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Step by Step: follow this timeline and you can’t go wrong. (And bear in mind this is for the super-organised. These things can be done in less time if you are a more chaotic type).

American university years begin, like ours, in September. But the application process is more complicated and lengthy. So start at least 18 months before you expect to enrol. 


  • Think about your criteria for the 'right university': size, location, selectivity, etc. Consult a variety of resources (especially the websites of individual schools).
  • Look up the application/financial aid deadlines for your possible universities.
  • Check the registration dates for the SATs and ACTs - these tests have to be taken for the vast majority of good schools. Register for them several months before you take them (the seats fill up VERY quickly).
  • Plan to sit the SAT or the ACT (and, if necessary, SAT Subject Tests) for the first time by June; you can take them multiple times. See whether the university prefers the SAT or ACT.
  • Start practicing for the SAT or ACT (yes, you need to do this!) - 15 hours of prep per week is not unheard of. The format and type of questioning are very different from A levels. Help can be found via books, tutors, classes, and online resources.  Your first stop should be

July & August 

  • Go to the university website for applications and financial aid information; request catalogues if you want something you can hold in your hands (the photos are usually stunning).
  • Better yet, visit the universities that interest you. Before you go, check online to see the campus tour schedule and, if offered, arrange for an on-campus interview with an admission representative - this is usually a very friendly encounter where you can ask questions.
  • Start to create a list of your accomplishments, activities and work experience. This will help you with your applications and essays.
  • Keep a college calendar of all admission and financial aid deadlines.
  • Register for fall test dates for the SAT/ACT and SAT Subject tests.


  • Register on The Common Application website ( and start to create your list of colleges. Read through the whole application form so you know which credentials will be required.
  • Review any supplemental applications (presented on the Common App website) for the schools you're interested in.
  • Contact your school counsellor and appropriate teachers to ask for academic records (an ‘official transcript’) and recommendations required by the Common App; put their contact details into your Common App form. 


  • Finalise your list of colleges. Consider 'safety' colleges, as well as 'probable' and 'reach' colleges.
  • Complete a first draft of your essays - both for the Common App and for any others required in the supplemental applications for individual universities. Think of topics that focus on your experiences and make you stand out from the crowd.
  • If you're seeking financial aid, contact the financial aid office at the colleges on your list to see what forms they require.
  • If you plan to apply through an Early Decision or Early Action program, be aware that deadlines for early applications tend to be around the 1st of November. Financial aid apps are generally due at the same time. So move all of the aforementioned steps up by at least a month.
  • Some of you will have to juggle all of this with UCAS application requirements - get organised early.


  • If applying Early Decision or Early Action, submit applications on time.
  • Otherwise, polish your college essays and proofread them rigorously for mistakes.
  • Follow up with referees to ensure that recommendation forms are submitted on time to meet your deadlines.


  • Submit applications for admission and financial aid (if you haven't already). Check that transcripts and references have arrived. 
  • Decide which of your SAT and/or ACT scores you want to be sent to each of your colleges - instructions for doing so are on the ACT and SAT websites. Or sit the necessary tests again, if appropriate. (Generally, the last test date that is accepted for regular admission is in December.)

January & February 

  • There may be various additional application deadlines which must be met by your secondary school (e.g. submitting latest term grades), but your job is largely done.
  • Look for email confirmations from each university that all necessary application materials have been received.
  • Continue to perform well in school; even once you're accepted, colleges want to see strong final term grades.

March - May 

  • Letters of acceptance or rejection will arrive by the end of March. 
  • Decide which university to attend by May 1 and mail the enrolment form, accommodation forms etc and deposit cheque by 1 May. (Don't dally. The most desirable dorms fill up fast, because students in the know will send back their dorm request forms immediately.) 
  • Notify the colleges that you are not attending of your decision so that your spot can be given to another student.
  • If you're on a waiting list, contact the admission office and let them know of your continued interest; update them on your spring semester grades and activities.
  • Still considering a UK school? Check deadlines for decision-making.

June - July 

  • Apply to the American Embassy for a visa as soon as you get the I-20 form from your chosen university (see Visa section of this website).
  • Organise finances (arrange to transfer funds to a US bank; make sure you have funds for travel and expenses on arrival).
  • Finalise arrangements for housing and medical insurance with your university; their International Student Office will be helpful. (Don't dally. The most desirable dorms fill up fast, because students in the know will send back their dorm request forms immediately.) 
  • Make travel arrangements. Contact the International Student Office at your university with details of your arrival plans.

August - September

  • Start packing! And enjoy yourself.

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