So, today I begin my relatively anticipated idiot’s guide to applying to US unis. Every week, I’ll try to update it with new information and insight on different elements of the application process.
Today’ll be an A to Z (almost) of the system and go into more detail in the weeks to come…
Alumni Interviews: Interviews in the US are not the selective ones that freak out every potential Oxbridge candidate. Because of the vast nature of the States (it is a continent after all), it would pretty unfair to demand on campus interviews with every applicant. TA DA the alumni interview was formed. These are designed to put a face on your application and work out what kind of person you’d be on campus and what your passions are. They are given by alumni that live in your area and therefore cannot be either guaranteed nor a determination of an acceptance.
Common Application: the almost equivalent to UCAS, the Common App is the hub most people use to write, edit and submit their college applications
Deferral: Deferral is what happens to the majority of applicants applying Early Action or Early Decision (see below). It basically means that the college wants to compare your application to the rest of the pool before making a final decision on your application.
Early Action / Early Decision: These programs are unique in the US in that you are able to apply to a university earlier than the rest of the applicants. Early Action is just applying earlier and finding out a decision earlier (which could lead to a deferral) whereas Early Decision is a binding process where, if admitted, you make the commitment to attend the college you have chosen. Most universities will take applying early as a sign that that place is your top choice and therefore, some of them require that if you apply Early to X university, you only apply Early to X university.
Financial aid: For many UK students looking at the US, they see the large tuition fees and look no further. However, if you make the decision to look a little bit further, there are universities which offer financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants and loans, even for international students.
Greek Life: Everyone has seen a film with fraternities and sororities in, and these are a large part of the social scene at many US universities, in particular in the southern states. They are hosts of the college parties and are often criticised for promoting underage drinking (legal age is 21 in US) and the hazing rituals… but each universities has different measures on these, so they’re hard to easily define.
Ivy League: The Ivy League is perceived to be a elite collection of universities situated in the East Coast, renowned for their history and academic excellence. However, despite their individual academic reputations, the Ivy League is actually a sports league that connected the oldest universities in the area.
Liberal Arts Colleges: Liberal Arts Colleges are not found in the UK. They are small colleges that offer solely undergraduate education, with some exceptions, and have a particular focus on teaching the students and engaging in the ‘liberal arts’ ethos – one of being a well rounded academic – and therefore, most ask students to fulfil distribution requirements which can include a range of foreign languages to the sciences to literature and the humanities.
Majors: Universities in the US have this thing called the ‘major.’ Basically, this is your specialised subject and the one where you will spend the majority of your time. However, you don’t just study this subject (like you would at a UK university), you study other things as well which can contribute to forming a double major, a minor or just for fun!
Need Blind, Need Aware: Uni in America is expensive, and it isn’t as easy to get student loans (especially as an international student). So, many many universities offer their own independent form of scholarships, grants and loans. Because of this, they have to manage their money a lot better than UK universities. In order to do this, many schools are need aware and will only admit the students they can afford to take. Other schools have so much money that they will guarantee funding for anyone who is accepted. There are only 6 colleges that extend this courtesy to international students (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Dartmouth and Amherst…) That being said, don’t be put off by the need aware institutions, a lot of them still have very generous scholarships for those admitted.
Opportunity: Studying in the US is a massive opportunity. Colleges in the US have some of the strongest alumni networks, internship and study abroad options and a chance to explore your academic strengths. It’s not for everyone, but those it is for, it is truly a massive opportunity.
Peer Evaluation: Some schools ask for a peer evaluation. It’s rare, but gives you a chance to further personalise your application by letting the admissions officers see you in a way that a teacher probably couldn’t comment on. Schools that offer this option: Dartmouth (compulsory), Duke (optional)
Recommendation Letters: UCAS asks for a reference, to see if you are academically capable for your selected course. The US recommendation letters asks for your teachers (multiple, yes!) to comment on your personal qualities and your presence in a classroom and in the school and local communities.
Standardised Tests: US schools don’t have a centralised curriculum, so admissions tests (aka standardised testing) are used to create some balance and context in applications. These include SAT, ACT and SAT II and most of the top universities and college use these in making decisions. They can also give prospective students an idea of the kind of students a college is likely to admit…
Transcript: This is seen to be, by many universities, the most important part of the application. It is, for UK students, your GCSE, A Level and IB results. However, universities in the US also consider what you have taken, as opposed to just grades. As you are not applying to a department, and many places do have distribution requirements in a range of subjects, the admissions office are looking for people who can cope with fulfilling these requirements. They look at the courses you have taken (what did you take? did you take the most difficult classes in your school? did you take as many classes as the rest of your peers, or more?) and see how they have prepared you for college life.
Unconditional offers: Offers from US Colleges are relatively unconditional. They do not have specified offers, such as A*AA (a standard Cambridge offer). Instead, they ask admitted students to uphold the standard with which they were admitted, academically and personally. So, as long as you don’t drop out, get a criminal record or fail, you will be attending your chosen college. This also means that there is no ‘firm’ or ‘insurance’ offers, meaning when you choose your college, you have chosen your college.
Weather: The States is not just a country, it is a continent. It has climates ranging from the ’365-day sun’ on the West Coast to the more noticeable seasons of New England. Don’t just consider a school for its academics and extra curriculars, remember where it is located and what that means… Not everyone (myself included) could cope with the heat of Southern California, whereas some people cannot wait to wake up every morning to almost guaranteed sunshine.
Zzzz: The US process is long and will undoubtedly take up a lot of time. That being said, burning out every night is not worth it. Manage your time and sleeeeeep
Good luck in your quests, each individual with its own quirks and challenge.
I look forward to completing mine!