U.S. Admissions: Choosing and Applying to a University

Many factors enter into the process of choosing and applying to a U.S. university.

How do I choose a college or university?

With over 4,000 accredited institutions in the United States, there is much to consider. Some particularly important factors include—

  • Accreditation/recognition. Be sure the institution is accredited by a body recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and/or the U.S. Department of Education. Also be aware that some countries and employers have additional expectations; for instance, some do not yet accept degrees earned through distance education.
  • Areas of study. Even the biggest schools do not prepare students for every career—be sure the types of programs that you are interested in are offered by the schools that you are considering.
  • Cost. Tuition and fees can differ a lot between one U.S. university and another. Living costs will also vary depending on location. Look not only at costs but also at how much financial aid may be available—in some cases expensive schools may be able to offer good financial aid.
  • Location. Variations in climate and landscape are large in the United States. Consider also whether you would prefer a campus located in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.
  • Type of institution. Institutions may be public, private, or religiously affiliated. They may be large or small, have many international students or only a few.
  • Qualifications and research interests of faculty. A match with faculty interests is particularly important for graduate students.
  • Facilities and special resources or programs. For instance, if you are not fluent in English, you may want to look for a school that has an English language program on campus.
  • Admissions standards. How closely do your qualifications match those of students accepted to the school? This can give you an idea how likely you are to be accepted.

Which are the best schools?

The United States does not publish any official list of best universities. Some private organizations compile "best" lists that have been created based on such factors as research funds or the opinions of professionals in a given field. These lists vary considerably in their conclusions, which is not surprising given that over 4,000 accredited U.S. universities and colleges currently operate, each with its own goals and strengths.

Often the most famous universities are also the most expensive and the most difficult to enter. The "best" university is going to be the one that is right for you—one that offers your field of study and meets other criteria important to you such as location, financing, housing, and facilities for international students.

What kind of grades do I need to be accepted into U.S. universities?

The diversity of U.S. education means that requirements vary significantly from one university to another; some institutions are very selective while others accept most applicants. To enter a selective undergraduate program, you will need at least a B average in secondary school, equivalent to placing in the top 20 percent of your class. The most difficult universities are likely to require placement at least in the top 10 percent of your class. Some institutions have less demanding requirements or even “open enrollment” programs that require only secondary school completion or other basic prerequisites in order to start degrees (there may be additional requirements for international students; for instance, English language proficiency is generally required to begin any degree-awarding program)—just be sure you’re prepared to succeed in university-level course work; open enrollment academic programs can be just as challenging as those of more selective institutions.

Students entering graduate school are generally reviewed with an emphasis placed on the final sixty units of undergraduate study. Eligibility requirements vary from department to department, with admission typically more selective than at the undergraduate level.

When should I begin applying to U.S. universities?

If possible, begin at least one to two years before you plan to start your program. The U.S. academic year begins around the end of August and ends in May. Mid-year admission (to begin classes in January or February) may also be possible, but not in all cases. Application deadlines may fall as early as the end of November at some schools. You will also need time to register for, take, and wait for scores from standardized tests. Some of these tests are offered only once or twice each year.

Have you gotten a late start? Some schools offer more flexible “rolling” admissions and will accept applications at any time. In the United States, you also aren’t required to begin an undergraduate program immediately after secondary school graduation—if you need to wait a year because the deadline of the school in which you’re interested in has passed, you can. At graduate schools, older students are even more common and some universities even offer programs specifically intended for “mid-career” individuals with substantial work experience. Still, starting early allows you the broadest range of choices and the best chances at financial aid without having to rush or wait.

What admission tests will I be expected to take?

See the section on Testing in this Web site for answers to this and other testing questions.

What is the process of applying to U.S. universities?

Application procedures will vary slightly from one university to another. Here are the common steps:

  • Check scheduled dates for the TOEFL or any other exam required for your field and level of study. Register at least two months before the date you wish to take these exams.
  • Take the time to research which universities have programs and professors that are strong in the specializations on which you plan to focus. Departmental Web sites often provide helpful detail and you can research leaders in the field by looking at who is presenting at professional conferences, who is writing articles in professional periodicals, and so forth. If possible, make a connection with professors and/or departments where you plan to study, perhaps by sending an e-mail to professors of interest introducing yourself and briefly explaining your goals and qualifications.
  • After research, make a list of schools that seem to match your needs and preferences. Send e-mails or letters to each requesting information and application forms.
  • When you receive the application forms, complete one form for each of the three to seven universities that best meet your needs and send each one, along with the application fee, to the university. Your academic documents and test scores may be sent later, although applications received without the application fee will be returned. Test scores must be sent directly from the testing agency. Copies are not acceptable.
  • Ask schools that you have attended to submit official transcripts showing the courses you took. If you took a school-leaving examination, also send a copy of these results. Most U.S. colleges and universities also ask for recommendations to be sent directly by teachers, employers, or others aware of your strengths. Documents not in English must be accompanied by an English translation. If your school will not provide original copies, explain this to admissions offices; they may accept a certified true copy stamped by Amideast.

What are the basics I should know about completing U.S. college and university application forms?

Use the same spelling of your name on all application forms, test applications, and so forth. Use the spelling that is on your passport if you have one. Differences in spelling from one document to another can cause problems.

Type rather than handwrite materials whenever possible, or print very neatly if you need to handwrite pieces.

Usually applicants to selective institutions are asked to write an essay, personal statement, or statement of purpose. Specific guidelines may be provided by the institution but these essays usually serve the following purposes:

Graduate programs are most interested in learning details about the applicant's desired area of study, their career goals, and how the program being applied for meets the applicant's specific academic needs.

At the undergraduate level, the essay allows the admissions staff to gain a better feel for the applicant's individual personality and background. How are you different from other applicants? The essay may also provide a good place to discuss your interests and skills that are not fully described in other parts of the application.

If you intend to major in performing arts areas such as music or dance, you may have to provide a videotape or an audiotape of a performance. Artists may be required to provide a portfolio or slides of their work.

Use airmail/courier for all materials sent from outside the United States or apply on-line if possible. Keep a copy of everything you send to institutions.

There will probably be items on the application that do not fit international students (such as Social Security number, zip code, and so forth). You can leave these blank— you may attach a cover letter explaining why certain items have been left unanswered if you feel anything might be confusing.