USAThere are many reasons to apply to study in the USA and this page can barely scratch the surface of why. It might be the attraction of a Liberal Arts programme, or the networking opportunities formed by the almost cult-like devotion of alumni to their alma mater, it might be that financially the US has become more attractive given the advent of onerous tuition fees in the UK. Whatever the reason you need to understand the process which is far more subtle, complicated but also potentially rewarding than a UCAS application. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section of this page and I will answer them to the best of my ability and with the limited expertise I can offer (I am a guidance counsellor at a major UK independent school specialising in helping students apply to the US).

Where to go?
You may already have a good idea of where you’d like to end up and this can either be from extensive research, your parent’s wishes or a place you have set your heart on. If you have no idea then a good way to start ruling places in or out is to look at the climate and ask yourself whether you can cope. Chicago is very cold and windy in the winter, Massachusetts can have substantial snowfall that hangs around for months, Florida is very humid in the summer. If you are used to the British climate this will be an important consideration! The second place to look at would be the website of collegeboard, the organisation that runs the SAT exam (see below). In particular their BigFuture page features a search engine that is a wonderful way to narrow down your options by a multitude of different filters so you can find a college  that fits your profile.
Of course it’s all very well looking online but personal interaction is also a good way to get to understand what a college is like, and here your best friend is The Fulbright Commission. Their annual College Day gives you a chance to meet representatives and alumni of several hundred US institutions over the weekend of Friday and Saturday, 26-27 September 2014.
The final way to decide is to visit, although this might not be feasible for many students if you can get over to the US you will get an excellent welcome and it will count in your favour when the institution you visited comes to look over your application. You can arrange specific tours by contacting the University directly or book a whistle-stop tour of lots of different colleges with one of the many organisations that specialise in such events. Be warned though, the price can be steep.
If you want a statistical defence of how ‘good’ chosen institutions are I’m afraid there is no single place to go to rank American universities given the huge differences in student numbers, focus, facilities and international renown. The Times Higher Ed University Guide produces a series of rankings in different areas, geographical, age, specialty etc. The most commonly used ranking guide in the US is the US News & World Report. It should be immediately obvious how difficult universities are to rank given that the Times has Caltech at the top whereas the US News & World Report has Caltech as only 10th in the US as a whole.
If you’re the kind of person that needs a book on hand there are several that are worth shelling out for. Firstly the renowned ‘Uni in the USA’ is excellent from a UK perspective, The Princeton Review is also worth a look.

When you’ve decided on where you want to go, and remember that unlike UCAS there is no limit to the number of universities you can apply to in the US. You need to give some thought to paying for it.

How to pay for it

What are your chances?
Now you’ve figured out where you want to go and whether or not you can pay for it outright or with the right range of scholarships it’s time for a reality check. If you are aiming for one of the top universities, The Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Pomona, Amherst etc. you need to look long and hard at what you have to offer them. It’s true that acceptance into a US universities is a holistic process and it isn’t all about academic ability but the reality is that if your academic background is weak (and by weak I mean an SAT score under 2100) then you need to have some very special things to offer to offset this. To put it into context, last year Stanford rejected 150 applicants who had perfect SAT scores (2400 in SAT I and 800 in both SAT II subjects). Playing for a school sports team doesn’t offset a weak academic profile, neither does being in a play nor volunteering at an old people’s home nor having a reference from someone important that your parents know.
This might be sobering news, and it might be news you don’t want to believe, but there’s a perfectly suitable way to check. The excellent US Website College Confidential contains a host of forums about virtually every university in the USA. In amongst these there are usually forums where applicants will post a short form version of their application and then later add in whether they were accepted or rejected. Here are some examples from the Princeton forum a quick glance down that list will show students with SAT scores of 2300+ being rejected. Take a look at them and their extra-curricular profiles. Are yours as good? If not then an application will probably be a giant waste of money.

Grades
SAT
ACT
Extra-curricular
– Sport
– Music
– Drama
– Volunteering
– timebank.org.uk
– do-it.org.uk
– Hobbies
http://technologywillsaveus.org/
Common App

Supplements
This is the opportunity to be yourself. All your extra-curricular achievements, hobbies and academic material is contained elsewhere in the application. The supplements try to get to the core of who you are. There are two forms of supplement, the generic one on the Common App is a choice of five different questions. Individual universities also get a chance to ask questions and many of them will have several, up to ten in some cases.
– The Common App Supplement
This will be sent to all your universities so it needs to be good but not specific to a school. The prompts for next year’s applicants have been kept the same as those for this years and they are…

  • “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
  • “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”
  • “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
  • “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”
  • “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

So how do you go about crafting something that will work?
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