to the temporary nature of these classifications, the immigration officer will be looking for evidence that you intend to return to your home country upon completion of your degree. They are required to do this, therefore it is important to be prepared to articulate your future employment goals, strong family ties, and other links to your home country.
  • Plan your interview as far in advance as possible. It may take longer to get the visa depending on the country. Plan ahead and see what the usual waiting time is and then back plan accordingly. Ideally, you could do this at least two months before your scheduled departure to the United States. There may be inconsistencies or incomplete information issues that must be addressed before a visa will be granted.
  • Be prepared. Bring your I-20 or DS-2019 form (also referred to as the Certificate of Eligibility) with you. You should also bring personal information, such as your test scores, letters from faculty members at the institution you will be attending, official letter of graduate admission, and other information relating to your graduate program. Check with the embassy or consulate about which other documents (such as a valid passport), forms, photographs and such will be required.
  • Have in mind, very clearly, how a degree from your U. S. college or university will aid in your professional advancement.
  • Provide evidence supporting the availability of sufficient financial resources for yourself (and your family, if your family is accompanying you). Bank account statements, GTA offer letters, signed letters of financial support from sponsors, grant notification letters, affidavits of support from family with accompanying bank statements - are all acceptable. Check with your school's international office to determine how much you will be allocating for living expenses each month for yourself and your family members. This will vary from region to region and city to city.
  • The immigration officer will be looking for evidence that you intend to return to your home country upon completion of your degree.
  • The U.S. Department of State has up-to-date information on the availability of visa interview dates and times in the nearest city to you with a U.S. Consulate. This information is available online.. While academic visas are given the highest priority at U.S. Consulates, you should be aware that the summer is also the busiest time for these offices. Applying as early as possible is always a good idea


  • Obtain visa.

Step Six (June-August)

The educationUSA website also features a volume in its series, If You Want to Study in the United States, entitled “Getting Ready to Go: Practical Information for Living and Studying in the United States.” This contains useful information about the visa interview, as well as preparing for travel and entry into the U.S. Let your new department know of your travel plans. There may be people in the department who can help you once you arrive…or, they may know of or be able to find someone who can assist you. Getting settled into a dormitory or apartment will require a number of unfamiliar steps. It’s possible that someone else originally from your country will be able to help you handle the basic tasks of the first few days or weeks.

As you make your plans for arriving in the U.S., keep in mind that there may be graduate school orientation sessions that are scheduled to occur prior to the start of classes. Participation in the school's international student orientation program is mandatory and a critical step to ensuring the maintenance of valid visa status while in the U.S. All schools are federally mandated to provide such orientation programs for their international student if they issue I-20s or DS-2019s. You should also be aware that you will have to report to the institution’s Office of International Programs so that your arrival can be noted by SEVIS.


  • Arriving in the United States, and getting started at school. You made it! Congratulations!
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