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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? Here's everything you need to know about how to apply for unis in the USA.

Graduates in america and road sign with harvard

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This article is part of our Study Abroad America series.

Ah, America: the home of Friends, The Simpsons and the internet (our favourite things). We don't blame you for wanting to go to university there. In fact, we're jealous we didn't do it ourselves. 😉

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

However, if you're applying from outside of America 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.

Worried that US Higher Education might be too pricey? Check out our guide to cutting the cost of an American degree.

How to choose the right American university

Harvard campus quad

Credit: Jorge Salcedo – Shutterstock

America has around 5,300 universities and colleges, so how do you choose the one that's right for you?

Going to university in America as a UK student is a big commitment so we recommend that you start thinking about where you might want to go about a year in advance. Consider what you want to get out of your time as a student abroad, what you'd like to study and how you're going to fund your studies.

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 somewhere more rural.

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

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

Take a look at the list of American university rankings to get a better idea of your options.

How to apply for university in the USA

These are the steps you need to complete to apply to American universities as an international student:

  1. Contact the international admissions office at universities

    bruce almighty typing fast

    Credit: Universal Pictures

    In America, unlike in the UK, 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 their 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, as you would in the UK. This is because at American unis you don't specialise in a subject (known as your 'major') 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 on to our next point...

  2. Documents required to apply to US universities

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    Credit: astarot – Shutterstock

    Like we said before, each university will have its own list of documents it requires to complete the application process but there are some standard things that American unis are likely to ask for.

    Common requirements for university applications in America

    •  College admissions essay

    •  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 (more info on this below).

    Tips on writing your college admissions essay

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

    The admissions essay is one of the best ways to differentiate yourself from other international students when applying to universities in America.

    Don't waste this space with generic information. In response to prompts from the university, demonstrate how committed you are to your subject.

    If possible, try to mention any extracurricular activities that you do to support your career goals (e.g. if you want to do Theatre Studies, you could refer to any plays you've been involved in at the local theatre club or at school).

    And, if you do any voluntary work, private tutoring or have musical talents, make sure to also include these. Ultimately, you should aim to include any relevant info that shows you're a well-rounded, capable person that colleges in America will very much want to offer a place to.

  3. Pass your SAT/ACT test

    empty exam hall

    Credit: Cyblocker - Wikimedia

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

    Universities should accept both tests, so the one you go for is completely up to you.

    The SAT focuses on Maths and English while the ACT includes Maths, English and Science, so think about 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 several times a year, though tests in Central London book up particularly quickly so it's a good idea 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.

  4. Research university application deadlines and fees

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    Each uni will have its own deadline date, but please note that deadlines for applying to universities in America are generally at the beginning of January. Double-check with each university you apply to when their deadline is so you don't miss out.

    Unfortunately, each US university application is going to cost you. Again, as with the deadline date, fees vary but tend to lie somewhere between £55 – £70.

    It really is worth getting your shortlist down to the universities where you genuinely want to be placed, or you could end up shelling out some serious cash on applications.

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

Our tips on how to beat homesickness can help you adjust to American uni life once you're out there.

Applying for a US student visa

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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 with you to the interview you'll be asked to schedule. You'll then be asked to pay around £125 as an 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 London or the Consulate in Belfast (even if you aren't a UK national). If you're reading this from outside of 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 (e.g. your parents'). There's more info about what to expect at the interview on the US Embassy webpage.

Successful applications take between five and seven working days to process, but you're advised not to book any flights or make any travel arrangements before you have received confirmation that your visa application has been successful.

Not sure whether you've got enough cash to secure your move? Some countries actually have free university tuition.

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