US college applications for US expat students in South Africa

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An American family living in South Africa will feel, for better and for worse, their distance from the intensity of the college application season. This will make for either a more relaxing senior year, or fill students with some anxiety at their distance from American school hallways where chatting about college is both incessant and informative.
Here is some advice for managing the process:

College tour

Unless the family can return to the US to do the usual college tour, a student may have a more difficult time learning which of the enormous number of American colleges will suit him or her the best. Students should therefore make good use of social groups on the web, virtual tours and other resources to gain information.


If the high school is an American or an international one, the academic calendar obviously matches that of the American college application process. But even if a student attends a local high school instead, this remains manageable. The major differences will be that students need to complete applications while they are knee-deep in preparing for final matric exams, and they will have a hiatus of some eight months between finishing school and starting college.

Grade report

An American college application requires an overview of the student’s grades over the three years preceding senior year. This is not true of South African university applications, so some high schools may have a harder time producing it. Students should discuss this with teachers in a timely fashion. Many local schools may also choose to use the overview of South African education and grading protocols available from US Education Officers in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, and send this off to colleges with a student’s school report.

Board testing

A very large number of selective American colleges will require some kind of board testing – SATs or ACTs. These are now available all across the world, but students will need to remain aware of the registration deadlines, different requirements for different colleges, and even which tests are considered more appropriate for certain courses of study. They may try to find good local test prepping, or look into the growing number of online courses. A great resource is the US Education Officer in each city, while the website of the College Board is a crucial source of information.

Letters of recommendation

Writing these letters occupies endless hours for American high school teachers. Unless a student is in an American high school where teachers are well acquainted with both the process and the language of this important part of an application, he or she may need to discuss it at length with teachers.

Application forms

These days most American colleges accept the Common Application (CA) and students will be able to find quite a bit of information about the forms, as well as the supplemental forms that many schools require in addition, on the CA web site.


The American system is unique in requiring a holistic reading of students’ applications, with an emphasis on their community involvement and extracurricular activities. So, the children of expats living in countries where high school students are less likely to have part-time jobs or do extensive community service are often hard-pressed to come up with a profile that will seem equally interesting to admission officers. This requires some thought and attention long before the student actually begins the application process.
Finally, expat college applicants should keep in mind that these days, when many colleges receive countless applications from international students, simply living overseas no longer carries the obvious cache it used to. Instead, they need to pay as much attention to producing an as engaging and strong application as students in the suburbs of any American city.

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Our South Africa Expert

andrea's picture
Johannesburg, South Africa. Palo Alto, California
After attending high school in Johannesburg, I did both undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Wits. I left South Africa... more

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