Get Into The Ivy League As An International Student

Matt Larriva
Jan 04, 2021
Home » Blog » Get Into The Ivy League As An International Student

Update: as of May 2021 the SAT Subject tests are discontinued internationally and domestically. The College Board encourages students to demonstrate their subject proficiency through the AP Exams instead. For more information, please contact us or read The College Board’s release at here. We have updated our article below to reflect this change. 

Getting into the Ivy Leagues as an international student is like trying to run a marathon while wearing a backpack filled with bricks. It’s hard enough to run 26 miles but doing it while weighted down must seem impossible.

But here’s a secret:

The Ivy League universities need international students.

International students are often asked to, and are more capable of, paying full tuition. That doesn’t mean that admission will be easy, but it’s possible, and we’re here to help.

We’ve compiled a comprehensive review of all the requirements, tactics, and tests that international students will need to produce in order to secure their spots at one of the United States’ most prestigious schools: the Ivy League.

Why Do You, As An International Student, Want To Get Into An Ivy League School?

international student at American ivy league school

First, make sure this is something you really want.

Most people say they want to go to Harvard—and why not? It’s a world-renowned school.

The better question is:

Why do you want admission to the Ivy League, and are you willing to work for it?

There are many of reasons why you may wish to come to the United States to study.

Perhaps your motivation is intellectual, and you’re seeking the best education you can find. The US has most of the world’s highest-ranked universities, the Ivy League included, and your desire for knowledge would be met.

Perhaps you’re seeking the best networking options in the world. The tier-one US schools are attended by the children of presidents, future CEOs, and the progeny of billionaires. There could be no better networking option on earth than admission to an Ivy League school.

Or maybe you’re driven by career success, and you’re looking to land an elite finance job, or entrance to elite med or law schools. The Ivy League funnels graduates into all of these fields, and your chances will improve with admission.

Whatever your reason for seeking Ivy League admission, ensure your motivation is real and your work ethic is fierce because the odds are daunting and the path to admission is lined with an arcane application process.

The process of applying to university is confusing and stressful for even domestic students. For international students, the application process is doubly so.

Not only may the requirements and timeframe be different from the norm in your home country, but US colleges may also value and look for qualities in their prospective students that colleges and universities in your homeland do not.

How Hard is it For An International Student To Get Into The Ivy Leagues?

Not only is the application process generally more confusing for international students, but it is more difficult for international students to be accepted to the Ivy Leagues.

In the Ivy League, no school has an overall acceptance rate of over 10%. In fact, most Ivy Legaue schools average a 7% acceptance rate.

These schools generally do not report the number of international applicants every year, making it difficult to establish a concrete international student acceptance rate.

However, we’ve done a bit of digging to provide what we feel are highly accurate international student acceptance rates.

What Is The Admissions Rate for International Students Into The Ivy League?

It’s about 5%.

We found actual international admissions numbers for international students for three of the eight Ivy Leagues (Princeton, UPenn, and Brown).

Some were from the most recent class and others were more dated. In each case, we compared that figure to the overall admissions rate and found them to be 2-4% lower. For the five schools that have not reported on international applicants and admissions, we subtracted 2% from their overall admissions figure to arrive at the international admissions number.

Class of 2023 Ivy League Acceptance Statistics

ivy league acceptance rates and admissions rates
*at the time of this article, admissions statistics for the Class of 2024 were not completely released, and Cornell had decided to withhold admissions statistics relating to overall and regular decision acceptance rate for the Class of 2024.
Brown’s reported data here and calculated using (overall acceptance *total applicants * international student % / international student applicants)
The last year Princeton provided data was 2006, when the intl admissions rate was 6.3%, or 4% lower than overall admissions link
UPenn reported in 2019 and information is available here
*** data unavailable; approximating based on 2% lower than overall admissions. 

This 5% average acceptance rate ranges from our estimated 2.5% at Harvard to 8.6% at Cornell. While that might sound undaunting—at worse 1 out of 40 odds—it’s actually very difficult, given that only the absolute best of the best are in that applicant pool. While American students are competing against the best students from other high schools in the US, an international student would be competing against the best students from other countries.

But you are here because you want to become part of the select few who open an acceptance letter, and the first step to being a successful international applicant is to begin thinking about the necessary requirement and the narrative your academics and extracurriculars will paint of you as soon as possible.

Get Into The Ivy Leagues: A Step-By-Step Guide For International Students

  1. Make a plan and make it early
  2. Know what tests you need to take and try to take them as early as possible
  3. Focus on extra-curricular activities that you are genuinely interested in
  4. Set aside a lot of time and energy for your personal essay
  5. Pay attention to some easily missed details while submitting your application

1. Start Planning Early To Get Into The Ivy Leagues

You should have an understanding of the deadlines for the various core pieces of your application.

For example:

  • the submission deadlines for early action/decision
  • regular action/decision
  • financial aid
  • final acceptance dates for recommendations
  • TOEFL
  • SAT/ACT
  • and AP or IB Exams (previously this requirement was filled by the SAT Subject tests, but those are discontinued as of May 2021)

However, not only should you know the dates when these various items are due, you should also have a plan for when you will do them.

Depending on where you live, certain tests may not be available in your country (the SAT and ACT are not available in mainland China, for instance). For those countries which do have testing centers, there are only eight total testing days each year for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests internationally.

(Update 1/23/2021: The College Board has officially ended the SAT Subject Tests. You can read more about this story here.)

Map Out Your Application Timeline Well In Advance

You should decide ahead of time (preferably before US students enter the 11th grade) what your application timeline will be.

You should know whether you want to take the SAT or ACT and which tests dates you will aim for.

FAQ: How can I study for the SAT alone in a foreign country? Are there any online lessons for SAT?

The College Board partnered with the Khan Academy to develop an entire suite of online SAT prep materials, which you can access for free.

If you would like a more customized route for higher point gains or a more optimized study path, then there are many companies, including Powerful Prep, which offer this service.

You should also have an idea of which AP Tests you will take and plan out those test dates as well.

You should do the same with any English Language proficiency test you are required to take, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (EILTS).

You should aim to get all this testing done as far in advance as possible if you truly want to get into the Ivy Leagues.

This will give you more time to focus on extracurriculars, which are generally more important to the US application process than in other countries.

It will also give you ample time to focus on your Personal Essay when you start writing your application.

Ideally, you want to aim to have all your testing done before the summer before the application deadline.

Sample Timeline: International Student Applying Early Action to Harvard

Here is a sample timeline for an international student applying to Early Action to Harvard who has strong English Language skills going into their 11th year of high school.

Before Application Year (US Grade 10-11)

  • May
    • Prepare for SAT/ACT
  • June
    • Prepare for SAT/ACT
  • July
    • Prepare for SAT/ACT
  • August
    • Prepare for SAT/ACT
    • In late August or early September, take the SAT/ACT
  • September
    • Early September, take the SAT/ACT
    •  Enroll in AP or IB courses
  • October – December
    •  Focus on GPA and strength in AP or IB courses in preparation for the tests in May-June

Application Year (US Grade 11-12)

  • January
    • Focus on GPA and strength in AP or IB courses in preparation for the tests in May-June
  • February
    • Focus on GPA and strength in AP or IB courses in preparation for the tests in May-June
    • Take TOEFL (not required for Harvard, take for backup schools if they require it)
  • March
    • Focus on GPA and strength in AP or IB courses in preparation for the tests in May-June
  • April
    • Focus on GPA and strength in AP or IB courses in preparation for the tests in May-June
  • May
    • Early May: Take AP/IB exams
  • June
    • Focus on bolstering extracurriculars.  Spend Summer doing something interesting related to my interests and/or community service.
  • July
    • Focus on bolstering extracurriculars.  Spend Summer doing something interesting related to my interests and/or community service.
  • August
    • Focus on bolstering extracurriculars.  Spend Summer doing something interesting related to my interests and/or community service.
    • Late August/Early September: Begin working on Common App.  Approach those you want to write you recommendations.  Approach English teacher or other sources about translating my application materials (ask them if they would be willing and how long they expect it to take).
  • September
    • Late August/Early September: Begin working on Common App.  Approach those you want to write you recommendations.  Approach English teacher or other sources about translating my application materials (ask them if they would be willing and how long they expect it to take).
  • October
    • Early October: Aim to have application completed and in hands of translator
    • October 31: LAST DAY TO SUBMIT TESTING MATERIALS
  • November
    • November 1: LAST DAY TO SUBMIT APPLICATION MATERIALS (EARLY ACTION)
    • November to January of following year: seek out any exceptional high school or extracurricular opportunities
  • December
    • Mid-December to January of the following year: If deferred, update application with any significant developments to high school career
    • November to January of following year: seek out any exceptional high school or extracurricular opportunities

After Application Year (Later half of US Grade 12)

  • January
    • Mid-December of the previous year to January: If deferred, update application with any significant developments to high school career
    • November of the previous year through January: seek out any exceptional high school or extracurricular opportunities
  • February
    • February 1: LAST DAT TO SUMBIT MID-YEAR SCHOOL REPORT
  • March
    • Late March: First-year decisions released!
  • April
    • Prepare and send accepted student reply
  • May
    • May 1: Accepted Student Reply Deadline!
    • Mid/Late May: Assemble Documents and begin student VISA application process
  • June
    • Late June: ABSOLUTE LATEST TO APPLY FOR STUDENT VISA
  • September
    • Harvard School Year Starts!

2. All About SAT & ACT Testing For International Students

While most colleges have gone testing-optional for students applying to the Class of 2025, most Ivy League schools generally require international students submit an SAT or ACT score with their application. However, the standardized testing requirements vary from school to school.

Harvard does not require international students to submit SAT or ACT scores this
(2021) year but encourages them to submit SAT/ACT scores and strongly
recommends students submit SAT Subject Test scores. After May 5 of 2021,
SAT Subject Tests will not be available, and students should plan to replace
them with AP or IB tests. Learn more about Harvard’s testing policy, here.

In standard schooling years, international students are “only exempt from the SAT/ACT requirement if these tests are not available in [their] country and traveling to take them is logistically or financially prohibitive.”

Harvard also does not require any international students to submit TOEFL scores.

international student english study guide

In contrast, UPenn does require international students to submit TOEFL scores if “English is not the applicant’s native language or if English has not been the applicant’s primary language of instruction for the duration of high school.

However…

They make no mention of the SAT or ACT in their international application guidelines. They instead say that “Where national examinations are required for admission to a pre-university program (e.g., GCSE, SPM, WASC, O-levels, or India’s “Std X” examination), you should have received high marks on these exams and should present certified copies of the results with your Penn application.”

The trend amongst most Ivy Leagues and highly competitive US schools is that the SAT and ACT are either required or recommended as a demonstration of your academic prowess and of your mastery of English.

Because these tests are only offered in English, most Ivy League schools, such as Harvard and Brown, will accept a high score in the English and Reading portions of these tests in lieu of an English Language Proficiency score.

That said, if you study and excel on the SAT/ACT English language portions, you fill will almost certainly find the TOEFL laughably easy in comparison

Planning On Applying To Multiple Schools?

If you plan on applying to multiple schools, you should plan on taking the SAT or ACT at least once.

Even if schools do not require either test for International students, they can still be submitted as optional materials that demonstrate your dedication to academic excellence.

You should also plan on taking at least two SAT Subject Tests (prior to May
5 2021) or at least two AP or IB Tests (after May 2021).

You should choose Subject Tests that you believe you can do well at and which
are in line with your personal interests and intended field of study. This same
advice applies to your AP and IB coursework.

For instance…

If you plan on going into engineering, you should plan to take SAT Level 2
Mathematics or AP/IB Calculus. You should not take the SAT Subject Test or AP
of your native language.

While only Harvard says this explicitly, submitting an SAT Subject score or AP
Exam which is clearly not challenging for you and for the sole purpose of “an
easy A” does not make an applicant look good to any school
.

While this advice has mostly been aimed at international students applying to Ivy
League Schools in general, if the list of US colleges you are applying to is
already well narrowed down, you can adjust your testing timeline and plan to be
better curated to those schools’ requirements.

For help deciding whether you should take the SAT or ACT, see our article on exactly that.

For advice on how to create a studying plan for your SAT or ACT, see the following articles:

3. Give Extra Curriculars Enough Attention

Just like with domestic applicants, as an international student applying to an Ivy League school, you should focus your extracurricular activities around your authentic interests.

Avoid pursuing a seemingly novel activity because you believe it is something admissions officers want to see or because an international student recently admitted to Harvard or Yale made it the highlight of their application.

Some activities, such as Model UN, which, only a few years ago, were considered compelling and unique, are now generic and overrepresented because so many students wanted to emulate what previously successful applicants did and jumped onto the bandwagon.

That said, if you are genuinely interested in those activities, you should not avoid them and pursue something else just because they happen to be popular.

If your interest is genuine, that will come through in the amount and quality of time you spend doing that activity. It can further come through and distinguish you from your peers depending on how well you represent your interest in your personal essays.

Your Extracurriculars Need Not Be Excessively Exotic

Just because some students go to Haiti every year to work with nonprofits, does not mean that is required to be accepted to an Ivy League school.

Just as we went over in our How To Get Into The Ivy League article, you make your activities interesting by making them either deeply personal or by achieving official recognition for your efforts, or some combination of both.

This includes:

  • participating in national competitions or programs
  • interning at a well-established laboratory or company (especially if you develop a meaningful professional bond with your superiors which would incline them to write a recommendation for you)
  • and so on

We previously advised that you get as much of your testing out of the way as early as possible, so you could have enough time to achieve that level of recognition and/or uniqueness in your extracurriculars without also having to worry about traveling to or studying for a test at the same time.

4. Make Sure Your Personal Essay Shines

international student writing personal essay to get into college

The single most important factor in distinguishing yourself from your peers is your personal essay and other supplemental essays.

How to write a good personal essay is a topic unto itself, but for international students specifically, you need to make sure to at least consider a few key things.

The most important thing to reflect on is why you want to go to a school in the US rather than your home country.

Even if you do not yet know if you will want to seek out a job in America after graduation, you should still have a specific and personal reason why you want to go to an American school.

Do you want to experience another culture in a meaningful way?

If so, why?

Do you want to take advantage of the networking opportunities only available at that specific Ivy league school?

If so, is it because of your future career goal or for some other reason?

These are all questions you should reflect on and develop an answer to.

However, you do not need to stress about the answer to these questions before your 12th year.

You may be more mature by then or your goals and aspirations may have evolved over your time in high school. And if that is the case, that is also something you can potentially bring into you essays.

Some additional things you should consider for your essays include emphasizing your diverse background.

If you do so, you should not only highlight what makes you believe makes you distinct from the American perspective students but also from the other students applying from your home country.

You should also consider highlighting why you pursued the extracurriculars that you did. You should reflect upon the personal reasons for which you were drawn to those activities and then relay those reasons as compellingly as possible in your application.

5. Small, But Important Details On Your Ivy League Application

Pay attention to these minor but important details when submitting your Application:

Your High School (and potentially Middle School) Transcript

In America, high school is from years 9 through 12, and Colleges want to see your grades from each of those years. If you live in a country where high school is only from grades 10-12, you may need to get an official transcript of your grades from year 9.

Translating your Application

Depending on what school you apply to, you may need to have your credentials verified and translated for your application. You should look up if the college you are applying to has specific translation requirements.

No matter what, you should not translate your own materials.

Most Ivy League schools want your application to be translated by your high school rather than have you seek out a third-party service.

Harvard states that they will accept materials “translated by an English teacher,” and Cornell even goes so far as to ban the submission of materials through paid agents or credentialing services, stating that they will “revoke admissions offers, cancel admission, or involuntary withdraw a student from the University” if it is found that a student used such services for their application.

However, if the colleges you plan to apply to allow it and if your high school (for whatever reason) cannot translate your materials for you, the safest organizations to go to would be agencies that are members of either the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) or the Association of International Credential Evaluators, Inc (AICE).

Keep in mind that translating takes time.

Third-party agencies can take weeks to completely translate an application. So, you should aim to complete your application and request translation weeks, if not months, before the application due date.

Financial Aid For International Students Applying To Ivy League Schools

You should be honest (both with yourself and the college you are applying to) about if you will be able to attend without financial aid. If you do not need financial aid, you should let the college know as much because there is a good chance it will increase your acceptance chances.

Some Ivy League schools, like Harvard, claim that they are need-blind for both international and domestic students alike. However, most schools, like Cornell, are openly need-aware for international students.

Still more schools, such as Brown, do not allow international students to apply for financial aid in later years if they did not do so with their initial application, regardless of a student’s family’s change in financial situation.

The consensus amongst people who study college admissions is that the vast majority of accepted international students pay the full tuition rate without financial assistance.

This fact, though it disproportionately affects less wealthy international applicants, is unlikely to change any time soon.

Common Mistakes International Students Need to Avoid on Their Ivy League Application

Hyper focusing on prestige.

Each of the Ivy’s is unique (just see our articles on that very topic). Successful students focus on institutions that match their academic needs and future-career goals rather than simple name recognition.

This is an issue just as true for domestic students as for International ones.

Hyper focusing on academics to the detriment of extracurriculars and essays.

student from india studying for american ivy league

Schools in the United States value these “soft” factors just as highly as academics. Watch out for this mental trap, especially if you come from a country where college acceptance is vastly more dependent upon grades and test scores

Struggling to tell a compelling story or to fully convey who you are through the personal essay.

Underestimating how much passion and authenticity matters to US college admissions.

Additional Things to Keep in Mind

International Student “Quotas”

Many schools have quotas for international students. Many Ivy’s state on their admissions webpage that they do not abide by quotas for international students.

You should be skeptical when you read that statement, here’s why:

The percentage of international students in each class stays consistent from year to year for all Ivy Leagues at about 10% or less of the entire student body.

For many schools, the international admissions rate is less than half that of the overall admissions rate.

This means that international students are competing against each other in numbers just as large as domestic US students but for fewer spots.

Applying For a Student Visa If You Are Accepted

celebrating getting into an ivy league school

Once you are accepted to a US school, that school will enter you into a system called the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

Then, depending on what type of visa you are eligible for, you will be sent one of two forms:

Since you are assumedly going to apply to a four-year undergraduate university, you are most likely going to receive and fill out the F-1 form.

M-1 forms are for vocational studies only.

You will then need to go to the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country to fill out your F-1 student visa application. You will also need to be interviewed by an embassy official to determine your visa eligibility.

Once your interview is finished and your application complete, the waiting time for your paperwork to be processed can take anywhere from one to two months for your paperwork to be approved.

You’ll need to make some additional appointments after this point, such as to get your Biometric scan done.

While you should begin this application process early, an F-1 visa can only be issued up to 90 days prior to your entering the US to begin study. So, you do not need to start your application well ahead of time.

With the average paperwork processing time in mind (60 days or more), you should begin your visa application about 3 to 4 months before your school year starts. You should look into all of the various documents you will need to provide for the application process before that time.

Conclusion: Increase Your Chance of Admissions To The Ivy Leagues As An International Students

international student graduating

While the requirements and dates you need to keep in mind to give yourself the best chances of success on your college applications are specific to the universities you choose to pursue, hopefully, this guide has given you a useful baseline to begin your application game plan.

As you prepare to apply to the Ivy League schools of your choice, working with a qualified tutor to improve your test scores is a good start to getting into your dream school.

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