The Complete Guide To US College Application

The complete Guide To US College Application

Universities in the USA are among the most popular college destinations for high-school students all around the world. Institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT have become household names recognizable to everyone, but as a country with one of the highest concentrations of universities, any type of student would be spoiled for choice when applying.

From top Ivy League or California universities like UC Berkeley, mid-range universities like Northeastern or UT Austin, to liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, Amherst or Pomona, students can have more than a hundred potential colleges on their list.

How can you narrow it down? What are some things to look out for? And, above all, what is the application process like?

At Prep Zone, we hope to provide you with the basics of US College applications so that you are more prepared even if you are in Grade 10 or 11.

How Do I Choose My Universities?

There is a staggering 5,300 universities in the US. Naturally, students can get overwhelmed with choice.

With so many in one place, rankings alone won’t be the best metric of choice for students. At Prep Zone, we employ a multifaceted approach to school shortlisting for our students with a few key components.

The first thing to know about US Colleges is that you do not need to know your degree/major before you apply.

While it can help narrow down the list – some universities like Georgia Tech are great at Engineering but not arts, while Yale can be the opposite – you can even apply undecided.

That is because in the US, universities encourage students to explore their academic interests. College students usually declare majors officially only in their 2nd year of university.

However, each university will have their unique programmes, college culture, and advantages, which would make it easier for you to decide.

Unclear of what you want to study? You can pick a college like Columbia that has the Common Curriculum that gives you a diverse range of courses.

Excited about entrepreneurship and tech? Stanford might the best fit for you. Or perhaps you would like to go to a college whose motto is Where fun goes to die? University of Chicago would be your best bet. (Just kidding! University of Chicago is amazing).

Other things to look into could be whether universities are private or public, and how large the student population is. The largest universities may have bigger classes or lectures where you get less individual attention. At the same time, big universities have high concentrations of opportunities for research, internships, and resources.

Advantages of US vs. UK or Other Universities

The complete Guide To US College Application

The US has some of the best universities in the world. If you were to look up any ranking, you would probably see more American colleges on the list of top 20 or 30 than of any other country. The private nature and funding resources of some of colleges there means that the investment they can pour into one student is immense.

Beyond academics, US colleges allow for a more personalized approach to education. When you apply to the UK, Singapore or even Canada, you have to apply to a specific major course. In the US, you can choose whether you will do Math, Literature, Economics or Political Science much later in your undergraduate career.

US universities are also known to prioritize student culture over some others. Alumni of US colleges maintain and feel a strong bond with the university and their classmates, even if they were not from the same major. This contrasts with stories about some UK universities, where students lead less integrated and more independent lives.

The strong campus culture also means you will learn a lot not just from the classroom, but from a great range of campus clubs, extra-curricular activities, internships. Universities encourage students to take their learning outside of class, and usually provide a immense amount of career guidance, research and job opportunities.

The Application: Holistic Admissions

Most students are understandably most concerned about the application process. Indeed, applications to the US can be confusing, time consuming, and require a great amount of preparation much before your final year of high school.

At Prep Zone, the average student joins our consulting service early in Year 11, but some begin even at Year 10 to maximise chances.

So, what does the application look like?

The US employs a unique way to assess applicants called holistic admissions.

Primarily, holistic admissions means that the student’s application is viewed in context.

US universities, unlike in the UK, do not have minimum requirements, cut offs for applicants. Are your grades slightly lower than the average applicant’s to Cornell? That may not be a disqualifying factor if your extra-curricular profile is excellent. Is your SAT not stellar? Well, if you have a perfect IB score, that can make up for it.

While holistic admissions is revolutionary to the admissions process by allowing students to make mistakes and focus not just on grades, it has its cons.

For the most part, it makes the process confusing: how can I truly know if I will get into a university?

The US admissions process has slightly less certainty than the UK, where they use minimum grades to decide. As such, we recommend students apply not just to reach, but also to target and safety universities.

But let’s cut to the chase. What do universities evaluate and like to see in students? There are three main areas that will make up your chances of admission: Academics, Profile, and the actual Application

3 Key Areas For US College Application

Area #1: Academics - Grades & Tests

Naturally, academic achievement is the bedrock of any university application. However, US Colleges are not purely grades focused. In the UK, almost 70% of your application can be determined by final grades. In Singapore, that percentage can rise to almost 100.

American universities, on the other hand, look at grades slightly differently.

First, they do not consider your final or predicted scores only. They will look at your transcripts from the last 4 years of your schooling to see the trend. Have you been improving? Are there inconsistencies in your performance, and have they occurred often? All these aspects will be taken into consideration.

What do universities consider good grades? We can look at top, mid and third tier universities:

  • US GPA: 3.8-4.0 (top tier) | 3.3-3.6 (mid-tier) | 2.9 – 3.5 (third tier)
  • IB: 40+ (top tier) | 35-39 (mid-tier) | 30-35 (third tier)
  • A Levels: AAAA (top tier) | AAB-ABB (mid-tier) | ABB-BBB (third tier)

Standardized testing is also a crucial component of your application. While there are some colleges that made SAT or ACT option (especially during COVID), it is always beneficial to submit a good score to improve your standing.

What are good test scores?

  • SAT: 1500-1550 (Ivy League and top tier) | 1350-1450 (mid-tier) | 1200-1350 (third tier)
  • ACT: 33-36 (top tier) | 30-33 (mid tier) | 27-29 (third tier)

Academics, typically, paint only a third of the picture. If you are an engineering or science student, universities might prioritize academic achievement over other things. For arts, humanities students, profile might be more important.

The most important thing to remember is: there are no minimum scores required. At the same time, even perfect scorers can get rejected from top universities if their application and profile are weak.

Area #2: Profile - Volunteering & CCA

A student’s great profile can make or break their application. We frequently see average test scorers get into top universities like UC Berkeley because of their outstanding national or international achievements in sports, art, or other activities.

Students can improve their profile by adding more co-curricular activities in and outside school, participating in sports, volunteering, and engaging in professional opportunities such as internships. Some academic opportunities can come under profile, such as summer schools, extra classwork, research and Olympiads.

You may think: are some activities better than others? The answer is a confident no. Universities do not want all students to be the same, and thus they do not hold some activities like debate to higher standard than others like band.

So how do universities determine that I have a good profile? They look at depth, breadth, and X factor.

  • Breadth: Universities like to see whether you are interested in many different things, rather than you focusing on just one activity. People with multiple interests or talents are preferred. Do you do sport, MUN, and art? That will make you stand out. Are you a science student? Dance or journalism could add a lot to your profile.
  • Depth: Universities want students who are active participants, not passive members. If you are part of a club or CCA, make sure you pitch ideas, organize events, and even run for leadership positions. Achievements can be important here.
  • X factor: What is the X factor? No one knows! It is not one thing for any specific students. Universities are looking for students who stand out and have something that is unique and memorable about them. Perhaps you were a student activist? Or maybe you have an interesting family background? Those could make you more memorable to the admissions committee.

Compared to other regions, US universities value profile almost as much as they do academics. This means that while you are in high school, you cannot simply lock yourself in a room and study. Grades 10-12 are there to accumulate interesting experiences and build your profile.

Area #3: The Application - Recommendations, Essays & Interviews

Things like profile and academics are activities students do naturally in high school. While it takes time to plan it, they are lot less deliberate than this last aspect of your admissions chances – the application itself.

The US is notorious for their challenging and time-consuming application. While in UK, Canada or Singapore students write around 1 essay and outline their activities in a few sentences, the US wants you to do more.

The main application deadlines vary by university, but most have the final deadlines for submission in the first half of January. Students who want to apply to a college early can do so by November 1st, and they will receive decisions in December.

Firstly, remember that you will need recommendations. At a minimum, we advise students to think of getting 3: 1 school college counsellor recommendation, and 2 academic teacher recommendations. Ideally, these teachers taught you an advanced class in a subject you indicated interest in (if you have at all).

As such, remember to tell your school early!

The most important part of your application, however, will be the essays. If you are applying to 10 universities, the number of essays you’d have to produce can be quite a lot. Here are some examples:

  • The Common App Essay: This essay is part of the Common App application, used by more than 80% of American colleges. The essay is 650 words minimum, and it can be on almost any topic – from a challenge you’ve overcome to an idea you debated. This essay will be seen by ALL your universities on the Common App system.
  • The Supplement: The College Supplement is specific to any university. When you decide which college you want to apply to and put in your list, they will ask you to fill in an application specific to that university only. Some universities like Stanford ask you to write more than 3 long essays, while others, like New York University (NYU), only have one.Topics can range from very creative (What can actually be divided by zero? – University of Chicago) to specific and argumentative (Why do you want to study your major at X university).
  • Independent Applications: Some universities have their own applications that are not linked to the Common App. They will likely require more essays. These universities include University of California or MIT.

So, if you apply to at least 5 universities, you might end up having to write 12-18 essays at the very least. A lot of the essay material students use come from their life experiences and profile, but it is also important to showcase creativity, uniqueness, and a strong ability to write well. Most Prep Zone students start crafting their essays at least in June or July before their last year in high school, so they can be ready by the January deadlines.

Finally, there are a few more things that can be a part of your application that depend on universities. Some universities conduct interviews. Do not worry! There, you tell the interviewer – usually an alumnus of a college – about your personality, hopes, aspirations. It is semi-formal, and usually not very scary.

Some universities with a more professional outlook may allow you to submit a CV or resume. Others, especially if you apply to design, architecture or art programmes, will ask you to submit a portfolio of your past works.

Remember: if you are an engineering, art, or business applicant, you may have to write even more essays. While students can choose their major in Year 2, these specific specialties often require a pre-application to be eligible to choose them later on.

Improve Your Admissions Chance With Prep Zone Academy

Getting to a good college in the US is hard, but Prep Zone’s team of veteran admissions consultants can make it easier for you. With more than 10 years of experience and a proven track record, we can help you streamline your application process and increase your admissions chance.

To find out how we can help, sign-up for a college consultation & chat to our consultants today! Simply filling in the following form and we will get in touch to arrange a suitable time slot. This consultation is 100% free, no commitment required!

For any additional inquiries, contact our hotline at +65 6812 9999


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