How To Apply To Universities In The US

When to apply

To make sure you complete the application process in time, start contacting universities and colleges you are interested in attending 12-18 months in advance.

So if, for example, you are looking to begin studying in autumn 2023, you should start contacting universities in spring 2022.

American universities admit new students twice a year - although the largest intake is usually in the autumn, students are also admitted in the spring semester which starts in January.

Therefore if you want to start in January of the year 2024, start researching and contacting universities in July 2022.

How to apply

Applying to American universities is a lengthy process compared to the UK undergraduate application system.

To apply for a U.S undergraduate programme, you must submit your application directly to the individual university rather than a centralised body such as UCAS.

Each institution has its own application deadlines and procedures, although 392 American colleges and universities subscribe to a Common Application Form  in order to help streamline the undergraduate applications process.

Each institution will have a section on their website for international students who wish to apply for their undergraduate courses. We breakdown the steps involved in the application process:

1. Choose your universities carefully

Unlike the UK, the USA is a bit different to other countries as there is no limit to the number of universities that you can apply to.

You also have to apply to each one seperately, rather than through a centralised system like UCAS Apply.

This means that some people can end up applying to too many and not spending enough time on each application.

We recommend students apply to a variety of at least 3, 4 or 5 universities.

We also advise you to apply to a "safe" college with lower admission requirements, so you're likely to get into at least one university.

You should then choose one or two that are around your level, as well as one which is above, just in case you get better exam results than expected.

Essentially, this is important because it gives you more time to start up a dialogue with the university of your choice.

Read more about choosing the right U.S universities.

2. Start your application early

Another one that may sound obvious. However, this is particularly crucial for USA universities because of the huge number of applications they get every year.

We recommend starting your application at least one year before the deadline, so that you have enough time to put together a great application after deciding on your shortlist of universities.

Generally, most students try and get their applications finished by Christmas, so we advise getting it done by then, although the overall application deadline is usually in February.

This means you are ahead of the crowd, and you are not submitting a rushed application at the last minute.

Admissions teams at different universities are usually available for prospective students to go in and see them whenever they want to, so make use of this if possible.

If you are serious about the prospect of going to a certain college, try to go in and visit, or contact the international admissions office via phone or email.

Introducing yourself to the admissions team could help your application, and they will usually prefer it if they can match a face or voice to the name.

Talk to as many people as possible, and go on a campus tour if you can. Try to meet someone from the department to get advice about your application. This can all have a positive impact on the outcome of your application.

3. Achieve the required grades

Although this may seem obvious, but to have any chance of being accepted on to a course at a U.S university, you will need to meet their entry requirements in terms of grades.

This is why it's important to choose a variety of universities, where you have a realistic chance of getting into at least 3 or 4 of them.

You may also have to take an entrance exam, or an ACT/SAT, depending on which university you would like to go to.

International students applying to a USA university would normally just have to take one of the exams, and get as good a score as possible. However, some students take them more than once, so don’t worry if you have to do that.

Be aware that this will involve extra costs, so try to prep early for your admissions test so you can do the best you can the first time round.

4. Write a great essay

The college essay needn't be something to dread, if you're uncertain what to put in your essay and how to write it.

As you start working on your essay, it's important to remember that the essay question is designed to show admissions tutors your thinking process, and what you want to achieve from your U.S education.

Think about why you want to come to university in the U.S and why you want study your chosen subject.

Try to answer these questions honestly, and lay out your thoughts coherently with solid spelling, grammar and structure that tells a story about who you are.

Even if writing isn't your strength, don't get someone else to write the essay for you. Admissions tutors want to see your own work, written in a unique voice that reflects your personality.

5. Showcase your extracurricular activities

One thing that shows you will be an asset to the university is that you are able to take part in activities outside of your studies, that contribute to your development as a person.

Admissions tutors always look at the activities the prospective student was involved in at school, which tells them more about what you have done.

They will want to know what were you involved in outside of your academic studies, which might include sports, societies, activity clubs, music groups, tutoring or volunteering. Even if it seems insignificant, add to your application form anyway.

These can all show examples of leadership and team involvement, which is important in rounding out a prospective student’s experiences and leadership skills.

6. Pass your admissions test

The SAT and ACT are standardised tests used for university admissions in the USA 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 about which subjects would be most relevant to your application.

If you're doing a science-based degree like Medicine, Engineering or Chemistry, then we would recommend you take the ACT.

Scores are valid for five years, so if you don't get into your desired university the first time around, you could use the same test for your application the following year. You can also resit the test multiple times, although you will have to pay each time.

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 get booked quickly so it's best to sign up as soon as the test dates are released.

7. Check your documents

Each university in the U.S will 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 (essentially the U.S version of a UCAS personal 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 (admissions test)

Make sure you have all these to hand and ready to go in plenty of time if you don't want to miss the application deadline. Which leads to our next tip...

8. Submit your application on time

As well as a list of documents, each university will have its own deadline date, but be aware that deadlines for applying to universities in the U.S are normally at the start of January.

Check the deadline directly with the university so you don't end up rushing your application and filling it out the night before, and remember that each application will incur a fee of somewhere between £55 and £66.

This is why it's crucial to get your shortlist down to just 5 or 6 universities where you really want to go, otherwise you'll be throwing money away.

Most universities will also ask you to prove that you have access to funds to pay for your degree, which (unfortunately) will be rather expensive.

9. Apply for your U.S visa

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

Once this has happened, 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. You will need to print out and take this with you to 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 U.S Embassy in the Consulate General in Belfast (even if you aren't a UK national). If you're from outside the UK, check your country's U.S Embassy policy.

During the interview, you may be asked to prove you have enough money to cover your stay while studying in the U.S, including tuition fees, and provide an address you intend to return to once you've completed your degree (in most cases, this will be your parent's).

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

For more information, take a look at the U.S Embassy website.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to university in the USA, please see:

This should include a link to the application form (sometimes this will be a link to the common application form mentioned above), which you can either fill out and submit online, or print off and send via post.

If you are using the common application to apply to a particular institution(s), bear in mind that once you have filled it in and submitted it, it can not be changed.

You will have to contact the university or college directly if you need to correct a mistake or provide more information.

Check deadlines for applications carefully, and remember that the application process can take a long time, so make sure to fill in and submit your application as early as possible. This means getting started on writing your college essay as soon as you can.

If you can not find all the information you require to apply to a particular university or college, contact the institutions’ admissions office.

Further information

For more help and advice on applying to university in the U.S, please see: