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US University

Applying to US Universities

Have you considered applying to American Universities? This is an increasingly popular option, with over 4000 UK undergraduate students attending US universities last year.  With the tuition fees in the UK now at c£9000 per annum, the gap in costs is starting to close, particularly if you can secure a scholarship. US universities traditionally charge between £9,800 and £19,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, although some institutions provide more generous scholarships and grants than those available in Britain. Many US universities are currently going out of their way to attract & recruit UK students.

Is it for you?

There are 4 key differences between a UK and US university education, which you need to consider.

1.  The structure of the degree is different.
The two systems approach education in dramatically different ways, - the Americans champion a breadth of knowledge, the British a depth. Students in the US typically don't specialise until the end of their second year of study, allowing for time to explore. In the UK, this focus is declared instantly, shaping every class a student takes. In the States there is more emphasis on knowledge per se, in the United Kingdom more interest in analysis. The US degrees are 4 years in length.

2. How you are assessed is different
In America, university students are graded constantly. There are regular quizzes, mid-terms, finals, papers, projects, and even ‘class participation’. All these elements together compose a student's overall academic ranking. In the UK, the majority of your final grade is dependent on year-end exams.

3. Social life
In the US, as in the UK, alcohol plays a role at university. However, the American legal drinking age is 21. In some universities, alcohol is actually banned on campus. In US universities student life tends to be centred on the campus. Many students live in dorms all four years, eating meals together, playing sports together in college facilities, and so forth.

4. Cost
American universities tend to be expensive. According to the College Board's 2013 Trends in College Pricing report, full costs (tuition plus room and board) range from around £19,762 to £25,265 per annum. Places like Harvard go upwards of £40,000. The gap however with UK costs is starting to close.

Degrees on offer

US universities offer either a 2-year Associates degree or a 4-year Bachelor degree. Entrance requirements are much less competitive for the 2-year degree.

The 4-year degree can be either a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science. They both follow a broad liberal arts approach meaning that you study a number of subjects in your first 2 years, thereby keeping your options open, and then choose a specific subject to major in. This provides a very well rounded education.  Most students major in one subject but you can pursue a double major.

Minimum Academic qualification

The most competitive universities will expect to see three A-Levels or their equivalent. This could include a minimum of three Scottish Highers, A-Levels alongside the Welsh Baccalaureate, the IB or Pre-U. They like the IB as its very broad.


Admissions Tests

There are two admissions tests: the SAT and ACT. US Universities accept both and you can choose which one to sit. Some of the more competitive universities will also require 2-3 SAT Subject Tests, in addition to the SAT Reasoning Test or ACT.


The SAT Reasoning Test is a three hour and forty-five minute test comprised of three sections: Critical Reading, Maths, and Writing. The test is designed to measure critical thinking and analytical skills. It is offered several times per year at numerous sites throughout the UK

The SAT subject tests are one-hour, multiple-choice tests offered in the following subjects: Literature, US and World History, Mathematics Level 1 & 2, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. In addition there are two types of language tests, both with and without a listening component, in most language disciplines. Most US universities will not specify which Subject Tests you should take – so take those you will score highest in – probably your A Level subjects.


The ACT is a curriculum-based test testing students in English, Mathematics, Reading and Science Reasoning. The test is 2 hours, 55 minutes with an optional 30-minute Writing section as the final section. The more competitive US universities will require students to take the Writing section.

Since the ACT has a Science Reasoning section and its Maths section measures at a higher level (trigonometry) than the SAT Reasoning Test (geometry), students strong in these fields may benefit by taking the ACT. Additionally, some students applying to the most competitive universities will prefer the option to complete their admissions test requirement in one testing date (ACT with Writing), rather than two (SAT Reasoning Test on one testing date, SAT Subject Tests on a second date).

Timing and Registration

It sensible to try and sit the admissions test in the autumn of Year 13/lower sixth form, if not before. Sit your first test by the October testing date, leaving you the option to re-sit the test in November or December if you are not satisfied with your results or need to sit the SAT Subject Tests in November or December. Also, keep in mind spaces fill up quickly, particularly in London, so you will want to register as soon as possible!

Register for the Sat test here

Register for the Act here

The Application Process

The US application process follows a similar timeline to UCAS. Ideally, the process of applying for undergraduate study in the US will begin 1-1½ years before enrolment. For most students, this is during the spring/summer at the end of Year 12 or school Lower Sixth Form.

University Funding

Nearly a quarter of international students report US universities as their primary source of funding. US universities award funding on the basis of financial need (grants), merit (scholarships) or sports scholarships. Most funding will be renewable from year-to-year, based on maintaining specified academic standards or grades. Scholarships are upwards of $9000 and can be for the full course fees. If funding is a key consideration, then ensure you choose universities that provide scholarships for UK students. This will be on their website and also on sites such as Big Future by The College Board.

Scholarships are usually awarded dependent on your admission test marks.

Unlike academic scholarships whereby one simply submits an application indicating an interest in receiving funding to study at a university, students seeking a sports scholarship must engage in a highly-regulated recruitment process. Sport scholarships are granted by the university athletic department. Athletic directors and coaches play a central role in award decision-making. Scholarships are generally awarded for the following sports: baseball, basketball, crew (rowing), cross-country, fencing, football (American), golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, indoor track, lacrosse, skiing, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo, women’s field hockey and wrestling.

Choosing a University

Unlike the UK, there is no limit to the number of universities you can apply to. There are 4,000 to choose from, and you make an application to each university. As this is time consuming it would be sensible to narrow your list to 4-6. Each year there is a USA College Day Fair held in London, which 170 US universities attended this year. Take a look at the Database of Colleges website for a full list of possibilities. They provide tuition fees for each, as well as the course length.

The most popular US universities for UK students are:

  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • University of Southern California
  • New York
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • The New School (based in New York)

Other top ranking US Universities include: Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, John Hopkins, North Western, Brown, Washington, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Rice, Emory, Georgetown, University of California; Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, University of California – Los Angeles, University of Virginia, Wake Forest, Tufts, Boston College, Brandeis, University of Rochester, Georgia Institute of Technology, Boston University, University of Miami, University of Texas, University of North Carolina, University of Vermont, University of Michigan, William & Mary.

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