US Universities Application GuideWatch
I’ve designed this thread with longevity in mind. As well as being relevant for the upcoming cycle of applicants (class of ‘26), this thread will cover relevant information for future applicant groups too (with a few possible minor deviations if CommonApp changes its stuff again).
I’ve also kept this thread very general for this reason! The advice given here is purely factual and is designed to guide you through the process of applying to the US - from researching universities to submitting your application for admission and financial aid (if applicable). Alongside this, I have created an AMA where you can feel free to ask me questions about my opinions or my own experiences.
I have split the information into several posts, which allows me to sort it into categories for ease of access! Click the category name below to jump to the relevant information.
The Admissions Cycle
When to Apply
How Many Colleges Can I Apply To?
How to Apply
Affording a US Education
The “Ivy League”
How to Choose Universities
That’s about all for now! If there’s anything raised in this post that you don’t understand - or you think I should have mentioned something I didn’t, feel free to let me know below.
All that’s left to say is good luck!
Before we get into discussing your application and how to apply, I would like to explain the admissions cycle. This will hopefully clear up any confusion you may encounter when applying and ensure that you know exactly what you’re signing up for.
Firstly, each US university will have its own deadlines. Unlike UCAS, where there is a common deadline for priority consideration of January 15th (or October 15th for Oxbridge and Medicine), US universities will each have different deadlines. You will need to check each individual university to find out what your appropriate deadlines are.
Early Decision is a binding commitment to attend the university if you are admitted and can afford it. When you apply to a university through Early Decision, you agree to a contract stating that, if you are admitted and can realistically afford to attend, you will withdraw any other applications (including from other countries such as the UK) and won’t submit any further applications to other universities. Because Early Decision is binding, you may not apply to more than one university through this process - however you may still apply to other universities through Early Action - as long as you are not breaking the rules of the other universities you apply to. Early Decision typically has a deadline towards the middle-end of October.
Early Action is a non-binding application for admission at your chosen university. If you are admitted and can afford it, you are under no obligation to attend - and can still apply for other universities later on. Because Early Action is not binding, you can theoretically apply to as many universities as you want (with the exception of the below example) - and can even apply to another college through the Early Decision process. Early Action typically has a deadline towards the middle-end of October.
Restrictive Early Action is just like Early Action in that it is a non-binding application, however there are conditions attached to this. You may not apply to other colleges through either Early Action or Early Decision if you apply through Restrictive Early Action. However, each college may have exceptions to this policy (e.g. some may still allow you to apply to public universities alongside your Restrictive application) - check your college’s website to find out. Restrictive Early Action typically has a deadline towards the middle-end of October.
Regular Decision is where most of your applications will probably be (unless you apply and are accepted to your top college in the early rounds). Regular Decision is non-binding. You can theoretically apply to as many colleges as you want through Regular Decision. Regular Decision typically has a deadline towards early-mid January
Early Decision 2 is effectively a cross between Early Decision and Regular Decision. It is a binding commitment, but the application is due later than a typical Early Decision application. Early Decision 2 is not offered at a lot of schools, but it can be strategic to apply through this if it is available. Again, because it is a binding commitment, you may not apply to more than one college through Early Decision 2, but may apply to colleges through Regular Decision alongside your application. Early Decision 2 typically has a deadline towards early-mid January.
Now you know about the application cycle, you’re probably wondering when you should apply to your chosen universities. You have a lot of options and it can be tough to figure out which decision is the right one. The simple (and frustrating) truth is that there is no one right answer for everybody, but I can give some general advice on the matter.
If your first choice school offers Early Decision, it’s definitely worth considering! Keep in mind that it is binding, so you should only apply through Early Decision if you can see yourself going to that school over any others on your list. With that being said, if you’re still interested in Early Decision, you’ll be pleased to hear that in most cases it actually has higher admission rates. For most universities, your odds of admission are boosted by applying Early Decision. You will typically receive your decision in November-December, so if you have backups in the regular round, you might want to get started on these applications before you receive your early decision.
You may consider applying to a school through Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action) if your first choice school doesn’t offer Early Decision - or if you want to apply somewhere early but don’t want to be stuck in a binding commitment. Because Early Action is non-binding, it typically doesn’t carry the admissions boost that Early Decision does. You will typically receive your decision in November-December, so if you have backups in the regular round, you might want to get started on these applications before you receive your early decision.
If, for whatever reason, you decide not to apply to any schools in the early round, or you have already been rejected by your first choice school in the early round, you may want to consider Early Decision 2 if your second choice school offers it. Just like Early Decision, your application is binding, so you should only apply through Early Decision 2 if you could see yourself going to that university over any others on your list. Also, similarly to Early Decision, ED2 typically has higher admit rates, so applying under this cycle could be a good strategic move if your aim is simply to go to the US at all costs. You will typically receive your decision in February-April, at the same time as those you may have chosen to apply to under Regular Decision.
As previously mentioned, most of your applications will be in the regular decision round. This means that you’ll typically be hearing from most universities between March-April (with some exceptions) with your admissions decision. It may also turn out that, after weighing up your options, you don’t want to apply in the early rounds, and just want to apply under regular decision - and that’s totally fine too!
UCAS has a restriction of 5 universities, meaning that you are extremely limited as to where you can apply. No such restriction exists in the US. You may theoretically apply to as many colleges as you want*.
However, there is a footnote to this. A majority of US Colleges are on CommonApp. This is a universal applications platform used to better organise all of your applications. You may only apply to up to 20 universities through CommonApp, but can apply to an unlimited number that don’t use CommonApp alongside this.
I’m not going to give you a complete runthrough of CommonApp - that would take way too long and it’s been done to death in other sources. But hey, if it turns out you actually want that - let me know and it’s something I may consider! Instead, I’ll give you the key information you need to know.
Firstly, where do you apply? Most US Universities are on two main platforms; the CommonApp and the CoalitionApp. The CommonApp is the most popular out of these two, so I will be referring to fields on this form in this post. However, some universities (such as MIT and the UCs) aren’t on CommonApp and have their own application portal.
The main “Common App” section is mostly self-explanatory, though there are a few parts that I would like to cover just for clarity.
Education -> Colleges & Universities:
It is unlikely that as a student in the UK you would have taken any coursework at a university. Check “0” here.
Education -> Grades:
- “Graduating Class Size” - The approximate number of people in your year at school.
- “Class rank reporting” - At most UK schools, you should check “None”.
- “GPA Scale reporting” - Select “None”.
Education -> Current of Most Recent Year Courses
Most UK schools have 3 terms, so you should select “Trimester” as your school’s scheduling system.
Education -> Honors
Here you can put anything such as subject awards you have received from your school, or any certificates you have received from academic activities (such as olympiads or UKMT).
Testing -> Tests Taken
“ Is promotion within your educational system based upon standard leaving examinations given at the end of lower and/or senior secondary school by a state or national leaving examinations board?” - Answer “Yes” to this question.
Testing -> Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations
I’ve seen a bit of conflicting information on this. I know of people who included their GCSEs in this, but when I was applying I was instructed to put “0” in this field, as my A-Levels were the only things that should count.
Writing -> Personal Essay
This is your main essay, but it is a mistake to think of this in the same way as your UCAS personal statement. US universities want to get to know about you, not just your academics. The prompts give you some helpful ideas on what you can write about. Try to tell a story of personal development or reflection. What you really want from this essay is for the admissions team to know about you as a person, not as a student. Development and overcoming a challenge is something that’s great if you have such a story. If not, think about what you really want the admissions team to know about you and how you can turn it into an interesting story or essay within the word limit.
Now that you’ve filled that in, it’s time to add some universities! Navigate to the “College Search” tab, and enter the name of the university you wish to add. Click the “+” icon just to the left of its name, and it will be added. You can add as many colleges as you would like.
Next, navigate to the “My Colleges” tab. This is where you will answer questions that each individual university has set for you, add recommenders, and submit your final applications. The main thing to note here is the “Recommenders and FERPA” tab in each university’s area.
Click the box that says “Complete Release Authorization”. You will then get a box asking if you wish to waive your FERPA rights. FERPA allows you to see what your recommenders have written about you. However, universities know that you can see this. As a result, they may not take your recommendations as seriously because you would have had the ability to pick and choose recommenders who were more favourable to you. I would strongly advise that you waive your FERPA rights. This means that you will not be able to see what your teachers have written about you - universities will know you have waived these rights and will take your recommendations more seriously which will be more favourable to you.
Now that’s done, you can invite your recommenders! Firstly, you’ll want to invite a Counselor. They will submit a general reference for you, as well as a copy of your transcript and a report on the school’s info. Generally, this will be the same person who handles the UCAS applications at your school.
Next, add your teachers. You can choose any teachers to write a recommendation for you, but it is in your best interests to ensure they know you well. It’s always great to pick a current teacher if you can. When you add a teacher to CommonApp, they are added to your profile, which means that you don’t have to invite them for every individual school. You can also add many teachers to your profile, and pick and choose which university each teacher’s recommendation goes to. Keep a lookout at the requirements of each individual school; as some may require one reference from a STEM teacher and another from a Humanities teacher or some other specific combination - although this won’t show on CommonApp so you’ll have to check their website to find out!
I’d like to give one final piece of advice regarding this:
Be yourself! US universities are very good at seeing straight through people just saying what they think the university wants to hear, and doing so won’t do you any favours. US Universities are looking to build a well-rounded class, so by being true to yourself you may find that you meet criteria that nobody else does; which will help you in the admissions process! Universities don’t want unhappy students, and their admissions team knows the university better than anyone else - they will be making sure that the university is truly a good fit for you, as well as you being a good fit for them, and they can’t do this if you aren’t true to yourself in your application. It’s better to be rejected from a school than to be admitted and unhappy because it wasn’t right for you.
You probably already know that the US is expensive! It’s not uncommon for universities to charge in the 5-figure range just for a year’s tuition! For 4 years, it’s easy for costs to exceed $100,000 at a conservative estimate once you’ve factored in accommodation and living costs.
You won’t be able to get student loans from the UK government because you’re studying in another country - and as an international student, you also won’t be eligible for loans from the US government. There are some private companies that may offer you some loans, but you’ll need a US citizen to co-sign, and these will probably have high interest rates, so definitely avoid these if you can.
So it’s expensive and you can’t get student loans to cover it, so how exactly can you afford this? Financial aid! This is mostly only available to international students at private colleges, but some public colleges may offer scholarships based on certain criteria. kamara41 has helpfully compiled a complete list of universities that will offer financial aid to British students, which can be found here.
With that being said, let’s discuss the 2 main types of financial aid.
Firstly, we have merit-based scholarships. Each school that offers these will have its own criteria set out for what they are looking for in applicants. This could be anything from just high grades, to leadership, or a mix of both. Some schools will automatically consider students for these scholarships when they apply for admission, whereas for others you may have to complete a separate application. Scholarships can cover anything from a small fraction of costs, to a full ride - covering everything including housing! Some of the more generous and competitive scholarships may have a separate interview process to narrow down applicants (such as Georgia Tech’s Stamps Scholarship).
Secondly, we have need-based financial aid. This is financial assistance given to students based on their family’s income. In order to apply for this, you’ll usually need to complete the CSS Profile by CollegeBoard. At first glance, this form can seem very invasive to a UK family who aren’t used to openly talking about money - and it is. If your parents have separated, each parent will have to complete their own Profile. It will ask for your household’s income, for this year and last year (as well as asking for a prediction for the upcoming year), as well as asking for your expenses and the value of your assets. You may also need to submit a copy of your parents’ tax returns. For this, their P60 will serve as sufficient documentation.
Your need-based financial aid package will typically consist of 3 components. The first, and most common, is a scholarship/grant. This will usually make up most of your financial aid package, and doesn’t need to be repaid. At some universities, your entire financial aid package may be grant aid. The second component is a loan. A lot of universities have started to phase these out of their financial aid packages now, but for some it’s still very much a part of their offers. It’s unusual for the loan component to be a large amount, but it’s still a big commitment to take on and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This loan will be repayable directly to your university, and repayment terms and interest will be set by them. Make sure you really understand the terms of this before agreeing to take a loan. The final component is work-study. Again, this will be a relatively small amount since you are only eligible to work for a maximum of 20 hours per week on your visa. For work-study, you’ll be working on campus to earn money, which will then be used to pay some of your expenses.
Something to consider about need-based aid - some schools won’t meet 100% of your demonstrated need. This means that there are schools that will leave you with a higher expected contribution than you can afford - in this case you’re probably expected to take other assistance (US universities tend not to be aware of the situations of international students, so this may not really be realistic). A lot of universities will meet 100% of your need, and you can often find out their policy on this through their website, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Another thing to consider is that most schools are need-aware, meaning that the amount of financial aid you require may be a factor in your admissions decision. This isn’t to say that it’s not possible to get into a school while needing your full cost of attendance covered, but it can definitely make it more difficult. There are 5 universities that are fully need-blind to international students - meaning that they won’t consider your ability to pay in your admissions decision. These are: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Amherst.
So… the mythical Ivy League. Firstly, we need to recognise which universities are in the Ivy League. There are a few universities that a lot of people think are Ivies that are, in fact, not (such as Stanford).
The 8 Ivy League schools are: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Yale.
So, with that being said, what is the Ivy League? Well, officially, just a sports league. That’s literally it. It’s a subset of NCAA Division 1. However, the Ivy League name is often taken out of this context to refer to the schools as the most Elite colleges with excellent academics and selective admissions.
While it is pretty much undeniable that the Ivies are among the best in the US generally for academics, they may not be the best for the subject you want to do. Even within the Ivy League, there is a huge difference in quality between subjects. My point here is that the Ivy League name is prestigious, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. When considering colleges, consider what’s a good fit for you and your ambitions over whether a school is a part of a so-called Elite group.
That being said, one thing’s for sure. The “Ivy League” brand has been massively inflated over the decades to mean something it’s not. And that brand now carries huge weight and name recognition which can be helpful in later life.
(Especially true if you’re working outside of the US. Almost nobody in the UK had heard of Dartmouth compared to the likes of Harvard, and even non-ivies such as Stanford, so if you tell an employer you went there they may think it’s a no-name school. Tail on the fact it’s Ivy League though, and they’re less likely to care that they haven’t heard of the school. Because it’s Ivy League, so it must be the best, right?)
Okay, so now you have the information on the process, how to apply, and how to afford university in the US - one thing still remains; how do you choose where to go? There really is no one right answer to this, and it’s such a personal decision.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is research. Rankings aren’t reliable for the US - but if you truly insist on using them, I’d recommend QS or USNews (though you still shouldn’t use rankings as your main way of choosing). Despite their unreliable nature, however, rankings may be a good way to broaden your scope and find out about more great universities that you previously weren’t aware of! Make a list of what you are looking for in a US University (location, size, possible major(s)/minor(s), etc.) - NOT which university you want to go to. Use this list of what you want to find universities that fill that criteria - you may end up finding that the school that you thought was your dream (for example, Harvard) actually isn’t what you were looking for in a university at all!
You can find out about universities by looking on their website. It will provide a good look into academic stats of admitted students, life on campus, the majors and minors offered, and much more! You may also be able to find out about an information session that is being hosted online - and I’d definitely recommend you attend these if you can. Websites such as CollegeConfidential (what I’d call the closest thing in the US to TSR) may also provide a way to communicate with other potential applicants and even current students! If you want to know more about resources you can use to find out about universities, check the resources section of this post.
So, by doing your research, you should have built a shortlist - but now what?
Well… now you need to decide when to apply. Again, this will really decide on your priorities.
You may decide that you only want to apply to US universities in the regular round - maybe due to the deadline, or maybe because every university on your list only offers Early Decision and you don’t want to make that commitment. This is totally fine!
Equally though, you may want to apply in the early round. But how do you decide where to apply in this process? Well, firstly, you should only apply to a university through Early Decision if you can see yourself attending that university out of any others on your lists - both US and UK. This should ideally be your first choice university. If your first choice university only offers a form of Early Action, you may still consider applying there in the early round if you can’t see yourself attending another university over that one if you were offered admission to both.
If you apply to your first choice university in the early round and are rejected, you may consider Early Decision II if your second choice school offers this. Again, you shouldn’t use this if you can’t see yourself attending this school over the others on your regular round list or in the UK. But if you can see yourself attending that university and have already been rejected from your first choice, it can be a great way to increase your odds of admission!
Something to note: If your objective is just “Get to the US” and you can’t see yourself studying anywhere else, it may be a good idea to apply strategically in the early round. Early Decision can boost your odds of admission significantly, so if you are happy to settle for one that may not be your absolute first choice as long as it gets you into the US, you may consider increasing your odds by applying Early Decision. This choice is ultimately up to you, though.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice where you apply, but it’s worth keeping in mind what I mentioned earlier in regards to the admissions process; universities care about whether the student and institution are a good fit for each other. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend applying to schools just for the prestige.
[A note for the 2021/21 admissions cycle: Most universities have adopted a test-optional policy due to the pandemic. This means that you will not be required to submit standardised testing scores if you cannot take them - no need to stress. However, stats from last year suggest that unofficially there may be an advantage to submitting a good score if you can. Some universities have gone completely test-blind, meaning that they won’t even consider your scores regardless of whether you submit them or not.]
US Standardised Testing can be difficult to understand, but this guide should be able to answer your questions. There are 2 main tests in the US - the SAT and the ACT. Universities don’t prefer one over the other, so you can take whatever feels easier for you, both logistically and in terms of content.
Note: You may also see references to SAT Subject Tests - as of June 2021, these have been discontinued by CollegeBoard and are no longer required for admission to any universities.
The SAT is a test administered by CollegeBoard. It consists of 2 main sections - Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing. Within the math section, there is a 55-minute calculator-optional section and a 25-minute no calculator section. This whole section consists of a total of 58 questions. You’ll also have separate sub-sections for reading (65 minutes - 52 questions) and writing (35 minutes - 44 questions). Each main section will be scored on a scale of 200-800, and these scores will be combined to give your total SAT score between 400-1600.
The ACT is a test administered by ACT. It consists of 4 main sections - English, Math, Reading, Science. These must be taken in this set order, and you will get a 15-minute break between math and reading. English consists of 75 questions in 45 minutes. Math has 60 questions in 60 minutes. Reading and science both have 40 questions each in 35 minutes. Each subsection of the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36, with an average of these 4 scores being taken to obtain your composite score. An interesting note for your composite score: It will always round up. So if your subsection scores were 32, 31, 33, 33; your average would be 32.25. This will be rounded up for a composite score of 33!
Something you may have noticed - these tests are long! They test your test-taking ability and your ability to pace yourself just as much as they test you on the content - if not more. The best way to practice and revise for them is by taking practice papers. You can find some examples on the official websites, and there are also some great prep books out there!
In case you’re wondering which one you should take - it doesn’t really matter. Universities don’t prioritise one over the other, so take what’s logistically easier for you (location of test centre, cost, etc.). With that being said, I have spoken to US-based students who generally seem to be under the impression that the SAT has a harder English section than the ACT, and the ACT’s Math section is harder than that of the ACT - so the ACT may be better for you if you are stronger in math and weaker in English.
Your best resource to find out about specific universities will always be their website! Just a quick Google search of “X University [topic]” should give some good results on their website that should give you what you need!
To find out more about US study, I’d recommend checking out the Fulbright Commission! They’re an amazing resource and have things to support with everything from deciding if the US is right for you to getting your visa!
If you’re in Year 12, I can’t recommend the Sutton Trust US Programme enough! It’s run by the Fulbright Commission and is extremely informative - even taking you to the US! They provide continued support through the application process and with getting your visa. You also make a lot of great friends on the programme and great connections. If you meet the eligibility requirements, I’d suggest applying.
USA College Day is a yearly event in London hosted by the Fulbright Commission. Representatives from many US Universities attend this event and it’s a great way to learn more about the universities and make connections - the person you meet there may be the international admissions officer who will read your application!