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It is 2–3x Harder for International Students to Get into Top US Universities

It is 2–3x Harder for International Students to Get into Top US Universities

It is 2–3x Harder for International Students to Get into Top US Universities 1280 384 Theo Wolf


The international students we work with frequently come to us with rumors of how much harder it is for them to get into college than it is for their domestic counterparts. For that we reason, we undertook a research project using existing data and found that on average, admission rates at top US universities are 2–3x lower for international students than for domestic, depending on the type of school.

Our numbers are based on very limited data and are far from perfect. Rather, they can be used as a rough estimate to get a better idea of what you as an international student are up against.

To clarify, an international student is a foreign-born student who does not have a US passport or citizenship. If you have a US passport, you count as a domestic student, even if you grew up in a foreign country. However, be aware that some of the challenges that face international students may still exist for domestic students who were raised abroad. If you’re a foreign citizen and you go to school in the US, you still count as an international student.

Below, you’ll find a table with modifiers that explain how much harder it as based on each different category of school (depending on how they handle international financial aid). For example, at MIT is 3x harder for international students than domestic. At Cornell, it’s an estimated 2.5x.

Here is what this looks like in terms of the projected acceptance rates at some schools:

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from these findings that we have been passing on to our students:

Understand the difficulties. Go into the US college admissions process with realistic expectations based on a more accurate understanding of the admissions statistics: on average, it’s 2–3 harder for you if you’re an international student. While 1 in 20 domestic applicants are admitted into MIT, only 1 in 60 international applicants are. You should identify early on in high school if you want to apply to top US universities for college, and, if so, immediately begin cultivating a candidacy story that will help you stand out. This is why we recommend students build Spikes: it’s one of the best possible ways to do this.
Prepare a balanced college list. It’s not enough to just apply to all the top schools and keep your fingers crossed. You have to find a healthy balance of reach, match, and safety schools. Keep in mind that these numbers are primarily applicable to the schools higher in the rankings (with the exception of liberal arts schools, many of which provide generous need-based aid even to international students). This means that some of your safeties may be immune from these numbers, but if you’re high-achieving enough, understand that some of your safeties might be less safe than you realize. Also, consider applying to some no supplement colleges to easily expand your list.

Know your family’s financial situation. If there are any doubts about your family’s ability to fully finance your college education as an international student, focus your application on schools that meet full need, whether need-blind or need-aware, and consider top Canadian universities like McGill or Toronto, which are cheaper. If you know that you will need aid, factor that in to your calculations when applying to need-aware schools and know that you could be rejected because of your family’s inability to pay.

Download our full guide to learn more about our methodology and how we came to these numbers. To learn more about why this gap exists, check out our companion post here.