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US College Application Process – How to apply?

Applying to a US university can seem very daunting and complicated, but if you’re prepared and you know what to expect, it needn’t be overwhelming. In order to aid you, we have written summary of what you need to do.

We've provided some general information below, but please do contact us for more information. We also provide consultancy help for students applying, which you can read about here.

The basic application process, roughly in order, is:
  • Make sure you’re doing lots of extra-curricular activities
  • Decide on your entrance tests – SAT or ACT
  • Register for the entrance tests
  • Prepare for and take the entrance tests
  • Decide which SAT Subject Tests you need to do
  • Visit colleges
  • Register for the Common Application
  • Decide on which colleges to apply to
  • Think about funding
  • Write your college essays and personal statements
  • Gather references and reports from teachers
  • If you’re applying for Early Decision or Early Action, submit everything by 1st or 15th November
  • Otherwise, submit everything by the end of December (if you want to start the following September)
  • Get an offer of a place on 1st April (or 1st January if applying Early Decision)
Bear in mind that many of the above will overlap! For more in-depth details, read on.

*Note: the below timelines are based on a student applying for college directly after sixth form. If you’re planning on taking a gap year, please treat year 13 as your gap year! Also, note that the American grade system means that Year 13 is equivalent to Grade 12, etc. We have written this article based on the UK system. 

Extra-curricular activities – end of secondary school (year 11) onwards

Many people overlook this, thinking that US applications are all about test scores. This is not true! Even if you have perfect A-Levels and top SAT or ACT scores, you might not get a place. Colleges are looking for well-rounded people who take part and are interested in the world around them. Make sure you’re doing things like sports, volunteering, part-time work, cultural activities, D of E, or anything else that shows commitment and variety. Don’t leave this until the end of Year 12 – it’s too late then!

Decide on the SAT or ACT – end of secondary school (year 11), or beginning of lower sixth (year 12)

The SAT and ACT are the two main entrance tests for undergraduate degrees in America. All colleges accept both tests, so you should choose the test that suits you best. See here for more information on how to choose. Note also that the SAT changed format in early 2016, so we are currently recommending that people take the ACT to avoid confusion. We can help people decide, and we offer tutoring and courses for all the tests.


Register for the SAT/ACT tests – July before lower sixth (year 12)

You should register for the tests when registration opens in July, as test centres become booked up. For the SAT, register on the CollegeBoard website, and for the ACT register here. You will also have to register for the Subject Tests through the CollegeBoard website – see below.

Prepare for and take the SAT/ACT tests – end of year 11 through to beginning of year 13

Ideally you should start preparing for these tests in the summer after year 11. However, most people don’t take them until halfway through year 12 (lower sixth), but the earlier you take them the better. If you’re coming to this process at the beginning of upper sixth, it’s still not too late – you just have to get cracking now!

Tests take place every month from September to June. Remember that you can take the tests two or three times, and this is quite normal! Colleges want to see improvement.


Decide which SAT Subject Tests to take – in lower sixth (year 12)

SAT Subject Tests are additional tests to the SAT/ACT, required by many top colleges. You should check with the sorts of colleges to which you think you might apply to find out whether they require them or not, but most students will have to take them.

The list of Subject Tests covers the sciences, math, English literature, history and languages. You should choose ones that you will do well in, but also will show off variety.

Most students won’t take them until the end of lower sixth (year 12), so you needn’t decide until then, but make sure you register for the tests early, just in case! (See above.)

Again, if you are already in upper sixth (year 13), you are not necessarily too late. You just need to get cracking now!

Visit colleges

If possible, it’s a great idea to go and visit some colleges. You can go on college tours through various organisations, during which you’ll see several campuses. Don’t worry if you can’t do this – just make sure you read plenty about the colleges and speak to them directly to see if they would be a good fit.

Register for the Common Application – summer before final year of sixth form (end of year 12)

The Common Application (also known as the Common App) is the closest the US gets to UCAS. It’s an online portal for uploading all your basic information, including grades, predicted grades, references, and personal statements. Registration opens in August before your final year of sixth form (ie a year before you start university). You shouldn’t register before then, else all your information will get wiped on 1st August! Note that in addition to the Common App information, colleges will often ask for extra information on top. See below.

Register for the Common App here.


Decide on which colleges to apply to – beginning of upper sixth (year 13)

Once registered for the Common App, you should start to think about which colleges to apply to. You may have already visited some, or you may know people who have been to certain colleges before. Make a list of those colleges you want to apply to, and find out their requirements – they are different for every college! Some might not even use the Common App (see above). In particular, you should know:
  • What scores you need on the SAT/ACT
  • How many SAT Subject Tests you need to take
  • What extra essays you need to submit
  • When their deadlines are for applying
  • What funding options are available (see below)


Look into funding options – beginning of upper sixth (year 13)

When choosing colleges, and throughout your applications, you should be aware of the cost of attending US colleges. This can be quite substantial, but the good news is that there is lots of help available. Funding takes many forms – scholarships, means tested help, loans – and there are too many to cover here. The Fulbright Commission has a great rundown of the options. Just make sure you look into this as you apply – not after you’ve been offered a place!


Write your college essays and personal statements - September-November of upper sixth (year 13)

Big tip: these are completely different to you UCAS statement. All the essays and personal statements should be written in a style that you will never have written in before. It’s very important that you get some advice on these, as they can make or break an application. We can help with this.


Gather references and reports – September-November of upper sixth (year 13)

Although in the UK we don’t have ‘mid-term reports’ or GPAs, your teachers at school will still have to submit evidence on your behalf, normally through the Common App. You need to make sure you start this process in September/October – leaving it until the last minute may mean you miss out because the relevant teachers are on holiday or don’t know the ins and outs of what they need to do. If there is any confusion, please ask them to get in touch with us, as we can offer advice free of charge.

Early Decision/Early Action – by 1st/15th November of upper sixth (year 13)

Some colleges allow an early application, generally by 1st or 15th November of year 13, whereby you will receive an early decision (normally before the end of December!) This can be useful in order for you to make plans for the following year, and there is generally a higher chance of getting a place compared to regular decision. Note that you can only apply to one college through Early Decision, and you are bound to your choice if you are offered a place; you won’t be able to go to any other US college!

Submit all final applications - by 1st January of upper sixth (year 13)

For regular decision, the deadline is normally 1st January in year 13, by when you should submit all your test scores, essays, personal statements, references and reports. In practice, however, you should do this before you start Christmas holidays! Otherwise your teachers will be on holiday and won’t be able to help you. Make sure you’re prepared and organised!

Receiving your decision

If you applied Early Decision/Early Action, you will receive a decision on 1st January. For regular decision, you will find out on 1st April. Either way, this is not an ‘offer’, like in the UK; this is a decision! This means that the pressure is off for your final A-Level/IB exams. However, you shouldn’t just slack off – it’s still possible for colleges to retract their decision if they think you are not the sort of student they thought you were.

Start preparing – now!

The above process may look complex, but thousands of UK students manage it every year, with great success. You just need to start preparing now, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
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