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Are you a student living in China looking to apply to colleges and universities in the U.S.? Over 350,000 students come to the U.S. every year from China to study at American universities, so you might have heard of this compelling option! However, there’s a lot you need to know about studying in the U.S.! If you don’t know where to start, check out our handy guide here!

There are several components to U.S. college applications: grades, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, college list, essays and letters of recommendation. In order to put together the most successful applications, you must understand this holistic review process. U.S. colleges consider all components of your application equally and consider you as an entire candidate based on personality, interests, and accomplishments – not just grades! Although this might seem like a lot to stomach, we’re here to guide you through all of its components!

Academics & Grades

To have a competitive application, you need to take a rigorous course load. What this means is that you need to be taking the most challenging courses offered by your school – and doing well in them! If you’re at an American International School, for instance, make sure that you’re doing well in your IB courses! If your school doesn’t have an IB program, don’t worry! American universities will evaluate your application in the context of your school, so make sure you’re challenging yourself as much as possible by taking the most rigorous courses offered by your school.

The main difference between the Chinese and the American education system is that American schools place more emphasis on critical thinking than on memorization. So, while you might be able to memorize an entire document more easily than your American counterparts, American students will be more likely to think about it critically. Challenge yourself to think outside of the box and to take your learning to the next level outside of school. Engage in intellectual activities that will help you grow outside of the classroom. For instance, if you’re getting high grades in math classes, you might consider supplementing your classroom learning by engaging in a school math competition or taking college courses during the summer.

You will most likely be asked to convert your grades into the standard American grading system, called a grade point average or a GPA. An “Excellent” in the Chinese grading system is roughly equivalent to an A, a “Good” to a B, a “Satisfactory” to a C, a “Pass” to a D and a “Fail” to an F. To calculate your approximate GPA, give yourself 4 points for every A, 3 points for every B, 2 points for every C, one point for every D and a 0 for every F. Add these numbers together and divide by the total number of classes you gave yourself points for. This should give you a sense of your GPA in the American system and will help you to determine your chances at each college you’re considering! You will most likely have to go to a professional translation service to obtain a copy of your transcript in English. There are many transcription services that specialize in Chinese academic transcripts. You can check out immitranslate, for instance!


Next, we’ll look at standardized tests. You’ll have to take American tests – either the SAT or the ACT – to qualify for U.S. universities (instead of taking the Gaokao in China). Research the specific colleges you’re applying to in order to ascertain their specific testing requirements, but in general, you should plan to complete the SAT or ACT by the end of your second year of high school. There is no difference between the two tests in terms of chances of admission; however, the SAT tends to be more widely available in China. Check the SAT and ACT websites to find out which tests are available in your region!

Plan ahead! Give yourself ample time to study for the SAT or ACT and learn their requisite terms and concepts. Although the math section might resemble the mathematical concepts that you’ve learned at school, the reading and writing sections tend to be very difficult, especially for students whose first language isn’t English, and require proficient knowledge of the English language. One great way to prepare is to start reading a lot in English – this will increase your reading comprehension and writing mechanics skills!

You might also have to take the TOEFL or IELTS tests to demonstrate your English proficiency. The IELTS is out of 9 points and the TOEFL is out of 120. You should aim to score at least a 7 on the IELTS or at least a 100 on the TOEFL to demonstrate your proficiency! Make sure that you’re checking the specific requirements for the schools that you’re applying to, and again, plan ahead so that you have enough time to study and sit for the tests! Going to school taught in a foreign language requires proficient knowledge of the language, and most U.S. universities will require you to take at least one semester of writing or English. If you take the TOEFL or the IELTS seriously from the start, you should have little trouble transitioning to life at an American college!


Another difference between American and Chinese schools is the focus on what’s done outside of the classroom. While most Chinese schools are test-driven, American universities prioritize extracurricular activities just as much as grades! This is the time to find your passion and to shine. Get involved in your community. Start an independent project that demonstrates your commitment to a certain topic or idea. Share your thoughts online in a personal blog. Write out your ideas in a book of poetry. Put your coding skills to use by launching your own database. Sell handmade products online. The possibilities are endless!

Letters of Recommendation

Most American colleges require two letters of recommendation from teachers of your choice and one letter of recommendation from a school official or guidance counselor. This means that you should spend your high school years developing relationships with your teachers, so that two teachers know you well by the end of your second year! While most schools, with the exception of a few highly selective colleges like MIT, set no specific requirements in terms of choosing teachers based on subject matter, it’s always helpful to have a letter written by a teacher who teaches a subject relating to your intended major who can vouch for your skills in your particular field of interest. You should do your research about what to include in a college letter of recommendation, as many Chinese teachers are unaware of the specific requirements put forth by U.S. schools. It’s important to take initiative and keep your teachers informed!


You’re going to have to write a lot about yourself in U.S. college applications! Every competitive U.S. college requires you to submit a personal statement, as well as several smaller essays that vary from school to school. As you head into the college application essay process, make sure to work on your writing skills and to start brainstorming potential ideas for your essays.

One thing that might be daunting for you as a Chinese student is the emphasis that U.S. colleges place on writing the college essay. If you come from a family or a school setting that’s mainly focused on grades, as is typical of Chinese culture, you might not understand why it’s so important to put together a compelling college essay. After all, shouldn’t grades be indicative enough of future success? The reality is that American culture is very focused on individualism, which might lead to culture shock for many students, and this means that good grades aren’t enough! American schools will give you the freedom to learn anything you want to, be anyone you want to be, and pursue any opportunities that come your way. This means that you have to be a holistic student and thinker!

College List

As you gather content for your application, it’s also important to think about which schools you’re going to be applying to! You want to put together a balanced list of schools that cater to your interests and will allow you to have your ideal college experience. It’s always worth considering factors such as location, size, and type of program. Many Chinese families will only focus on Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, which are the big name schools that they see as representative of future financial success. However, being in the U.S. is about more than just economic prosperity! It’s about discovering yourself and gaining new experiences. You will be amazed at how many hidden gems you might find in the U.S. with a bit of research! Some of these other colleges will set you up for equal if not greater success than Harvard.


As you arrive in America, you’ll be greeted by an entirely different cultural experience. This might come as a culture shock at first, but the amazing thing about American universities, especially if you choose to go to school in a big urban hub, is that you’ll meet a wide variety of people. You won’t be the only international student in the group – you’ll get to meet people from all over the world. Making international connections will allow you to experience diverse viewpoints and life stories and will make you into a more worldly citizen than if you go to school at an English-speaking university in China. Once you’re here, you’ll definitely gain more opportunities to advance your career and to meet fantastic people. Going to school in the U.S. has amazing financial returns as well – on average, salaries in America tend to be much higher than in the rest of the world. So why not take advantage of this amazing opportunity? You might learn something new about yourself throughout the process.

Adjusting to this new culture might be difficult at first, and you might have trouble understanding the various whys of the American cultural system. Some students from Chinese-based education systems might have difficulty understanding the big picture. For instance, why is it that we need to get a more holistic education in the U.S. instead of just focusing on career-oriented skills? But understanding the why behind things is the key to succeeding in the U.S. and becoming a well-rounded individual!

Above all, as you enter the college application process, remember to plan ahead! Having a set schedule in mind for the college application season will allow you to stay organized during a busy time and will help you feel at peace. We wish you the best of luck!

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Types of U.S. Schools

Unlike British system, The U.S. Department of Education cites over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., with each offering an idiosyncratic approach to education.

The main categories, however, are:

The Ivy League Schools

The eight Ivy League Member Schools are Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, and they are primarily situated in the American northeast. These schools are widely considered some of the best schools in the nation, and are some of the oldest that were originally linked by having the same sports league, the “Ivy League.” In terms of student body size, the largest Ivy is Cornell, while the smallest Ivy is Dartmouth. They range from city to rural environments, so there is an Ivy that fits best with everyone!

The Top Non-Ivy Schools

Not all great schools reside in the Ivy League, however! There are a lot of schools throughout the nation that offer the small student-to-teacher ratios, world-class academic and research opportunities, name recognition and driven student bodies that distinguish the Ivy Leagues!

Non-Ivy Schools Examples: MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon

Liberal Arts Schools

Liberal arts schools offer small student populations, small student-to-teacher ratios, unique school traditions and, or course, the hallmark and specialized “liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing the whole student through diverse and comprehensive areas of study.” 

Liberal Arts Schools Examples: Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Haverford, Bates College

The UC System

UC Schools, based in California, are some of the finest state schools in the country, with a diverse array of student bodies and research opportunities. To apply to the UC schools, you use the UC system application rather than the CommonApp. The largest UC is UCLA, with 31,000 students, and the smallest is UC Merced with 7,000 students. California universities as a whole, UCs and non-UCs alike, produced nearly 50,000 STEM degrees in 2012-13, with the UC system’s 23,000 STEM degrees far outpacing all other universities in the state.

UC Schools Examples: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara

State Schools

State schools are often large, and offer diverse and dynamic learning communities and great research opportunities!  Compared to the aforementioned institutions, state schools receive public funding from states that often empower them to offer more affordable tuition rates to residents. In-state students receive a special discount that out-of-state students don’t, making them an appealing option for many looking to expand their educational horizons while minimizing their budgets. Private schools, on the other hand, don’t receive such robust funding from the state, so much of their scholarship budgets derive from internal financial resources and private donations. 

State Schools Examples: California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, UMichigan, and Virginia Tech.

25 Top Schools with the Highest International Populations by Percentage, Ranked

(Compared to National Average of ~5.5% – Source: US News)

1. The New School – 31%

2. Boston University – 22%

3. Carnegie Mellon University – 22%

4. New York University – 22%

5. Columbia University – 17%

6. Northeastern University – 17%

7. Emory University – 15%

8. University of Chicago – 15%

9. Georgetown University – 14%

10. UC-Berkeley – 13%

11. The University of Pennsylvania – 13%

12. The University of Southern California – 13%

13. George Washington University – 12%

14. Harvard University – 12%

15. Johns Hopkins University – 12%

16. Princeton University – 12%

17. Rice University – 12%

18. Brown – 11%

19. Stanford – 11%

20. Tufts – 11%

21. UCLA – 11%

22. American – 10%

23. Cornell – 10%

24. Dartmouth – 10%

25. Duke – 10%