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Stanford University, CaliforniaYou've made your short list. You know which US universities (or ‘colleges’ or even - confusingly - 'schools' in US-speak) are sure things, which are fall-backs and which are a definite stretch. How do you take on the all-important application process?

When to apply for American universities?

Not all American universities share the same deadlines, so it’s wise to start working on your applications over the summer holidays before year 13. 

Check out each university’s website to find out whether they require their own application (eg The University of California system, Georgetown and MIT) or take part in the 'Common Application Form'  , which allows you to complete a basic application online and send it electronically to all the colleges you are interested in (with extra supplements). Many have created superb Youtube videos detailing every step of their application process — essential viewing.

You will also need to think about whether you want to apply ‘early admission’. Many colleges allow applicants to apply for an early deadline (usually in November) that falls before the regular deadline (usually in January). You can only apply to one college early admission, and if you are accepted you are committed to attending. So, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

How important are SAT and ACT exams?

Once the bane of British applicants, SAT and ACT exams are less of a barrier in this post-post-covid era. Most universities are now SAT/ACT optional and a few, like the entire University of California system which includes heavy-hitters like Berkeley and UCLA, no longer accept these standardised tests full stop. 

If you have a strong record of GCSEs and A level (or IB) predictions, then it may not be worth taking SATs; your exam results will speak for themselves. Your school will need to provide a transcript of your academic record from Year 10 to the present. This is not something that is customary in the UK and most schools will have to create this document from scratch. If your GCSEs weren’t quite what you’d hoped, then a stellar SAT score can lift your application enormously. If you do decided to take them, make sure to take advantage of free online prep offered by Khan Academy.

Starting your university application

The Common App (or its more recent competitors like the Coalition Application and the Universal App) will ask you for personal data, grades etc, but the biggest challenge will likely be the personal essay. This 250-650 word essay will be in response to a vaguely phrased question about your values, your interests or your most significant experiences, and while the whole thing may feel a bit cringe, it is important.

Unlike a UK personal statement, which can end up being a laundry list of achievements, it’s ok if your Common App essay is narrower, perhaps speaking to just one experience or event that illustrates something fundamental about you. There is plenty of room elsewhere in the application to list your DofE silver and your grade five piano.

The essay is a key part of your application, so think about it carefully and bring out your best writing skills. (And make sure other people read it through for typos, grammar and other suggestions before you send it off.) 
You must individually submit the Common App to each university you apply to and pay around $75 a pop (unless you can get a fee waiver; more here ). But one big advantage of the Common App essay over the UCAS personal statement is that it can be tweaked for each uni you go for. 

What is a supplemental essay?

In addition to the Common Application, most universities also have a Supplemental Application with questions about your specific interest in them and your qualifications, often requiring short essays in response. (Unlike the UCAS form, where you do not discuss individual institutions, US universities will want to know why you are applying to their institution in particular.)

Americans tend to trumpet their personal achievements, so don't hold back. Make sure your prospective university really knows how wonderful you are, how much you want to attend, and what a great addition you will be to their student body. Above all, be interesting.

It is crucial you take your time over these supplemental application essays, as they are often the deciding factor in admission. Each university is trying to suss out if you will fit in: if the hard data (test scores/grades) are not quite at the required standard, or if the competition is hot, your essay could sway the decision. 

School reference letters for your university application

Most US universities will ask for at least one reference, written by a careers advisor, headteacher, housemaster, etc. This reference is similar to UCAS, although it should not focus on a particular course, but rather suitability in general for higher education. Additionally, most schools will ask for at least one academic reference, sometimes more. The academic reference should come from a teacher who has taught you for at least a year and, if possible, in a core academic subject—English, history, foreign language, maths or sciences. 

Finally, The Good Schools Guide has a stellar track record in essay review and application assistance, so get in touch with our university consultants if you think we might be able to help.


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