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So you want to study in the U.S.? Well, you’ve come to the right place!

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 American schools often 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 applying to schools in the U.S.!

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

Before you even begin your application, it’s crucial to understand the ways in which the U.S. higher education system differs from that of the U.K. Structurally, the 3-year Uni experience centralizes an intensely pre-professional focus that the 4-year U.S. college experience less directly embodies. UK applicants choose their course while they apply to schools and must ally themselves with it throughout their studies, whereas the major decision required in U.S. applications serve as more a nonbinding agreement, with “undecided” existing as a viable, though slightly unfavorable, option.

Given these discrepancies, the focus of the applications take a different tenor across the pond. Through a singular, school-agnostic application, the UCAS system prioritizes passion and proficiency in a given subject area. The CommonApp and Coalition 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 rather than preemptively. 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.

Timeline

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 and December, Regular Decision applications in the U.S. roll 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 UK 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 a 4.0 from Kansas, for example, and this format allows you to submit your marks in their current format. While the UK grading system prioritizes final exams, U.S. high schools utilize a more cumulative grading format that considers assignments and exams submitted all throughout the semester. Given this discrepancy, be sure to put your all into those finals to earn the most competitive marks!

In terms of testing, while A-Levels take precedence in the UK’s 2-year college system to prepare students for University, 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. 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 UK’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 disparate disciplines. Hopefully, your counselor knows you so well personally that they may intuitively reflect upon your triumphs, academic and personal alike, in their recommendation letter. The teacher recommendations, however, should come from two teachers with strong writing skills who have observed you demonstrate tenacity and excellence 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, intention and detail that you would with a potential referee as you make your request. Unfamiliar with the American recommendation letter’s comparison to the UK referee system? Have no fear! The content and structure of the requirements for both are nearly identical. Both should span no longer than 1-2 pages, come from 2 different writers who know you extremely well, and speak towards 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 class and make your recommendation request in the spring of your first year of college.

Extracurricular Activities and Passion Projects

British students eyeing admission at one of the U.S.’s top schools should aim to develop extracurricular activities and passion projects outside of classwork all throughout secondary school. Multi-year orientation towards these non-academic explorations may seem extraneous when considering applications from the basis of the UCAS system, but these aspects are crucial to an American application. In the U.S., since there are thousands of schools throughout the nation of various sizes and educational philosophies and hundreds of thousands of applications, grades aren’t the sole factor in admissions as they are for the UCAS. 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 perfect 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 integrated them into making an impact on your community. Here at Command, we call the aggregation of these pursuits a “hook.” If you’re a computer science buff, hone in on designing an app that improves coding education for underrepresented communities! Maybe try to secure an Executive Board position within the Computer Science Club, as well! If visual art is your hook, start a zine! Volunteer at a local arts camp, and why not run for Arts Board President at your school, while you’re at it? Leadership is the name of the game when it comes to spending your time wisely when you’re not acing those classes.

To truly stand out amongst American applicants, however, 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 students from abroad 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 will count towards the evaluation of your application. Within the CommonApp, 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 UK University application process, we recommend that you begin searching and applying for scholarships and awards – both local and international – as soon as you can.

Websites such as Unigo and Fastweb will be key resources in your search for opportunities to distinguish yourself come application season, 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’s definitely a route towards recognition for every student, regardless of their individual capabilities or expertise. Be sure to focus your efforts on opportunities that align with your hook to most optimally position your application. If your volunteer opportunities and passion project reside 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 convincingly convey your unique narrative and offerings to campus life.

Paying for School

Finally, once the applications are sent and the admissions decisions received, one exigent, yet crucial factor remains: the cost of schooling. Compared to the 2021 average annual cap of £9,250 for UK 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 $41,411, on average. Adding insult to injury, 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 derive 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 UK-based applicant. It’s not a primary deciding factor in the least, but 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.

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Types of U.S. Schools

Unlike British system, The U.S. Department of Education cites over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., with each offering an idiosyncratic approach to education.

The main categories, however, are:

The Ivy League Schools

The eight Ivy League Member Schools are Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, and they are primarily situated in the American northeast. These schools are widely considered some of the best schools in the nation, and are some of the oldest that were originally linked by having the same sports league, the “Ivy League.” In terms of student body size, the largest Ivy is Cornell, while the smallest Ivy is Dartmouth. They range from city to rural environments, so there is an Ivy that fits best with everyone!

The Top Non-Ivy Schools

Not all great schools reside in the Ivy League, however! There are a lot of schools throughout the nation that offer the small student-to-teacher ratios, world-class academic and research opportunities, name recognition and driven student bodies that distinguish the Ivy Leagues!

Non-Ivy Schools Examples: MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon

Liberal Arts Schools

Liberal arts schools offer small student populations, small student-to-teacher ratios, unique school traditions and, or course, the hallmark and specialized “liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing the whole student through diverse and comprehensive areas of study.” 

Liberal Arts Schools Examples: Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Haverford, Bates College

The UC System

UC Schools, based in California, are some of the finest state schools in the country, with a diverse array of student bodies and research opportunities. To apply to the UC schools, you use the UC system application rather than the CommonApp. The largest UC is UCLA, with 31,000 students, and the smallest is UC Merced with 7,000 students. California universities as a whole, UCs and non-UCs alike, produced nearly 50,000 STEM degrees in 2012-13, with the UC system’s 23,000 STEM degrees far outpacing all other universities in the state.

UC Schools Examples: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara

State Schools

State schools are often large, and offer diverse and dynamic learning communities and great research opportunities!  Compared to the aforementioned institutions, state schools receive public funding from states that often empower them to offer more affordable tuition rates to residents. In-state students receive a special discount that out-of-state students don’t, making them an appealing option for many looking to expand their educational horizons while minimizing their budgets. Private schools, on the other hand, don’t receive such robust funding from the state, so much of their scholarship budgets derive from internal financial resources and private donations. 

State Schools Examples: California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, UMichigan, and Virginia Tech.

25 Top Schools with the Highest International Populations by Percentage, Ranked (Compared to National Average of ~5.5% – Source: US News)

1. The New School – 31%

2. Boston University – 22%

3. Carnegie Mellon University – 22%

4. New York University – 22%

5. Columbia University – 17%

6. Northeastern University – 17%

7. Emory University – 15%

8. University of Chicago – 15%

9. Georgetown University – 14%

10. UC-Berkeley – 13%

11. The University of Pennsylvania – 13%

12. The University of Southern California – 13%

13. George Washington University – 12%

14. Harvard University – 12%

15. Johns Hopkins University – 12%

16. Princeton University – 12%

17. Rice University – 12%

18. Brown – 11%

19. Stanford – 11%

20. Tufts – 11%

21. UCLA – 11%

22. American – 10%

23. Cornell – 10%

24. Dartmouth – 10%

25. Duke – 10%