Blog 🏛️ University 9th June 2023

Three Factors That Govern Where International Students are Applying in the US

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Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
Understanding the reasons behind US international student applications is the first stepping stone to refining strategies and building stronger relationships with students from around the world. 

Despite the recent upheavals caused by the presidency of Donald Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic, the USA holds a unique position in the international higher education market due to its global reputation, both in and outside higher education. 

This is reflected in international student mobility to the country, which has almost doubled in the last decade. In 2023 alone, international students made up 13% of total applications through the Common App, not taking into account students who applied independently to universities. 

Our own data also reinforces this popularity, with the US remaining a popular study destination in an analysis of 250,000 international student applications in the BridgeU platform.

But with so many US universities competing for students’ attention, what can individual institutions do to stand out from the crowd?  After all, an increase in international interest means little if it doesn’t translate into conversions and enrolments. 

In our most recent white paper, The Crucial Role of International Students In US Higher Ed, we looked at how international students are applying to key US institutions by census region, state and institution type. 

So where specifically in the US are students applying, and what are the three key factors that we think are driving students’ decisions? 

Read on to find out more…

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Regional interest in the US: where and why are international students applying?

The most popular states international students applied to were New York, California and Massachusetts. Notably, Washington was also a popular study destination for many BridgeU students. 

Interestingly, our data trends highlighted that the Northeast was the most popular region in the US for international students, with 85% of BridgeU students applying in 2023.

It’s not just our data that’s telling this story. In the Interstride rankings highlighting the top ten US universities with the largest international student population, four were based in the Northeast. We believe there are a few reasons why students are more drawn to this region. 

Friends and Family 

Our work with international schools worldwide has revealed how influential friends and family can be for students applying to university. Friends and family can influence students in a number of ways. 

Firstly, word of mouth is an influential factor in a student’s higher education decision-making. Particularly in regions such as Asia and the Middle East, students often seek out the real student experience from those they trust, rather than a university. 

Secondly, coastal states often play host to more ethnically diverse populations. As a result, many international students have family or friends that are familiar with, or living in these cities. In turn, they have a huge influence on students’ decision-making.

Strategy tip

Think about how cultural factors and family ties can shape an international applicant’s perception of where they want to study, and adjust your own marketing and recruitment strategy accordingly. For example, if you’re working at an institution in a less well-known or populous state, how can you demonstrate the diversity of the international student community on your campus? 


Location is also an important factor to consider. Insights shared by our Customer Success team highlighted that for many international students, the northeast is easier to travel to, which is one factor driving student applications. 

Our student insights at BridgeU also highlight that familiarity is a key factor that governs university choices. For example, the coastal city of California is attractive to some students who have grown up near the sea and want to emulate a small slice of home. 

International students will most likely not apply to regions they are completely unfamiliar with, which puts less-known states at a disadvantage. Even things such as difficulty spelling and pronouncing place names can be a deterrent for students, which is important to consider. Brand awareness is crucial here. 

When recruiting from specific countries, it’s good to consider what the average home may be like in a given region, and see if there are any similarities between your university and their home landscape that can be drawn out.

Whilst we recognise no two homes are the same anywhere, gaining general knowledge of students’ backgrounds can make or break the difference between a successful and unsuccessful recruitment strategy.

Home to prestigious universities

The US has always been regarded in high esteem when it comes to the quality of its university education. 

The Northeast in particular is home to a myriad of Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown. 

Among the international student population, there is still a strong inclination towards higher-ranking universities. However, it’s important to note that high ranking isn’t driving all student decisions, which we’ll explore in more detail later.

As well as the Ivy League, the Northeast is also home to a cluster of specialist universities, ranging from technology to liberal arts. Whilst specialist universities are not exclusive to this region of the US, students may be more likely to choose this region due to its vibrant international community and central location (as we discussed in an earlier section).

From our extensive work with international schools, we know international students are more likely to study with a specific pathway in mind, which is one reason specialist universities are so attractive. However, once again, brand awareness is key here.

Strategy tip

The US is a big place; what makes your specialist university stand out? The key is to pick out what differentiates your institution from others and utilise this in brand awareness strategies.

What types of institutions are attracting international students?

Whilst ranking is still very much a determining factor for students’ decisions, with two-thirds of BridgeU students aiming for the top 100 ranked universities, the most significant growth was among institutions ranked between 100-200. 

Fifteen per cent of applicants from our data pool also applied to institutions ranked 1000+.

This highlights that although there is still a strong pull towards prestigious universities, students are influenced by other factors too. 

Overwhelmingly in our data, students applied to private research universities. This data highlights the value students place on teaching quality, research opportunities, and international reputation. 

Another area of growth identified in our US report was the steady applications to liberal arts colleges. Although niche, the largest percentage growth in interest and application was to this type of institution. 

Whether it’s wanting an education at an Ivy League institution or a specialised pathway at a liberal arts college, our latest whitepaper highlights the diversity in higher education for international students. There is no one size fits all, and this needs to be emulated in your recruitment approach. 

If you’d like to learn more about participating in one of our admissions boot camps or events around the world, click below to speak to our University Partnerships Team.

Get in touch

Learn how BridgeU can help you align your enrolment strategy with your international student audience.

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