The basics
THE USA: Applying to University - Must read

Applying to study in the US

Our breakdown of the application process to study abroad in the US...


Consistently ranked amongst global leaders in numerous fields of research and innovation, American universities offer international students an invaluable study abroad experience. With over 5,500 universities, countless areas of study on offer and a diverse student body, it’s not surprising that entry into American universities is incredibly competitive. The US university application process can seem complicated and overwhelming, but if tackled well in advance with patience and persistence you’ll find it quite manageable. Let our overview of how it works help make things easier.




With a unique academic system and strict immigration laws, students are advised to begin researching potential institutions as early as two years before their proposed commencement date to allow enough time to get organized.


American universities operate via the general education model for undergraduate study, and so students completing specific programmes in their home country may find they need to research potential course options very thoroughly in order to find suitable credit equivalents. Most universities enable students to download yearly academic prospectuses from their website.


Subjects offered year to year are subject to change depending on the professor taking them. Student’s acceptance into a course is also provisional, and sometimes is not confirmed until semester itself begins. Students are advised to have plenty of back-up course options ready for credit approval from their home institution in case they find themselves in this position, and be ready to directly confirm with both parties that their credits will transfer successfully before it is too late to register in another class.


In some countries such as Australia and the UK, representatives from partner American universities run seminars that break down the application process for prospective study abroad students.



Intakes and deadlines

Undergraduate application deadlines for a start in semester one of the American academic year (September) are from January-March of the same year, with most generally falling in January. Students needing to provide admissions and English language proficiency test scores as part of their applications will need to have them handy in time for this date. Students usually receive decisions on their applications by late March-April. Applications for a start in semester two usually cut-off around July-August of the year before. Many universities will accept international applications as early as a year before their proposed commencement date.


Application deadlines for postgraduate programmes are set by each institution, and may even vary depending on study areas and programme requirements. Deadlines also vary depending on whether the university is publicly or privately owned.


Sometimes students can be "wait listed", which means that the programme is full, but the student may be considered at a later date if a space opens up.


Learn more about wait-listing



Admissions and aptitude tests

America has a unique academic system that may not recognize student’s home academic qualifications, and so students may need to sit an admissions test such as the SAT or ACT. Students will also need to prove their English language proficiency if they are not native English speakers. Most institutions will accept IELTS and TOEFL scores.


Entry into postgraduate programmes almost always requires students to sit an entrance exam, and/or provide results from specific graduate admissions tests such as the GMAT or LSAT.


Learn more about American admissions tests


What test to take to study in the US




Most universities accept direct applications that are completed online, usually via a kind of internal portal students will need to register and create login details to access. Students will typically upload documents electronically, and are able to monitor the status of their application from their applicant profile page. 


There is also a centralised application process called the Common Application that is used by over 475 American universities. Almost two thirds of universities using the service however require that applicants submit additional documents directly to them. 


Note that you can also apply directly to a course you see on our site through our i-Apply service.


Check to see if you can apply to your host through the Common Application



Documents you will need

American universities require proof of all academic qualifications to date, such as university and high school academic transcripts, letters of recommendation from a current or previous professor, financial statements to prove you are able to support yourself in the US whilst you study and identification documents such as photocopies of your passport photo page and a local ID card.


Almost all universities will require you to submit a personal essay or statement of purpose outlining why you want to study in the US, and why you want to complete the specific programme you’re applying for. This is a heavily weighted component of your application and many universities require essay responses to application questions as well as a personal statement.


After you receive your official offer from your host institution, you should apply for an American student visa.


Learn more about American student visas



Application tips

As well as your academic achievements and admissions tests scores, personal essays and statements are heavily weighted aspects of applications to American universities. Entry into American universities is highly competitive, and many only have a certain quota of spots available to international students. Putting sufficient time and effort into a strong personal statement is your chance to sell yourself and really convince admissions officers why you’d be best for their programme.


Any relevant work experience or extra-curricular activities that demonstrate your enthusiasm, work ethic or strength of character should be mentioned in your application. Your language should be persuasive without being too pushy, and should mention how your specific host institution will help your academic goals. American academic language is direct and students should not shy away from singing their praises if it helps demonstrate how they are best suited to the programme, and how the programme can best help with their personal development.


American universities try to grasp a holistic image of the student when they process applications, and so will consider each component of your application closely. How you present yourself in an interview, how you write in your application responses and what is written about you in your letter of recommendation are all of key importance to a successful application.



Now that you’ve got a grasp of the American university admissions process, start browsing courses in America now and start planning your study abroad adventure!



Useful links

'The American Higher Education System... Simplified'

'GRE subject test'

'GMAT: Pathway to Business School'

'Writing your personal statement'

Search for a course

Study level*
About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.


'Study in the USA' eBook

Enjoy what you’ve read? We’ve condensed the above popular topics about studying in the USA into one handy digital book.