How to Get Into a US College as an International Student

Students from across the world aspire to study at US colleges. Some of the top ranked universities in the world are located in the United States, including Stanford, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). These universities have a reputation for leading research, an outstanding quality of education, and excellent job prospects post-graduation.

As well as amazing Ivy League and non-Ivy League universities, the US is also home to fantastic private liberal arts colleges (institutions that offer a broad range of subjects, including sciences to major in, but are only undergraduate schools) that are highly regarded.

If you’re thinking of applying to an American college, this guide is for you. With the help of The Profs’ Head of Consulting, Joseph Robbins, we’ll take you through every step of the US application process and how to get into your dream college as an international student.

For more personalised support with your US university application, get in touch with our international admissions team. Our expert advisors and tutors have many years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the US admissions process and can help you at every stage, from narrowing down which universities to apply for, to passing the SAT or ACT.

7-step US application process

1. Research available universities

It’s best to start researching the universities you might like to study at up to a year in advance. Most US university applications open online on 1st August the year before your chosen year of entry, including the Common Application (used by more than 600 US universities).

Deadlines for applications in the US tend to start from the beginning of January through to March, and there may be stages you need to plan for in advance, so it’s best to note down these deadlines before beginning any of your other research.
When it comes to researching universities in the US, here are some additional factors you should consider:

  • Ethos – The values and priorities of different institutions across the US varies hugely. You should research what is celebrated at various universities and colleges as your life outside the classroom is as important as within.
  • Location – the US is much larger than many other countries and has universities in a range of states, climates and cultures. It’s important to take this into account during your research, as the location of a university will have a significant impact on the type of experience you have, your cost of living, and more.
  • Entry requirements – top-ranking universities tend to have much lower acceptance rates and higher course fees than lower-ranking universities. It’s important to be ambitious and aim for the best university possible, but still ensure that all of your options are attainable. See step 2 below for more information.
  • Admissions tests and interviews – typically, US universities will require international applicants to take the SAT or ACT in order to more fairly compare your academic ability with other applicants. It’s important that you register for the test and prepare for it in advance to ensure you are eligible. Our SAT and ACT tutors can help you improve your speed and accuracy when it comes to sitting these important tests. We examine past papers with you, show you trends in the test format so you are prepared for what might come up, and help you work on any areas of weakness. Find out more about our SAT and ACT tuition here.
  • Job prospects – another factor to consider is how likely you are to get a job after graduation and what links universities have to different industries. US universities are renowned for their excellent job prospects, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rated as the best university in the world for job prospects and the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University taking the second and third spots.
  • Deadlines – colleges in the US can set their own deadlines. While many deadlines are at the start of January, some set theirs earlier, such as Stanford University’s on 1st November, while others later. As part of your research, always check the specific deadline for each individual university and ensure you submit your application to each by this date.
  • Structure/methods of teaching – rather than studying just one or two subjects in a lot of depth, US universities adopt a ‘liberal arts’ approach to their curriculums. When you apply to a US university, you are not usually applying to one specific subject, but will instead study multiple subjects in a broader, more rounded curriculum. You will then choose which subject you will major in later in your studies, usually at the end of your second year.
  • Grade translation – each country has its own education system and thus grading system, so you should consider how your grades will translate to their American equivalents (for example, UK GCSEs are equivalent to US GPAs and UK A levels are equivalent to US APs). This will give you a good idea of what grades you need to achieve and gauge what level of university you should be aiming for.
  • Scholarships – US colleges are known for their athletic scholarships. If you have a high level of sporting ability, you should not only consider the skill level of the athletes at your chosen school. Colleges will have dedicated websites or web pages that you can use to research the amount of money offered, their statistics, the coaches, and any training camps. There are also lots of other merit-based scholarships e.g. music or drama. As long as the conditions of the scholarship are met, they do not need to be repaid.

Joe’s tip: If possible, it’s a good idea to take tours (or virtual tours!) of the colleges you’d like to attend so that you can get a feel for them. You can also attend USA College Day – the biggest US university fair in Europe – in September to meet the universities themselves and demonstrate your interest.

2. Check the requirements for entry

US colleges are typically very competitive and you’ll need to make sure you’re meeting all of the entry requirements. This includes your qualifications, but also the logistical requirements to study in the US as an international student, such as ensuring you have a right to study there. See each section below for more information:

Qualifications

Although US universities typically take a more holistic approach when reviewing applications, your qualifications are still very important. Most colleges will accept a range of international qualifications (including UK A levels and the IB) and the very top universities will be expecting top grades. You (or your school) will need to provide a copy of your academic transcript to show the grades you have achieved or are expected to achieve when applying to an American university.

Each college in the US has its own entry requirements, so you’ll need to check with each university’s international admissions office directly before applying. Top colleges, for example Harvard University, tend to require at least three A*-A grades at A level (or equivalent), as well as a SAT score of 1580 (or a 35 ACT). In comparison, UCLA requires applicants to have a minimum of 35 IB points or ABB at A-level (or equivalent).

Travel and right to study

If you’re applying to study in the US, you will need to obtain a type F-1 visa. You can only apply for a student visa once a university has accepted you.

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 £120 as an application fee which you can pay via the Official Department of US Visa Appointment portal. See step 7 below for more information about applying for a visa.

English language proficiency

Almost every US university you apply to will want to know your level of English language proficiency. Most schools will rely on standardised English language tests in order to achieve this. If English is not your first language and/or you did not complete your education in English, you will likely be required to take an English language test to make sure your language skills are strong enough to study at a US college.

The most common English language tests used by US colleges/universities include:

  • Cambridge Assessment English (CAE)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS)

Each of these tests will assess your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in English and give you a score which you should submit to your chosen colleges/universities.

3. Take the SAT or ACT

US universities will typically require all international students to take the SAT or ACT before applying to university. The SAT and ACT are standardised admissions tests used by many universities in the US to assess your knowledge in core subjects, including Mathematics, Science and English.

The SAT focuses on Mathematics and English, while the ACT includes Science as well. Unless specified by the university, you are usually free to take either test, however it’s important to think about which best fits with your application. For example, if you’re applying to study a science-based degree like Engineering or Medicine, it is best to do the ACT to showcase your scientific knowledge.

Some universities do specify either the SAT or ACT, so it’s important to check with their international admissions office directly to double check before registering.

How do you register for the SAT and ACT?

You should register for the SAT via the College Board website. There are multiple SAT dates you can register for and each has its own deadline, for example if you want to take the SAT on 1st October, you will need to register by 2nd September.

For the ACT, you’ll need to register via the ACT website. Just like the SAT, there are multiple ACT dates you can register for throughout the year. Each test date has its own deadline by which you are required to register, for example if you want to sit the ACT on 10th-11th June, you need to register by 13th May.

In general, the registration deadlines for the ACT and the SAT are around five weeks before the testing date. However, always check on the respective websites for the specific deadlines.

What is a good SAT score?

An outstanding score in the SAT is a great way to help your application stand out and maximise your chances of an offer. What is considered a ‘good’ SAT score differs depending on the universities and courses that you are applying for. For example, average SAT scores for MIT range from around 1,510 to 1,580 overall (730-780 in reading and writing and 780-800 in Maths), while typical scores for UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) are around 1405 overall.

If you’re looking to achieve a top SAT score or improve your score, The Profs’ SAT tutors can help. Our experts have years of experience helping students prepare and understand the balance you need between knowledge, technique, and sustained effort to succeed in the SAT. Get in touch with our team to start preparing.

What is a good ACT score?

An outstanding ACT score can be the difference between receiving an offer from a top university or not. It’s therefore really important to prepare for the ACT in advance and aim for the best score possible.

The average composite ACT score, based on the scores of 5 million students who took the ACT and graduated in the last three years, is 20.7. However, the most competitive universities in the US will be looking for an ACT score far higher than the average. For example, the average composite score of successful MIT applicants is 34-36, while the average score of successful applicants to Princeton, Harvard and Columbia is 33-35.

Our ACT tutors know exactly what is required in order to succeed in every area of the exam, from Science to English. If you’re looking for an expert who can provide a clear preparation plan, guide you through everything you need to know, and maximise your chance of success in the final ACT exam, get in touch with our team today.

4. Ask for letters of recommendation

An important part of your Common App or direct college application is your letters of recommendation (i.e. references) from your teachers or school staff. We suggest that you start approaching teachers for recommendations about six months before you apply for a US university. This will give them enough time to learn about the US admissions process and what they should include in a reference, and write their recommendation.

In general, each university has its own requirements when it comes to recommendations. For example, some universities might require two teacher recommendations, while others may not want any teacher recommendations.

Always check what the recommendation requirements are directly with the college you’re applying to. They can also advise you on how to submit a recommendation (e.g. if you can submit it via Common App and how to do so from your country).

5. Write your personal and supplemental essays

Most universities will require you to write one or multiple essays as part of the admissions process. If you are applying via Common Application (Common App), you will need to choose one required personal essay from a list of seven prompts. The purpose of the personal essay is to show your chosen university that you are a good fit – that you align with their missions and values. US colleges can also set their own supplemental questions for you to answer that are particularly important to them as part of the Common App process.

Here are some tips for writing your university admissions essay:

    • In the US, you are applying to college as an undergraduate, not to a specific degree, so your essay does not need to be as subject-specific as it might be for a university in your own country (e.g. a UK personal statement). Instead, US college application essays are more personal and should showcase who you really are as a person.

Joe’s tip: Your chosen college may ask you additional questions to answer in essay form. If you can, try to be smart with what you include in your personal essay, saving some details for the additional questions. For example, if you know you’ll be answering an additional question relating specifically to your long-term goals or career plans, focus more on your extracurricular activities in your main essay, and vice versa. You also don’t want to repeat information that will go into your reference.

    • Make sure you go into detail about your extracurricular activities. US colleges value extracurriculars highly and will use them to see who you are outside of the classroom. If you can, link your extracurriculars to any skills you have developed as a result of them, for example leadership skills and community involvement.

Joe’s tip: Extracurricular activities do not just refer to sports and hobbies. If you do any voluntary work or even paid work such as private tutoring, make sure you include these in your personal essay. You should be aiming to include as much relevant information as possible that shows you’re a well-rounded and hard-working student.

  • If you’re applying via Common App, it’s important to consider which prompt to base your essay on. The prompts given to applicants in 2022-2023 are:1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realisation that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.As you can see above, each prompt has a different focus and may appeal to your different strengths. Try not to simply choose what you feel is the ‘easiest’ prompt – instead, think about which prompt will help you stand out from other applicants and help you best showcase your writing skills and experience.
    Furthermore, if you choose a question relating to extracurriculars, be aware that what you include has to be exemplary. Top US students are typically extremely focused on extracurriculars so in order to compete, you need to show that you are the first, the best, or the only person in whatever area, hobby or achievement you mention. Use stats to really emphasise this point, such as ‘I positioned in the top 90% for…’.
    The Profs’ US admissions experts can help guide you through the process of choosing an essay prompt and writing a stand-out essay that maximises your chances of an offer. Get in touch with our team for a free discovery call.

How long should a Common App essay be?

The word count for a Common App essay ranges from a minimum of 250 words to a maximum of 650 words. We suggest aiming for an essay that is at least 500 words in length to make the most of the word count provided and really sell the achievements and qualities that will make you an outstanding college student.

6. Put your application together and apply

Once you have all of the pieces of your application, you should check (and double check!) that all of your details are correct and that your essays are as well-written as possible. If you’re applying via Common App, make sure you go through and check that all of the stages have been completed. You should also ask a tutor, teacher or parent to check over your whole application before pressing submit.

Remember that you can also get in touch with your chosen university’s international admissions office to check that you have all of the information required for entry before submitting.

Joe’s tip: There’s nothing better than getting an experienced tutor with knowledge of the US application process to check your application. Not only will they be able to give you helpful tips on where to improve your writing, but they have extensive knowledge of what top American colleges are looking for and guide you on how to tailor your application accordingly. Visit our US admissions page for more information on how The Profs can help.

7. Accept your offer and plan your move to the US!

Once you’ve submitted your applications, the wait for your offers begins. Most of the time, if you’ve applied by a January deadline, you’ll hear back from your chosen colleges before the end of March on whether you have received an offer.

There is a chance that you will be put on the waitlist, which means you are qualified for a place, but the college needs to determine the number of full offers accepted before offering places to additional applicants. You can write a letter of continued interest to show the school you’re invested in them as your first choice and highlight any additional strengths/achievements not included in your application.

There is no such thing as ‘firm’ and ‘insurance’ choices (i.e. a first choice and a back-up choice) and you will not receive conditional offers; once you’ve received an offer, you have qualified for a place and can accept it if you choose. If you are still waiting for other offers (e.g. from your first choice university) and don’t want to accept an offer before receiving them, you can put down an enrolment deposit. Enrolment deposits range from $100-$1000 and secure your place at the university. However, if you choose to accept an offer from another college, you will lose this deposit.

Once you have accepted, it’s time to start planning your move to the US! Most universities have an orientation which usually takes place sometime between mid-August and early September. Your university will let you know the exact date you are expected to arrive, so don’t make plans or book your flights until you know this date.

When should you apply for a visa?

Once you’ve been accepted into a US university, you will need to obtain a type F-1 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 a visa interview. You’ll then be asked to pay around £120 as an application fee, which you can pay via the Official Department of US Visa Appointment portal.

Student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your university start date. However, you will not be allowed to enter the US on your visa more than 30 days before the start date of your course, so it’s important to make sure you have all of your timings right.
For more information on US student visas, including where to apply, the interview and the documents required, visit the US embassy website.

How can we help?

The Profs’ US admissions team have many years of experience advising students on how to get into some of the most competitive US universities, including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Caltech, and more. Our tutors know exactly what US admissions offices are looking for – that’s why more than 90% of our students get into their first or second choice university.

Our team specialises in whole-package support and can help you from the early stages of finding which US universities would be best suited to you, all the way through to preparing for the SAT and the ACT, to developing your admissions essay. We can also line up tuition for when you get to university to ensure you’re not slipping behind in your first-year studies. Get in touch with our team today for more information and support.

FAQs

How long is my SAT score valid?

Your SAT scores are valid for five years from the date you took the test. Therefore, if you don’t get into your chosen university the first time around, you could use the same test for another application in the following year, or for another university. You can also resit the SAT multiple times if you are not happy with your score.

What is the difference between a UCAS application and a Common App application?

The Common Application (Common App) is an undergraduate college admissions service that students use to apply for colleges across the USA. It also includes colleges and universities in Canada, China, Japan, and many European countries.

Common App is essentially the USA’s version of UCAS. However, it is a lot more involved than the UCAS process. The US admissions system puts much more emphasis on extracurricular hobbies and interests than the UK system. On Common App, there is an ‘activities’ section which plays a significant role in the admissions decision process.

What is the difference between a college and university in the US?

Colleges and universities are often used interchangeably to describe higher education institutions in the US. However, there are some differences you should be aware of when doing your research.

There are two main types of ‘universities’ in the US – public and private. Public universities are like those in Europe in that they get funding from the government. Private universities in the states get their money through private donations and higher tuition fees, so it should be noted that these schools are generally more expensive to attend.

Private universities in the US are usually research-based institutions, whereas colleges are not, so they often have more funding available to students (scholarships, grants, etc). Universities in the US are not publicly funded. Colleges in the US are focused on undergraduate degrees and do not offer Master’s or PhDs.

How much does it cost to go to university in America?

The cost of going to university in America depends on a range of factors. Firstly, the tuition fees you will pay depend on whether you are attending a private or public university. The average cost of attending a public university for four years is around $27,560 (~£20,044), while the average for attending a private university for four years is $38,070 (~£27,688). However, note that American university fees are not regulated in the same way that fees in some other countries (such as the UK) are, and that fees of top universities and colleges may cost significantly more.

You also need to consider the cost of living in America – depending on the location of the university, the cost of accommodation, travel (including flights to and from your country), food, leisure and more can differ dramatically.

Ultimately, studying in the US will typically be an expensive endeavour. The most expensive cities in the world to study in are all in the US, including New York City (home to Columbia University, New York University (NYU), and Cornell University), San Francisco (home to Academy of Art University, California College of Arts, and California State University), and Boston (home to Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and ​Boston University). However, for the quality of education, experience of studying abroad, and career prospects after graduation, studying in the US is worth the cost for many international students.