Going to university in the US


Applying to American universities is no mean feat. Before you worry about the difference between “trousers” and “pants” and “rubber” and “eraser,” there’s a whole application process to think about! An important language difference in this context is that “school”, “college” and “university” are used interchangeably. Although this page may be lengthy, if you’re keen or serious about going to university abroad then read all of the below – it’s essential!

Where to start?

America is a huge place and there are more than 5,000 universities stretching from the mountains of Hawaii to the center of New York City. Compare this to a mere 130 universities in the UK, and you’ll be wondering where to even begin. With the vast number of universities comes a huge range of type, quality, and suitability of university, so it’s important you learn about and are committed to the application process, to make sure you find the place that’s right for you.

A good place to start is by thinking about the aspects of a university that are important to you. For example, you may be particularly interested in the courses offered, the academic standing of the university, its location (and the weather!), the extracurriculars available, the cost of attendance and finance options. With these in mind, you can start to narrow down which universities might be suitable for you. Start with a list of 20 or so universities, and with more research, you should be aiming to cut that down to between seven and ten (including safety schools and reach schools).

Start EARLY. There’s a lot to get your head around, and the process can take much longer than a typical UCAS application. Start researching well over a year before you apply (applications are typically due the December of Year 12, but vary from school to school). The Fulbright Commission offers lots of information for students wishing to make the move across the pond.

You’ve probably heard that the cost of going to university is extortionate, for full details click here.


Most American universities and colleges have a four-year liberal arts program. You will take a wide range of courses in your first year, before declaring what you want to “major” in your second. So, you do not apply to a specific department, but rather just to the school itself. This is particularly useful if you’re not sure what you want to study yet! American degrees are more tailor-made, and you can select your individual modules as you progress through your four years; you’ll rarely select exactly the same modules as anybody else, so your degree choice will really be unique. Typically, you will be expected to complete a “core curriculum”, which will include some maths, English, a modern language, and some other basic courses. These are great and allow you to broaden your horizons and gain new perspectives academically.

Where is right for you?

It’s important you end up at a university that is right for you academically – make sure the schools you are looking at have majors and courses you are interested in and are of an appropriate standard for you. American degrees are extremely valuable, and employers in the UK are particularly impressed by students who have had the get-up-and-go to seek higher education abroad. Given the wide range of academic standards of the universities there, be careful to ensure the schools you are targeting are recognised and credited. It’s worth checking where the university sits in the world rankings and comparing it to other UK universities of a similar ranking. Don’t forget to check what the academic requirements are for your universities of choice. Make sure they accept GCSEs/A-levels/IB before you apply!

Professional degrees such as law, medicine and dentistry are exclusively graduate degrees, meaning you cannot study these subjects as an undergraduate. In this case, students complete their undergraduate degrees in a major relevant to their career of choice and apply to graduate law, medicine or dental school from their undergraduate degree.

SATs and ACTs

Every student entering a US university or college is required to sit either the SAT or ACT. These are standardised aptitude tests designed to gauge your skills in maths, reading and writing. They are multiple-choice, are extremely quick-fire, and are largely dissimilar to GCSEs and IB, so be sure to start revising at least a couple of months before your test. You will need to do plenty of practice papers!

Use your time wisely

The best universities in the US are renowned worldwide. Harvard, Stanford and MIT, for example, are some of the top universities. They are more selective than universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and have extremely high application standards, so make sure your academics and extracurriculars are up to scratch! If you are interested in these schools, use your summers wisely and think about what you can offer in addition to your academics.

The actual application process…

Application materials

The closest equivalent to UCAS is A Common Application (or CommonApp). This is a central application program where students can apply to multiple schools at the same time. Not every university uses CommonApp as their application procedure, so be sure to check how to apply to each school. There is no limit to the number of schools a student may apply to in the US (unlike the UCAS limit of five), but students are required to pay each university’s application fee (which can be up to $75 per university), so that can act as a limit itself!

University applications in the US tend to be more holistic than in the UK, and admissions tutors are looking at more than just academics: extracurriculars and a student’s personality make a huge contribution to the application. One way students can present themselves is by their personal essay. Part of the application is a 750-word essay, which can be guided by a number of prompts. The personal essay is much more individual and creative than a UK personal statement, and students are encouraged to describe how their experiences have shaped them as a person and why they are excited and suited to embark on a university experience.

Requirements vary between universities, but students are typically required to upload two teacher references as part of their application. It can be a good idea for students to ask teachers well in advance of the deadline to avoid any technical mishaps or finding their teachers too busy with UCAS applications to help.

The deadline for most university applications is December 31st, although some universities’ deadlines may vary. Some top academic schools also have an early deadline of November 1st. Students should receive their decisions by late March. These offers are unconditional, meaning students are not required to achieve certain grades in Year 13. Students may choose to have a relaxing last couple of months of Year 13, although it is worth then noting that predicted grades and GCSEs are relatively much more important!

There are many things to think about when applying to university in the US; the process is very complex and can feel very daunting. Because UK schools typically do not provide comprehensive support for this process, it is important that students and their parents do a lot of research before embarking on this adventure.

It is definitely advisable to seek specialist advice when applying to university in the US. For specific guidance for athletes wishing to play sport at university in the US, and those interested in Ivy League applications, contact RightTrack Sports – they’re the gurus.


If you do not hold a US passport, you will need to apply for an F-1 student visa to be eligible to live and study in the US. You cannot apply for this until you have been accepted by a university. Once you have been accepted, the university will support your application for this visa. The visa will typically last four years for the duration of your course, and you will either have to come home or apply for a work visa when it runs out! An important part of the visa application process is proving you have the funds to complete your course, so you must either show proof of scholarship from the university, or income/savings that cover the costs.

Finances and fees

Fees are not uniform across universities in America the same way they are in the UK: there is a range of private and public institutions and fees vary hugely. Most universities will publish a “cost of attendance”, which details the total cost of attending that university for a year (including tuition, board, books, etc.) The average cost of attendance in the US is $35,000, but maybe as little as $8,000 and as much as $75,000; your research is crucial!

Students studying in the US are not eligible for student loans from Student Finance England, so you will need to finance university yourself, or look into obtaining scholarships.

Financial aid awards

Some of the top academic universities offer financial aid awards, which are essentially needs-based bursaries for students who cannot afford the full fees. Students and their families are required to submit a comprehensive financial assessment, and the university will consider how much money a student requires. Their goal is to ensure that students accepted into their university do not face financial barriers. Notably, most universities have “needs-aware” application processes, meaning they can see at the point of application to the school if you require money, which may make a difference to your application potential.

Merit-based scholarships

Many universities in the US offer merit-based scholarships. These may be for exceptional academic, sport, music or drama talent. These may help with small costs, or students may be offered up to their full cost of attendance. Applying for scholarships can be a lengthy and complex procedure, and students are encouraged to seek specialist advice to assess these options.

On-campus jobs

A final means of financing US university is for students to have term time on-campus jobs. This is commonplace in the US, and universities offer a wide range of student jobs, from café baristas to gym instructors. While it is unlikely students will be able to cover the full cost of attendance on a term-time job, it can certainly help towards living costs!

All information is sourced by Right Track.