# How difficult is it for an international student to get into a top US university?

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Synchrotron
What are the requirements for entry as a freshman at say, MIT? (Studying physics of course). I've heard its highly competitive... All and any help would be greatly appreciated!

Gold Member
be the best of the best...simply put

Howers
Extremely difficult. If your not top 2-3 in your class, forget it.

TMFKAN64
Take a look at http://web.mit.edu/registrar/stats/geo/index.html, and divide by 4 to get some idea of how many people from your country MIT admits every year.

You have the $200K you'll need to pay for it if you do get in, right? Top US universities are not very friendly to international undergraduate admissions. Your odds (and opportunities for funding) are much better for graduate school. Last edited by a moderator: Synchrotron Yeah, I was afraid of that... Statistically, MIT recruits about 0.5 South Africans yearly, so the odds are not looking good... From what I gather, the money shouldn't be a problem though, (IF by some miracle I get in) because (correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this applies to international students as well) MIT waives the fee if your families net income is less than$75 000 p.a. Fortunately, my parents are underpaid teachers. (Did I just say that?)

I really don't want to seem arrogant, but let's assume for the sake of an argument my school academics are acceptable. Is that enough, or do I have to have solid extracurricular acheivements, like winning an international science fair or something? Any ideas for something more reachable?

Thanks for the comments thrill3rnit3, Howers and TMFKAN64. I appreciate your help!

glueball8
Getting 99% won't even make sure your in. You need a lottt of extracurricular stuff and they must be important...

xmavidis
So you need extracurricular stuff also for the graduate programs or research experience, top GPA and good GRE scores are enough?

Proggle
So you need extracurricular stuff also for the graduate programs or research experience, top GPA and good GRE scores are enough?

Most applicants will have those, including many domestic ones. They may be enough for them to consider you, but you have a much better chance of being accepted if you have something that distinguishes you from the applicant pool (in a positive way, of course). Otherwise, you're just one of hundreds of equally qualified candidates. Why should they choose you and not someone else? You better come up with a good reason, because everyone else will be trying to.

xmavidis
Could someone define "extracurricular stuff"? To win in a physics olympiad, or something like that?

I agree that one should have a strong application package to get into top grad schools. I think the most important thing, the one that can distinguish you from the crowd is your research potential (if you have, of course, top grades, GRE, etc).

Synchrotron
Thanks for the input, everyone. I agree with Xmavidis; could anyone specify what sort of thing you could do to stand out from the crowd?

Judging by your responses in this thread, you have no hope of going up against the best of the best in a test of math/science ability. Your best bet is to fill some niche position in their incoming class as the admissions folks are much easier on people with rather rare talents (at least by a technical school's standards). You might play in your city's orchestra in your spare time, for example.

VincentPham
Judging by your responses in this thread, you have no hope of going up against the best of the best in a test of math/science ability. Your best bet is to fill some niche position in their incoming class as the admissions folks are much easier on people with rather rare talents (at least by a technical school's standards). You might play in your city's orchestra in your spare time, for example.

Second that.Top colleges try to fill their class (at least at the undergraduate level) with different types of students. Generally, there are two categories:

Category 1: Trying to buy your way into them top colleges (depending on how top we are talking about? top Ivies versus lower Ivies) via math/physics/specific talents would be much much much harder since it relies on raw talent. You have to be talented enough for them to want you (being good, passionate and the likes are not enough here).

Category 2: Doing something else like cool extra curriculum (volunteering, student government, etc), getting decent grades, tests, recs and writing a decent essay is more achievable, just still gets you in. But if you are in this category, then a shot of luck is necessary since most applicants are in this category as well.

TMFKAN64
From what I gather, the money shouldn't be a problem though, (IF by some miracle I get in) because (correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this applies to international students as well) MIT waives the fee if your families net income is less than \$75 000 p.a.

I was about to say "not for international students"... but no, it seems that MIT tries to meet all demonstrated need for international students as well. I don't think that this is common though... but I could be wrong.

Anyway, getting into any top school in the US isn't a matter of having good enough grades and test scores... you have to show them that you are a Special and Precious Flower, Unique Among Your Peers. (Of course if you *don't* have good grades and test scores, you have no chance!) What have you done that none of the other applicants have done? Or what have you done better than *all* the other applicants?

Grad school is a bit easier... extracurricular activities beyond research don't really matter. Just make sure that your letters of recommendation resemble the one that John Nash received: "This man is a genius."

Staff Emeritus
2021 Award
There are a few comments I'd like to make. First is that it's a good idea to look at the background of people who are replying to you, and perhaps weight replies from people who are still in high school differently than those who have gone through the process.

Second, there aren't a set of requirements such that if you make them, you're in. Instead, the admissions office accepts the 1600 students who they feel are best suited to the Institute.

Finally, I think you need to think seriously about the fact that they accepted 2 students from your country in the last 4 years. Are you the best student countrywide? If not, you may want to broaden your horizons and cast a wider net.

Mentor
I think many non-US students don't realize that (for better or worse) undergraduate education at most colleges and universities in the US is not purely an academic experience. It's a "lifestyle experience" in which interaction with fellow students with a diverse range of backgrounds and interests can be an important and explicit goal of the school. Selecting students isn't simply a matter of ranking test scores or high-school grades. Athletics is the most visible factor, but other non-academic factors can make a difference as well.

The top universities such as MIT and Caltech have a huge pool of applicants with excellent academic qualifications. They can pick and choose students so as to get a mixture that they consider to be beneficial from a social point of view, while still maintaining top academic quality.

Synchrotron
Firstly, I know I've already thanked everyone twice, but I'll do it once more: Thanks for all input, I appreciate every word.

Okay, I can see now that I haven't been clear about some things.

Firstly, I was just using MIT as a example (although it would admittedly be my first choice in a perfect world); this thread is really about any top US university. (I'm not considering UK ones for financial reasons.)

Secondly:

Judging by your responses in this thread, you have no hope of going up against the best of the best in a test of math/science ability.

I'm not entirely sure what I said that suggested that. Probably "Yeah, I was afraid of that... " That was in reference to the low admission rate... I should have been clearer; I apologise. I'm a straight-A student, min. 95% in Physical Science and Mathematics. The thing is, that I'm sure the same could be said of most MIT applicants and I worry that I'll need more.

Re: the "Special and precious flower" (lol) theme that many have mentioned: Hopefully my personality will help me. (Sport certainly won't!) I do have a passion for physics; in fact I see it less as a career and more as a calling. As for rare skills... well, I can lick my elbow...

P.S. To VincentPham: recs?

Gold Member
recs - recommendation letters

Mentor
Selecting students isn't simply a matter of ranking test scores or high-school grades. Athletics is the most visible factor, but other non-academic factors can make a difference as well.

For example, most large universities have symphony orchestras. Even MIT has one! (I have one of their recordings.) So if you're good at an uncommon instrument like the contrabassoon, that might be a plus factor. Violinists are probably dime a dozen at that level.

Staff Emeritus
2021 Award
So if you're good at an uncommon instrument like the contrabassoon, that might be a plus factor.

But not if they admitted another contrabassonist last year.

Synchrotron
Recommendation letters, of course! Thanks, I'll speak to my teachers about that.

MIT has an orchestra? Wow. Of course, that won't help me. I only play the piano and the guitar, and not at a professional level in either case! Nevertheless, I'd like to get hold of one of those recordings...

Incidentally:
Two and two continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three and the cry of the critic for five.

Not to mention the Thought Police!

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TMFKAN64
Re: the "Special and precious flower" (lol) theme that many have mentioned: Hopefully my personality will help me.

Unlikely. No insult to your personality intended, but don't you think that *everyone* applying to a top university is passionate about their intended career choice?

The contrabassoon example is a good one... you really *do* need something like that that will make you stand out from the pack of students with straight A's and perfect test scores.

Mentor
MIT has an orchestra? Wow.

http://web.mit.edu/mitso/

I should have gone to Boston for spring break... Nielsen's Third Symphony is one of my favorites! :!)

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Synchrotron
No insult to your personality intended, but don't you think that *everyone* applying to a top university is passionate about their intended career choice?

Haha, none taken.

The contrabassoon example is a good one... you really *do* need something like that that will make you stand out from the pack of students with straight A's and perfect test scores.

That I do... I'll try and come up with something. Just to clarify, would any unusual ability do, or should it be something relevant to MIT. For instance, to continue with the contrabassoon metaphor, should I be able to play in the Orchestra? Any suggestions as to something I could master in a few months?

Thanks!

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TMFKAN64
It's really difficult to say exactly what they are looking for... because, as it's been pointed out, perhaps they let in a contrabassoon player last year?

They aren't looking for random talents though... they are looking for talented people to make up a student body with a diverse set of interests and experiences. I don't think that learning to juggle this summer will help much...

Ivilean
Yeah, I was afraid of that... Statistically, MIT recruits about 0.5 South Africans yearly, so the odds are not looking good...

help!

It doesn't look good. It seems as if MIT doesn't have much annual quota for South Africa. Based on the statistics, MIT may probably take one student from your country per year, namely they may take more should they find someone really interesting or they may take none should none pass their basic criteria.

Admission for international students is different from that of domestic so some of those criteria mentioned above won't apply to you. It is basically you versus everyone else in your country that apply. Are you in the top 0.1% in your country? Any national / international award (IMO, IPho, IOI, etc)? The prestige of your high school? Any no to those above questions would greatly decrease your chance.

Last but most importantly, anyone from your country with three yes's apply this year? Should there is, the chance for everyone else converges to zero.

Synchrotron
I don't think that learning to juggle this summer will help much...

Blast! *Crosses juggling lessons off personal schedule* :tongue:

It seems as if MIT doesn't have much annual quota for South Africa.

Wait... Universities have quotas for international students? Really? Huh.

It is basically you versus everyone else in your country that apply.

Well, if that is the case (forgive my doubt, but it seems too good to be true. Could anyone corroborate this?) and I'm only really competing against other S. Africans, I may have a shot after all!

I haven't matriculated yet, so I don't know if I am in the top 0.1%, but my teachers tell me it's possible. Similarly, I have written (but do not yet know the results of) the National Physics Olympiad. (Regrettably SA does not field a team for the IPhO.) I am in the process of writing the SA Math Olympiad (winners go to the IMO), and I plan to enter the National Science Expo (read "Science Fair"). Winners also go international. I have hopes for the NPO and the Expo.

With regard to question 3, I attend a good high school, with excellent teachers; considered the best in the region. Its results (pass rates; exemption rates) often surpass those of major private (read "public" if in UK) schools. However, it is in a small town and is consequently not well known or prestigious. (My parents never sent me to boarding school, as they felt it more important that I grow up in a close family environment). Hopefully the name of the school won't matter as much as my grades.

Now if I could only learn to play the contrabassoon...

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Ivilean
They don't literally have a quota, at least not in a sense that they will and will only take a specific number of students from each country. There are certain thresholds people already mentioned above that one must pass to be seriously considered for admission. But once you pass it, it all boils down to your relative standing compared to other applicants from your country. Usually these quotas come in the name of diversity. And they arent too good to be true. In fact, they do not even play into your favor. They are there to limit the number of admitted students from any country, and not to lower the admission standard for anyone.

Forget the contrabassoon and other trivial stuff. Unless you are already very good at it, it won't help a thing. Focus on what you are doing at the moment. Physics/Math Olympiads even at national level are much better. Try to place as high as possible.

Regarding your high school, its past placement into top U.S schools will indicate of how well universities here would regard it. Since they usually take only one or two applicants, they simply pick those schools that either sent students here in the past or are at the very top of the country. At my university, the list of admitted international (I worked past time at the admission office) has the same high schools year after year.

Synchrotron
I was just being facetious about the contrabassoon...

With regard to the quota system being too good to be true, I did not mean that I was hoping for lowered standards! Far be it from me to take advantage of such a system! If I am not admitted on merit, then my admission ultimately means nothing... What I was trying to say is that, in a sense, being South African is sort of like playing the contrabassoon - something that makes you stand out from a large pool of equally qualified candidates, even just a little. And I do believe that I may well be the best S. African that applies.

My school isn't going to help me, unfortunately, especially if they what they look at is past admissions from it. I doubt there will be any. I'll follow your advice and focus on my academics and olympiads, hoping those will mean more than attending a "brand name" school would.

Since they usually take only one or two applicants, they simply pick those schools that either sent students here in the past or are at the very top of the country. At my university, the list of admitted international (I worked past time at the admission office) has the same high schools year after year.

Hopefully that isn't the case, you've confused cause and effect, and this is only because students from those schools are more likely to apply and be qualified for admission... Also (clutching at straws here), the fact that so SA applicants get in probably means that US universities will have very little data on previously successful schools, and will therefore not consider it important. I don't know...

Staff Emeritus
2021 Award
Also (clutching at straws here), the fact that so SA applicants get in probably means that US universities will have very little data on previously successful schools, and will therefore not consider it important. I don't know...

I wouldn't count on this. Admissions offices are not as clueless as some people think.

Synchrotron
You mean that in the absense of data on previously successful schools, they'll look at/research the specific school of the applicant? Or do you mean that they will somehow have sufficient data, despite the low admission rates?

Staff Emeritus