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Over 350,000 students come to the U.S. every year from China to study at American universities, making China the #1 country from which international students in the U.S. hail. However, navigating the American college application landscape as a Chinese applicant can be confusing and overwhelming without proper guidance. This comprehensive guide is designed to provide applicants from China with an overview of the application process and important information they need to know about applying to colleges and universities in the U.S.!

Components of U.S. College Applications

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, Chinese applicants must understand each component of the holistic review process. U.S. colleges consider each component of a student’s application equally and regard an applicant holistically on the basis of an applicant’s personality, interests, and accomplishments—not their grades alone. Colleges want to see students’ demonstrable interests and passions in order to understand who they are beyond their test scores and grades.

Academics & Grades

Students who wish to be competitive applicants should not only strive for stellar grades, but also plan to take a rigorous course load consisting of the most challenging courses offered by their school. If a Chinese applicant attends an American International School, for instance, they should make sure that they are excelling in International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. If they attend a school that does not offer IB, they should aim to enroll in the most advanced courses offered by their particular school—American universities will evaluate their application in the context of their school, and the rigor of their classes will be determined relative to the highest level offered at their high school.

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!

Key Tip: 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 more accustomed to memorizing information than your American counterparts, American students will likely have more exposure to educational models that require them to think critically about source material. 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 excel in art classes, you might consider supplementing your classroom learning by engaging in an art competition, teaching younger students, or starting artistic workshops in your community.


In order to apply to schools in the U.S., Chinese applicants will be required to take American standardized tests – either the SAT or the ACT (instead of taking the Gaokao in China). Research the specific colleges where you intend to apply 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 a student’s 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!

When it comes to testing requirements, it is important to 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 and require a high level of proficiency in the English language, making these sections especially challenging for students whose first language isn’t English. One great way to prepare is to read extensively in English from a variety of genres (literature, journalism, nonfiction)—this will help to increase your reading comprehension and writing mechanics skills.

You may also be required to take the TOEFL or IELTS tests to demonstrate your English proficiency. The IELTS is scored out of 9 points and the TOEFL 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 to check 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 a school taught in a foreign language requires proficiency in the language, and most U.S. universities will require at least one semester of writing or English.


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, write out your ideas in a book of poetry, or put your coding skills to use by launching your own database. There are abundant possibilities—what is important is that you demonstrate your actionable skills and guiding passions to colleges through the activities you engage in outside of the classroom.

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, Brown, and Yale) set no specific requirements in terms of choosing teachers based on subject matter, it is best to request a letter from a teacher who has instructed you in a subject relating to your intended major. They will be best equipped to speak to your qualifications in your specific area of interest. Plan to 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. For more information about what a teacher should include in a recommendation, check out Command’s comprehensive Guide to Recommendation Letters for Teachers!


One element of the college application process that may be daunting for Chinese applicants is the emphasis that U.S. colleges place on writing the college essay—college applications in the U.S. require students to write a lot about themselves. Every competitive U.S. college requires applicants to submit a personal statement, as well as several supplemental essays that vary from school to school. Why are these writing samples and personal reflections important in the American college admissions process?

Competitive colleges in the U.S. use the essay to distinguish one highly qualified candidate from another. In getting to know students on a more personal level through their writing, schools can better determine whether a given applicant will be a good fit for their unique campus culture. As you begin crafting your essays, make sure to work on your writing skills and to start brainstorming potential ideas for your essays, keeping in mind that these writing samples are intended to show your creativity, inventiveness, and unique voice. It can also be helpful to look at sample essays to get a sense of what colleges look for in a successful personal statement. John Hopkins University publishes a series of “essays that worked” each year to give students a sample of student essays that were particularly strong.

College List

As you gather content for your application, it’s also important to think about which schools you intend to apply to! You should put together a balanced list of schools that cater to your interests and align with your desires for your campus experience. It’s always worth considering factors such as location, size, and type of program. While many families may want to focus exclusively on Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, there are many prestigious universities that are not in the Ivy League, and students should carefully consider all aspects of a school—not just its ranking—when finding their right fit. Some of these other highly regarded institutions will set you up for equal if not greater success than Harvard.

As a student in China, it may be challenging to visit U.S. universities, an important component of weighing your options and getting a better understanding of a school’s culture. However, keep in mind that many schools offer virtual tours, Q&A sessions, and informational meetings that you can attend synchronously or asynchronously. These are fantastic ways to hear more about a school from current students or admissions representatives and to get a glimpse into life on campus.

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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%