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Demystifying US university and college applications: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
17 October 2023

Main image: Fettes College 

Over the past year or two, there’s been a marked decrease in the number of offers received by pupils from independent schools to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities – and more and more star students are being left disappointed by missing out on a place at one of the UK’s most elite universities. In response, international universities are making it onto the radar of a growing number of students – and universities and colleges in the US seem to be taking the top spot. The US boasts some of the most distinguished and best-known universities in the world, and with a myriad of benefits – from cultural opportunities and broader curriculums to unrivalled alumni networks – it’s not hard to see why they’ve become so desirable for students in the UK.

‘The popularity of US undergraduate study is no surprise, given larger global trends,’ says Sam Harris, the head of North American university applications at Rugby School, which supported its largest cohort of US university applications on record during last year’s cycle. ‘The most recent Open Doors report indicates that the UK is the fourth-fastest-growing market for international applications to US universities, outpaced only by France, Spain and Germany. This rise in popularity – coupled with now ubiquitous test-optional application policies – means that more and more of our students are looking seriously at higher education in the United States.’ But there’s a downside to a US university or college education – getting in. The admissions process can be a complicated and competitive minefield, and dazzling grades or extraordinary talent in a specific field isn’t always enough to secure a place.

So how can you maximise your chances? We spoke to Jason Smith from UES Education (which supports around 200 UK schools and help over 800 students a year through US university applications) to help us untangle some of the biggest myths about the application process – and then asked a number of schools about the trends they’re seeing, and how they help their pupils give their best shot at securing a highly coveted place at a US university.    

First things first:
A university education in the US is very different to a university education in the UK. 

In the UK, students are expected to have a good idea about what they want to study as soon as they’ve sat their GCSEs – but in the US, this is considered absurd. Bar a handful of exceptions, in the US you’ll study a broad range of subjects alongside your chosen course, regardless of what you choose to major in. In the UK, you apply for a specific course at a number of universities; in the US, you’re effectively applying to the university itself, not the actual course. 

The most important thing you can do when embarking on the application process is get good advice. Many schools offer extremely strong in-house counselling, but others may advise you to seek external support. The US application process is a whole different beast to UCAS, and it’s almost impossible to do on your own. 

Harvard’s acceptance rate is just three per cent. Is it even worth the effort of applying?
There’s no doubt about it: getting a place at a US university is not easy. Over 60 universities in the US are considered more difficult to get into than Oxbridge, yet most people only talk about a tiny proportion: the Ivy Leagues. The biggest mistake a student can make is being unrealistic. ‘One of the challenges students face is not understanding how different the US university landscape is compared to that of the UK,’ says James Wilper, who coordinated the US applications at The King’s School Canterbury until last year. ‘So many more were interested in attending a “brand name” university, without realising just how selective those universities are. I tended to roll my eyes when students said that they were applying to “all the Ivies”, as that told me that they had not done their research.’ That sentiment is echoed by Malvern College. ‘We normally have about 15 to 20 students looking at the US every year, although several of them insist on only applying to Ivy League or Ivy adjacent places,’ says Math Harris, the school’s non-UK universities counsellor. Gordon Neill, Cranleigh School’s head of US university applications, adds: ‘Most are fixed on the two coasts and it takes quite a bit of persuasion to make students look at the excellent universities in the flyover states.’

So – be realistic, and don’t let your expectations get carried away. Do your research, and apply for a good spread of colleges that includes a clutch of the lesser-known (but just as brilliant) universities. Some are crying out for international students – and although they might not have the same starry profile as Harvard or Yale, they offer the exact same experience and benefits. 

What are US universities actually looking for?
Fit. US universities want to attract students with intellectual curiosity who take a very real and active interest in the world around them, and can demonstrate a palpable love of learning. In the UK, your grades are both the beginning and the end of your UCAS application; in the US, your grades are just the beginning. They matter, yes – but the universities aren’t purely interested in how good you are at your subjects. It’s everything else you do that gets you a place. 

Be prepared for the admissions teams to drill right down into your character. They’ll want evidence of your progress throughout your time at school; any academic enrichment you take part in both in and out of school (extra A-levels, academic courses during the holidays, books you read, lectures you attend), your hobbies, the sports you play, the achievements you’re proud of. These universities want a rounded sense of what you are really like – and they want to know why you think you would be such a good fit. 

And that’s exactly why it’s so crucial to plan well ahead. You need to do everything you can to make yourself as attractive as possible to the university – and although the process can be daunting and all-consuming, it’s also incredibly rewarding. This might be the first time you’ve been asked to demonstrate what you’re genuinely passionate about, and it’s a real opportunity to show off your true, honest self. 

I’ve decided I want to go for it. When do I really need to start thinking about my application?
In an ideal world, you need to start giving your application some thought in Year 10. This is the perfect time to start showing demonstrated interest – perhaps by contacting admissions officers to tell them you’re excited about applying, telling a specific professor why you’re so fascinated by their work or by throwing yourself into your sport if you’re aiming for a sports scholarship (we’ll explore the athletic recruitment route in a separate article, later in the year). 

Applications usually officially open on 1 August of your final year of school. But don’t leave it until then. If you really want to be in with a chance, you need to have done a huge amount of the legwork well in advance – which includes submitting your predicted grades and approaching your teachers for references. 

What does the application consist of?
The biggest mistake students make when deciding to apply to a US university is thinking that the process will be similar to UCAS. 

There are a huge number of different components that make up the application process – but don’t panic. It’s designed to be a very holistic process, and everything is considered together in context.

The main things you’ll need to think about are:

  • Academic results. This includes your GCSE results, your predicted A-level or IB results and your standardised test scores, should you choose to submit them.
  • Demonstrated interest. You could show this by visiting the universities (either virtually or in person), attending information sessions, contacting admissions officers and throwing yourself into academic and co-curricular life.
  • Letters of recommendation from your teachers.
  • SAT/ACTs. If you’re thinking about applying to a US university, you’ll already be familiar with these terms. SATs and ACTs help give universities a picture of your academic aptitude, and are used as an indicator of your critical-thinking and analytical skills. SATs and ACTs are, broadly speaking, different versions of the same thing, and students are encouraged to pick the one they feel they would do best in. Some universities require applicants to sit the tests as part of the admissions process. Others are test-blind, so even if you sit the tests and submit your scores, the universities won’t look at them. Some universities are test-optional, which means there’s no obligation to take them, but they will look at your scores if you do. You can’t cram or revise for the tests, and the only way to prepare is to practise, practise and practise. You need to be willing to put in the hours for a good few months, but if you start early enough, it is entirely possible to fit the preparation around your regular schoolwork. Our advice is to begin practising as soon as you’ve finished your GCSEs.
  • Common Application form. You’ll be required to write one major essay, known as the Common Application essay. This essay is sent to every university on your application – it’s the equivalent of a personal statement for UCAS, but nothing like it. It is an opportunity for students to tell the universities all about themselves; it might talk about your personality and what makes you unique.Your Common App essay will be read by every university you apply to: it’s a huge deal, requires masses of time and commitment and is likely to have the biggest impact on the outcome of your application. The key to success here is STARTING EARLY. The Common App form also includes information on absolutely everything you’re doing or have done to support your application to help establish your profile: activities, sport, volunteering, work placements, extra academic courses or competitions, or perhaps evidence of your leadership skills. There are some US colleges and universities that don’t use the Common App but instead have their own application processes. These institutions are applied to separately.
  • Essays for individual colleges. In addition to the Common App, you will be required to submit a series of more university-specific essays. These are used to demonstrate why you think you would be such a good fit for that particular college.
  • Interviews. Often led by an alum, these are very different ­to ­– and nowhere near as important as – Oxbridge interviews. Instead, they’re used as another opportunity to find out more about you as a student, and why you want to attend that college specifically. They’re also a chance for you to show off and prove that you’ve done your research.
I’ve heard people talk about Early Action and Early Decision – what is this?
If you’re particularly organised, have your heart set on one university and really want to maximise your chances of success, then there’s the option of applying via Early Action or Early Decision. Both these routes involve submitting your application in November, two months ahead of the usual January deadline. 

The bonus of applying early is that you’ll be part of a much smaller pool of students – and you’ll know the outcome of your application way ahead of your peers. It also gives applicants an opportunity to prove how committed they are to attending. 

However, there’s one glaring caveat. If you go down the Early Decision route and are offered a place, you are legally bound to accept it. That means that you have to be 110 per cent certain you would take it up if accepted – and there’s no going back. If you refuse an Early Decision offer, you are very unlikely to be offered a place at any other university – and it will reflect very badly on your school and future pupils. The key message here is to get very good advice before applying, and don’t do anything rash. 

If you don’t get in via Early Decision the first time round, there’s a second opportunity to get ahead via Early Decision 2. This deadline tends to fall in January, with decisions made within a month – and if you are accepted, you must immediately withdraw any applications to other colleges. 

What about scholarships and financial aid? Isn’t it famously lucrative in the US?
There are two main forms of financial aid offered at US universities: means-tested and merit-based. Means-tested financial aid is awarded based on family income, whereas merit-based scholarships are based on a student’s exceptional ability. 

Financial aid can vary hugely in value. Sometimes it can be famously generous and cover absolutely everything during your time at the university; on other occasions, it might mean a fee reduction of just a few thousand dollars each year. 

Hundreds of colleges in the US are needs-aware, and are more than happy to take financial means into consideration. But, once again, seeking targeted support and advice in this area is key. It’s important to be strategic and apply for the colleges with a larger bursarial pot if you want to increase your chances of being offered financial support. Talk to your school counsellor or – if it’s a deal-breaker for you – think about employing an external adviser with specialist experience in this area. There are also a number of organisations who can help you secure financial aid, including the Sutton Trust

Now you know the basics, what sort of support can you expect from your school – and what proportion of pupils are looking across the pond? We spoke to some of the UK’s top senior schools to find out. 

‘We are seeing an increasing number of students in lower years enquiring about opportunities to study abroad, and the USA is by far the most popular destination,’ says Helen Robinson, Lancing College’s overseas applications coordinator. ‘This process means that students can dually apply for places in the UK and USA, leaving their options open.’ 

Downe House is seeing a similar pattern – and has managed to secure places for students at the likes of Georgetown, USC, UCLA and UNC Chapel Hill over the past few admissions cycles. ‘Recent years have seen a startling increase not only in the number of applications, but also in the range of countries being considered,’ says Sarah Barnard, the director of the school’s Futures Department. ‘It seems that the contraction of the world during the pandemic has caused them to want to expand their horizons, moving forward.’ 

So what exactly is drawing so many pupils at UK schools to US universities? Of course, there’s the global aspect, and the opportunity to live somewhere completely new for a few years. At Marlborough College, around 10 per cent of leavers head off to international universities each year – in comparison to the average 2.5 per cent figure for the independent sector as a whole. ‘Our figures reflect the full boarding nature of the school, where the vast majority of US applications are inherently “international” by nature – dual nationals, Britons living abroad or international students,’ says Alys Langdale, the school’s head of international guidance. Tori de Silva, who heads up Caterham School’s sixth-form pathways programme, adds: ‘We’ve become more of a global society – spending time abroad is considered normal and the option to study overseas is perceived as a natural part of young people’s post-18 choices.’  

Then there’s the brilliant fact that there’s no need to specialise immediately – a real boon for teenagers still figuring out what they want to do with their lives. This is particularly relevant at IB schools such as Sevenoaks. ‘Many students are choosing the US over the UK specifically for the broad curriculum and a liberal arts education,’ says the school. This year, Sevenoaks pupils have received a total of 22 offers to US universities so far – including two from Cornell, two from Barnard and offers from Columbia, Stanford and Georgetown. 

‘In the US, students are mostly attracted by the idea of studying a liberal arts degree, which is a very different proposition from the courses in the UK,’ adds King’s Worcester, which created a specialist in-house head of international applications role a few years ago off the back of a surge of interest in studying abroad. Since then, the school has had many notable successes in winning full scholarships to top-league colleges in the US for sport. And indeed, it’s this flexibility that’s such a major draw. ‘I’m not sure what I want to study yet, so the system works well as I have two years to decide my major and can pick some subjects which I enjoyed at GCSE but couldn’t carry onto A-level,’ says Alice, a pupil who is due to take up a rowing scholarship at Stanford later this year. ‘Going on a rowing scholarship as a student-athlete and having rowing built into my day should mean that I can reach a high level in rowing whilst also getting a degree.’ 

Schools with fearsome sporting reputations are seeing similar trends. ‘Whilst the majority of our applicants are still driven by sports scholarships, we are noticing a significant increase in the number of students who consider this as an option that will allow them to explore a far wider range of study options, rather than choosing to specialise within the first year of the degree. The liberal curricula offered by these institutions are often a very good fit for the “all-rounder”,’ says Repton School, which works hard to demystify the application process and address the various complexities of making an international application by stemming a lot of its early activities around researching the best fit for a student, alongside their aspirations. 

‘We have a number of students interested in applying with niche criteria: in field hockey, rugby, art and design plus music and the performing arts,’ says Nick Nelson, Cheltenham College’s overseas universities coordinator. ‘And it seems that the blend of holistic education coupled with campus culture found at a UK boarding school provides a solid foundation for life at a US college.’ 

There’s another, less obvious benefit too. ‘One big draw for US universities is also their alumni networks, which are a significantly bigger aspect of university life than here in the UK,’ adds de Silva. ‘Part of the US university offer is having a large, indestructible network of alumni who are of huge value to students and graduates. The alumni bodies are so integrated into the university experience that many US institutions use their alumni network to enact their admissions interviews. You are joining a lifelong community that extends and is active beyond your time studying at a university.’ 

So what support are schools offering their students and how are they helping them maximise their chances of securing a coveted place? At Marymount International School – where numbers applying to US universities have doubled from 10 to 20 per cent in the past year – the application process starts in Year 10, with support and guidance gradually amping up over the course of the next few years as deadlines start to loom. At Fettes College, interest from students is starting earlier and earlier. At present, more than 25 Year 12 students are signing up to the school’s Exploring US University and College Options programme, which takes a deep dive into the process. One-to-one meetings cover everything from college list-building and prepping for campus tours to standardised testing, personal essays, financial aid, interview practice and transitions. The school also runs regular webinar panels with Old Fettisians studying in the US, allowing them to share their experiences with future applicants.  

Fettes College

Canford (which also doubles up as an official SAT test centre) identifies potential US applicants as early as possible – so they have the maximum amount of time available to fully understand the application process. ‘It’s encouraging to see an increased number of Canfordians following a path less trod,’ says Andrew Fearnley, the school’s US college adviser. ‘Studying in the US offers a unique university experience and fantastic opportunities, as well as first-class facilities.’ Last year, four out of the five pupils who headed across the pond were awarded full scholarships. 

Pupils at Godolphin & Latymer are guided by a dedicated in-house US college applications specialist who provides bespoke advice, assists students with their applications and helps organise SAT and ACT test preparation courses. The school also regularly hosts information sessions with the admissions directors from top-ranked universities. And it clearly pays off: this year alone, pupils received early acceptance from prestigious institutions including Barnard, Brown, Georgetown, Harvard and Yale. 

‘There is a network of advisory points for pupils to access, as our head of higher education works in conjunction with our head of careers, in-house tutors and an independent adviser who has over 20 years’ experience in international higher education at US institutions,’ adds St Edward’s Oxford, which has sent pupils off to a number of Ivy Leagues in recent years. Bryanston School’s in-house international universities adviser, Lisa Kearney, regularly checks in with pupils, oversees reference writing and helps applicants put together all the required documentation. And as a member of a number of professional groups – including the International Association for College Admissions Counselling (IACAC) – she has developed incredibly strong relationships with university reps and advisers, who are on hand to assist and help answer tricky questions (this year’s head boy has been offered a place at Columbia on Early Decision). At Benenden, bespoke prep is delivered in house but provided by an external counsellor – and a weekly US Club helps pupils get to grips with everything from Common App and college essays to the practicalities of going to university abroad.

Recent Benenden Senior Fara is currently studying at Stanford, California  

The complexity of the admissions process is highlighted by the prevalence of schools choosing to hire external, highly specialised agencies to provide an additional level of support to their in-house teams. At DLD College London – which saw eight leavers head off to US universities last year – every pupil is allocated a dedicated University Admissions Tutor with specialist subject and university knowledge, yet ‘most of our international students have additional help from external agents who guide them independently’, says the school. Tonbridge School’s dedicated and highly knowledgeable head of universities and careers, Ruth Davis, is a member of the IACAC – but the school also enlists UES Education for help with targeted SAT and ACT preparation, and offers pupils additional advice and guidance via The University Guys. Last year’s head of school, Jonas, secured a place at Harvard – and this year, three Tonbridge boys have received unconditional offers from Princeton, the University of Southern California and the Florida Institute of Technology.

Ruth Davis, Tonbridge’s head of universities and careers

Wetherby Senior is another school setting the bar high with its US university success. In just three years, sixth-formers at the London school have received over 40 offers to study in North America – no doubt thanks to the fact that every Year 11 pupil is assigned an adviser, charged with providing personalised support around the application process to institutions around the world. Given the dramatic differences in the UK and US admissions processes, the school also employs two external US advisers – and turns to UES Education for one-to-one guidance for sixth-formers. ‘Our US Studies Adviser met me weekly, and their specialist knowledge was invaluable,’ says Year 13 pupil Stepan, who has a place to read economics at the prestigious NYU Stern School of Business later this year.

Wetherby Senior

Yes, you’ll need to be deeply committed, hugely organised and have a very clear strategy in place. But it’s clear that UK independent schools are bending over backwards to support their students with ambitions to study in the US – and the country’s unrivalled further-education opportunities are, indeed, well within reach.