US University Admissions

With the British exam season upon us, parents' thoughts inevitably start turning to the path from school to university.

Families straddling the Atlantic benefit from access to the two most illustrious and highly-regarded university systems in the world. The US, with the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, et al., boasts a superlative breadth of choice and world-class facilities for students; Britain, with Oxbridge and highly specialised courses, offers an in-depth tertiary education experience few can match.

Making the transition from school to one of these renowned institutions can be complicated. In particular, students enrolled in British schools but with ambitions to study in the States may need additional support with the vagaries and nuances of the US admissions process.

Here are a few key areas to bear in mind for those applying to America from the UK.

College selection

Successful applications start with identifying universities or colleges that genuinely match a student’s personality and outlook.

Clearly, visiting potential choices in the US to better understand the cultural fit is often not possible but many institutions exhibit at specialist fairs in the UK, such as the Fulbright College Day, where prospective applicants can start to get a feel for them.

Beyond that, lots of background research is required. College websites are a good starting point but students should seek out alumni (Facebook and LinkedIn are good sources) and independent reviews to build a clear, unbiased impression of potential higher education destinations. Would a liberal arts college, with its small class sizes and close-knit campus be a better option than a big-name research university, for example? Would a rural or urban setting be more conducive to successful undergraduate study?

Student profile

While British universities prefer to see students who have a demonstrable passion for their chosen subject evidenced by a wealth of activities that stretch beyond the classroom, American colleges are looking for rounded individuals who are able to articulate their personal growth and how joining that particular institution will enable them to continue this development.

As such when applying to the US, a great deal of thought should be given to how a student’s profile can display not just academic excellence but other key facets such as leadership and community-mindedness. Students should consider which extra-curricular activities allow them to exhibit these traits and start to focus on these, ideally several years in advance of their intended application date.


Students applying to both British and American universities should not fall into the trap of thinking the former’s ‘personal statement’ is the exact equivalent of the latter’s ‘personal essay’.

While both are a chance to demonstrate the person behind the grades, they differ significantly in both substance and style.

Reflecting what the US system looks for in a student’s profile, the personal essay should not just be an ode to a particular subject. Rather, it should present a life narrative that demonstrates the aforementioned qualities colleges look for and how an education at that college would enhance the individual.

Standardised testing

US universities almost universally require students to have taken (and for competitive colleges, scored well in) one of the two undergraduate standardised tests: the SAT and the ACT. They hold equal standing with admissions officers but vary in both content and approach.

It is important for students to select the test where they will perform best. The SAT has fewer questions, requiring more in-depth answers; this may suit students who prefer to digest information in a more considered manner. The ACT gives you less time per question but expects less detailed responses; perhaps more appropriate for students who are comfortable processing a lot of information quickly.

We have, of course, only scratched the surface of what it takes to put together a successful application to a top US university.

If you would like to find out more, Crimson Education is delighted to invite you to our exclusive event, How to gain admission to top US universities with keynote speaker Daniel Edeza, former Yale admissions officer. This will take place in Kensington (Monday 12th June), Edinburgh (Wednesday 14th June), and Primrose Hill (Thursday 15th June). Tickets are usually £20 but readers of The American can use the discount code AMERICAN to receive complimentary tickets.

You can also download Crimson’s free e-book How to excel in your application to the best US universities here.


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