When should I start preparing my US application?

Posted on 8th August 2023

At UES, we're often asked when is the best time to begin preparing to apply for college in America. Is it ever too early to start getting ready for the SAT or ACT, and for your application in general?

Applying to university in the US can be a confusing process, but it can be made simpler by starting early. If you leave it until the beginning of Year 13 (Upper Sixth) it's possible, but you might be overwhelmed by everything you need to do at this busy time; it’s much better to stagger these things over a longer period. 

When you apply to the USA, the main things you have to complete are:  

  • SAT or ACT tests**
  • Choosing colleges
  • Contacting teachers for references 
  • Filling in the application form
  • Writing essays for each college

**Many colleges are test-optional, but we encourage all students to test, as good test scores will still benefit applications to test-optional colleges. 

The last two of the above can't be started until around July just before you start Year 13, because the colleges don't release their essay requirements until then. And you can't really finalise your college lists until you know your test scores. So this means that the earlier you start the SAT or ACT exams, the sooner you will be able to do everything else!

This is why we normally recommend that you start preparing for the SAT or the ACT near the beginning of Year 12 (Lower Sixth). If you can start in the summer after GCSEs, even better! Even before that, you will want to make sure you’re involved in some activities that you’re passionate about (besides your academic studies), as these are much more important in US applications than in UK ones. 

The summer after GCSEs, it's a good idea to choose between the SAT and the ACT. There's no need to take both - every college will accept either test (if they want one at all!) Currently, both tests are taken online, and here you can take our Diagnostic Test which will tell you which test is the best fit for you. (It’s updated to reflect the new Digital version of the SAT.) 

Most of our students do an SAT/ACT course with us online or in our offices in London, or at their school sometime in Year 12, or start with private tutoring for the SAT or ACT. They can then build toward getting ready for their first SAT or ACT in December of Year 12.

Most students will keep practising and take their second test in March (for the SAT) or April (for the ACT). Remember that most students take the test more than once! Colleges expect this and it won't count against you. However, taking the test more than three times is unlikely to be the best use of your time. 

If you need to, you can do your SAT or ACT exam again at the beginning of Year 13, but hopefully you'll be very prepared by this point and already on a good score. You don't want to be doing lots of prep in Year 13 - you'll have lots of other application preparation to do at this point!

When writing your essays, make sure you get some help. The essays are much more important and time-consuming than people realise, and are one of the few opportunities in the application to show your personality and identity. As such, they are very different from your UCAS statement or school essays. We are offering essay workshops this spring/summer to help students write US application essays, and you can register for those here

So when preparing, keep in mind the following:

  • Start early: near the beginning of Year 12 if possible.
  • Choose between the SAT and ACT early using our diagnostic test 
  • Check the SAT and ACT dates!
  • Get your tests all out of the way by the end of Year 12 if possible.
  • Don't leave your essays to the last minute! They're really important.

This may sound like a lot to do, but with some forward planning, you’ll be able to do it and UES can help! We run SAT/ACT courses and private tuition, and offer a full counselling service helping you through every aspect of the US application process. To find out more and go through your questions, book a free call with a Founder here

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