Brits in America: tips on applying to US universities as an international student

Applications to US universities aren’t as terrifying as they look. As a current Harvard student from Wales, blogger Raphaelle Soffe knows a thing or two about the application process

December 7 2018
How to apply to a US university as an international student

The sheer number of universities and the application process in the US might seem daunting, but here are some tips to break down the process, having been through it recently.

Common App

The vast majority of US university applications are submitted via the Common Application (better known as Common App), which involves one essay that you submit to all the universities you apply to. However, unlike Ucas, this essay is more about personal experience and development than academic interest. Take a look at the prompts for this year to help you start your essay.

Your Common App essay must be thought-provoking to capture the interest of the admissions office. Mine was about a personal experience that changed me as a person and altered the course of my academic pursuits. The essay assists the admissions officer in looking beyond your current and predicted grades, to the person behind the application.

Common App asks you to submit details about your extracurricular activities. I talked about Neutral News (an independent and non-profit news service that I founded aged 16), public speaking and debating competitions, political experience with the Welsh Conservatives, work experience placements, part-time job commitments, article publications, charity work, sport involvements, head girl achievements and linguistic abilities. These are just some ideas; do not feel that you need to do so many extracurricular activities. Having a few, interesting ones that you have committed to, is also looked upon favourably in the admissions process.

What is the cost?

There are some costs associated with applying to US universities; however, most institutions have waivers that you can apply for. Research the institution to discover what it might cost to apply. Most fees do not exceed $100 (about £79) – if there are any.

Don’t let these charges deter you. Take it one step at a time, and contact the university directly if the cost is becoming a problem. You will also need to sit an ACT or an SAT exam before you apply (more on these below), and the registration fees for one of these do not exceed $70. Some costs may be incurred in acquiring study guide material or in travelling to the test location.

If you find these costs becoming a problem, look into programmes that might help with applications, such as the US Sutton Trust programme. It covers everything and even provides extensive practice-test material.

It’s also worth investing in a good ACT or SAT prep guide, which can be purchased online. It will be much harder to achieve a good grade without practice.


How to write a US college admissions essay
The difference between SATs and ACTs
What universities really want to see in your applications
Hoping to apply to a US university as a foreign student?


Find a university you will love

It would be easy to just apply to all the universities you have heard of – big names such as Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University and so on. But it is important that you find a university that fits you.

Researching all your options, even universities you have never heard of before, is paramount to ensuring that you select a university you are comfortable with. There are single-gender (Barnard, Smiths), rural (Amherst), city-based (Columbia), hot-climate (Stanford), and freezing-climate (Boston) locations, and they all have different types of access to professors, technology and networks. For example, Georgia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are both world-renowned for their engineering departments, but Georgia Tech also has a big athletic focus and is based in a warmer climate.

An institution that accommodates your lifestyle and study needs will be one that fits you as a person. If you struggled under the pressure of A levels, perhaps a highly competitive and GPA-focused university such as Harvard is not for you. If you identify as a woman and want to feel safe at university, consider an all-female college. Open your mind to all the options, and if your parents haven’t heard of your preferred university, it doesn’t matter. There are more than 4,000 universities in the US, and only 130 in the UK, so there are plenty more options for you to choose from.

University financial aid and scholarships

There are a significant number of US universities that provide undergraduate scholarships and financial aid to students who are unable to afford university expenses. For example, Harvard has awarded me a full financial aid package, which covers tuition, food, board and travel. Many universities also offer sport scholarships.

There is an important difference between need-blind and need-sensitive financial aid applications. Need-blind universities consider your application without taking into consideration how much financial aid you will require (Harvard is need-blind). Need-sensitive universities will take into account your financial aid request when considering your application as a whole (Stanford is need-aware for international students).

A further distinction is that some institutions promise that financial aid awarded will meet all demonstrated need, and others will meet only part of the demonstrated need. When considering an American university, understanding its financial aid policy is key.

However, do not be dissuaded by a need-aware application process. In some instances, coming from a low-income background but still demonstrating strong academic and extracurricular ability and drive strengthens your application.

Know the university deadlines, requirements and conditions

You can apply to an unlimited number of universities in the US. Applications include essays, information requests and interview requirements. However, you’d be wise not to apply to hundreds of universities and spread yourself so thin that you struggle to put forward good quality applications.

Also, bear in mind that some universities require you to apply solely to their institution for the “Early Action” or “Early Decision” round. Typically, this deadline is around November, and the start of January for the Regular Round. I’d advise heavily to apply EA or ED; it shows your preparedness and your interest in an institution. An EA or ED application may be “binding”, meaning that if you are accepted, you must accept the offer. It is important to research your intended university’s application policy so that you fully understand the deadlines, requirements and conditions attached to the application.

Think ahead about SAT and ACT exams

The vast majority of US universities want international applicants to submit SAT or ACT exam scores. There are testing centres around the UK where you can sit the exam. I’d recommend practising thoroughly beforehand by buying a study guide, and timing yourself to the second.

Show interest

If you really like a university, email the admissions office with questions (but not ones that can just be answered by scrolling through the university’s website). If you can, try to meet the university representative or an alumni member in the UK. Expressing interest never hurts; it can only ever help.

Read more: Best universities in the United States

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