Coming to America 101: Can you still apply? Should you bother?

Hello everyone, this is the first post in a series that I intend to write to share my experience applying to American universities for a bachelor’s degree. If you are (or know) a high school student who is thinking about studying in the US and you do not know where to start, I hope you will find this series of posts helpful.
This first post deals with whether or not you should invest time and money applying to American universities depending on when you intend to start the process. The timeline is a bit too important, and there are quite a few scenarios, so feel free to jump to the one closest to your case and see if you can still catch the train to America:

Scenario 1: You just started high school
Scenario 2: You have one year left to graduate and it’s still summertime
Scenario 3: You have one year to graduate and it’s around September
Scenario 4: You have graduated high school and you started college:              

A. You don’t mind starting college all over again.           

B. You prefer to transfer and continue college in the US

Scenario 1: You just started high school: 1245686792938124914raemi_check_mark-svg-hi

You got all the time in the world to apply to university in the US. But you shouldn’t spare a moment. You can do this right and get to your dream school. Here is what you should focus on:

A. Your grades:
You should strive to have the best grades ever! Your transcripts should be excellent. You should have a well rounded education. I know that in some countries, you are only required to focus on the important subjects of your track. For example, in the Tunisian educational system, if you choose the scientific track, you don’t have to worry about any subject other than Math, Physics and Bio. But this is a very bad approach. You should most definitely care about Geography, History, languages and all the other subjects even though they aren’t central to your track. English is also very very important. I cannot stress this enough. You should feel comfortable speaking, reading and writing in English. If necessary, you should take some intensive language courses either in your country or in England/US.

B. Join the CCC in your country/city:
Education USA has a branch in almost every American cultural center. In the MENA region they are called Amideast and in most countries there is a club called Competitive College Club (or CCC) where you can find all the help you need with the application process. You will join a group of equally talented students who are just as eager as you are to pursue their education in the United States. And you will get the help of professionals who know exactly how to guide you through the entire thing. 

C. Study abroad + community service:
The YES program is the exchange program I am most familiar with. Many people I know have gone through it and highly recommend it. If you join the YES program you will be an exchange student in an American high school somewhere in the States and you will live with a host family for the entire year. I have not personally participated in the program but I know people who have. So feel free to comment below and I will be happy to direct you to one of my friends who can help you with any questions you have on the program. That being said,  The YES program isn’t the only exchange program out there, and the United States aren’t the only destination you should look for. There are many other programs that will help you improve your English and give you a great overview of what life abroad is like.

Also I should mention: A study abroad is not mandatory in any way. Many people have never set foot in the US let alone study in it and have been accepted to the most prestigious schools. I think the main advantage of the study abroad is reassuring admission officers that you will adapt easily to life in the US. It will also alleviate any doubts they may have on your academic excellence. If say you are a great student but in your educational system a 70/100 is a great grade. The admission officers don’t necessarily know that. So if they see that when you attended school in the US you did very well and were a straight A/A+ student they will be even more confident admitting you. This experience will also come in handy when you have to talk about some interesting experiences in your life, when you write your college application essays. The other advantage of studying abroad  is that it will initiate you to becoming more involved in you community which might not be something you are familiar with in your home country. You should always remember that community service will be a very important factor in your application. As a student you are expected to have completed a significant number of volunteering hours (preferably in your area of interest. Eg: If you want to be a veterinarian than it only makes sense that you volunteer at the zoo.) Now obviously you can volunteer in anything you like and shouldn’t feel like you are limited in your choices of community service. Any experience that shapes your leadership skills and allows you to give back to your community is very much welcome.

D. Standardized tests:
You’re going to need

  • TEOFL or some other equivalent test that proves your English proficiency. If you do take the TEOFL (internet based) you should aim for a score higher than a 100
  • SAT or ACT. Usually universities accept both. I personally took the SAT (in 2012)  and I would have been happy to give you an idea of the score you should aim for. Only, they have changed the test significantly and it’s no longer out of 2400 but 1600 instead.
  • You can add the SAT subject tests. And those may be required by some schools

You should decide which standardized tests you want to take and prepare for them very well. You should aim to take them a year or 2 before graduation. But you can start preparing for them earlier. Don’t forget that you can take them more than once.

E. Bond with your professors:
Most American universities require at least 2 recommendation letters from your high school professors. It is in your best interest to bond with the professors that you feel very sympathetic towards. Make sure they know you, tell them about your hopes and dreams and ask for their advice. Ex: If you are thinking about getting a bachelor in English talk to your English professors, ask them about their college days, what books should you be reading to get ahead? that kind of thing.
If you genuinely establish a connection with your professors, you will be surprised how friendly they are. When the time comes for you to approach them for a recommendation letter (sometime around September of your last year), it will feel very natural and almost expected. Neither of you will feel awkward. Trust me. 

F. Bond with your counselor:
Whether you are uncertain of the career you want to have or you are certain you found your passion, you should most definitely get to know your career counselor. And not just because you will need a recommendation letter from him/her. They are great resources that can help you in many ways.  If you do not have a counselor in your high school, the headmaster can be a suitable substitute. 

G. Start researching universities in your free time:
Here is a guide on how to

Scenario 2: You have one year left to graduate and it’s still summertime 1:  1245686792938124914raemi_check_mark-svg-hi

Let me explain the time frame. Let’s say you are in the class of 2017. Which means that you will get your high school diploma around May/June 2017.  According to this scenario, we are still in the summer 2016. Now, most universities require you to apply before January 1st or 15th 2017. So it’s going to be a challenge to do everything in less than 6 months, but you can still make it.
You should read the section above for students who just started high school. All that is in there applies to you, only it’s the expresso mode. 

Since you don’t have as much time, these are the most pressing issues you need not forget:
You should register to take the SAT and the TEOFL ASAP, the test should be sometime in October and there might not be any spots left. So don’t waste a day and register as soon as you can (not sure how it works for ACT).You need to practice your SAT/ACT skills in every spare moment you have. Scoring well on the SAT doesn’t mean that you know more. It just means that you practiced better.
When registering for any of these tests you are allowed to list 4 universities of your choice to which your scores will be sent for free. So to take advantage of that, you should have 4 universities in mind. Choose wisely: Here is how.
Start talking to your professors and your counselor as soon as classes start. If you don’t have strong bonds with the professors you’ve had in the previous years, Your final year is your only chance to talk with 2-3 professors and give them time to get to know you well enough to recommend you. I could probably write a blog post that explains to professors how to write recommendation letters.

Scenario 3: You have one year to graduate and it’s around September 1 🤔

You could probably make the cut. It will be tight though. Because you won’t have the summer to buffer like people in scenario 2. So if you feel like you can’t handle the stress( maintaining a good GPA and finishing all the application requirements), you should probably concentrate on your last year of high school and apply to universities in your country. In many countries (Tunisia included) there is a final test at the end of the last year of high school that determines what universities you can get into. (And unlike the SAT you cannot retake it). So some people prefer to focus on their classes to do well on that exam rather than distracting themselves with applying to universities in the US last minute. Other people feel like they can juggle both things. So it’s your call really. 

Scenario 4: You have graduated high school and you started college

If you are in your first (or even second) year of college in your country or anywhere else, you can still apply to universities in the United States. There are 2 options ahead of you:

A. Start college all over again.
B. Transfer and continue college in the US

Let’s look at A: Starting college over again: 

In this case you have to make a decision between 2 things: 

1. You can pretend like you never attended college and present the first year of college you got as some kind of gap year. If you do pick this choice, you are expected to do a lot and I mean a lot of volunteering (full time preferably). You might want to get a job, or travel around.. Something worthwhile, something that shows that you are active, ambitious and productive. In your essays you can explain that at the end of high school you didn’t really know what you wanted to do and you wanted to take the time to think about it and in the meantime you had all these wonderful experiences. 

2. You can admit that you did go to college for however long you did. And say that you weren’t happy there. But here is the catch: it is absolutely crucial to not talk shit about your school. You should NEVER EVER say that the school you attended was bad or that it wasn’t educationally challenging or anything of that sort. You should say things along the lines of “It wasn’t a good fit for me socially. I didn’t make friends because people are a lot more extroverted than I am. I know that at your school I will thrive a lot more” Or “I majored in engineering but I quickly realized that my destiny is to become a musician…” I think you understand what I mean.  

Now let’s look at B. Transferring and continuing college in the US: 

This one is a bit of a challenge. Most American universities only take domestic transfer students.(Meaning students from the United States) 
Many universities, (even if they don’t say so explicitly) are reluctant to transferring your credits unless you had them in an American university abroad. 
The other issue is that there are very few scholarships available for transfer students.  I personally recommend sticking with option A.( starting over) or continuing with your degree and getting the best possible grades and applying for grad school in the US. 



I hope you found this post helpful. I am currently writing a post on how to pick the universities to apply for and as soon as I do I will update the links here. Of course, feel free to comment with any questions you have or any corrections. Again it’s been quite some time (3/4 years) since I applied for college. And things have changed a lot. So please if you have any updates or corrections I would appreciate your input. 


  1. Assuming the school year starts sometime around September and ends sometime around may. If otherwise, I wouldn’t know honestly.

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