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Infographic showing that applicants in china are most likely to apply by early decision

For years now, admissions officers have (quietly) been honest about their interest in international undergraduates. In addition to the obvious educational benefit of educating American students alongside those from China, India, South Korea and elsewhere, there is a financial interest. Only a few colleges extend their policies of being need blind in admissions to meeting full need of international students. Of course, most colleges don’t have need-blind policies for American students. Many colleges have admitted mostly international students (at the undergraduate level) who can afford to study in the United States.

As a result, when the Institute for International Education releases the “Open Doors” report every fall, the data are as interesting to colleges’ finance officers as to their admissions offices.

A new report from the Common Application on international applicants may also interest both groups. It looks at international applicants and explores not only where they are from but whether they apply early (something that relates to their income), whether they submit test scores, the number of applications they submit and more.

One thing to note is that not all international undergraduate applicants submit through the Common Application. But their numbers are growing.

Between 2014–15 and 2021–22, the number of international applicants through the Common App rose 63 percent, from 31,456 to 51,426. Growth was steady until the pandemic hit, but there were large spikes in numbers of applicants in 2020–21 and 2021–22. For comparison, overall Common App applicant counts rose 61 percent over this period. Across seasons, international applicants made up between 4 to 5 percent of the overall applicant pool and submitted about 13 percent of all applications.

China and India were the two leading international countries of citizenship for applicants submitting an application. Since 2014–15, applicant totals from China have risen 26 percent, to 12,113, while counts from India rose 130 percent, to 6,253. The remaining countries with the largest numbers of international applicants in 2021–22 include Canada (3,080), Pakistan (2,267), South Korea (1,983), Turkey (873), Nepal (863), Nigeria (822), Singapore (815) and Taiwan (706).

American colleges are becoming more female in their enrollments. But for international students through the Common App, there was variation in the share of female applicants across countries. Only 37 percent of applicants from Pakistan, 39 percent from Nepal, 43 percent from India and 44 percent of applicants from Taiwan and Singapore reported female as their legal sex. This was far lower than the Common App average (56 percent) and well below both Canada and Nigeria (54 percent each).

Key Differences

The report notes important distinctions among the applicants.

For instance, 34 percent of all Common App applicants are first-generation college students, a group that many colleges seek. While smaller shares of applicants from many countries—including Canada (8 percent), Singapore (8 percent), South Korea (9 percent), Turkey (10 percent) and Canada (13 percent)—identified as first-generation students, 40 percent of Nepali applicants were first-generation college students. Put another way, applicants in Nepal were about four times as likely as applicants in India, Singapore, South Korea and Turkey to identify as first-generation college students.

The Common App does not ask about applicants’ income or wealth. But the report notes various measures that could be an indication.

For instance, on the low end of income, the Common App has criteria to request a fee waiver, and 27 percent of Common App applicants reported eligibility for a fee waiver.

The majority of applicants from Nepal (88 percent) and Pakistan (66 percent) and a substantial minority from Nigeria (49 percent) reported eligibility for a Common App fee waiver. At the same time, just 1 percent of applicants from Taiwan and 3 percent from South Korea, Singapore and Canada reported eligibility. “In other words, applicants in Nepal were over 20-80 times as likely to report fee waiver eligibility as applicants in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, or Canada, respectively,” the report said. “These differences likely reflect meaningful disparities in the financial resources of students applying via Common App from these countries.”

Another (partial) measure of wealth is applying early decision. While early decision is open to all students, wealthier students are more likely to apply early because they are not worried about the size of their aid packages.

About 13 percent of all Common App applicants submitted at least one early-decision application in 2021–22, but the majority of applicants from China applied early (65 percent). However, applying early decision was far less common among applicants from Nigeria (15 percent), Canada (30 percent), Singapore (30 percent), India (32 percent) and Nepal (33 percent).

There was also significant variation on submitting SAT or ACT scores. Among all Common App applicants, 44 percent submitted test scores in 2021–22, significantly lower than before the pandemic. Many colleges stopped requiring the submission of test scores during the pandemic. Here are the totals for international applicants:

Country% Submitting at Least One Test Score
South Korea58%

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Preston Magouirk, senior manager of research and analytics of the Common App, said the data should make people in admissions hesitate to just say “we’ve got international students” when talking about the diversity of their classes. “We have the measures” to count international students by their characteristics, but they are very different, he said. “We do try to present the data as we have it,” he added.

This is the first time that the Common App has studied its international applicants, Magouirk said. The organization presented some of the figures in the fall at a conference, and interest was so high that it decided more study was appropriate.

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