Are you from a country outside of the United States, but are interested in attending a US university for your undergraduate education? This article shares the basics of college admissions, explaining key terms, timelines and strategies to consider.
Key Terms in the College Admissions Process
While there is a lot to learn about applying to US colleges, let’s start with defining commonly used terms in this process.
A college or university that receives public funding, primarily from a local, state and/or national government. Some of the well-known US public institutions are typically larger colleges, with large student populations. Examples of public institutions include University of California, Los Angeles, University of Florida and University of Michigan.
A college or university that is funded by private sources without (or limited) government controls. The cost of attending a private institution is generally higher than the cost of a public institution. Examples of private institutions include: Yale University, Rice University, Pomona College.
A service provided by college admissions offices for prospective students, allowing them to visit campus buildings and get a first-hand look at campus life. Attending virtual and/or in-person campus tours can “demonstrate interest” in a college, and perhaps increase the likelihood of admissions.
Early Action is when a prospective student applies for admission by an early deadline (usually November 1st, November 15th or December 1st), and receives notice of acceptance, denial or deferment by December, January or February. If accepted, there is no obligation to the university to enroll.
This program allows prospective students to commit to a specific school. If admitted, the student must enroll in that particular school. Thus, students should only apply early decision to their first choice school.
This application round is the final deadline to apply for admissions into a specific school, and usually occurs early January or February. There is no obligation to enroll in the university, if admitted. Decisions for this round are released in March and April, usually.
The Common Application (aka the Common App) makes it possible for students to use one admissions application to apply to most colleges in the United States. Starting August 1st each year, high school seniors students may register (here), create a profile and begin applying to their colleges of choice.
Admissions Timeline for the High School Senior
There are many dates to keep in mind and plan for. Here are some key dates.
Application Strategies and Securing your Admissions
Now that we have reviewed key terms and timeline, let's discuss what's next.
It is no secret that many US institutions have very competitive admissions processes. Here are a few areas to consider when creating your college applicant profile throughout high school, and building your college application.
Freshmen, Sophomore and Junior Year
Grades: A student's high school grades are the #1 priority for most colleges in the United States. For many competitive institutions, you will not be eligible for admissions without a certain/minimum GPA. Thus, pick challenging courses, like Honors and AP classes, and try your best in your classes.
ACT/SAT: I always recommend students take either the ACT or SAT once the student has taken Pre-Calculus. That said, after 1-3 times of taking these tests, I would recommend stopping and focusing on something else. Some US institutions highly value test scores, while others don't want to see them (like UCLA and UC Berkeley).
AP & IB tests: If possible/relevant, I recommend all students take these tests. If you do well, it can enhance your application. You can choose not to send later.
Extracurricular & leadership experiences: For most US universities, a holistic application process is conducted on each applicant. This includes what you do outside of the classroom. Whether it is sports, music, art, caring for family members, working, or volunteering, colleges want to know you are actively involved in activities outside of your schoolwork. Taking part in competitions and career/major-related activities (like independent research projects or internships), can also enhance your application. It is important you show consistent involvement in the same activity(ies) over multiple years throughout high school. Thus, make a plan and start getting involved in your school, community or passion projects as early as freshmen year.
Junior and Senior Year
Creating a college list & application strategy:
Balanced list: In general, I recommend students select 8-12 schools to apply to. This includes:
2-3 Reach Schools
3-5 Target Schools
2-3 Safety Schools
**Whether a school is a reach/target/safety, would vary based on the student (depending on their academic background and overall profile). It is important a student has a mix of schools that would be challenging for them to get into, while also have attainable schools as well. Whether a school is a reach/target/safety can also depend on when you apply, and under what program (e.g. Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision).
Application strategy: If the student is not planning to apply for financial aid, I HIGHLY recommend the student plan to apply to 1-2 schools Early Decision (round 1 and round 2), AND apply to as many schools as possible Early Action. Applying early (by November) is the best strategy to maximize chances for admissions.
Once your college list is built, start engaging. Go visit in-person or attend a virtual campus tour or informational session. Read their emails that were sent to you. Spend time on their website. Meet with the college admissions officer that visits your high school. Speak with the admissions officer at the local college fair. Follow-up with a thank you note.
Many schools in the US track applicant 'demonstrated interest' because they want to know how serious you are about attending their university. With a higher level of demonstrated interest, the college believes you are more likely to attend their institution (should you be admitted). To protect their yield, colleges want to accept students that actually want to attend their school.
So, start early, and make your existence known to each school you are interested in.
For most selective universities in the United States, your essays are critical components to your application. They are your opportunity to explain to admissions officers why you will be a good addition to their institution. For the best results, I recommend students begin brainstorming and writing their college essays at the end of junior year.
Have More Questions?
Sami has worked with students since she graduated college in 2010, helping them through the full college application process---including career search, college list selection and essay writing.