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Applying to U.S. Colleges as a Saudi Arabian Student

Saudi students considering applying to colleges and universities in the United States may quickly realize that the American application process differs significantly from their own. If you hope to attend college in the U.S., it is important to thoroughly research major elements of U.S. college applications, such as grades and testing equivalents, to ensure that you are set up for success in the competitive admissions landscape.

This Command Education Guide provides our expert advice for high school students residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as they apply to schools in the United States.

What is the US high school diploma equivalent in Saudi Arabia?

Students in Saudi can pursue General Secondary Certificate or the International Baccalaureate Diploma, both of which can be used to apply to college in the U.S.. The former is earned upon completion of the last three years of a student’s secondary (or high school) education, while the latter is taught in schools around the world and begins in the student’s junior year—or grade 11—of high school.
Colleges and universities in the United States care deeply about how students perform academically, so whether you’re pursuing your General Secondary Certificate or are working towards your IB Diploma, you should aim to earn the best grades possible. Not only is a high school diploma a prerequisite for matriculating into college, but showing schools that you’ve succeeded academically will help you stand out in the admissions process—and, in the case of the IB program, can even count towards credit for your first year courses, which will put you in advanced academic standing before you even step foot on campus!

What scholarship opportunities are available to students from Saudi Arabia?

High school students residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have an invaluable opportunity to earn government scholarships and sponsorships to pursue their studies outside of the country. The ultimate goal of such programs is to enable students to help stimulate Saudi Arabia’s labor economy in the fields of science and research.

Since its inception in 2005, the King Abdullah Scholarship Program has supported about 130,000 Saudi students pursuing higher learning in countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, and Canada. Students who have applied and been accepted receive full funding for the duration of their studies abroad, including the entire four years of a student’s undergraduate experience.

The Custodian of the two Holy Mosques’ Overseas Scholarship Program also endorses Saudi nationals to pursue higher learning abroad through The Path of Excellence Scholarship. In accordance with the Kingdom’s 2030 vision, this program fully supports students from KSA to study so long as they receive unconditional offers from the institutions they apply to. Students from KSA who pursue higher learning abroad study “specialities,” including Business Administration, Political Science, and Criminal Justice. Institutions that have partnered with The Path of Excellence Scholarship include Ivy League universities such as Princeton and Brown, and schools in the UK such as King’s College and the London School of Economics.

How can I stand out as a Saudi student?

Admissions officers at top U.S. universities are not only looking for students who excel academically, but those who will contribute to a vibrant and diverse campus community. It is therefore important that you demonstrate to colleges that you are dedicated to using your passions in service of your community through both academic and extracurricular pursuits.

Make sure you’re carving out time to connect with your school community. Are you devoting time to extracurricular activities, such as playing sports or an instrument, volunteering or tutoring others in your community? Ask yourself what your passions are and consider how you can connect your passions to a need in your community. Whether through an on-campus organization or through an independent passion project, make an effort to illustrate your interests and leadership abilities to admissions officers. You may also find opportunities to participate in school activities that many students in the U.S. partake in as well, such as volunteering and writing for the school paper.

Strategize for Success on Standardized Tests

In addition to being an active member of the school community, students should strategize for high standardized test scores on either the SAT or ACT. Like some high schools in the United States, some secondary schools in the Kingdom offer after-school activities centered on prep for standardized tests. For students whose school does not offer these opportunities or who seek additional support, hiring a private tutor can provide a more individualized approach to the test-taking process. Students should consult the College Board international testing dates to determine the best testing timeline for taking standardized tests—these tests are usually offered in August, October, December, March, and May of each year.

In addition to standardized tests, international students are often required to send in proof of English language proficiency if their native language is not English. If that applies to you, you can take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System), or PTE (Pearson English Language Test) to demonstrate linguistic proficiency to schools in the United States. Start planning and studying early in your high school career so that you can maximize your chances of earning high test scores and thus being admitted to top schools.

Differences between U.S. and Saudi Universities

There are a number of significant differences between Saudi and American schools that applicants should keep in mind as they navigate the process.

Some of the top-ranked English-speaking universities in Saudi Arabia include King Abdulaziz University, Alfaisal University, and King Saud University. Most English-speaking universities in the country offer Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees, just as U.S. universities do. However, universities in Saudi Arabia offer a more limited number of programs and areas of study. For instance, Alfaisal University has five colleges: pharmacy, business, engineering, medicine, and science. By contrast, many U.S. universities offer robust liberal arts education and a broad curriculum of study, especially within the humanities.

Some schools in Saudi Arabia also offer separate campuses for male and female students—for instance, King Saud has dedicated “female colleges” within the studies of Humanist Science and Science and Medical Studies with a separate campus for its female students. However, with the exception of women’s colleges, almost all U.S. universities are co-ed, welcoming both male and female students to their campuses.

Schools in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. also have unique cultural distinctions. Colleges and universities in the United States are well-known for student life through communal dorm living, as well as active student and social organizations such as Greek life. Student life in universities in Saudi Arabia may look markedly different due to the country’s conservative cultural characteristics. Religion is a central component of many Saudi students’ lives, so students looking to study internationally in the United States may want to look for campuses that offer vibrant cultural and religious organizations. Universities also have support for international students, some even offering orientation programs exclusively for students from abroad when they arrive on campus.

While applying to college in the U.S. may initially seem overwhelming and intimidating, with proper strategy and research, Saudi students can excel in the admissions process and thrive once they arrive on a U.S. college campus!

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.

Start your admissions journey at top U.S. colleges and universities today by scheduling a free consult!