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A Guide to Why it is 2–3x Harder for International Students to get into Top US Colleges

A Guide to Why it is 2–3x Harder for International Students to get into Top US Colleges

A Guide to Why it is 2–3x Harder for International Students to get into Top US Colleges 1280 384 Theo Wolf


We’ve addressed how hard is it for international students to get into top US universities, but next we’d like to explain where this added difficulty originates.

As outlined in that post and in our methodology, we’ve found that it is between 2–3x more difficult for international students to gain admission to top US colleges when compared with domestic students. However, this number likely varies widely from school to school, since each is different in terms of things like taste, evaluation criteria, student body makeup, etc. It’s very possible there are some top schools that are even harder than MIT to get into.

So why is that exactly?

There are several explanations that have been put forth by schools and scholars alike. Sadly, we can’t know how much each factor individually impacts this differential, but altogether these help to explain why admittance is so much harder for international students.

1) Financial need

Financial aid likely explains a large portion of the differential. Because most colleges are need-aware to international students, it’s harder to gain admission since these schools reject some students purely because those students can’t afford the cost of attendance. Meanwhile, the few schools that are need-blind to international students get a disproportionately high number of applications since for many students those schools are their only chance at an American education. When applying to need-aware schools, if you know for a fact that your family can pay for your education, your chances are probably improved (and conversely, if you don’t believe your family can pay, your chances are much worse). However, just because you can pay doesn’t mean that getting in will be as easy as it is for a domestic student.

What you can do to safeguard against this: Make sure your family’s finances are in order and that the schools you’re applying to will be realistic for your family’s income. If you doubt your family’s ability to pay, focus on schools that are need-blind or need-aware but with full aid met, and since most of these are even harder to get into, consider using Canadian schools as safeties with their lower tuition costs.

2) Skepticism about internationally located high schools

Like in many private businesses, admissions officers cover different regions. One will cover the Northeast United States; another, California; another, the Southeast, etc. Typically one admissions officer is assigned to all of East Asia. Some colleges even only have one officer for all international applicants!

It’s their job to be aware of what schools are in their regions. However, imagine trying to know all of the high schools in East Asia: China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and other countries in the region together make up an estimated 21% of the world population. It’s an impossible task. As a result of this, many admissions officers will focus exclusively on the major American or International schools in these regions, which have sent successful students to their colleges in the past. This is why most visits from colleges happen at those schools. As a result, if you’re applying from a local school or a newer/lesser-known private school, you can’t count on the admissions officer ever having heard of it.

What this means is that even if you have a 4.0 GPA, admissions officers will be skeptical of your grades because they can’t trust the rigor or quality of the school. The SAT/ACT are meant to be a way for colleges to have a sense of students’ overall academic proficiency compared to other students (there’s a reason they’re called standardized tests). However, because of recent scandals with the SAT (there was widespread cheating in the August test, specifically in East Asia, and previous test dates have been canceled for similar reasons) as well as with the ACT (which hasn’t had as many scandals, but still has had canceled test dates from cheating), the legitimacy of these tests have been called into question. So even with a 4.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT, your application could inspire serious doubts on the part of the admissions officer, particularly if you’re applying from East Asia.

On top of this, many college application advising companies are infamous for very sketchy practices. There have been reports of companies writing essays on students’ behalves, forging recommendation letters, and even taking standardized tests for students.

Altogether, this means that overall there is a huge amount of skepticism from admissions officers when it comes to international applicants. In order to be accepted, you have to overcome all of these hurdles and show that you’re a student who is capable of succeeding at their college. This is part of why we work with students to build Spikes. A Spike is something that is real, tangible, and highly impressive. Admissions officers know that students with Spikes are capable of incredible things, which not only bolsters their application but grants additional legitimacy to 1600 SAT scores or 4.0 GPAs (since students with Spikes can achieve a kind of halo effect that makes their scores and grades more trustworthy). You can read more about what Spikes are all about here.

We estimate that this reason accounts for the overwhelming majority of why it’s harder for international students to get into top colleges than it is for domestic students. Even if you’re at a top American or International school in East Asia, this obstacle still exists because of the region you’re coming from. If you’re at a local or public school, it will be an even larger barrier.

What you can do to safeguard against this: Build a Spike, attend a school with a track record of sending students to top US colleges, take a for-credit summer course at a top US university in order to show that you can handle the rigor of higher education (particularly if you’re at a local school).

3) Language

English is not the first language of most international students, but it’s the language that US college classes are taught in (aside from language classes). For that reason, it’s critical that incoming freshman have a very clear comprehension of the nuances of the English language. This is where the TOEFL comes in.

The TOEFL was created to test students’ comprehension of the English language. Most schools require a score of 100 and some require 110. Ideally, we recommend students score above 110 just to absolutely prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have command over the English language.

However, like other standardized tests, the TOEFL is flawed. Every year, admissions officers get reports from professors of students whose English language ability is not up to snuff. When working at Cornell University, I myself met many undergraduate students whose English was substantially worse than the English of most of the high schoolers we work with at The Spike Lab. I had to wonder how on earth those students got into Cornell in the first place, despite scoring above 100 on their TOEFLs. For this reason, admissions officers have to look past the TOEFL and pay extra mind to essays, supplements, interview, and other components of the application in order to keep an eye out for any language red flags.

If a domestic student makes a mistake on their essay, it will likely be attributed to being a typo or common mistake. If an international student makes that same mistake, it’s very easy for admission officers to assume that it’s the result of a poor grasp of the English language. This is a piece of what makes it harder for international students overall, but it’s smaller than the previous two since there are more ways to signal to an admissions officer that you are a strong English language speaker.

What you can do to safeguard against this: Score well above a 100 on the TOEFL (over 110 is ideal), take a for-credit summer course at a top American university, interview at the colleges you apply to and ace that interview. If you have any doubts about your ability to speak and listen in an interview, get some English language coaching, preferably through 100% immersive English language experiences in the US.

4) Quotas on international students

Few schools will admit if they enforce any sort of quota on international students. However, many public universities are taking measures to officially do something like this. The most notable is the UC system, which in 2017 approved an 18% enrollment cap on out of state students. No private institutions do this, but many people speculate that this sort of thing exists. None of the numbers we looked at immediately supported this theory, but it would make sense from a school’s perspective if some sort of balancing occurred, even if subconscious. For instance, if UC Berkeley accepted the same percentage of international students as domestic, the school would grow from 14% to nearly 28% international, an amount that would likely be considered unacceptable given that Berkeley is a public institution meant to serve California.

In general, it’s good to acknowledge that some schools are friendlier to international students than others. The percent of international students is often a good indicator of this, but don’t rely on it too heavily: a low percentage of international students may not be because the schools accepts fewer but rather because the school receives fewer applicants.

We can only speculate whether informal quotas have an impact on what percentage of international students are accepted, but they’re still a possible factor and something to keep in mind as you enter college application season. This is particularly true for public universities which have a responsibility to their states.

What you can do to safeguard against this: Apply to a diverse mix of private and public schools and in a diverse range of regions. What this means is not only applying to the top schools in the biggest cities and most popular states (California, New York, Boston), but also applying to schools in the south and midwest, where international students are less likely to go.

5) Recommendation letters

In the recent legal trial over Harvard’s admissions practices, legendary Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons was asked why Asian-American applicants received lower scores in the “Personal” rating category. His answer? White applicants receive better letters of recommendation than their Asian-American counterparts. If this is the case for Asian-Americans, then it’s even more true for international Asians (and international students more broadly as well). Many of our students attend local public schools and have teachers who speak little to no English. Those teachers’ English writing is often poor and their Chinese writing gets lost in translation. Even top international schools frequently have teachers who are teaching in English as a second language. Like a personal essay, a good recommendation letter is difficult to write and requires a certain level of mastery over the English language. It’s hard enough to do well even for teachers who are fluent in English.

A poorly written recommendation letter reflects poorly on you as an applicant. A student recently showed me a recommendation letter a teacher wrote which was abysmal. I had to explain to him that this letter would not only not help him: it would actually hurt his chances.

In addition, the typical style of recommendation letters is totally different in Asian education systems, which leads to a letter that might feel very foreign to US admissions officers. It’s not uncommon to talk about a student’s parents in an Asian recommendation letter, commending them and praising their reputation. American colleges, meanwhile, don’t care about students’ parents. It’s actually, in a way, preferable if a student’s parents are poor and uneducated because it makes the student’s ambitions more impressive. Additionally, Asian international teacher’s recommendation letters tend to be matter-of-fact and understated in their praise. The best college recommendations are effusive, enthusiastic, and definitive: “Annie is one of the brightest students I’ve ever had. Her mere presence in my class lifts up the students around her and elevates the level of discussion.” Nuance has no place in a college recommendation and neither does criticism. Any flaws exposed or mentioned in a recommendation letter are amplified considerably by the fact that if a trusted teacher thinks these things, then they must be true. Just one negative comment can be seen as a massive red flag.

What you can do to safeguard against this: Ask teachers you trust to write your recommendations, and ideally ask teachers who have strong English skills. Share some samples of good letters with them from the internet, so they have a frame of reference. If a letter needs to be translated, hire a skilled translator. Ideally, get a look at the letter before your teacher submits it. There’s a stigma against students reading their teachers’ recommendation letters but in this situation, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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There are likely several other factors that contribute to the difficulty international students have getting into top US colleges, including yield rates and stereotypical non-academic profiles, but the factors in this post are the ones we consider the most impactful. To learn more, download our guide to international student acceptance rates here.