What is it like for UK students to apply to US universities?

At some point, the majority of us have held a desire close to our chests where we uproot our lives and hop on the latest pedalo (at the recommendation of Freddie Flintoff) and trek across the Atlantic to see what all the fuss is about in the US and whether these MIT's and Harvard's are all they are touted to be.

That being said, it can be tough to work out how you can study in the US as a UK student. This breakdown covers all the important details you need to know if you considering moving to the US to study after A-Levels.

The first step is working out whether you want to study at a community college, or a university. Community colleges are two-year institutions which tend to be cheaper than universities and offer more vocational education. Universities, on the other hand, offer four-year degrees and cover a wider range of subjects.

The USA has one of the largest education systems in the world with an estimated 4,000 institutions. While English is the main language in the USA, you'll have to get used to the differing academic terminology. Universities are generally known as colleges, of which there are two main types:

Public colleges - large, state-funded institutions that have lower tuition fees but more students. International students will pay higher fees.

Private colleges - smaller universities funded by private donations, tuition fees and grants. The opposite of public colleges, they have higher fees but fewer students. Overseas students pay the same fees as state residents.

There are 2 types of undergraduate degrees on offer in the USA:

  • Associate degrees - take two years to complete and are usually studied at technical, community or junior colleges. Students can study for an associate qualification in a range of subjects and then transfer to a bachelor's programme to complete an additional two years of study to gain a bachelor's degree.

  • Bachelors degrees - take four years to complete. They differ from UK undergraduate degrees in that students study a variety of subjects before deciding on which to focus on in the final two years, known as a 'major'. Students may also gain a 'minor' qualification by completing classes in an additional subject alongside their 'major'.

For entry to a bachelor's degree, you'll need at least five GCSE passes and two A-levels. To ensure that your chosen university recognises your qualifications you'll need to contact the admissions office.

Be aware that some subjects, such as medicine and law are not available at the undergraduate level in the USA. You can study pre-med and pre-law courses but these are preparatory qualifications. To qualify and practice as a doctor or lawyer youโ€™ll need to study these subjects at the graduate level.

How many colleges/universities can a UK student apply to in the US?

There is currently no limit on the number of colleges and universities that a UK student can apply to in the US but there are some important factors to consider. The majority of universities and colleges in the US charge an application fee, so obviously, the more of these that you do, the bigger the final bill.

It is common practice to apply roughly to 8 or 12 US universities but your mileage may vary depending on your aspirations.

Just like applying to UK universities, you should apply to some "reach" universities that may be aspirational to you, some "pushers" which you'll have to push to achieve but are attainable and some "backup" establishments that act as safety.

Which schools make up the Ivy League?

๐ŸŽ“ Brown University

๐ŸŽ“ Columbia University

๐ŸŽ“ Cornell University

๐ŸŽ“ Dartmouth College

๐ŸŽ“ Harvard University

๐ŸŽ“ University of Pennsylvania

๐ŸŽ“ Princeton University

๐ŸŽ“ Yale University

12 best colleges in the US by world ranking

๐Ÿฅˆ Harvard University (Cambridge, MA - West) = 2nd

๐Ÿฅ‰ Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA - East) = Joint 3rd

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA = West) = 5th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA = East) = 6th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ Princeton University (Princeton, NJ - West) = 7th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ University of California (Berkeley, CA - East) = 8th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ Yale University (New Haven, NJ - West) = 9th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ Columbia University (New York, NY - West) = Joint 11th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ University of Chicago (Chicago, IL - West) = 13th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA - West) = 14th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ John Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD - West) = 15th

๐ŸŽ–๏ธ Cornell University (Ithaca, NY - West) = 20th

What are US universities looking for in UK applicants?

US universities look for all-rounder applications and value your extracurriculars and essays more when compared to UK universities.

If you want to study in the USA from the UK, here is what top American colleges require:

Exceptional academics

Most US universities take a holistic approach when reviewing applications, but that doesnโ€™t mean grades arenโ€™t important. Grades are arguably the most crucial part of your college application, and your chances of studying in the USA are much higher if you have stellar grades. You will need to provide a copy of your high school transcript to showcase this.

Outstanding test scores

The second most important part of your college application is your test scores. While many colleges are going test-optional, some still require an SAT or ACT score, especially from international students, because it gives them a better understanding of your academic abilities. Most schools look for students with scores in a specific range, so check with your top schools to learn if your scores fit into that range.

A diverse set of extracurriculars

These demonstrate who you are outside of the classroom and provide an opportunity to showcase your leadership skills and community involvement. Universities are not looking for applicants who have participated in dozens of extracurriculars. Instead, itโ€™s better to dig deep into a subject, dedicate significant time to it, and ideally use it to propel you into a world-changing career.

Thoughtful essays

Essays build upon your applications, giving admissions teams a holistic picture of who you are and how you might contribute to their university. They should include thoughtful and unique information thatโ€™s not already in your application.

Strong letters of recommendation

To help build your holistic application by allowing people in your life to give their personal and professional opinions about your academic performance, character and drive. If you want to receive favourable and convincing recommendations, establish strong relationships with teachers, key staff, and leaders of your extracurricular activities.

Studying in the US versus studying in the UK

The US and the UK have some of the best universities globally. But there are some key differences between studying in the US versus studying in the UK. For example, students at American universities typically spend four years as an undergraduate, while undergraduate programs in the UK usually take three years. The infographic below highlights some key similarities and differences.

How much does it cost to go to university in the US for UK students?

Studying at a university in America isn't cheap. Depending on where you choose to study, the average cost of tuition alone sits between ยฃ3,500 โ€“ ยฃ35,000+ every year.

In the UK, you can get a Tuition Fee Loan to cover your fees. While it's possible to get a Student Loan in the US, you should only use this as a last resort.

UK Student Loans are funded by the government and are a comparatively safe option for students. While the system isn't perfect, the repayment terms won't cause significant concern to most students. This isn't the case in the USA. Luckily, there are other ways to get funding.

In America, your fees need to be paid in advance of each semester. You can pay for the whole year at once or semester by semester. Either way, it's a significant sum of money to pay each time.

As for living costs, the expected expenses are more equal across the different types of colleges. You'll likely be looking at something between ยฃ13,500 and ยฃ16,000 to cover the cost of accommodation, transport and all your other expenses each year.

This means that, depending on the type of university that you attend, your total annual expenses could be as 'little' as ยฃ17,000, or as much as ยฃ51,000+.

Benefits of studying in the US

Overseas students in the USA have the opportunity to gain an internationally-recognised qualification, experience life in another country and meet people from all over the world. American universities also offer a more hands-on approach to learning than many UK institutions, with a greater focus on project work, group work and internships.

Studying in America will also give you the opportunity to take advantage of the vast number of resources and facilities that US universities have to offer. From world-class libraries and state-of-the-art computer laboratories to impressive sports facilities, there are plenty of opportunities to make the most of your time outside of lectures and seminars.

Whatโ€™s more, many American universities offer a flexible approach to learning, giving students the chance to tailor their courses to suit their interests and career aspirations. Plus, with the option to study abroad or undertake an internship as part of your degree, youโ€™ll graduate with valuable skills and experiences that will make you stand out in the job.

Once you've decided which type of institution you want to attend, you need to start thinking about the application process. The US has a centralized application system called the Common App, which you can use to apply to multiple colleges at once. The Common App has a section on your academic history, extracurricular activities, and personal statement.

There are also standardized tests that you'll need to take, the most common of which are the SAT and the ACT. These are multiple-choice exams that test your knowledge in reading, writing, and mathematics. The SAT is more common on the East Coast, while the ACT is more common on the West Coast.

When it comes to your academic history, US colleges will be looking at your GCSE and A-Level grades. They'll also want to see your predicted grades for your final exams. If you're applying to a university, you'll need to take the SAT or the ACT, which are standardized tests that are used to assess academic ability.

Once you've submitted your application, the next step is waiting to hear back from the colleges to which you've applied. After that, it's time to start packing your bags and getting ready for your move to the US!

Author's profile picture

James Gurnett

3rd November

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