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. We also have separate articles with more details on the Commonapp guidelines, essay writing, and financial aid.
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. 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
When applying, it is important for you to be aware of the deadlines. The regular admissions deadline is in January. However, when applying to the US, different types of applications not only have different deadlines, but might also have different conditions. The following table compares the deadlines, the conditions and the types of universities that offer the options for Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA) and Restrictive Early Action (REA), also known as Single Choice Early Action (SCEA).
When you will receive decision from uni?
Can you apply to other uni?
Is the decision binding?
Early Decision (ED)
Early -usually November
Early -usually December
You can only apply to one college ED, but you can apply to other college regular admissions or EA
Binding, if you are accepted, you must attend the university
Early Action (EA)
Early -ranging from October to December
Early -usually January or February
You can apply to multiple colleges EA and, if you wish, one college ED
Non-binding, if you receive an offer you do not have to commit until the normal reply date (May)
Restrictive Early Action (REA)/Single Choice Early Action (SCEA)
Early -usually November
Early – usually mid-December
You can only apply to one college REA, and you cannot apply to other colleges ED and EA
For ED, since the decision is binding, 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.
Here are some articles that explain more on EA, REA and SCEA which you might find helpful.
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.
Nevertheless, it is very important to check the deadlines with your prospective colleges, as there might be differences in their deadlines and policies. This is even more important due to Covid-19 as universities may change their admissions cycle to adapt to the current situation. 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. You can find this information on their website, or if not, you can email the admissions team.
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.
However, due to Covid-19, some colleges have also made the SATs/ACTs optional. You can check the universities that have done so here. UC schools also no longer require these standardised tests and they now have their own special test for their schools. So make sure to check with your respective colleges on their standardised test requirements.
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.
Applicants can submit their application through this platform called CommonApp, you can find more about it below and we have also written an article on this. However, not all schools in the US participate in Commonapp. Some schools may participate in the UCA (University College Application) or Coalition App. The UC schools also have their own application platform. Some universities may have their individual 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), University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and University of Texas.
Common App 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. Common App becomes open to applicants on 1st August every year. Applicants need to register for a free account to get started but do not have to complete their applications in one sitting.
Please refer to the following Common App section where we provide more guidance on managing your Common App account. Your prospective colleges’ websites might also have some instructions and even tips on how to complete some parts of the Common App, especially the essays and other supplements.
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) until pre-university levels such as your term reports for A-levels. Not all colleges need to see your transcripts as part of your application. Please check the Common App website or your prospective college’s website for more information on transcripts and school reports.
If your prospective college uses Common App, 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.
As a reminder, for those of you who have your high school transcripts in Malay, you will need to translate the documents. This could be done by yourself but you will need validation from authorities such as your high school principal. However, for SPM certificates specifically, it is highly advisable for you to use the translation service provided by the Ministry of Education. Please find here more details for the translation service.
Teacher recommendations let colleges know their applicants better from the perspectives of other people. A well-written letter of recommendation can show impressive characteristics of applicants beyond their own self-advocacy. 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. If you need guidance on how to write a good recommendation letter, check this website out.
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, if not all, 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)
- College Essay Guy
Besides essays, colleges may ask you a series of questions that you answer in a few words. For example, here’s a paraphrased question from University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill: What is your theme song? 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, like Stanford, allow applicants to upload some of their artworks or supplemental art portfolio too, to get to know their applicants better.
Some colleges may ask you to answer quirky essay prompts. For example, University of Chicago essay prompts are designed by the current students/alumni which are known to be eccentric. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer in writing these essays. The admission office wants to see your creativity, problem solving skills and to get to know you as a person beyond your academic credentials and impressive extracurricular activities.
Many top and competitive colleges ask applicants to write the ‘Why Us’ essay. Make sure you research about the colleges you are applying to and understand why the college is the best fit for you. It is recommended to not give cliche answers like academic reputation and location. It is better if your answers reflect your enthusiasm and commitment to attend the college if you are admitted. Try coming up with ideas that resonate with your personal motivation to attend the college like what you love the college that the other colleges do not offer you.
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)
Here is also an article written for CollegeLAH with more details on financial aid.
You’ve probably realized that a lot of sentences in this section start with “Most colleges …”. This is because there are thousands of colleges in the US, and any generalization 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.