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So, you’re thinking about studying in the land of the free? Great, because in this article we’ll go over the whole admissions process for US universities and colleges.
In this post I’ll be writing from my experience. I’m from Croatia and when I was in my senior year of high school I applied to around 15 US colleges (mostly the top 20 range). I got accepted to Georgia Tech and Harvard University, and now I’m a student at Harvard. Don’t be disheartened by this acceptance rate as I made a lot of mistakes during the admissions process, and in this guide I’ll try to help you avoid them.
This article is focused on bachelor’s (undergraduate) studies, and will approach admissions from an academics-focused student’s perspective.
Why study in the US?
The US takes academics very seriously. In most university rankings, US universities take up more than half of the top 20 places.
Most of the best US universities are committed to admitting the best students in the world, so there are good scholarships for excellent international students. Not being able to finance a college education in the US does make it harder to be admitted, but it’s not a big disadvantage if you have a good application to make up for it.
US universities are very diverse and the US has the most international students in the world, so it won’t be very hard to fit in as a non-US citizen.
Many students who graduate from top US universities go on to get a job at one of the tech giants, or do cutting-edge research at prestigious and well-equipped universities.
US colleges generally all have a common admissions system, done using the same website. There are some exceptions, but even those do very similar things within their own websites. This guide will be divided into the following parts:
The longer parts will be subdivided into questions for readability’s sake.
One very important part of the admissions process is finding an advisor. In fact, go and find one as soon as you finish reading this post. Do it even if you’re not a high school senior. You don’t have to spend any money on that, however, because you can find a free advisor at your national EducationUSA (for instance, here‘s EducationUSA Croatia’s Facebook page). The advisor will make sure that you avoid any preventable mistakes.
One important thing to have as you go through admissions is a spreadsheet where you keep track of your requirements and deadlines. You will spare yourself a lot of time and energy by doing that. Here’s a template you can use.
By the way, I’ll use the word “college” to refer both to universities and colleges.
Which tests do I have to take?
The tests that you’ll most likely take are the ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests and TOEFL.
Most colleges require that you take either the ACT or the SAT, the choice coming down to your personal preference. Some colleges don’t require that you take them, but as a rule of thumb it’s better to take one. In any case, check the requirements of the universities on your list and add that to your spreadsheet. Just search “[college name] testing requirements”. Colleges have no preference for which test you take.
Some colleges don’t require TOEFL (some accept Duolingo or IELTS), but chances are that you’ll have to take it.
How can I take a test?
Tests take place on specific dates in the year. You’ll need to find a test date that suits you, making sure that you’ll get your results before your application deadlines (search “[test name] international test dates”). Results arrive after a few days for the TOEFL and ACT, and after a few weeks for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Tests take place in test centers, where you’ll take them either using a computer (TOEFL and ACT) or pencil and paper (SAT and SAT Subject Tests).
How are tests scored?
The TOEFL has a scoring system probably just like the tests you’re used to from high school: every task has its own number of points, and mistakes mean you lose points. The final score is the sum of the points you got in the test.
The SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and ACT have percentile-based scoring systems. This means that you won’t know how many tasks you got right or wrong, but how good your score is compared to the scores of other test takers. Each test’s scores correspond to specific percentiles (search “[test name] scoring chart”). Let’s say your ACT score is 33. You’ll look at the ACT score chart and see that this corresponds to the 93rd percentile. This means that your score is better than or equal to the scores of 93% of test takers. An SAT score of 1300 corresponds to the 88th percentile, meaning that your score is better than or equal to the score of 88% of test takers.
What’s the SAT?
The SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, now just the three letters) is a test divided into 5 sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, Math Calculator, and the optional Essay. Not including the essay, it lasts 3 hours, and the essay adds 50 minutes to that. The test is written in one sitting with short breaks between some sections. You can’t move on to the next section if you finish one early. During the breaks you can eat a snack or go to the toilet.
What’s the ACT?
The ACT (formerly American College Testing, now just the three letters) is a test divided into 5 sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and the optional Writing. Not including Writing, it lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes, and including Writing it lasts 3 hours and 35 minutes. Same as with the SAT, the test is written in one sitting with short breaks between some sections. You can’t move on to the next section if you finish one early. During the breaks you can eat a snack or go to the toilet.
How do I choose between the SAT and the ACT?
They’re quite similar, and the best way to choose is to take a practice test in each one and see which one you like more.
How do I take a practice test?
First, find one on the internet (or in a test prep book) by searching “[test name] practice tests”. Prepare your answer sheet (either print the one that comes with the test or make your own). Eliminate distractions and open a test timer in the background (search YouTube for “[test name] timer”. Then take the test keeping the timer in mind.
What are SAT Subject Tests?
SAT Subject Tests are similar in the way they’re written to the SAT, except that they test specific subjects. Many colleges will require you to take two subject tests, and if they’re STEM-oriented colleges they’ll probably require one of them to be in Math.
There are 21 SAT Subject Tests you can take, and the most popular ones are Math Level 2, Chemistry, Physics, US History, Math Level 1, and Literature.
I know, it’s confusing, but the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are two totally different things that take place on the same test dates, which means you can’t write both of them on the same day. But you can write up to three different Subject Tests on the same day.
What’s the TOEFL?
The TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) is a test divided into Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. The TOEFL iBT (internet Based Test), which you’ll most likely take, is taken on a computer in a test center. During the Speaking part, you speak into a microphone and your answers are recorded.
How do I prepare for the tests?
Here’s an efficient method to prepare for the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests:
- Take a practice test. If you encounter a problem with which you have difficulties, mark that next to the problem number on the answer sheet.
- Analyze your answers and calculate your score. Note where you made mistakes and where you had difficulties or wasted time. Write down in short where you made mistakes and why.
- Study the material which was difficult. Get some practice in that subject. When you think you’re at an adequate level of understanding, go through your notes from step 2 and repeat the whole process.
Repeat these 3 steps until you reach an adequate score.
Preparing for the TOEFL is a bit trickier, as it mostly tests your knowledge of the English language. One part where you can make a big difference by preparing is Speaking. Make sure to familiarize with it before taking the test.
Which scores should I aim for?
This depends on the college. Search for “[college name] [test name] scores”. There you’ll find the average score and the 75th percentile score. The 75th percentile is the score which will put you in the top 25% admitted students in terms of score. As an international student, you should consider the average score a minimum, and the 75th percentile score as something to aim for. But the higher the better.
Where should I apply?
The first thing you want to do is make a rough list of the colleges you want to apply to. In US admissions, a common way to categorize colleges is into reach (AKA dream), match (AKA target), and safety colleges. Reach colleges are very selective. Think Yale, Johns Hopkins or Caltech. Match colleges are less selective, and are likely to accept you based on your accomplishments. Safety colleges are those which are very likely to accept you. Generally, it’s advised to have around 4 colleges from each category.
In the US admissions system, there are no official “priorities” when you are choosing colleges, but each college separately either accepts or declines your application, and you have to reply to each of them individually.
Some colleges have very low application costs or offer fee waivers, and it doesn’t hurt to add them to your list if you have the time. Here’s a list:
- every Ivy League college
- Johns Hopkins
If you have some time on your hands, it will only cost you around $16 to add each of these colleges to your list. All of them are very selective, yes, but if you roll thirteen 20-sided dice (each having a 5% chance to land on 20), you’re 49% likely to roll a 20 at least once.
Probabilities are handy to keep in mind when choosing which colleges to apply to, and you can see the average acceptance rates of certain colleges by searching the internet for “[college name] acceptance rate”.
When you make a list, add all of the colleges into a column in your spreadsheet. You can sort them by importance or selectiveness if you like.
How can I get a fee waiver?
Basically, some colleges let you apply for free if you don’t have the means to pay for your application fees. Here’s how it works on Common Application, and here’s how it works on Coalition Application (I go deeper into these websites later in this post). You’re probably best off contacting each college on your list about this, just to be sure.
When should I apply?
Short answer: you should start in the beginning of the first semester of your last year of high school, at the latest.
The deadlines for every one of the parts will vary depending on which college admissions plan (CAP) you choose. CAPs, in short, are different deadlines and conditions for admissions: there are earlier ones and later ones, and more or less stringent ones.
CAPs generally fall into these categories.
- Regular Decision
- Restrictive Early Action
- (Non-restrictive) Early Action
- Early Decision
- Rolling Admission
Each has different conditions and dates, and chances are that you’ll do most (if not all) of your admissions through Regular Decision. First, let’s use this flowchart to determine which ones you’ll use. All the dates I use here are in the last year of high school.
First, let’s look at how much time you have. If you don’t have enough time to take and get the results for the required standardized tests (search for “[test name] test dates”) until November, then you’ll apply to every college in the Regular Decision plan. This tipping point is generally somewhere in September, but can vary depending on test application deadlines.
If you do have time, ask yourself if there’s colleges that you especially like, and would love to study there above the others.
If you have one such college, then apply to that one through ED or REA, and to the others through RD.
If you have two or three such colleges, then apply to those through (NR)EA, and to the others through RD.
If there are more than 3 or none of them, then apply to every college through RD, to leave your options open.
Of course, take all of this with a grain of salt. The numbers I just gave aren’t strict, and some colleges have different conditions when it comes to EA and ED. Make sure to talk to your advisor about this.
Did you choose your plan? Okay, now to the meaning of specific CAPs. Don’t worry about the ones you don’t need.
Regular Decision (RD) is the standard plan, and most of your admissions will probably go through this one. RD means that you have to apply to tests around October, send your application before New Year’s (or a few days after in some cases), and you get your results mostly in March. RD isn’t binding or restrictive, and if you really don’t like keeping track of dates, you can do all of your admissions through RD.
Non-restrictive Early Action, which is often just called Early Action, is similar to RD, except that everything happens around 1 or 2 months earlier. You get your (NR)EA results somewhere in December.
Restrictive Early Action and Early Decision are very similar. They’re both restrictive. REA isn’t binding and you have to reply to your offer before May, but ED is binding, which means that you must study at that college if you’re admitted.
I haven’t mentioned Rolling Admission thus far because it’s the black sheep of CAPs. It doesn’t have any hard deadlines and generally lasts around half a year, or until every spot is filled. The results arrive a few weeks after you apply. Only rarely do colleges offer this CAP, and it’s likely that you won’t meet it during your admissions journey.
Keep in mind that the deadlines and conditions I mentioned are those that colleges mostly follow, but that some colleges don’t, so make sure that you add a row to your spreadsheet which says through which CAP you’ll apply, and the relevant dates and conditions.
How do I apply to colleges?
You’ll do most of your applications through the Common Application or Coalition Application websites. They’re almost the same, and the choice comes down to personal preference.
Coalition Application is newer and more specialized for colleges that have good scholarships. It also has the feature to upload documents for easier organizing, and the feature that people such as your parents, teachers, or mentors can participate in the creation of your application.
Common Application is older and more universities accept it. It has more essay prompts than Coalition Application. Other than that, there’s not much difference between the websites.
There’s one part of your application that will look the same to each college, and it’s called the Common App (if you’re using Common Application) or Profile (if you’re using Coalition Application). This part contains:
- personal information, including your address, nationality, and optionally your race and religion
- family information, including your parents’ marital status, their professions and their former education
- educational information, including which schools you attended, which subjects you took, and which awards you received
- testing information, including test dates and results
- hobbies and activities, including what you did outside of school, how often, and how many hours a week
- a personal essay, where you have to write on one of 6 (Common Application) or 4 (Coalition Application) prompts; you can also write an essay using your own prompt
Apart from the Common App or Profile section, each college also has its own section. They ask which CAP you’re applying through, if you want to live on campus, what you want to major in (if anything), and if you’ll apply for a scholarship. They often ask additional questions about your hobbies or activities, how you heard about their college, and if you want to be interviewed. Along with the college’s section, some colleges can require an essay, where they can offer many prompts, but one that’s seen very often is “Why did you apply to our university?”
Common and Coalition Application both have their own application guides, so I recommend that you follow them.
What do recommendation letters look like?
Most colleges will require 3 recommendation letters: one from a STEM teacher, another from a humanities teacher, and one from your school counselor. Some colleges also allow other people, like peers or family members, to write recommendation letters.
If school counselors don’t exist in your country’s educational system, here’s what the people from Common Application say: “If there is no Counselor at your school, you may list your principal or other school official, international or domestic, who has overseen your academic progress.”
The letters are there to tell the college admissions officers why you’d make a good student. They have to be in English, and they probably won’t have to be translated by a certified translator. They’re sent through a referral system where you add the recommendation letter writers via their email and they get an account through which they can upload their letters. The school counselor also has to fill out the School Report, where they give various information about you and your school.
Make sure to send your teachers some guides on how to write a good college recommendation letter.
How are transcripts sent?
It’s required to send the transcripts of the first three years of your high school education (assuming it lasts four years in total). They have to be both in the original language and in English. You can use this template to create an English version (which, like the recommendation letters, doesn’t require a certified translation). You’ll need to combine everything into one PDF and give it to your school counselor, who will upload it through the same portal as their recommendation letter and School Report.
Can I add a portfolio?
Some colleges have the option to send an artistic, scientific, or maker’s portfolio through the application portal, where you document your significant performances or projects. The portfolios are put together and uploaded through SlideRoom, which you get access to through Common Application or Coalition Application.
How expensive is studying in the US?
Well, that’s very hard to answer, as it depends on so many factors. If you get a good scholarship, your costs can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year to $0. Most top 20 universities offer very good scholarships, making your costs very low.
What kind of scholarships exist?
Most of the scholarships you’ll apply for will probably be ones that are awarded directly by the college you’re applying to. There are also scholarships which are not awarded by specific universities, and for most of them you have to write an essay to apply (search “international student scholarships”).
Colleges can be divided into:
- Need-aware colleges, which, when deciding whether to accept your application, have in mind the amount of money that you need in your scholarship
- Need-blind colleges, which “blindly” look at your application, not taking into account your financial situation
College scholarships can be divided into:
- Need-based, which are awarded depending on the financial need of the student (also called financial aid)
- Merit-based, which are awarded depending on your accomplishments
Depending on the college, you can have both kinds of scholarships, or just one, or neither. Most of the top colleges only offer financial aid.
Financial aid applications take place mostly in the month after you apply to a college, but each college has its own deadlines, so make sure to write that down in the spreadsheet. You’ll do most of your financial aid applications through the CSS Profile. Some colleges don’t do it that way, but instead have their own application portals which are very similar. Write that down too.
What’s the CSS Profile?
The CSS Profile is very long (about 12 pages), and it will take you a few days to fill it out. I recommend you start filling it out at least a few weeks before your deadlines, but the sooner the better. I’d tell you what it includes, but the best way to find out is to register on their site and start filling it out. In short, you fill out a bunch of information about your personal and familial finances. As with college applications, it has a section which every university gets, and parts for specific colleges. Colleges mostly only ask one or two questions. Most of the information you give doesn’t have to be exact, but an estimate.
How do I upload the documents?
When you fill out your CSS Profile, after a few hours you’ll get access to your IDOC or Institutional Documentation Service. There you can upload your financial papers. They differ depending on where you’re from, but you want to upload the documents that specify your and your parents’ income in the year before your applications (if you’re applying in the 2020/2021 school year, you’ll want the 2019 income documents). You’ll need to get the documents officially translated to English, and then for every person you’ll need to put their original and translated document into a single PDF.
Most selective colleges have evaluative interviews, which means that the interviewers won’t be testing your knowledge, but getting a better idea of what kind of student you’d make. They ask about your interests, your motivations, and why you applied to their college.
Interviews take place mostly in January and February (for RD, and November and December for the other CAPs).
If there aren’t people available to interview you in person (which will probably be true for most small countries), then your interview will be virtual, over Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts. Make sure to prepare for the interviews.
You’ll get most of your results through specific colleges’ admissions portals. They’re college-specific websites where you can track your progress and needed documents during admissions, and see your results once they arrive.
Possible results are: being accepted, being denied, and being waitlisted. When you’re waitlisted, you can either stay on the waitlist or leave it. Being on the waitlist means you could be admitted if someone else gives up their spot (but the odds of this are quite low).
After you get your results, you need to reply to each college that accepted or waitlisted you either accepting or denying their offer.
Costs depend on which tests you take, which colleges you apply to, and where you’re located.
The SAT costs around $100, or $116 with the Essay.
The ACT costs $150, or $166.50 with Writing.
The TOEFL costs around $260.
Applications cost around $70 per college, so it’s best to try to get a fee waiver if you can, to lower that to $0.
Portfolios cost around $10 per college (but only some colleges have this option).
The CSS Profile costs $25, plus $16 per each college you send it to.
If you want a rough estimate of the cost (if you qualify for fee waivers), it’s roughly $600, plus $16 per college.
Congratulations on reading the whole guide. Here are some great resources to go from here:
- Association of Croatian Students Abroad, who are helping us with this series of guides. They have a website and a YouTube channel. (sorry, Croatian only!)
- The ApplyingToCollege subreddit
- If you aren’t a high school senior yet, check out this book review
- My YouTube series about US admissions (sorry, Croatian only!)
Did I forget something? Do you have different experiences? Do you have any questions? Feel free to leave a comment or email me.