Applying to an American University from the UK? 10 Simple Steps

America is home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world, from UC Berkeley and UPenn to Columbia and Harvard.

the Great Dome at MIT, pictured in December 2016

Universities like Harvard, Princeton, UChicago and MIT (pictured here) are some of the best in the world (photo by Paper Cat/

More and more British students are applying to an American university straight out of school, and this is due to a number of factors. 

The increase in tuition fees at British universities, the global reputation of American universities, and the unique variety of academic subjects offered in a liberal arts education are all excellent reasons why you should consider applying to the States for college. 

If you are living and studying in the UK, you are probably familiar with UCAS and the process of applying to UK universities. The US university application system is very different. 

This article sets out in detail all the key parts of this application process: we’ll focus on the ten main steps to help set you on course to getting into the American university of your dreams.

  • Applying to an American University: Start the Process Early!

When you apply to a university in the US, you will be competing against American students who have grown up within the US education system.

These students will have access to teachers and college counsellors who are highly familiar with the process of applying to American universities and of what it takes to create a competitive application.

If possible, ensure you are just as prepared as these students by beginning your application process early. You should begin thinking about university in the summer after you finish your GCSEs, if not earlier.

  • Master the Standardised Test Format 

One of the key differences about applying to an American rather than a British university is the fact that your application isn’t centred around your GCSE grades and predicted final-year exam results. 

Instead, you’ll have to take the SAT or ACT test and submit your score for that. Many American students will take one of these two tests several times, in order to submit their highest score and strengthen their application. 

If you want to take the SAT or ACT several times, you can do so. Find your nearest test centre, and register for multiple dates during the year. 

You can find the average range of both SAT and ACT scores for successful applicants to your preferred university on this college’s website. This means that you know what type of score to aim for when you sit the exam. 

These tests are multiple-choice, with sections on subjects like Math, Evidence-Based Reading, Writing, and Science.

The best way to prepare for these tests is to get a book that contains a lot of past papers. The official CollegeBoard SAT book is a great option: you could also get The Official ACT Prep Guide textbook if you’re planning on sitting the ACT. 

The style of these standardised tests is quite different from the exams you sit in the UK, so it’s important to practice plenty of past questions. You could also look into getting a specialist tutor to help you prepare. 

  •  Note the Different Deadlines

The US application process is a lot less streamlined than the UK. In Britain, you apply to a maximum of five universities via the UCAS portal. There are two main deadlines to remember: October 15th if you’re applying to Oxbridge or for Medicine, and January 15th for all the other undergraduate applications. 

This is not the case in the US. Most universities use The Common Application (or CommonApp) as their admissions portal, but there are many notable exceptions such as MIT and Georgetown (which have their own application portals). 

Likewise, whilst US colleges generally keep to a schedule of early November for Early Action applications and early January for Regular Action, each university is different. 

Once you have a list of your top choices, check each university’s website to see what deadlines you need to remember when it comes to the application process. 

  • Understanding the Terminology

There are some key differences in terminology between UK English and American English, particularly when it comes to the university admissions process, so try to be aware of these: 

    • College: in the UK, this term normally means an institution that offers vocational training. In the US, “college” generally means a university. 
    • School: while Brits think of a school as a place where children and teenagers are educated, in the US this term also means university. 
  • Early Action: this is different from Early Decision, so remember that. If you apply for Early Action for a university, this means that you don’t have to accept the offer if you receive one. 
  • Early Decision: if you apply for Early Decision to a university, this means that you are committed to accepting an offer if you receive one. 
  • Applying to an American University: Picking Eight to Twelve Options

When you apply to UK universities via the UCAS portal, you can only submit your application to five institutions. Again, the US application system is quite different.

If you use the Common App, you can apply to a maximum of twenty colleges. However, you should remember that you’ll need to pay an application fee for most of the universities you apply to. You may also have to write a separate, supplementary essay for each and every college, which can be incredibly time-consuming. 

Generally, we’d suggest that you apply to between eight to twelve universities. Make sure that you’re choosing a selection of so-called “reach schools” (ones where your grades are slightly lower than the university’s requirements), competitive schools (which you have a real chance of getting into), and safety schools (where you’ll likely get accepted). 

Use your standardised test scores to gauge which types of schools you should be aiming for when you take part in the application process. 

Another useful way to narrow down your list is to think about where in the country you would like to live and study. 

Could you put up with the extremely cold winters in Boston, for instance? If not, don’t apply to Boston University, Boston College, MIT, Tufts, or Harvard. 

You could also figure out what type of student experience you want from your time at college. Are you a competitive lacrosse player? If that’s the case, apply to universities with well-funded, competitive varsity lacrosse programmes. If you’d rather apply to a small liberal arts college, check out places like Williams, Wellesley, Bowdoin, or Amherst. 

  •  Figure Out How to Fund Your Studies

John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard, November 2019

Only five US universities follow a “need-blind” admissions policy, including Harvard and Amherst (photo by Jay Yuan /

If you’re applying to a university in the UK, you’ll likely be able to apply for a student loan or grant from the government to help fund your studies. 

Remember that you won’t be eligible for this government funding when you’re applying to colleges in the United States. 

Only five of the top American universities adopt a “need-blind” admissions policy for international applicants, which means they don’t consider your financial situation as part of your application. These colleges are: 

  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • Amherst 
  • Princeton
  • MIT

These universities also offer exceptional financial support to offer-holders who require it. Harvard, in particular, has an incredible record when it comes to meeting the financial needs of every student from less economically-advantaged families. 

However, you’ll find that every other US college you apply to will adopt a “need-aware” approach when it comes to your financial situation. This means that your ability to pay the tuition and accommodation fees will factor into the admissions team’s final decision on whether to give you a place. 

If you are a talented sportsperson, it’s well worth looking into applying for a sports scholarship at one of the top US universities. Check out the United Sports website to find out more about your options. 

You can also apply for academic scholarships at many of the best American universities. Have a look at this webpage for more information on some of the grants available.

  • Keep Your Teachers in the Loop

It’s quite likely that your school teachers are as unfamiliar with the American university application process as you are, so remember to keep them in the loop. 

Talk to them regularly about which US schools you are considering applying to, and about your achievements both in and out of the classroom. 

This might sound like an unnatural thing to do, but you will need at least one or two excellent teacher references (along with a recommendation from your guidance counsellor or form tutor) as part of your application. 

These recommendations should not just include your academic success, but in-depth insights into your character and any impressive personal achievements. Whilst American universities certainly want bright students, they also want well-rounded people, and your teachers’ references need to communicate your depth of character loud and clear. 

  • Extra-Curricular Activities

Applying to US colleges is a highly holistic process. No matter which schools you apply to, admissions tutors will be looking at your whole application: they’ll also be looking to gauge important information about who you are as a well-rounded, multifaceted individual. 

Admissions committees will consider:

  • Your teachers’ recommendations
  • Your academic transcript
  • Your SAT scores
  • Your interview performance (depending on the university)
  • Your admissions essay
  • Any supplementary writing
  • Your extracurricular activities. 

American universities will consider your extracurriculars as a major part of your application, so take this into account as soon as you start thinking about applying to the US.

You should try to take part in activities that show you’re engaged with the community and the wider world. Look for opportunities where you can take an active leadership role. For instance, don’t settle for just being a member of your school’s student leadership team: come up with an idea or project and be responsible for executing it.

Try to invest in a few extracurricular activities over the long term. This demonstrates your commitment and self-discipline to US universities. 

Perhaps you started volunteering with a charity when you were fourteen and have not only continued to do so, but have also looked for other ways in which you can help this cause, like starting a blog about the charity’s work or running a fundraiser. 

Look for two or three types of extra-curricular and develop them over 6 months or longer. For instance, if you are great at art, invest time and effort to work on that. If you are interested in journalism, write for the student paper for a year or so: you can then try to look to get published at the local or national level.

  • Applying to an American University: Admissions Essays

When you apply to an American university via the CommonApp, you’ll have to write an admissions essay that will be sent to all of your choices. 

The admissions essay is very different from the UCAS personal statement. Whilst a personal statement should be very focused on your academic achievements, passions, and desires, your college admissions essay doesn’t need to refer to your schoolwork at all. 

Instead, it needs to be personal and relatively emotionally intimate, telling the story of what makes you unique and special as a person. 

This type of written work will take a while, and multiple drafts, to perfect. 

Moreover, many colleges require you to write a supplementary essay as part of their own application. Make sure you begin writing these essays early on in the application process. 

  •  Know that Hitting Submit is Not the End of the Process

Once you’ve sent in your applications to your favourite American universities, it’s likely that you’ll have to complete a few follow-up tasks.

At the very least, you will need to send in mid-year and final transcripts. You can also send in an update letter, informing the admissions team of any academic and personal achievements you have had since applying. 

Shortly after you have applied to a university, you will be given access to your own application portal. Make sure you check this regularly and your emails to see if all the information you have sent to this university has been received and if they require anything else.

Applying to an American University from the UK? Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what applying to a university in America entails. 

It is not a particularly simple process, but by getting a headstart and starting early you can break it down into small, manageable chunks. 

If you need more advice about the American application process, get in touch with us at A&J Education to book a free consultation with one of our experts.

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