5 key considerations when applying to US universities

There are a number of key differences to bear in mind when applying to university in the US as opposed to the UK. We have written about a number of these before - in insights on personal essays and early applications, to name but two - but thought it was high time we compiled the key points into a single insight.

When applying to university in the US, some things remain the same as in the UK: the need for good exam results, the ability to communicate your strengths, the benefit of having a vision of what you want to achieve. Beyond that, though, there are some important differences. We’ve outlined five key points below.

1. You choose a university, not a course

In the UK, applicants have to choose to apply to specific courses within universities. Your application will be considered by a subject-specific admissions tutor, who assesses your suitability for that particular programme.

Not so in the US. In the US, you apply to a university, and then can narrow down your subject specialism when you get there. Your application is considered by a university-wide admissions team, who are less interested in your subject-specific aspirations.

What are the implications of this? Well, in one way it makes your job easier: you only have to apply to universities, not to courses, so one layer of decision-making is removed. It also means you can give greater weight to some of the subjective aspects of the choice: does the culture of the university suit you? Do you like its location? Do you like the physical campus? This dynamic also means that US universities have different priorities when assessing applications, which leads us on to our next point…

2. US universities take a broader view of applicants

Whereas UK universities are keen to assess you academically and want you to delve into the nitty-gritty of your subject, US universities take a broader view. They are interested in who you are as a person, and whether or not you will be a ‘good fit’ for the culture of the university. The approach is arguably more holistic than in the UK.

As a result, aspects other than just your academic interests and performance assume an extra importance. Extracurricular activities (whether they be sport, music, drama, or anything else) and work outside of school come into the equation as evidence of your interests, character, and ambition.

One area where this difference most comes into play is the personal essay, which, in contrast to the personal statement, is less a delineation of your academic interests and more a chance to get across your personality.

3. The process is less streamlined as a result

One negative aspect to this broader approach is that the process of applying to different US universities is far less streamlined than in the UK (where a single, standardised UCAS application tends to do the job).

Although there is a UCAS-style service, Common Application, through which you can funnel some of the most typical material required (especially personal information), for many of the particulars you will have to get your head around the specific requirements of each of the universities you are applying to.

Many of them will require you to prepare and submit supplementary material - essays, audio recordings, extra references - alongside your application. Given how there is effectively no limit to how many universities you can apply to in the US (there’s a max of 20 on the Common App, but not all your applications have to go through there), if you’re not careful you might end up with a bewildering number of different criteria to fulfil.

4. There’s a different emphasis on exams

A common perception of US universities is that their offers are all ‘unconditional’, to use language from the UK application process. Whilst it is true that offers from US universities do not demand specific exam results in end of school exams (regardless of curriculum), they do still require students to maintain a minimum level of academic performance and finish their final year at school.

More significantly, this difference results in a change of emphasis in how exams are interpreted as part of the application. Whilst UK admissions teams will consider predicted grades, their US counterparts will look more closely at actual exam results already received (for example at GCSE level) and give short shrift to predicted results (which are seen as being less reliable).

Any UK-based student thinking about applying to university in the US, therefore, needs to either take their GCSEs even more seriously than they might otherwise, or, that ship having sailed, work to compensate for any underperformance in other aspects of their application, knowing that predicted grades will be of limited help.

5. You can apply early

Having taken all the above into consideration, you might have resolved to apply to university in the US and have a longlist or shortlist of choices. At this point, you might want to consider the possibility of an early application.

Without getting too bogged down in the specifics - we previously published an entire Expert Insight on this topic, after all - early applications potentially mean you can get the stress of applying out of the way early (and you’ll hear back early, too). These early applications are highly contingent on your specific choices, and do involve potentially restricting your options if you get positive responses, but they are another tool at your disposal.


Applying to university in the US is a bit like ordering food at a classic American diner: there are numerous options and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Hopefully, though, this insight has given you a sense of the most important considerations to help you start making these choices.

If you’re considering applying to a US university, we recommend getting in touch with us today and arranging a meeting with one of our fantastic US university admissions consultants. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch about any other aspect of your education, too.