College Application Booster​®: Get ahead on your college application!

Applying to U.S. Colleges as a UK Student

Whether it’s Harvard, Stanford, or UCLA, U.S.-based colleges and universities offer qualified British applicants vibrant opportunities to expand their worldviews within some of the most robust learning infrastructures in the world. From expansive research facilities, to internationally-acclaimed professors, to nuanced liberal arts curricula, the resources of many American schools parallel some of Britain’s finest in rigor and quality. Studying in the U.S. will permit you to explore a new culture without the burden of a language barrier, possibly acclimating yourself to your dream career location along the way!

To learn some of the ways you can best position yourself for those ever-confounding U.S. college applications, read our guide below on how to apply to schools in the U.S.!

Undergraduate Studies in the UK vs. the U.S.

Before you even begin your application, it is crucial to understand the ways in which the U.S. higher education system differs from that of the U.K.. The 3-year Uni experience in the U.K. focuses on pre-professional training, while the 4-year U.S. college experience is more interdisciplinary and exploratory.

Given these discrepancies, applications highlight different aspects of a students’ candidacy in the U.S. versus in the U.K.. Through a singular, school-agnostic application, the UCAS system prioritizes passion and proficiency in a given subject area. The Common App that many U.S. schools use, in comparison, prioritize zeal for and knowledge of a given institution, with each application specifically tailored for and sent to each institution individually.

While applicants approach the UK application system with a pre-professional focus such as law, medicine or engineering from the onset, applicants to U.S. schools enjoy a bit more freedom, taking the time to determine an academic focus during the course of their studies. For this reason, keep your course of study in mind as you decide upon your U.S. college list, but don’t stress about committing to it throughout all four years of your undergraduate studies.


Now that you’ve decided that you would like to embark upon the U.S. higher education application process, it’s time to get acquainted with the U.S. application timeline. Although UCAS streamlines its deadlines with unified October 15 and January 29 deadlines, deadlines in the U.S. can range from mid-October to mid-February. While Early Decision I and II options have deadlines throughout October, November, December (and sometimes early January), Regular Decision applications in the U.S. occur from November into January and even February. You’ll be submitting each application separately, so make sure to keep track of each school’s specific deadline!

Grades and Testing

While the majority of schools throughout the U.S. utilize a 4.0-scale GPA system, the U.K. employs a scale of honours ranging from ordinary to first class. U.S. admissions committees compare applicants regionally, so your first honours won’t be compared against an U.S. based student’s 4.0 GPA from Kansas, for example, and this format will allow you to submit your marks in their current format. While the U.K. grading system prioritizes final exams, U.S. high schools utilize a more cumulative grading format that factors in assignments and exams submitted throughout the semester. Given this discrepancy, be sure to put your best effort into those finals to earn the most competitive marks!

In terms of testing, while A-Levels take precedence in the U.K.’s 2-year college system, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), and ACT (American College Testing) reign supreme in the admission process for U.S. colleges and universities. Obtaining a good tutor will be key to your success on these exams, and the earlier you begin preparing, the better. You can choose to sit for either the SAT or the ACT, but you will not need to submit scores for both. The SAT is scored out of 1600, and the ACT out of 36, so you’ll realistically want a score above 1500 on the SAT or 33 on the ACT to land in the admitted students range of America’s top schools. We recommend that you focus your studying and testing efforts on the first year of college to leave room for retakes if necessary in the fall of your second year of college.

Recommendation Letters

In the U.K.’s UCAS system, a singular referee suffices for a strong application to Uni. In the U.S., however, you’ll need three: one from a counselor and two from teachers, ideally from two distinct disciplines. Ideally, your counselor knows you personally and will therefore be able to reflect upon your triumphs—academic and personal alike—in their recommendation letter. The teacher recommendations, however, should come from two teachers who have observed your academic skillset under their supervision, with one from a humanities field and one from a STEM field.

Information such as aptitude, enthusiasm and experience take priority in both reference and recommendation letters, so approach your recommendation letter writers with the same gravity, intentionality, and specificity that you would with a potential referee as you make your request. The content and structure of the referee system and the recommendation letter are nearly identical. Both should span no longer than 1-2 pages, come from 2 different writers who know you extremely well, and speak to your passion and power as a student. They will attest to your dynamism in the classroom and vouch for your capacity to excel in your intended field of collegiate study, so be sure to impress them as you partake in their classes.

Extracurricular Activities and Passion Projects

British students eyeing admission to one of the top schools in the U.S. should aim to develop extracurricular activities and passion projects outside of classwork throughout secondary school. Multi-year orientation towards these non-academic explorations may seem extraneous to those more familiar with the UCAS system, but these activities are crucial to an American application. There are thousands of schools throughout the U.S. of various sizes and educational philosophies and hundreds of thousands of applicants— because of this, colleges evaluate applications holistically, looking beyond just grades and test scores to assess an applicant’s candidacy. Although the transcript still remains the primary source of information regarding a student’s intellectual abilities, the “activities list”—a ten entry summation of a student’s extracurricular experiences—plays a key role in differentiating candidates and earning coveted acceptances.

There is no singular way to construct an activities list—the best activities list intuitively follows your natural intellectual interests and personal passions, ultimately documenting the way you’ve mobilized your interests to make a positive impact on your community. The aggregation of these pursuits can be referred to as a “hook.” If you’re a computer science buff, hone in on designing an app that improves coding education for underrepresented communities; or secure an Executive Board position within the Computer Science Club. If visual art is your hook, start a zine or volunteer at a local arts camp—and why not run for Arts Board President at your school? Leadership is the name of the game when it comes to spending your time wisely when you’re not acing your classes.

In addition to those amazing leadership positions, you should also dedicate a concerted effort towards crafting and executing a unique passion project throughout your time in secondary school. Passion project ideas range from leading a national campaign against bullying, to starting a profitable local business, to writing a novel, to beginning a non-profit fitness education program. The opportunities are endless! As long as it derives from an honest and original place, and you know you’ll feel internally motivated to grow it enough to make a measurable difference in your community, it’s a good fit.

U.S. universities also have set initiatives related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to embrace the diversity of their student body. Many campuses across the United States have Muslim Student Associations, and actively advocate for religious inclusivity and diversity on their campuses. Several campuses also have offices of religious and spiritual life, which work to connect students to religious leaders in the community and on campus, ensuring that they can continue their religious lives throughout their studies in the United States. Universities also have support for international students, some even offering orientation programs exclusively for international students when they arrive on campus.

Scholarships and Awards

Since the American higher education system’s application process prioritizes a holistic review that tends to be more subjective than the British system, scholarships and awards earned throughout secondary school will be evaluated as part of your application. Within the Common App, a section titled “Awards and Honors” grants space for each applicant to list up to five distinctions, alongside the level of the achievement and geographic scope of each entry. While focusing on pure academic excellence will take you far in the U.K. university application process, you should begin searching and applying for scholarships and awards—both local and international—as soon as you can.

Websites such as Unigo and Fastweb are excellent resources in your search for scholarship opportunities, and applying early while casting a wide net will enable you to make best use of your time. Scholarships and awards range in subject matter, length and project type, so there are opportunities for every student, regardless of their individual capabilities or expertise. Be sure to focus your efforts on opportunities that align with your hook to bolster your application. If your volunteer opportunities and passion project are in the realm of the performing arts, for example, winning an international singing competition and a national scholarship diving into the impact of art on youth would be more impactful than a local whistling contest and a science fair. All of the pieces in your application should follow the centripetal force of your hook to most clearly convey your unique narrative and offerings to campus life.

Paying for School

Finally, once you submit your applications and receive admissions decisions, one exigent, yet crucial factor remains: the cost of schooling. Compared to the 2021 average annual cap of £9,250 for U.K. students seeking a university experience in their home country, a single year at a private institution in the U.S. will run you a cool $42,162, on average. In addition, FAFSA and the American classic financial aid and grant system are not open to British students, meaning that those exorbitant tuition, room and board fees must come from loans if they can’t be paid in full out-of-pocket. Paradoxically, however, since colleges increasingly prefer students who can pay full tuition fees to offset schools’ rising operating costs, this pricing system could slightly advantage a U.K.-based applicant. While certainly not a deciding factor, your lived international experience combined with your unique pricing model could tip the scale in your favor a bit to reflect the asset you would be to the university.

International Student Support from the Experts

Applying to U.S. colleges and universities as an international student is a complex and intricate process. Command Education Senior Mentors offer international students expert, individually tailored guidance to support them through the process step-by-step, empowering them to build standout applicant profiles and get into their dream schools.

Start your admissions journey at top U.S. colleges and universities today by scheduling a free consult!