The process of applying to college can be very daunting. Narrowing down your desired schools, sending in applications, and gathering the required documentation can be overwhelming. As an international student, this process can feel even more challenging because of the extra steps that you often need to consider. This guide imparts key information that will make applying to US liberal arts colleges more transparent and less intimidating.
The Difference Between a Liberal Arts College and a University
Colleges and universities are both higher learning institutions that students will enter following their secondary education. With some exceptions, a university will offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, while a liberal arts college will only grant a baccalaureate. Therefore, a university will be larger than a college in student size and potentially in course offerings. Degrees at a liberal arts college will focus on the humanities and sciences, and the curricula offer students a breadth of knowledge in many subject areas in addition to the major focus. Universities will offer similar degrees to a liberal arts school but often have their students specialize earlier and do not require as many breadth requirements to earn their degree. Additionally, liberal arts colleges are typically privately owned, while universities may be private or public.
What to Look for in a Liberal Arts College
While liberal arts colleges generally structure their courses of study in a similar fashion, there are several key areas where liberal arts colleges differ. Some liberal arts colleges were founded in religious traditions or have attracted robust communities of different faiths, gendered groups, or ethnicities that continue to support these into the present day. If an undergraduate education rooted in Christian values or with a tight-knit and supportive Jewish student community is important to you, there are many liberal arts colleges that can provide this type of educational experience. There are also women’s, men’s and African American colleges that provide an education specifically tailored toward these populations.
Another important aspect of a liberal arts college experience is the social opportunities. Many colleges require students to live on campus during the first years of their undergraduate studies, so it is important to select a school that will provide you with a residential setup that meets your needs and interests. There may be themed dormitories or halls you can ask to be placed in based on your social and cultural values, including same sex and substance free. Additionally, consider the availability of extracurricular activities and the social and work opportunities in the area surrounding the campus. You will want to look for a college that offers clubs, sports or off-campus activities that are interesting to you.
Finally, consider the requirements of each liberal arts college, as these will vary from school to school. At some colleges, study abroad is required, while others mandate a senior capstone project from all students. The way that courses are offered at each college could impact your decision as well. While many follow a standard fall and spring semester system, others may offer classes in trimesters, require winter or summer sessions, or some even enroll students in only one class at a time for more concentrated and focused learning.
The Best Liberal Arts Colleges for International Students
International students can receive a quality education from any liberal arts college. However, some schools have prioritized the recruitment and admission of overseas applicants. These colleges recognize the value that a student from a foreign country can bring to their school in the areas of diversity, cultural awareness and global citizenship. According to Forbes, these are the top three schools for international students to apply to based on recruitment and admissions of overseas students.
- Bryn Mawr College: Nearly one third of the enrolled student population at this women’s college includes international students. The college has video interviews, hosts an orientation program for new international students, and offers credits for many international honors classes and exam scores.
- Claremont McKenna: This small liberal arts college is home to more than 200 international students who hail from 25 different countries. The number of international students who are enrolled continues to increase every year.
- Mount Holyoke College: More than 400 students from 70 different countries are enrolled as undergraduates at this college. Admissions interviews are offered in China to offer overseas applicants a face-to-face opportunity.
Qualities and Characteristics that Liberal Arts Colleges Look For in International Students
Regardless of country of origin, liberal arts colleges want to enroll students who are involved in their schools and communities, are passionate about learning, and are invested in their education. In general, liberal arts colleges embrace creativity and an interest in the arts, so these characteristics are appealing to schools. Additionally, because of their focus on the humanities, liberal arts colleges look for applicants who join in and give back through participation in extracurricular activities, community service and leadership.
While these qualities are measured subjectively through the application, personal essays and recommendations, the colleges also rely on standardized measures and data. Typically, liberal arts colleges seek applicants who have demonstrated consistently high grades and proficiency in exams and assignments during their secondary education. Though some liberal arts colleges no longer require ACT (American College Test) and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores to qualify for admission, many schools still look for high marks on at least one standardized assessment as an indication that students are prepared for the increased rigor and independence of college coursework. For international students, colleges will want to know that your English proficiency is strong enough to be able to understand and participate in instruction. This is typically measured by the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System).
The Application Process for International Students
When applying for admission to a liberal arts college, you’ll first want to note the application deadline. Colleges usually have a standard deadline and an early decision deadline; if applying for the latter, you will have a binding agreement to enroll in the college if accepted. For many schools, applications are due nearly a year in advance of the first term. This means that required components of the application must be completed in advance of this deadline. Nearly all schools will require a TOEFL or IELTS to measure your English proficiency. Additionally, most colleges mandate that students take the SAT or ACT, so be sure to sit for any required exams well ahead of the application deadline.
In addition to standardized testing, liberal arts colleges will request evidence of your academic performance and ability. Transcripts, letters of recommendation and a personal essay are typical components of an undergraduate application. As an international applicant, you will need to apply for a student visa. You may also need to have a credential evaluator assess your documents to ensure their authenticity and that you have met the academic requirements for entrance to the college. There is also an application fee for each college that you apply to, which might be waived in certain circumstances.
The TOEFL as a Requirement for International Students
Among the many tests that you take to prepare for your undergraduate education, the TOEFL is one that is typically on the list for international students applying to US liberal arts colleges. The TOEFL assesses your ability to apply English reading, writing, listening and speaking skills to academic tasks at the university level. Although not all colleges will require this exam, this exam is a good idea to take in case it is required by one of the colleges you are applying to. The minimum score that each school requires will vary and will not necessarily preclude you from acceptance. However, it is recommended to leave time in advance of taking the test to study and prepare for the exam to ensure your best results.
Acceptance of the IELTS at Liberal Arts Colleges
In addition to the TOEFL, the IELTS is widely accepted at private liberal arts colleges in the United States. It is important to read the requirements carefully for the colleges you are applying to so that you can determine which tests they accept and what their minimum score requirements are. Similarly to the SAT and ACT, there are no passing or failing scores on the IELTS. Each college will individually set their preferred scores for acceptance.
Financial Aid for International Students
In most cases, financial aid for undergraduate study at liberal arts colleges is reserved for students who are United States citizens. The most common forms of financial aid for international students are for those applying as graduate students. However, there may be special aid options for students with exceptional academic performance or talent in a sport or in music. Because it is rare, financial aid that is available to international students is likely to be extremely competitive, so it is important to investigate your options and apply early.
Scholarship Opportunities for International Students
Because financial aid for international students is rare, scholarships at liberal arts colleges are much more common. You might qualify for one of these scholarships at your intended college through demonstrated need, merit or skill. In addition to those monies that are offered by the college, there are opportunities for privately funded scholarships as well. Some scholarships may have specific requirements, such as a test score, GPA, or home country, so it is important to pay attention to these when investigating your options.
Additional Costs to Consider for International Students
An international student will inherently have more costs associated with attending an American liberal arts college than a United States citizen. All students should plan for tuition fees, books, room and board, and incidental expenses during the course of the term. In addition to all of these costs, international applicants need to plan for test fees to sit for either the TOEFL or IELTS. A student visa is also necessary for study in the United States. International applicants will need to budget for travel expenses to the United States as well as either accommodations or return travel during college breaks.
Employment and Work Visas for International Students
To seek employment in the United States as a nonimmigrant, you will need a work visa. There are two different visas that allow you to study and eventually work in the United States. An F-1 visa, intended for academic students enrolling in an accredited college, allows students to work on campus their first year and then to seek employment off-campus in subsequent years. Jobs sought outside of the campus are limited to training opportunities that are related to the field of study. An M-1 visa, typically granted to students entering vocational programs, allows you to work in a practical training job only after you finished your course of study.
Common Mistakes of International Applicants
Applying to college, especially as an international student, can be very overwhelming. There are so many different components and elements of the process to consider, and it can be easy to misstep in your efforts to gain admission into the college of your choice. Be aware of these common mistakes made by international students as you navigate the process.
- Waiting too long to sit for necessary exams and applying for the appropriate visas may cause you to miss deadlines and delay your enrollment. Stay on top of your timeline and make sure that you file paperwork and applications well ahead of time.
- Submitting an application or essay that unintentionally paints you as passionless or directionless. Instead of highlighting how well-rounded you are, give the admissions office a clear picture of your interests and goals and your desire to pursue them.
- Applying exclusively to well-known colleges and universities. These schools are usually highly competitive and can be very hard to get into. Do not discount smaller liberal arts colleges that can offer you a similar education and opportunities.
Attending a liberal arts college in the US can be a very exciting and memorable experience for you. You will truly be an international person with specific skills that might make you more attractive to potential employers after you graduate. So, get prepared and take the necessary steps to achieve your goal of attending college abroad.