An overview of applying to US universities – admissions procedure and standardised tests

Unlike with the UCAS portal used for applications to universities in the UK, applying to US universities and colleges requires applying to each institution separately. This allows students the opportunity to refine their application for each institution. Rather than applying to a specific degree, you apply to the institution itself for admission as an undergraduate. More than 650 US institutions use Common Application, an online portal helping you to manage each of your applications.  Additionally, the applications tend to be slightly longer than the ones required for British universities, enabling you to further express and discuss your suitability for admission at the specific university or college.

Each institution has its own application deadlines and sets its own fees and admission requirements – it is therefore important to check this information on each of their websites and applicant information resources and tools. Offers are not specifically conditional: if the university or college chooses to admit you, it won’t specify required grades but will solely expect you to continue working towards your current level.

US institutions take a holistic approach in reviewing prospective students’ applications, however they usually place significant weight on an applicant’s academic record and applicable test scores, such as the TOEFL, the SAT or the ACT. For further guidance on the difference between the SAT and ACT, make sure to read our guide. For applicants to graduate schools, additional exam scores such as the GRE or GMAT may be required. These examinations are designed to measure aptitude and achievement and are standardised so that students take the same test at every test centre, thus allowing the admissions office to measure your ability in comparison to other applicants. Once an applicant has taken an admission exam or test, the results are sent directly to the institutions that the applicant has selected or nominated.

Some universities and colleges in the US do not require applicants to sit admission tests and exams. A full list of institutions which do not necessarily require applicants to sit admission tests and exams can be found here.

Along with your academic achievements, your ‘college application essay’, the equivalent of the personal statement for UK university applications, is also an important component considered when US institutions review your application. Each institution will give you two or three essay questions to respond to in your essay, setting its own word limit. This essay should have personal meaning to you, revealing who you are, your values, interests, and potential goals, as well as what differentiates you from any other applicant.

Lastly, reference or recommendation letters tend to be required for US university applications. Unlike the UCAS application procedure for British universities, which tend to only require one letter of reference, US universities can ask for up to three letters/documents of support for undergraduate admission. These are usually provided by your teachers or counsellors at your secondary school or other members of school staff. It is usually the responsibility of applicants to approach the members of staff at school who they think are best suited to write their recommendation letter(s). Nominated referees are emailed by the admissions office of each university and asked to submit their references for the student’s application.