Applying to US Universities – What You Need To Know

The key to admission at a prestigious US college is positioning oneself to stand out from the crowd. For most schools, you are not applying for a place in a degree program, but to become a unique contributor within a diverse academic community, where students are encouraged to explore a range subjects before choosing their specialization.

For international students, the US application process can seem daunting. Between targeting the right schools among thousands of undergraduate programs, prepping for obligatory standardized tests (SAT or ACT), navigating school-specific essay requirements beyond the Common Application, securing recommendations, prioritizing extracurricular activities, volunteer work and jobs, the challenge is far more complex than tackling UCAS and Oxbridge.

With the demands of a longer lead-time, it is important to get a head start. Ideally, you should begin the process two years prior to graduation to develop a winning academic and extracurricular strategy. This is especially important for students who wish to visit college campuses and take a SAT or ACT prep course.

Early decision applications are due November 1 of A Level/IB year.

While the unfamiliar can be intimidating, consulting experts familiar with the ins and outs of the system can eliminate much of the stress for both parents and students. Even the most proactive, organized American student needs help establishing and keeping to a timeline. This is doubly true for international students preoccupied with preparing for A-Level, IB or Baccalaureate examinations.


Though a college tour is not possible for everyone, campus visits offer an important opportunity to gauge if a school is a good fit. It allows you to meet students and faculty, ask questions and better determine whether to apply for early decision/early action or regular decision. This can be a strategic choice. Many universities believe that their best candidates are early decision/early action applicants.

SAT/ACT’s are standardized tests required by most US universities and colleges. Students can choose to take either one. They test ability in writing, mathematics and “critical reading.” Both are multiple-choice format and are similar, although the ACT includes a science section, focusing mainly on graphs. Preparation is crucial, and test time management paramount.

The Common Application used by a majority of schools encompasses a main essay, supplemental short essays and a summary of extracurricular activities such as sports, music, arts, employment experience and volunteer work. Non-academic activities carry more weight in US applications. Colleges appreciate high impact, proactive students who demonstrate leadership and are involved in their communities. Strong grades are not enough.

Recommendations also matter, and two academic recommendations are required. Teachers should focus on your intellectual strengths and academic rigor and include specifics. This is more beneficial than writing about character and personality. The purpose of recommendation letters is so that the admissions committee can get to know you: how you work, master new ideas, manage challenges and interact with others at school or work. To convey that information your recommendation must come from someone who has observed you closely, is familiar with you, and the way you work.

Along with grades and test scores, the personal essay is a crucial element of the application. It is a personal creative writing piece that helps a school learn about you as an individual. It should be compelling, introspective and written in a clear and concise manner. Topics to expand upon are significant moments or experiences that changed you or taught you something, consuming interests, thoughts and insights. By creating a story around your goals, community work, and passions, or through exploring your view of the world and your place within it, your authentic voice emerges.

Choosing the right school is among the most consequential decisions a student can make. Though challenging, the school selection and application process can be a transformative experience that helps you gain valuable insight into your talents, values, and aspirations. And, with the right support and advice, the process becomes a discovery.

In providing the right combination of coaching and guidance, an experienced counselor can optimize your candidacy to ensure that you enter the American university system with confidence.

For further expert advice on applying to a US University, Almost Essential can recommend  US Universities Advisor, Susie, who has an excellent knowledge of the challenges and requirements involved in the US university application process. If in doubt about anything, please contact her through Almost Essential.