Process to Apply to US Colleges and Universities

by Hugo Alexander Morán Chávez| October 19, 2017


I am writing this process from my own experience as an international student formerly from El Salvador. Throughout the years I have been under several types of visa, including J-1, F-1, and a tourist visa. I came to the US for the first time to do a 3-month internship in 2013 at a horse farm in Covington, GA. under a J-1 visa. I entered a second time as a trainee student for a full year internship under another J-1 visa, and then I changed status to an F-1 visa or student visa to attend the University of Georgia and earn my Masters degree in Agricultural and Environmental Education.

If your college or university requires you to participate in an internship, externship or any program to finish your career; or if you wish to come on your own for a study program to better your career and life, this process would likely apply. Keep in mind that you need at least 4-6 months for all the process to be completed; from applying to the study program or internship to get your visa approved.

  1. Decide what program is best for you or better fits your career goals and dreams.

If the university you attend requires you a particular type of program, then you may consider schools and colleges that offer those kinds of program. If you are looking for a program abroad on your own, be clear about what you want to participate in before applying because if you change your mind and decide to move to a different place, it will cost money and time. I suggest starting looking five months to a year in advance for the right program and the right university.

“It took me a year to decide the program that I wanted to study, I knew I wanted something related to Agricultural Leadership, but I also liked applied Economics and Accounting. I decided that I want to study a Master of Agriculture and environmental education at the University of Georgia.”

  1. Carefully read the requirements of the study program.

For undergraduate and graduate students, the requirements vary significantly, and that is why remembering to carefully read the criteria many times before starting to collect the documentation needed.  It is also essential to check the country requirements, all US colleges and universities have different conditions depending on where you are from, and at the moment when you go to the US embassy in your country, the documentation may vary significantly.

  1. In general, these are some of the steps needed to apply to a US College or University: Required Documentation
  • Application for admission
  • Application-processing fee
  • Transcripts of High school
  • Entrance test scores
  • 3-5 letters of recommendation
  • Certification of finances forms
  • Any supplemental material required by the department

ALL STUDENTS NEED TO TAKE  GRE AND TOEFL exams before applying to a program.  If you already are in the US, it will be much easier to take these exams than in Latin America. The link for GRE is and for the TOEFL is

“You should buy two books, one for the TOEFL exam and one for the GRE, eBay is a cheap way where you can find a book for like $10, or ask other students that already took the exam. Another good source to study for the exams is YouTube where you can see some video tutorials about math problems and vocabulary. You need at least 1-5 months to prepare for the GRE and TOEFL.”

It is imperative to understand that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) which is the entity that manages of GRE and TOEFL will send you a copy of your scores, that score is not correct to send in your official scores. You need to submit through the ETS website a request that they send an official sealed envelope with your scores.

Letters of recommendation: you have two options to do your letters of recommendation. One is that tell 3-5 persons from your last institution; it can be professors, advisors, sponsors to write a letter of recommendation for you and you scan it and send via mail to the Admission Office. The second way is online. Sometimes while working on your online application, its tell you to submit 3-5 contacts to send them a link to an online recommendation letter. I recommend to do it online because it is easier and quicker, but remember to tell and inform the people that will help you fill out the recommendation letters before they received the email.

Certificate of finances: As an international student you will require to show that you can pay for your program even if you are going to receive an assistantship, you will need to show the Immigration officer that you can still support yourself in case you lose funding or emergencies.

“Remember to contact the admissions office and ask for any other extra documents that they may require.”

  1. Contact the academic department before applying.

I strongly recommended contacting anyone, ideally the department head, to see if applications are being taken at the moment that you want to apply or to introduce yourself as interested in their program.

  1. When you are ready, apply!                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
  2. Acceptance letter and package to start visa application.

Many US Colleges and Universities have online tools where you can check your application status, and you may be able to track the updates of your application. You also will be notified if you have been accepted into the program you applied. After you receive confirmation that you were accepted, you need to send an email to the department head and the admissions office about starting your visa paperwork. For study programs, you will need an F-1 visa. Remember that to come to the US to study; you cannot enter on a tourist visa.

To apply for a visa, you will need official documents from the admissions office such as a letter of acceptance, I-20 or SEVIS, and any other immigration document required to apply for a visa. It is crucial that you understand that to come to the US a student, you need to apply for a visa in your home country because if you are in the US, you can still apply for a student visa but is not recommendable.  The admissions office will most likely send you the acceptance package by mail because you need to have the original papers before you apply for a visa. Keep in mind that receiving the documents outside the USA can take at least five business days.

YOUR VISA TYPE DEPENDS ON THE PROGRAM YOU APPLIED! If you are applying to an undergraduate program or graduate program, you need an F-1 student visa. If you are applying for an internship or study abroad program, you need a J-1 visa.

  1. Apply for the visa in your home country.

After you have the acceptance package from the admissions office, you can start your process to apply for the student visa.  In most Latin America,  the US have embassies or consulates.  To start the visa application, you need to find out on the US embassy website of your home country all the documents you need to apply for a student visa or a non-immigrant visa. This is a two-step process; you will need the acceptance package from the program you applied and other documents required by the embassy such as an online application, passport, bank accounts, etc.

  1. Visa Application and interview.

To apply for a student visa or non-immigrant visa, you will need:

  • Be accepted at a US College or University and have your acceptance package from the University
  • Complete the US embassy online application
  • Pay visa and application fees
  • Moreover, schedule an interview

For the interview. After you schedule the interview the system will send to your email an appointment confirmation that you need to print together with your DS-160 form. You also will need to bring 3-4 passport size pictures if the system did not make you submit them online. For the interview, you need to be at the Embassy at least 30 minutes. “Do not by an airplane ticket until you know your visa has been approved.”

  1. After the visa is approved and Entering the US.

After your visa is approved you need to contact the department you applied and let them know the great news. Keep in mind that you need to be precisely the day classes start so you are not moved into the next semester to start classes.

Entering the US. When you arrive at the port of entry in the US be sure to have your I-20, valid passport and all the acceptance package that the institution you applied sent you. After arrival at your destination remember to keep your visa and I-20 in a safe place and start your registration process and be sure to check in with immigration services and go to the international student orientation meetings the first week.





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