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Crossing Borders : Applying to a U.S. Undergraduate School as a Canadian
by AdmissionsConsultants, Inc.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by the thought of applying to college outside of Canada, especially if you’re considering some of the more prestigious universities in the United States. Perhaps you think you’re at a big disadvantage coming from another country, even one right next door. Maybe you’re worried about all the red tape and paperwork and don’t know where to begin. Applying to college outside of your home country presents additional challenges. But don’t worry. A little guidance can help you navigate the road to the U.S. College of your choice.

Admission into top U.S. schools can be very competitive, and Canadian applicants will have to put in some added effort to show admissions committees that they’re the right choice for the school. If you have your sights set on a U.S. college, it’s essential that you start preparing early. You should begin the admissions process a good 18 months before you want to start at college, but long before that—as early as the end of eighth grade—you need to start positioning yourself to become an attractive candidate. You need good grades, solid test scores, proficiency in English—and a bit of a “wow” factor for differentiation at the top schools where the vast majority of the applicants will clear the academic qualifications hurdles and present strong candidacies. Additionally, you need to make yourself stand out from not only the American applicants, but also from the other international applicants vying for a limited number of slots.

Each college and university has its own requirements for international applicants, so be sure to find out exactly what you need for the specific schools to which you want to apply. However, most schools have several important requirements in common. These include a student visa and standardized testing, including the SAT or ACT, as well as the TOEFL for students whose first language is not English.

The Essentials

All accredited U.S. colleges require standardized test scores for international applicants. First, French-Canadians for whom English is a second language will likely have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to show proficiency in English. You must also take the SAT or ACT, both of which you can take in Canada. It’s a good idea to take these tests early in case you need to retake the tests for a higher score before you must submit your results to the schools.

Ashley Fleming, an assistant director of admission at the University of Maryland and a senior consultant for, warns Canadian students against underestimating
the importance of standardized tests in the admissions process. “As much as they are a burden, it is necessary to get the best score possible, even if it requires taking both the ACT and SAT a few times each,” says Fleming. “[Canadian applicants] can’t be shy when they wish to apply to a U.S. institution.”

To attend a U.S. college, you must also get an international student visa issued by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). For a standard undergraduate school, you’ll need the F-1 student visa, which includes academic students in colleges and universities. To obtain a student visa, you must be in good health, promise to obey U.S. laws, be financially self-sufficient, and agree to leave the country after completing your studies.

It’s a good idea to apply for your student visa early. The processes of applying for a visa and applying for college will likely happen simultaneously, although you must already be accepted to a school before the INS will grant your visa. Once you’ve been accepted to a school, the school will send you a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status—for Academic and Language Students). You must submit this form as part of your visa application.

According to Fleming, an applicant’s ability to support himself or herself financially for the length of the visa, or at least one year at a time, is essential for the INS to grant the visa. “The proof of adequate financial resources both for tuition and living expenses is often the most difficult barrier to overcome for Canadian applicants,” says Fleming. “Both the U.S. institution and the visa-granting institution are looking for a green light before the two can come together and the applicant may be granted access to study in the U.S.”

Beyond the Basics

Just because you’ve met all the school’s academic criteria, you still need to show the admissions committee that you’re the perfect match for this particular school. It’s a good idea to establish a relationship with the school’s admissions or international office. Especially at the more selective schools, you need that “wow” factor—something that draws the admissions committee’s attention to your special qualifications and makes you stand out over other American and international applicants.

This is where the personal statement on your application can really help. The personal statement is  your chance to create a context in which the admissions committee will consider your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and other achievements. Use the personal statement to differentiate your candidacy and highlight those special qualities that make you a perfect fit for the school. “The essay is a great opportunity to express why you are interested in U.S. study and what unique quality or experience makes you different from other applicants, both national and international,” says Fleming.

“Canadian students face the same challenges as all students who are applying to college in the U.S.,” says Deb Schmidt, former senior associate director of admission at Cornell and a senior consultant for “The competition will be more intense at the most selective institutions, but in general, if any student meets the academic requirements and demonstrates the ability to handle college work, the decision will come down to how well the student makes a case in the application regarding what he/she has to offer and how strong a match there is between the student’s strengths (personal and academic) and the programs (extracurricular and academic) the college offers. Involvement in activities at a leadership
level, a well-written and persuasive essay, the quality of the insights offered by those who write recommendations for the student—all will play a part in helping a student’s application rise to the top.”

Sure, if you want to apply to college outside Canada, you’re going to face some extra hurdles. The key is to start early and to put your best effort into the process. You’re competing against American applicants who are aggressive and tireless when it comes to applying to college. But if you dedicate sufficient time, preparation, and determination to the process, you’ll find that it’s not nearly as difficult as you imagined. And it will be time well spent when you get that coveted acceptance letter to the college of your dreams.

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