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Study in America

How to apply to universities in the USA

Fancy taking a leap across the pond to study in America for your degree but aren't quite sure where to start? We've got the A to Z on how to apply for universities in the USA – read on!

how to apply to universities in america

Credit (left): Rob Crandall, Credit (right): Cdrin - Shutterstock

This article is part of our Study Abroad America series.

Ah, the Land of the Great. Hot dogs, Friends, The Simpsons... it's home to all our faves. We get why you'd wanna go to university there. In fact, we're jealous we didn't do it ourselves!

Applying to a university in a whole different country can seem a bit scary, but fortunately, the application process in the USA is pretty straightforward.

However, if you're applying from outside the US as an international student, there are a few extra steps you'll have to take to secure a student visa. Where do you apply? How much will it cost? All will be revealed!

Not 100% clued up on how the US higher education system works? Not to worry – we've got a whole guide explaining everything from degrees to funding.

Choosing the right American university

which university should i go to

Credit: CBC

Now we know we don't need to tell you this, but the US is a big-ass country and boasts around 5,300 universities! So how do you choose the one that's right for you?

Going to uni in America is a big commitment so we recommend that you starting thinking about where you might want to go about a year in advance. Think about what you want to get out of your time abroad, what it is you want to study and how you're going to fund your adventure.

The US has a whole host of different landscapes, so it's also worth thinking about how big a city you want to live in, whether you want to be by the coast, or whether you fancy being out in the countryside.

The great thing about applying for uni in the US is that there's no limit to the number of universities you can apply for.

Narrow yourself down to a shortlist of around 20 unis to avoid getting yourself into too much of a tangle. We suggest that you apply to no more than eight of the original 20 to balance out the quantity and quality of your application!

Have a gander of this list of American university rankings to get a better picture of what's in store.

How to apply for uni in the USA

Get in touch with the international admissions office

how to apply to US unis

Credit: Universal Pictures

Unlike in the UK, in the ol' US of A there is no central regulatory body like UCAS overlooking the application process. Each application is done separately through the university's own portal.

Get in touch with your international admissions office to double check you have the right information and that you're eligible as an international student – remember you'll be applying to get into a university rather than onto a course (like you do in the UK) as you don't study your specialist subject until a couple of years down the line.

Liaising with the international office early on will only increase your chances of success as it shows you're proactive and keen for a spot. Once you've got confirmation, you're good to go!

Applications can be completed online or via post, but we'd recommend the first option – it'll cost you less and is easier to track.

The application process will vary from uni to uni, but generally speaking, they'll ask for a bundle of documents – which brings us to...

Documents required to apply to US universities

us university application process
Like we said before, each university'll have its own list of documents it requires to complete the application process, but generally speaking, it'll include a combination of the following:

  • Mission statement
  • References from at least two teachers
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) if English isn't your native language
  • A written piece of work marked by a teacher
  • SAT/ACT test (we'll come back to this one).

What should I include in my mission statement?

Your mission statement is basically the US version of a UCAS personal statement – the letter you write to unis in the UK to convince them that you're suited to the course you're applying for.

The mission statement is one of the best ways to differentiate yourself from other international students. Don't waste this space with generic information: demonstrate how committed you are to your subject and why you want to study in the USA.

Include any extracurricular activities that you do to support your career goals (maybe you want to do Theatre Studies and have put on plays with a local theatre club or at school?) and anything that basically shows you're a well-rounded human!

If you do any charity work, volunteering, tutoring or have musical talents make sure to whack it in!

Pass your SAT/ACT test

apply for university USA

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The SAT and ACT (American College Test) are standardised tests used for university admissions in the United States that measure your knowledge in Maths, English and Science.

Universities will accept both tests, so the one you go for is completely up to you. The SAT only includes Maths and English while the ACT includes Maths, English and Science, so think which subjects would be most relevant to your application. If you're doing a science-based degree like Medicine, Engineering or Chemistry, we'd advise you do the ACT.

Scores are valid for five years (so if you don't get into your desired uni the first time around, you could use the same test for your application the following year) and you can resit the test multiple times.

The registration deadlines for the ACT and the SAT are generally five weeks before the testing date and tests cost around £75 to sit (whether you pass or not). Testing takes place in the UK between three and five times a year, though tests in Central London book up particularly quickly so you'd do well to sign up as soon as dates are released!

For more info on how to sign up to the ACT click here, and for the SAT click here!

Application deadlines and fees

american uni application fees
Each uni will have its own deadline date, but be aware that deadlines for applying to universities in America are generally at the beginning of January. Double check with the uni so you don't end up having to bang your application out the night before doors close!

Unfortunately, each application is going to cost you. Again, as with the deadline date, fees vary but lie somewhere between £55 – £66.

It really is worth getting your shortlist down to the universities where you genuinely want to be placed, otherwise you'll be shelling out some serious cash!

Most universities will also ask you to prove that you have access to funds to pay for your degree, and we're not gonna lie, they ain't cheap...

We've got some great tips on how to beat homesickness once you're out there, and making new friends is a great way to counter the post-arrival blues.

Applying for a US student visa

applying for us student visa

Credit: Megan Eaves - Flickr

You can only apply for a US student visa once a university has accepted you.

Once you've been accepted, your university will send you a Form l-20, also known as a certificate of eligibility for on-immigrant student status, which you'll need to apply for an F-1 student visa.

The first step of the process is completing the online application form which you'll need to print out and take to you with the interview you'll be asked to schedule. You'll then be asked to pay a £135 application fee which you can pay via the Official Department of US Visa Appointment portal.

In the UK, interviews take place at the US Embassy in the Consulate General in Belfast (even if you aren't a UK national). If you're reading this from outside the UK, check your country's US Embassy policy.

During the interview, you may be asked to prove you have enough money to cover your stay (including tuition fees) in America and provide an address you intend to return to once you've completed your degree (i.e. your parents'!).

Successful applications take between three and five workdays to process, but the official US Embassy page advises not to book any flights or make any travel arrangements before you have received confirmation that your application has been successful.

For all the deetz, check out the US Embassy webpage.

Not 100% convinced on the USA? Maybe Australia is more up your street!

Not sure whether you've enough cash to secure your move? There are some places you can study abroad for free!


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