Over the last few years, an increasing number of UK students have been tempted to venture across the pond for university. The increase in tuition fees, the global reputation of American universities and the variety offered by a liberal arts education are all factors compelling people to apply to a US university. 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 system is very different. This article sets out everything you need to be aware of as a UK student applying to American universities.
1) Start early!
When you apply to an American university, you will be competing against students who have grown up in the US and the US educational system. They will have teachers and college counsellors who are highly familiar with the process of applying and what makes a competitive application. Ensure you are just as prepared by them by starting early. A good time to start thinking seriously about university is the summer after you finish your GCSEs, if not earlier.
2) Master standardised testing
One of the key differences about applying to the US compared to the UK is that your application is not based on GCSE grades and predicted A-Level or IB scores. Instead, you are required to send in standardised test scores. Almost every college requires you to take the ACT or SAT test. More competitive schools such as Harvard or Georgetown will recommend – and sometimes even require – that you also take SAT Subject Tests. This is another reason it is good to get started early.
There are multiple sittings of these tests every year so you can re-take if necessary. You can find the average range of both SAT and ACT scores for successful applicants online for most schools, so you know what a ‘good’ score is. collegesimply.com is a useful site. Colleges see no difference in the ACT or the SAT – simply pick the test that suits you best. Students tend to find they are better at one than the other. It is a good idea to get guides to taking these tests and even look into working with a tutor as they are very different from any sort of test you will have had to take before in the UK and do take time to become familiar with.
3) Note the different dates, deadlines, and application steps
The US application process is a lot less streamlined than the UK. Whilst we have UCAS and everyone can apply to a maximum of five schools and there are two deadlines. October 15th for those applying to Oxford, Cambridge or Medical School and January 15th for all applications. This is not the case in the US. Most universities use The Common Application (or CommonApp) for their admissions but there are many notable exceptions such as MIT and Georgetown.
Likewise, whilst US colleges generally keep to a schedule of early November for early admission decisions and January 1st for regular admissions, each university is different. Make sure that once you have gotten together your list of universities that you check the deadlines and make a note of them.
4) Understanding the terminology
Even though us Brits and those in the US both speak English, at times it can seem like we have our own language. College, school, university – in the UK these all mean distinctly different things, whilst in the US all can refer to the institute where you can gain a 4 year undergraduate degree. Then you will encounter phrases like score choice or super-scoring that seem incredibly important, but you have no idea what they mean. Do not be put off, but make sure you do know what these terms mean. Early Decision is distinct from Early Action. The first is restrictive and binding, the second is not.
5) So much choice, where to start?
Unlike with UCAS, you are not restricted to applying to just five universities. Instead, you can apply to as many as you want. Only your time, enthusiasm, and wallet will decide when you’ve reached your limit. We generally suggest students apply to 8-12 universities that are a mixture of reach schools, competitive schools and safety schools. Your standardised test scores can be helpful in figuring out which schools are which for you. To help you narrow down your list, have a think where in the country you would like to live and study. Could you put up with the frigid winters of Boston, for instance? Along with figuring out what sort of student experience you are after – do you want to be part of a small community? Do you want to somewhere that has a large focus on sports? This will help you narrow down your list.
6) Funding your studies
In the UK, you are able to get student loans from the government covering the cost of tuition plus a maintenance loan. If you decide to study abroad, you will not be eligible for this funding so will need to figure out how to cover the cost. As part of your application – and the visa process – you will need to show that you can afford it. Whilst it is certainly true that few pay the ‘sticker price’ shown for higher education in America, receiving financial aid, scholarships and so forth, a lot of this financial assistance is not open to international students. Furthermore, often noting on your application that you require financial assistance can negatively impact your application. There are just five colleges that are need-blind and meet all demonstrated need of its students. These are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Amherst. There are other pots of money available to UK students you will just have to go looking for them. Sometimes a university will have merit based or sports scholarships. If you will not be able to pay for college in cash – and most people cannot afford to do so – make scholarships and financial assistance a key part of your financial search. Otherwise, you will find yourself having to turn down a place because you simply cannot afford to go.
7) Keep your teachers in the loop
Your teachers have possibly never had a student that has applied to university in America before, so they are just as unfamiliar about the process as you. Talk to them often about which schools you are considering along with your achievements both in and out of the classroom. As part of your application, you will need two teacher references along with a recommendation from your guidance counsellor – if you do not have a guidance counsellor, a form tutor or another teacher will be fine. These recommendations should not just be about your academic success, but also include details about your character and personal achievements. Whilst American universities certainly want bright students, they also want well-rounded people and your teachers’ references need to communicate that.
8) Extra-curricular activities
US college admission is a holistic process. This means they look at your whole application. Teacher recommendations, school grades, SAT or ACT scores, admissions essays and extra-curricular activities. Extra-curriculars are a huge part of your application and you should start working on them early. You want to show that you are engaged with the community and the wider world. Look for opportunities where you can take an active and even leadership role rather than a passive one. For instance, do not just be a member of your school’s student leadership team, come up with an idea or project and be responsible for executing it.
Long term, consistent extra-curricular activities are also looked upon favourably. Perhaps you started volunteering with a charity when you were fourteen and have not only continued to do so but also looked for other ways you can help this cause – starting a blog on the topic, running a fundraiser and so forth. 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 – work on that. If you are interested in journalism, write for the student paper to begin with then maybe local or even national opportunities to be published.
9) Admissions essays
If you are applying to UK universities through UCAS, you are probably aware of the personal statement. The 4000-character statement on why you should be admitted onto a particular course. The first thing you need to be aware of is that US admissions essays are vastly different to a UCAS personal statement. Whilst a UCAS personal statement should be very focused on the academic, your college admissions essay does not need to refer to your chosen subject, or even your school work at all. Instead, it needs to be deeply personal and tell the story of what makes you, you. These will take a while, and multiple drafts, to perfect. Moreover, many colleges require you to write additional – or supplementary – essays as part of their own application. Do not leave writing these until the very last-minute as there is a lot of work to do.
10) Know that hitting submit is not the end of the process
Unlike when applying to a UK university, where after you have submitted your application, you rarely need to do anything else, the process does not finish after submitting your application to an American university. 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 in has been received, and if they require anything else.
Hopefully you now have a better idea of what applying to university in America entails. It is not a simple process, but by starting early you can break it down into small, manageable chunks. If you need more advice about which colleges to choose or how to the application process, follow us on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where we regularly post videos with advice.