Where to Start if You're an International Student Aiming to Study in the U.S. During COVID-19


As an international student, you may be hitting some roadblocks while trying to complete your applications to U.S. colleges. Navigating a college admission process that's different than your home country's procedures can be tricky even during typical application cycles, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. If you're feeling overwhelmed, try the following courses of action to get started.

Monitor Your Visa Eligibility

The rules regarding student visa eligibility are swiftly-changing as a result of COVID, so be sure to check policies with any school you're applying to. The critical factor here is that if your school is conducting its courses 100 percent online, you may not be able to obtain a visa. You can still attend, but you'd have to do so from outside the U.S. To be eligible for an F-1 or M-1 visa, you will most likely need to be taking some sort of in-person class.

Be in Touch With Your School About Financial Aid Options

Although international students are not eligible for federal aid in the U.S., you may be able to obtain need-based or merit-based institutional aid. Aid availability varies from college to college, but now would be the time to research what's out there and what steps you need to take in order to be considered. Begin with contacting the financial aid office of your prospective school to learn about opportunities, requirements and any necessary forms you'll need to fill out like the International Student Financial Aid Application (or ISFAA) or the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.

Find out if Your School Is Adopting Test-Optional Policies

COVID-19 has made it difficult for students stateside and abroad to take the SAT and ACT. Many colleges recognize this challenge and have, in fact, gone test-optional. This means that, while you are not required to submit a score for admission, you certainly can if you want to. A test-optional school will consider scores submitted as supplemental application materials. However, it's worth noting that some schools may have adopted test-optional policies for admission but still require test scores for academic placement or merit-based institutional aid.

Take the TOEFL iBT if Applicable

If you're an international student with a native language other than English, plan to demonstrate your English proficiency by taking the TOEFL iBT. In late October, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) indicated that more than half of its testing centers had reopened. Because openings and availability vary by country, visit ETS' website at to search for available test centers in your area.

Additionally, the TOEFL exam is available as an at-home exam in countries in which the exam is normally administered, excluding mainland China and Iran. This "TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition" is identical in content, format and scoring to the exam provided at a test center and is a great, safe alternative for students. The test is available 24 hours a day, four days a week, through December 31, 2020.

As an international student vying for a spot at your dream U.S. college, you have a lot on your plate. Knowing where to start and what research and potential challenges you have ahead will help you stay grounded and focused during application season. You've got this! For more advice and recent updates about college admissions during COVID-19, subscribe to our YouTube channel.