Read about our past experiences here.
We remember when we first started looking up US colleges and the steps to apply, we felt really confused and intimidated. There seemed to be an endless list of things to do and all these application jargon we’re assumed to understand.
So here is a brief guide to the US application process, for fresh-faced applicants at ground zero when it comes to US applications.
Before you even start applying, you have to choose which schools to apply to. Over the course of your research on schools, you will come across the acronym LAC. LAC stands for liberal arts college, an institution that grants bachelor’s degrees just like universities but is smaller than and has a very different vibe from research universities. An example of a LAC is Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Most of the universities that you’ve heard of are probably research universities. To know more about how they differ, see this article.
What does the ‘liberal arts’ in LAC mean? What’s a liberal arts education? Put simply, it’s a well-rounded education that teaches you to think for yourself. It’s not a degree in fine arts or a hippie thing. I’ll let this article by the Association of American Colleges & Universities explain the rest of it to you, in great detail.
There are other ways to ‘categorize’ schools as well – public and private schools, 4-year colleges and community colleges, etc. This page has a great overview on the types of US colleges there are.
Note: In the US, ‘college’ and ‘university’ are usually interchangeable in conversation.
Deadlines – ED vs RD & rolling admissions
ED means early decision while RD means regular decision. If you apply early to a college under ED, you will have an earlier deadline than RD applicants by about 2 months, but you get to find out your admissions decisions earlier too.
If you applied ED and are admitted by your college, then you have to attend that college, i.e. ED plans are binding. That also means you can’t apply ED to more than one college (What if you were admitted to both?), so people usually apply ED to their dream college that they would definitely attend if they got in. If you applied ED and got deferred, this means that you may have another shot at getting admitted, via RD. But if you were denied, you will have to consider other options.
There are other admissions plans as well like EA and REA, which is adopted by Stanford. In this article, College Board gives you a good idea on how applying early affects your application (plus what “binding” means if you’re wondering).
So how does applying under ED or RD affect your application timeline? The application frenzy for US colleges lasts from August to around January each year. For RD applicants, most colleges’ deadline would be in January while ED applicants have it two months earlier. Of course, don’t take my word for it and find out for yourself by reading your prospective college’s website. Also keep in mind that you need to submit your standardized test and English proficiency test scores, but you can send them in later than the application deadline. How late though? Again, look at your prospective college’s website or if the information is not there, email their admissions team.
Some colleges have rolling admissions, meaning they have no deadlines, but review applications and send decisions to applicants all year long. Here is an article on About.com College Admissions explaining rolling admissions.
Standardized tests – SAT & ACT
Most colleges require their applicants to take SAT (administered by College Board) or ACT. Standardized tests are a convenient tool to measure all applicants’ academic abilities against the same scale, which is useful for colleges as their applicants hail from various educational backgrounds.
Competitive colleges also ask their applicants to submit scores for SAT Subject Tests (aka SAT 2). There are plenty of Subject Tests to choose from like Mathematics, Physics and US History. On which ones to take, you should refer to your prospective college’s website.
Test format, content, rules, fees and times can be found in great detail on test-administering bodies’ official websites. Registration can be done through these official websites too.
Commonapp is an online platform for applicants to submit their applications to colleges all over the US. This is where you key in your personal information, academic records and extra-curricular activities and upload application essays. Commonapp becomes open to applicants on 1st August every year. Applicants need to register for a free account to get started and do not have to complete their applications in one sitting.
An alternative to Commonapp is the UCA (University College Application) which is used by fewer colleges in the US compared to Commonapp.
Refer to the Commonapp and UCA websites for more information. Your prospective colleges’ websites might have some instructions and even tips on how to complete some parts of Commonapp, especially the essays and other supplements.
Other application platforms
Not all schools in the US participate in Commonapp or UCA. Instead, they have their own application platforms, which can be found in the “Admissions” sections on their websites. Some more popular schools that have their own platforms are Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pennsylvania State University, University of California, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and University of Texas.
English proficiency tests – TOEFL vs IELTS
International students are likely required to take a test to demonstrate their English proficiencies because classes will be conducted in English. Each college will have different requirements, i.e. different passing scores, recognized tests and conditions for exemption, so be sure to check your prospective colleges’ websites.
Besides differing in test format, another noteworthy distinction between TOEFL and IELTS is that it is probably easier to send your TOEFL scores to colleges than IELTS scores. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself by clicking on the tests above.
Transcripts & School Report
Transcripts are your report cards, result slips, or any document that shows your academic results. Most colleges will want to see how you have performed in school since Form 3 (or Year 9). Not all colleges need to see your transcripts as part of your application, and University of California is one of them. If your prospective college uses Commonapp, you will need to liaise with your current school’s university placement counselor to have your transcripts and school report uploaded onto your application. Your counselors will need some time to do this so ask them early. Check the Commonapp website or your prospective college’s website for more information on transcripts and school reports.
Teacher recommendations let colleges know their applicants better from the perspectives of other people. The rule of thumb is to ask the teachers who know you best to write your recommendation letters. You can ask your teachers from your pre-university institution and/or secondary school. If your college needs two letters, it is recommended that you get one from a science teacher and another from an arts teacher.
As for the format of recommendation letters, you should check your prospective college’s website to find out. If you are applying through Commonapp, all you need to do is type your teacher’s email address in the “Recommenders” section, then Commonapp will send an email to your teacher with instructions, provided the procedures do not change from last year. Besides teacher recommendations, most colleges let applicants upload recommendations from former employers or sports coaches too.
Most colleges will ask you to respond to a number of essay prompts as part of your application, and most have a word limit, which may be a good or bad thing depending on the kind of writer you are. There are tons of articles online on how to write ‘good’ essays. Here are some:
- 10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay (US News)
- How to Write a College Essay (MIT Admissions)
- How to Write Successful US College Application Essays? by Dylan Ler (CollegeLAH)
- Pinkpau’s Guide to US College Applications, Part 2 – The Essay (Chen Chow’s blog)
Besides essays, colleges may ask you a series of questions that you answer in a few words. For example, here’s a question from University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill last year: What is your theme song? Okay, I paraphrased the question because I can’t remember the exact question. They may also ask for a paragraph instead of an entire essay, perhaps on an extra-curricular activity you are most proud of. Some colleges allow applicants to upload some of their artworks too, to get to know their applicants better.
To sum up, every college has different application requirements, so be sure to check their websites. If you have already set up an account on your prospective college’s application platform (or Commonapp if your college does not have one), then all the application requirements should be pretty obvious in your account.
Most colleges do not interview applicants. For the colleges that do, it is likely optional. After you have submitted your application, your prospective college will ask if you would like an interview, probably with an alumnus at your country. However, interviews are highly encouraged by some colleges like Harvard University and Yale University.
Again, there are lots of resources online on how to prepare for an interview, like these:
- Undergraduate Interviews (IvyLeagueAdmission.com)
- Avoid These Top College Admissions Interview Mistakes (US News)
Colleges award financial aid packages of varying amounts to deserving applicants. These can be awarded based on academic merits, leadership potential or needs. There is a separate application that you will need to submit if you have indicated that you would like to apply for financial aid.
You’ll encounter these two terms when looking for information about financial aid: need-blind and need-aware admissions. Most colleges are need-aware, meaning they take into account applicants’ financial needs when deciding whether to admit them. Need-blind colleges do the opposite of that; applicants’ financial needs do not affect their chances of admission to these colleges. However, even if your (need-blind or need-aware) college does admit you, whether or not your college will fulfill all your financial needs is another story. So do your research on your prospective colleges’ financial aid policies.
Here are some very informative websites on financial aid:
- What Financial Aid is Available for International Students (US News)
- International Students and the FAFSA (FinAid)
You’ve probably realized that I started a lot of sentences with “Most colleges …”. This is because there are thousands of colleges in the US, and any generalization I should make about these colleges’ application procedures and requirements is bound to be wrong. The only way to be sure that you’re on the right track is to look at your colleges’ websites, or contact their admissions teams if you can’t find a good answer to your question on the website.