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First Steps: Deciding to Come to the US is the Easy Part

Pharmacy student Mohamed Mostafa asked us on Facebook about how to get started once you decide you want to study in the U.S.

Deciding you want to study in the U.S. is a big decision, but making it is the easy part - it's what comes next that's hard. Our blogger Nareg says he definitely sympathizes with Mohamed's need for guidance:
It can definitely feel overwhelming having to deal with all sorts of research, paperwork, and bureaucracy when you've decided to apply for higher education in the US. The simplest but truest advice is: hang in there! It takes a lot of patience, but there's no reason why you can't make it if all is in order. Of course, getting things in order takes work, but I doubt anyone who wants to go to a whole new country to study would be incapable of some well-directed efforts.

Luckily, some very nice folks at EducationUSA saw me talking about this on Twitter, and shared with me the step-by-step guide that they use. And now I'm going to share it with you! The stuff in bold comes straight from their guide - everything else is my (hopefully useful) commentary.

1. How do I start?

- Step 1: Research choices & tests

You will need to first research your choices and find a school that best fits your needs. Every student is different, and when making your choices you should consider the factors that are most important to you in both your education and your lifestyle.

Maybe it's important to you that you end up in a particular city, like it was for Tara, or maybe, like Nick, you want to find the best academic department for the subject you want to study. There are many criteria you can use to narrow down your options and find the schools you want to apply to.

If money is a big concern, you can also look into schools that are more likely to offer financial assistance to international students.

EducationUSA has a list of many resources you can use to research schools and decide where to apply.

Nareg suggests that once you have a list of schools you might be interested in applying to, you should look at each of their websites for more information.

I'd say get your start, though, by combing through each page of your candidate schools' websites. Very often, just by going through different presentations or designs, one can get a feel for schools and compare their traits. If there is anything on there you don't understand, or if you have special considerations, then do not hesitate to e-mail or telephone the college or university directly. Again, patience is always a virtue when it comes to these sorts of things.

While you're researching, also look into specific exchange programs that might support your studies and could determine where you end up.

That’s what Sadia did – she now participates in the Community College Initiative, run through the Fulbright Commission:

to my scenario, as State department itself chosen the school for me based on my majors so literally I had never gone into experience of searching on websites.

- Step 1b: Schedule and Take Standardized Tests

EducationUSA lists this as part of step 1, but I know for lots of students, figuring out the right standardized tests to take and the scores you need to achieve is its own separate challenge.

For undergraduate studies, many schools require you to take the SAT exam or the ACT exam (although this is not required at every school). For graduate school, you might be required to take the GRE, or a specialized exam (LSAT for law school, GMAT for business school, MCAT for medical school).

You’ll need to find out from each individual school what tests are required. Luckily, most schools have this information on their admissions website. EducationUSA offers some guidance on the standardized tests you might be required to take.

You will probably also have to take a test to prove your English proficiency. This is typically the TOEFL or the IELTS. I know, it's all a lot of letters and acronyms, but you'll get used to them eventually.

On to EducationUSA’s second step!

2. How do I apply?

- Step 2: Apply & Be Admitted

Application packages require a great deal of preparation and planning, and there are benefits to starting this process and applying early.

EducationUSA has a bunch of information on how to prepare your application and the deadlines you should be following.

If you’re not sure how your academic credentials translate to the U.S. university system, there’s a useful guide put together by the University of Michigan.

3. What does it cost/How do I pay for it?

- Step 3: Finance Your Studies

The good news is that each year international students receive significant amounts of financial assistance toward their studies in the U.S. The most recent report produced by NAFSA: The Association of International Educators estimates that $7.223 billion was received by over 690,000 international students studying in the U.S. in 2009-10.

There are a lot of different places you can look for financial aid, and our bloggers are proof of that, so make sure you’re looking into all your options. Some of our bloggers are getting aid from their universities, some from their home governments, some from the U.S. government, and some from private sources.

They also made decisions like spending their first two years at a community college or their first year at home in order to cut costs.

EducationUSA has a list of resources you can use to research financial aid options, as do we .

So there you go. That’s how you should get started once you decide to study in the U.S.

EducationUSA’s step-by-step guide contains two additional steps, by the way. They are: (4) Get a Visa; and (5) Get Ready to Go (prepare for departure). But you’ve got to get into a school before you have to worry about those steps!

EducationUSA advisers can help guide you through this process, and Nareg also suggests:
Different colleges and universities work differently, but many have very helpful international student support staff. They can guide you through the process, from applying to be admitted, all the way up to getting visas and booking flights.