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Saudi students who are looking to apply to colleges and universities in the United States may quickly realize that the education system at home may look different from the one American students are used to in the United States. If you or your student is looking to attend college in the U.S., it’s important to learn about major elements of U.S. college applications, such as grades and testing equivalents, to ensure that you are set up for success once it comes time to apply.

Here are a few ways high school students residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can prepare to apply to schools in the United States.

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

Depending on what kind of school you are attending in the Kingdom, you may be working towards your General Secondary Certificate or the International Baccalaureate Diploma, both of which can be used to apply to college. The former is earned upon completion of the last three years of a student’s secondary (or high school) education. 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 you’ve performed academically, so whether you’re pursuing your General Secondary Certificate or are working towards your IB Diploma, you should strategize to achieve the best grades possible. Not only is a high school diploma a prerequisite for matriculating into college, but showing to schools that you’ve succeeded academically will help you stand out in the admissions process, and 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!

How can I stand out as an international applicant from Saudi Arabia?

High school students residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) 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, but not limited to 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.

General tips and guidelines for international students

No matter where in the world you are currently residing as a high school student, it’s important that you demonstrate to colleges that you are both a dedicated member of your community and committed to your 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 see how you can connect your passions to a need you see in your community. Colleges and universities in the United States want to see who you are beyond what you do in the classroom. You want to show that you are making an impact in your communities and pursuing the passions that genuinely excite you.

Many schools in the Kingdom place an emphasis on sports, particularly soccer. There are also 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, it’s important to 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 testing and prep for standardized tests. Students should consult the College Board international testing dates to determine the best testing timeline for taking their standardized test – these tests are usually offered in August, October, December, March and May of each year.

In addition to these 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.

If you are applying to universities from abroad, especially in the United States, we recommend that you 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. Good luck!

Differences between U.S. and Saudi Universities

When it comes to comparing universities and colleges in the United States to English-speaking universities in Saudi Arabia, there are a number of differences that make each choice unique.

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. What’s distinct about the universities in Saudi Arabia is that they offer a limited number of programs and areas of study – for instance, Alfaisal University has five colleges: pharmacy, business, engineering, medicine and science. This is in contrast to the liberal arts education and a broad curriculum of study many schools in the U.S. offer, 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.

The schools in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. also have unique cultural distinctions. Schools 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 big 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.

U.S. universities also have set initiatives related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to embrace the diversity of their student body. Many campuses across the United States have Muslim Student Associations, and actively advocate for religious inclusivity and diversity on their campuses. Several campuses also have offices of religious and spiritual life, which work to connect students to religious leaders in the community and on campus, ensuring that they can continue their religious lives throughout their studies in the United States. Universities also have support for international students, some even offering orientation programs exclusively for students from abroad when they arrive 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%