The biggest things to consider when applying to US colleges

Posted on 23rd August 2021

Applying to the USA for university is an exciting prospect for many reasons. But before jumping into an application, it’s worth thinking about a few important things first.

Can you afford it?

This might seem like a harsh question to ask, but it’s easily the most crucial. US colleges are very expensive, at least on paper. Without any help, you can expect to pay around $50-60,000 (£37,000-44,000) per year, for four years. There are lots of ways of reducing that cost (as outlined in our post here), but you need to be a very good student or have a real talent in something to be eligible for means-tested aid or scholarships. 

Don’t write it off if you think it’s too much: ask your school (or us) for help to research colleges, and speak to colleges directly. Most importantly, think outside the big names: some 200 colleges offer financial aid to international students!

Do you fit the learning style?

You might like the idea of America, but are you the right fit for the style of learning there? It’s very different to most places in the world, in that you don’t normally specialise straight away, and you will have to study a range of subjects before you decide on your major. This is the idea of Liberal Arts, and that isn’t for everyone. Some people know exactly what they want to study, and arguably the US isn’t the right system for those people. But for many, the chance to really understand what you enjoy and are good at, whilst developing other learning skills, is a great opportunity.

Note that math plays a big role in most subjects in the US. If you want to study business, for example, it’s pretty much essential that you took it at school to age 18.

Remember also that some subjects, like Medicine and Law, can only be studied at graduate level in the US, so you might prefer to study those at undergraduate level elsewhere.

Which colleges are the right fit for you?

We recently wrote a blog about ‘fit’ in the US. You can’t simply apply to loads of colleges and hope that you get in; you need to understand what they’re looking for in a student. This varies massively between colleges, and isn’t just academic: it’s social and cultural too. If you want to make a success of your applications, and want to end up at a place where you can really thrive, you absolutely must understand this notion of fit and do plenty of research.

Admissions officers are trained to assess people on dozens of criteria to determine if they’re the right fit, and if you know for sure that you’d get on well there, you’ll be able to make honest, heartfelt applications that resonate with the admissions officers.

What do you do outside of school?

Being a really good student isn’t enough to get you into a US college. You need to show that you’re someone who cares about other things, and who takes part in the world around them. Colleges want to see responsibility, community involvement, intellectual curiosity, commitment, and lots more. If you don’t have hobbies and interests that you’re passionate about, how are you going to prove this?

Do the things you enjoy, but always look for opportunities over and above what is just given to you.

Have you taken the SAT or ACT?

Many colleges are now test-optional, which means you don’t have to submit the SAT or ACT in order to apply. But there might be situations where you must (like scholarships), or where a good score will help your application.

We always recommend that students start the process assuming they will take the test, and then they can always reassess later.

Make sure you’re doing the right test for you: take our Diagnostic Test for free to decide.

Can you write?

There’s no getting away from it: you are going to have to write essays. You’ll have to write an average of 2-3 application essays for each college to which you apply, and once you get there you’ll be submitting lots of written papers. If you really hate writing (and reading), then you might want to consider a more numerate degree in the UK or other.

Have you got the time?

The US has the most complex application process in the world, and it takes time to make a good application. If you’re planning on applying to other systems as well (especially Oxbridge), consider how little time you are going to have. Start early!

We help students and schools through the US application process, sometimes from several years before they apply. If you’d like us to help you, or have questions about the process, please get in touch.

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