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Applying to college in the USA

Updated 14 Aug 2018

Expat international students applying to American four-year colleges for bachelor degrees should be aware that the application process differs quite markedly from admission practices elsewhere in the world. Additionally, it will be necessary to shoulder the added logistical burden of obtaining documents from your home country and, in some cases, applying for a student visa. Note that in the USA, the term "colleges" is used to refer to all tertiary education institutions, including universities.

Selectivity in US colleges

American colleges vary dramatically in how selective they are, and by extension, the minimum academic qualifications they require. The vast majority will accept more than half the students that apply. On the more selective side of the college spectrum, like Ivy League schools, acceptance rates may drop into single digits. As a result, the norm is to apply to more than one tertiary institution.

Application forms for US colleges

Colleges will also vary a great deal in the forms they want students to submit. However, many private colleges use the Common Application (CA), a uniform set of forms. The CA will ask prospective students to submit school reports, letters of recommendation from at least one high school teacher, a list of extracurricular activities, and a personal essay. In addition, many schools will require a supplement to the CA as well.

State schools in the US

State schools, however, do not use the Common Application at all. These universities can be found in every state in the country and are funded by state governments. They tend to be quite big, have a different sense of their mission, and vary their selectivity. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, is a state school that is among the most selective colleges in the US. State schools favour their own residents and establish quotas to accept a minimum number of students from the sponsoring state; sometimes percentages of state acceptance can reach 90 or even 95 percent of the student body. State residents also attend at a lower rate of tuition. Thus, it is well worth exploring the quality of a state school prior to considering the more expensive but not necessarily higher standard private schools.

Standardised testing in the US

The US does not have a standard national school-leaving examination. Instead, many colleges will require prospective students to submit results of testing conducted by either the College Board (called SATs – standardised achievement tests) or by the ACT (American College Testing Program). The SAT is more widely accepted, but the ACT is gaining in popularity. Some colleges might even require students to submit results from both tests. 

Students may also take tests within their high school curriculum that will allow them to gain college credits. High scores on International Baccalaureate (IB) tests and Advanced Placement (AP) tests will often allow rising first-year college students to skip preliminary level classes in core subject areas.

When to apply for US colleges

For more selective American colleges, the application process begins months in advance. State school applications may have a deadline some 10 months before a student will begin their first year at that university. Many schools will offer an early decision program, where students can apply before the regular decision – the deadlines for these tend to begin around November for admission to college the next September. Regular decision deadlines are usually between January and March.

English language skills at US colleges

Most colleges will want to see proof of English proficiency from students whose high school instruction was in a language other than English, or whose first language is not English. The best way to show proof of such competency is by completing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Transfer students considering US colleges

Finally, while most students applying to American colleges have just completed high school, there are also many others that are slightly older. Some colleges will accept transfer applications from students who have completed some of their degree requirements at another institution (either foreign or domestic).

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