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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University - Must read

How to apply to study in the USA

If the USA is your chosen destination to study in, you’ll need to know about how to apply. Our guide covers it all, from entrance exams to essays and deadlines.

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Studying in the USA is the dream for many students and understandably so. It’s a vast and beautiful country with a top tier education system. But perhaps you’ve heard of the complex college application process and are feeling stressed? Try not to worry, once you understand how it works, it will seem a lot more manageable.


In this article, we give a detailed overview of the applications process so it’s one less thing for you to worry about.


Understanding the higher education system in the USA


In the USA, universities (or colleges/schools as they are more often known) are divided into three key areas:


Private colleges


The private college system in the US is highly respected and it comes with a high price tag. At the very top end are the prestigious Ivy League schools, well-known for being difficult to get into but an impressive addition to your CV/resume if you do.


Public colleges


Owned by the state, public colleges in the USA are typically cheaper than private institutions and although some might be considered less prestigious than their private counterparts, this certainly isn’t always the case. Famous examples of well-respected public colleges include UCLA and Berkeley.


Community colleges


With a range of vocational and academic courses, community colleges offer a more affordable route into the American higher education system. Here, you will receive an associate’s degree (which can be transformed into the first half of a bachelor’s degree if you choose to transfer to another type of college later).


Remember, when choosing a college to apply to as an international student, it must be SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Programme)-approved, so be sure to check this before you make any final decisions.


Important deadlines


In the USA, the academic year varies between colleges but generally runs from September through to June, with the option to take summer courses if you want. Different universities run on semester, trimester or quarter systems. This will affect how your classes and workload are managed so it’s worth looking into this before you apply.


As each college has its own application system, there’s no set deadline for applications. Typically, , you can expect a deadline in the January of the year your course is due to start. Because of the complicated nature of applications, it is generally advised to start the process 12-18 months in advance to avoid disappointment.


Although there’s no limit on the number of colleges you can apply to, most students choose no more than five or six to focus their efforts most effectively.


English language requirements


If English is not your first language, it’s likely the colleges you apply to will ask you to sit an English language test to prove that you will be able to understand what you are being taught. Different colleges may expect different levels of English proficiency.


The most widely accepted English language exams are IELTS and TOEFL, though others are available. Be sure to check carefully that every college you apply to will accept the results of the exam you’ve sat or you might have to take more than one.


Academic requirements




American colleges set their own academic requirements and generally speaking, the more prestigious the institution, the higher your grades will need to be. If your qualification is not well-known, you should also check that your university will recognise your results.


You don’t necessarily need to have the grades at the time you apply, but you may be asked to provide evidence that you’re expected to receive them before the start date of your course.


At postgraduate level, you’ll need to show you have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree (or equivalent), usually this should be related to your area of study. Depending on which programme you apply to, some colleges may also request scores from external tests such as the GRE.


Some US Bachelor’s degrees will require you complete specific classes, known as pre-requisites before you start your course.


Entrance exams


Most US colleges will also require students to sit an entrance exam. The standard tests to take are the SAT and the ACT. Most universities will accept either but it is your responsibility to book the test. It will cost you around USD 60 and you can sit your chosen exam in your home country.


Both tests are multiple choice and demonstrate your knowledge in core subjects. The main difference between the tests is that whilst the SAT focusses mainly on English and maths, the ACT also includes science questions. Therefore, if you are looking to study a science-based degree, the ACT would probably be more appropriate.


Don’t worry if you don’t pass first time, it’s quite common to re-sit if you need to and your results will remain valid for 5 years.


Important documents


Although the process can differ between institutions, you will usually have to provide documents with your college application. Remember, for any document not in English, you’ll need to arrange for an official translation.


Commonly requested documents include:

  • academic transcripts (if you do not yet have your exam certificates) and/or exam/qualification certificates
  • English language test results
  • a copy of your passport or other valid identity document
  • evidence you have the finances to pay for your studies


For graduate degree applications:

  • CV/resume
  • research statement – this should be a summary of your research achievements to date and/or your proposals and ideas for future research


Before you start your study programme, you will also need to provide your college with a copy of your student visa. Read our article about applying for a student visa in the USA.


Entrance essay


The USA’s famous entrance essays, also known as application essays, are a cause of stress to many applicants. Where do I begin? What do I write? You wouldn’t be alone in feeling worried and stressed. But try not to worry, the entrance essay is just the college’s way to find out more about you.


The essay will be about you so you should write in your own words rather than in a formal academic style. You might have to think about what to write yourself or you might be given some prompts (suggestions of things to write about).


The entrance essay is your opportunity to shine. You’ll want to make yourself sound as interesting as possible – include any extra-curricular activities, hobbies and aspirations, especially if they highlight your uniqueness. You want to really show off what you have to offer.




Most colleges will ask you to supply one to three academic references as part of your application.


You’ll need to ask teachers who know you personally to act as referees. They’ll need to supply a written recommendation detailing your academic ability, work ethic and suitability for higher education. Ideally at least one referee will have taught you in a subject related to the one which you are applying for. If not, try to secure referees who taught you in a core subject (English, maths or science).


If you are applying for a graduate course, you may be able to use an employer as a reference – particularly if the employer is in a profession related to the programme you wish to study. Some colleges, however, will insist on academic references in which case you’ll need to approach a teacher or professor.


The application process


Every US college has their own applications platform, accessed online, so before you begin, be sure to familiarise yourself with the various unique deadlines and requirements for each institution.


You can choose to apply directly through a college’s online portal or you may opt to use a generic website such as Common App to submit your application(s).


You’ll need to answer a few questions about yourself and pay a fee to each college you apply to. This is generally in the region of USD 40 – USD 80. You’ll also need to attach all your documentation before you submit, so make sure you have electronic copies of everything you need.



What happens next


The college(s) you have applied to will contact you to let you know if you have an offer of a place. They may request you attend an interview before they extend an offer, particularly if you’ve applied to study a graduate degree.


When a university gives an offer it will be either ‘conditional’ (dependent on you achieving something, e.g. English language test results) or ‘unconditional’ (where you have been accepted outright). When you’ve received an offer, you’ll need to make a start on your student visa application.


It would also be sensible to start looking into accommodation options. If you’re hoping to live on campus, you’ll usually be able to apply for rooms as soon as you accept an offer, although some colleges will let you apply as soon as an offer is extended. Check this direct with your college. Find out more about how much it costs to study in the USA.


Top tips


Finally, here are some top tips that might help your application:


  • Attend an Open Day / Open House tour of the university (either in person or virtually) so you can really get a feel for the atmosphere.
  • Make use of colleges’ international admissions offices for more specific help and guidance.
  • Check out some of the many online resources for ideas when writing your entrance essay.
  • Accept any guidance you’re offered along the way – extra eyes reading over an application can always be helpful.

Study in the USA


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