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Applying to U.S. Colleges as a Brazilian Student

During the 2022-23 academic year, just over 16,000 Brazilian students came to the United States to study at American universities, making Brazil the ninth leading country of origin for international students in the U.S.. If you, like thousands of other Brazilian students, intend to apply to American colleges, it is important to research the process and approach it strategically, as the American university system and its application process differs significantly from the Brazilian system. As you navigate these key differences, Command Education has all of the information you need to know to tackle the U.S. college application process with confidence and clarity.

What are the primary differences between higher education in Brazil and the United States?

In the U.S., a student’s subject area specialization is called a “major”– majors at top schools tend to represent academic topics (English Literature, French Language and Culture, Politics, Economics, Biology, Physics, etc), rather than professional skills. One of the most significant distinctions between the Brazilian and U.S. systems is that a typical U.S. program will not require students to declare their speciality until the end of their second year of college, whereas Brazilian schools require that students apply to a specific track, making it very difficult to change specialization once they have begun their intended course of study.

Within the U.S. system, in most cases, a student’s college major does not immediately translate to a professional degree. After graduation, Brazilian students are largely able to work within their professional discipline, while American students will require a Master’s or comparable advanced degree. For instance, a student in a Brazilian university who studies law as an undergrad can practice law after graduation; a student in the U.S. might study politics or policy, but they will still need to attend a formal law school program for an additional three years before they can practice law. The same principle applies to medicine, architecture, psychology, and a vast number of other professions that require additional licensing or advanced degrees.

If you are planning to live in Brazil long-term after attending a U.S. university and intend to work in a field that requires a specific professional degree, make sure that your field of interest allows some reciprocity between an American bachelors degree and a Brazilian undergraduate degree—otherwise, you may end up effectively attending college twice!

One other major point of difference is that U.S. universities tend to offer more flexibility than Brazilian universities—a student may choose to take many Chemistry classes in their first two years but ultimately decide to major in Spanish.

Finally, the vast majority of top U.S. schools follow a liberal arts model, which incorporates a wide range of subjects beyond those required for a student’s specialization. A typical semester course load during first year or sophomore year could include Political Theory, Irish Literature, Microeconomics, Psychology, and French, becoming more specialized and tailored to a student’s major during junior and senior years. Engineering programs tend to necessitate earlier specialization and are thus an exception to the liberal arts model. Most engineering schools require students to pick their area of study by the end of the first year and do not require them to take classes in many different subject areas. Similarly, some schools make students apply directly to engineering majors and have strict regulations regarding switching majors—in this sense, engineering programs are slightly more similar to the Brazilian undergraduate model than typical liberal arts curriculum.

What should Brazilian students know about the U.S. application process?

Just as American universities’ curricula and pedagogical models differ from those of Brazilian universities in important ways, American universities also look at different criteria when it comes to admissions decisions. First and foremost, Brazilian students should know that American universities evaluate students holistically—a student’s grades, test scores, essays, and extracurricular activities are all taken into account in the admissions process. Most importantly, while grades are not all that colleges consider, your grades in each of your high school classes are critical for determining your candidacy at prestigious American universities.

This is an important distinction from the Brazilian system, in which a student’s high school course exams and grades have no long-term effect on their chances for college admissions so long as they do well on the Vestibular. There is no equivalent to the Vestibular in America—the U.S. has standardized exams, the ACT and the SAT, but unlike the Vestibular, they test general aptitude for critical thinking and students’ scores are significantly less important than Brazilian students’ scores on the Vestibular. Furthermore, everyone takes the same ACT and SAT exams—there are not subject-specific versions of the exam offered by each school—and whereas Brazilian universities have strict cut offs, American universities accept a range of ACT and SAT scores. Ultimately, it is important to know that American colleges and universities are looking for consistent hard work, intellectual curiosity, and demonstrable growth throughout a student’s entire academic career rather than high performance on a single exam.

In addition, U.S. colleges also place a significant emphasis on what students have done outside of the classroom: they want to examine a student’s entire profile to better understand their character, leadership skills, engagement and impact within their local community. In some respects, this aspect of American college admissions more closely resembles applying for a job—the school is seeking to ensure that an applicant will be a good fit for their campus community—personally, academically, and culturally.

Typical activities that are valued by American colleges include consistent volunteer work, athletics, leadership in a student organization or club, and working a part time job, among others. Whatever you choose to do, your passion for the given activity will shine through on your application, so select an activity that will spark genuine interest and deepen your engagement with the topic or career path that you want to pursue. For instance, if you are interested in art, consider organizing an art show for your local community, volunteering with a camp or club that teaches children artistic skills, or interning at a local art gallery.

Understanding the nuances of the American university system and the application process is essential as you structure your future goals as an international student. As you continue to plan and begin the application process, check out Command Education’s vast collections of resources to answer all your questions about college lists, essays, letters of recommendation, and more!

International Student Support from the Experts

Applying to U.S. colleges and universities as an international student is a complex and intricate process. Command Education Senior Mentors offer international students expert, individually tailored guidance to support them through the process step-by-step, empowering them to build standout applicant profiles and get into their dream schools.

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