Secrets to Choosing the Best USA High School for You

Not all American high schools are created equal. While some are recognized as feeder schools for top-ranked and Ivy League universities, others do not meet basic curriculum standards for college admissions. There is no overarching authority which oversees this disparity. So how do you know which school is best for you?

Below we’ve shared a few secrets for international students to consider when choosing an American high school. Regardless of whether you want to study in the US for a one semester cultural exchange, or multiple years to complete an American high school diploma, the quality of your high school is the foundation for your future success in the United States or in your own country.

Beware of Low Cost, No-Choice Programs. Sometimes you get what you pay for. And in the US, public high schools are funded using property home taxes. This means wealthier neighborhoods in more attractive locations often have better schools and more funding for special programs like sports, STEM programs, and facilities. International students pay a tuition rate equal to the amount the city pays to fund an American student, therefore schools in rural or underfunded areas are the cheapest and widely sold under these “no-choice” programs.

Similarly, private high schools funded by a Christian church or congregation have low tuition but are free to create their own religious curriculum that is not recognized by selective American universities or schools in other countries.

This is why many international students find themselves in a small town with more cornstalks than people, or in a small, Christian school that has only 100 students total in grades K-12.

So what if you can’t afford the cost of a good high school? Instead of gambling with your future in a low cost, no-choice program, consider applying for a scholarship at a high-quality high school. Don’t settle for an underfunded school in a less desirable location.

Case Study #1: Thach from Vietnam is a talented mathematician who had high ambitions to enter a top-ranked American university like MIT. He chose to study at an American high school on an F-1 visa. However, he enrolled in a low cost, no-choice program and quickly discovered his school did not offer a strong curriculum. As an 11th-grader, he was already taking the highest math class. For 12th grade, he transferred to a boarding school in Maine that offered him 60% scholarship and AP Calculus BC.

Study the Curriculum. Most selective and top-ranked universities look for a certain number of hours in each of the below subjects to satisfy minimum admissions requirements. If you’re taking religion class instead of Foreign Language or History, your school is not preparing you for a university education. Also, make sure your school offers a large and varied selection of Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Even if you don’t take any AP classes, at least you know your school is committed to offering a challenging, engaging curriculum.

Minimum Requirements for Most Selective Universities:

  • English (or mother language): 4 years
  • Mathematics (Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, e.g.): 4 years
  • Social Science (History, Geography, Government, e.g.): 4 years
  • Laboratory Science (Chemistry, Physics, e.g.): 4 years
  • Foreign Language (Spanish, French, e.g.): 4 years

Aside from the basic curriculum, the best American high schools provide academic opportunities for exploration in a wide variety of subjects like Engineering, Architecture, Fashion Design, Criminal Justice, Environmental Science, and more. Whatever your passion, you should be able to pursue it in the classroom.

Case Study #2: Natalia from Poland dreamed of experiencing high school in the United States. When she arrived, she found herself in a highly religious school in Iowa rather than the big city she imagined. Instead of studying foreign language, she was required to take Bible class.

Look for Student Clubs, Sports, & Activities. Activities outside the classroom are often just as important as academics in providing an enriching educational experience. If you have a special interest or talent, your high school should cultivate your potential. If your dream is to become an engineer, choose a school that has a championship Robotics team; if you’re a talented hockey player, join a school that has a long tradition of college recruitment to successful hockey teams; if you enjoy debating global diplomacy issues, make sure your school has an active Model United Nations team or Debate Club.

Review One-Year College Admissions Stats. Some high schools boast impressive college admissions stats, but when you look closely, the list spans five years. Make sure to check the college acceptance list for a single graduating class. This will give you the most accurate information. Each high-quality prep school should have at least 1% of their graduating class accepted into Ivy League universities each year.

As the United States remains the most popular destination for international students, knowing how to choose a high school is increasingly important. Our goal is to educate international families on the issues and topics other companies don’t want you to know. To learn more, email us at

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Ataullah K.


“I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being patient, understanding, caring towards me for the past year. The scholarship helped a lot in getting my visa. You sure do know how to do a brilliant work and if there is any way I could take a survey about your services at Cogito, I would give you a 10 out of 10.”