Introduction to the Application Process

USA Application Guide

Application Guide

3. Introduction to the US Application Process

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Columbia University

(Photo: Columbia University, New York)


In the following chapters we provide a comprehensive overview of the contents and deadlines of a university application to schools in the USA.





3.1 Why do you want to study abroad?

Many people begin the application process to universities abroad without finishing. This is commonly due to lack of motivation. Before investing time and money in your application, you should consider why you wish to study abroad. StudyAdvantage encourages international studies, as long as the applicant is motivated and driven.



Good reasons to study abroad

  • You wish to receive an education of the highest possible academic standard, with the possibility of meeting professors and partaking in world-leading research.
  • You want a degree taught in a different manner (ex. American “Liberal Arts”)
  • You’re interested in cultural and linguistic education, and seek a diverse, multi-cultural experience outside the classroom.
  • You want a challenge that will shape you in a different way than what is possible in your home country.
  • You’re attracted to a specific student life/campus culture (ex. The “American college experience”, the ancient traditions at the Oxbridge universities or the “big city environment in New York”)
  • You aim for an international career; it can be useful to start building an international CV and network already in college.



Reasons NOT to study abroad

  • There are great university programmes of international standard offered in your home country.
  • It is expensive. Although there are many ways of financing your studies, the price tag for international studies is usually quite high.
  • An international degree may not be recognized in your home country.
  • It is sometimes far away from home, and it may be difficult to stay in touch with family and friends, the cost of going home may be high and homesickness can be problematic.



What is the best part about studying abroad?


“The broad education – I wouldn’t want to spend three years studying just one subject. There are too many interesting subjects. I also think many people don’t know what they want to do after highschool – studying in America allows you two years of trying out different subjects in order to make up your mind.”

Marika Baltscheffsky, Brown ’13


“The best part about studying at a college abroad (especially in the US) is that your school is more than just a place for studies – it becomes a home since you live on campus with all your friends, and all your extracurriculars take place on and around campus.”

Amira Abedallah, Harvard ’15


“For me, the answer is simple: studying abroad maximizes your personal development by putting you in an international and progressive environment.”

Henrik Hansen, Warwick ’14


“Apart from just world-class education, international schools attract interesting people from all over the world, resulting in a fun and exciting environment. For example, a debate about death penalties in Sweden is not as dynamic and fun as the same debate when the participants have different backgrounds, perspectives and opinions.”

Anna Leijonhufvud, St Andrews ’15



International studies make the world a better place

StudyAdvantage strongly believes that international studies make the world a better place. Fresh perspectives create new opportunities.





3.2 The Universities in the US

In America, “Ivy League” is a well-renowned group of universities (see below) that work as basis for many other groups of universities.


Ivy League

Ivy league

The most well known group of universities in America was formed around a common sports league in northeastern USA. The eight oldest universities in the country competed against each other and came to form the group in the 1700’s. The schools are highly regarded and offer liberal arts-programmes on undergraduate levels.


  •  Dartmouth College
  •  Princeton University
  •  Yale University
  •  Columbia University
  •  University of Pennsylvania
  •  Cornell University
  •  Harvard University
  •  Brown University



Little Ivies

AG img 11

These schools are among the top-ranking, undergraduate-focused liberal arts colleges in the country. They are commonly found on the countryside in a beautiful and calm environment. The schools are generally small in size and student numbers.


  •  Amherst College
  •  Williams College
  •  Wesleyan College
  •  Bowdoin College
  •  Middlebury College
  •  Swarthmore College
  •  Trinity College
  •  Haverford College
  •  Bates College



The New Ivies

New ivies

This is an informal grouping of elite schools, often regarded as among the very top learning institutions in the country, but lacking the history of the traditional Ivy Leagues, and not fitting the location requirements of said group. The strongest common factor among these schools is the academic standard. The grouping is loosely based on the guide Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence, published in year 2000.


  •  University of Chicago
  •  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  •  Georgetown University
  •  New York University (NUY)
  •  Emory University
  •  Duke University
  •  John Hopkins University
  •  University of Texas at Austin
  •  University of Richmond
  •  Rice University
  •  Tulane University
  •  Vanderbilt University
  •  Wake Forest University
  •  Northwestern University
  •  University of Notre Dame



The West Coast Ivies


Another informal list, this time of top class west coast (California) schools.  Many of the universities on this list are also included among “The New Ivies”. Apart from their academic prestige and reputation, these schools also attract with their beautiful setting and enjoyable climate.


  •  Stanford University
  •  University of California, Berkeley
  •  University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  •  University of Southern California (USC)
  •  Claremont McKenna College
  •  Pomona College
  •  Reed College
  •  California Institute of Technology (CalTech)



Don’t get “Ivy Fever”!

Many aspiring international students who dream of studying at top universities in America lack knowledge about the wide range of schools on offer. They may have heard of famous schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and assume that these institutions are the only options worth the effort. In America you’ll find a very different picture of college education. While Harvard IS a great school, it is far from the only great school in the country. An undergraduate degree from Williams College, for example, is similarly regarded in America. Studying at Georgetown can prove to be just as good as attending Yale or Columbia.

There are many gems to be found both in America and the UK. Although they are not featured among the top 10 in the international ranking lists, they can provide a first class academic degree and college experience. We therefore advise you to do a bit of research about your different options and to create your own “top list”.


Universities to check out:

  •  Georgetown University
  •  New York University (NYU)
  •  University of Southern California (USC)
  •  Claremont McKenna College
  •  Wake Forest University
  •  Notre Dame University
  •  Trinity College, Connecticut
  • Vanderbilt University





3.3 The Education System in the USA



The educational systems in the UK and the US differ quite a bit. In the table below, we compare the two to bring some clarity to the distinctions between the two, and to contextualize the specific characteristics of the American system.

The first step after completing high school is a “basic level” degree – commonly referred to as an “Undergraduate Degree”. After graduating with an undergraduate degree, you have the option of doing a “Graduate Degree”. This division is true in both USA and the UK.


Undergraduate-degree 3- or 4-year bachelor’s degree at university Ex: BA (Bachelor of Arts) or B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science) 4-year bachelor’s degree at college (sometimes part of a university) Ex: BA (Bachelor of Arts), B.S.E. (Bachelor of Science in Engineering)
Graduate-degree 1- or 2-year master degree 1- or 2-year master degree. 3-year J.D. (law)
3-year or more (average 7 years) doctorate degree (Ph.D.)
3-year (average) doctorate degree (Ph.D. or DPhil)



Words, concepts and definitions


”College” vs. ”University”

What is the difference between “college” and “university”, and are they the same in the UK and USA?

In USA, “college” refers to a part of a school which handles undergraduate education. Some schools only offer education on undergraduate level. These schools are known as colleges (ex. Williams College). At schools providing education on both undergraduate- and higher levels, a college is simply a part of the larger school. For example, Harvard College is the undergraduate school at Harvard University.

In the UK, schools generally do not provide only undergraduate degrees (American-style colleges). Instead, “College” refers to a small part of the university where students live, study, eat and perform extracurricular activities. Oxford- and Cambridge University each consist of roughly 30 different colleges, for example.


”Liberal arts”-programmes

“Liberal arts” is the most common form of undergraduate education in the US. This kind of program is designed to let you pick your academic specialization only halfway through your degree (after 2 years). It allows you a lot of freedom to choose your courses. The idea is to let you try out many different academic disciplines before finally deciding which to focus on. This system is very different from the one offered in the UK and most other places, where you most commonly apply directly to a specified degree.


Liberal Arts Colleges vs. National Universities

American universities can be divided into two broad categories: Liberal Arts Colleges and National Universities. There is no crystal clear rule as to what the distinction is, but below are a few typical, differentiating characteristics:

  • Size: Liberal Arts Colleges are small, National Universities are large
  • Undergraduate/Graduate: Liberal Arts Colleges focus on undergraduate studies, National Universities offer both undergraduate- and graduate degrees.
  • Research: Liberal Arts Colleges rarely do as much research as National Universities.

Note that the academic programmes at National Universities still classify as “liberal arts” in accordance with the description above. The name “Liberal Arts College” does not necessarily imply that the programmes are more “liberal arts”-like.


Business School

“Business School” has become a common phrase amongst people with the ambition of a career in business or finance. In America there are a few top schools offering undergraduate programmes (Ex. Wharton (part of University of Pennsylvania) and Stern (Part of New York University)). However, the most well known business schools, such as Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Booth School of Business only offer graduate degrees. In other words, these schools do not offer business programmes right after high school.


Important difference between the UK and USA

  • In the UK you apply for a specific academic programme, whereas in the USA you apply to a specific university and only pick academic field halfway through your degree.
  • In reference to the point above, British degrees specialize you in an academic discipline as you focus on the same field for three years, whereas an American degree allows you more flexibility and is thus one year longer (4 years instead of 3).





3.4 Important Questions When Choosing University

Which type of university do you wish to attend?

Your choice of school should take more things than just studies into consideration. Keep in mind that the institution you choose will serve as your home for the coming three- or four years (depending on programme and country of studies). The students at the university will be your closest friends for the duration of your studies. The geographical location and resources of the school will determine the range of extracurriculars and activities available to you.

Finding the right university environment where you feel at home is key to academic success.

Below are some questions to assist you in choosing the right university:


Size and geographical location

  • Do you prefer studying at a big or small school?
  • Do you wish to live and study in a city, suburb or on the countryside?
  • Do you want the school environment to be new and modern or old with a rich history?
  • What climate do you prefer living in?
  • How far away from home is it?



  • Do you want to practice a certain sport/activity?
  • Does the school offer the activity you wish to engage in?



  • How much time are you willing to spend on your studies?
  • Do you require a specific study track/academic discipline?
  • Does the academic ranking and prestige of the school matter to you? How much?
  • Do you wish to take part in research activities?
  • Do you prefer a strictly regulated academic programme or more flexibility?


Social Environment

  • What type of students do you wish to live and study with?
  • What type of parties and social events matter to you?



  • Do you wish to study at a university with a specific career-focused programme?
  • Do you wish to have the opportunity of doing internships/traineeship during your studies?
  • Does the university provide good career mentorship?
  • Is it important that your school is located nearby a big city, for the ease of attending interviews, work etc?



What made you decide to study at your university?

“After doing an internship within PR, I knew I wanted to work in the field. USC was one of very few schools offering a degree with the possibility for a major in Public Relations. Additionally, the school has an amazing “school spirit”. I fell in love with the school already when I first set foot on campus!”

Anna Birkstedt, USC ‘13


“Studying psychology requires an eye for detail and the ability to observe and and see things critically and objectively. To sharpen these skills, and to gain new ones and evolve and develop as a person is what ultimately brought me to my decision.”

Jeffrey Casely-Hayford, Bath ‘14


“I was attracted by the amazing city of Edinburgh, the academic ranking of the school and of course the golf!”

Oscar Selemba, Edinburgh ‘14





3.5 Why is the Application Process So Demanding?


The application process for universities in the UK and USA can often be seen as somewhat foreign and highly demanding, comparing to that of many other countries. Many high school students in their last year of studies jokingly say that their most time consuming extracurricular activity is in fact their application. Below are a few things to consider if you feel like the application process is demanding.

  • You’re competing for a spot at an English-speaking university. You are not only competing against British and American applicants, but every English-speaking applicant in the world who wishes to study at your institution. The competition is fierce and often times there are more than ten qualified applicants for each spot.
  • Since perfect grades are a bare minimum among applicants, universities must broaden the application in order to easily pick top candidates.
  • As a foreign applicant from a country with a different university system the process can seem difficult as you may lack some of the support and know-how from your immediate surrounding. This kind of support is, however, available to Americans who are applying for school in the USA simply because their school system is designed for it.


Here are some acceptance rate stats from top schools in USA from recent years:


Here is an article about the competition between top-school applicants and the application consultants who are making money off of it:


An article about how a few select high schools in the UK manage to enroll disproportionately many graduates to the Oxbridge universities:


Get a feel for the help and support available to applicants in the UK and USA.



Princeton Review:






3.6 Choosing University and Plausibility Analysis

It can be useful to go over the chapter Personal Profile as part of the process of choosing university.


Choosing university and doing a plausibility analysis

No matter which country you are applying to, it’s important to assess your different options and research the schools that you are interested in.

A commonly used method is to divide your top schools into the following three categories:

  • Dream
  • Reach
  • Safety


Dream schools are the universities that you dream about. They are often high ranking and have low acceptance rates. Even with perfect academic credentials, you will be lucky to get accepted to these schools.

Reach schools are schools where your academic credentials fall below the school’s range for the average freshman (first year student). Reach schools are long-shots, but should still be possible.

Safety schools are your backup options – schools where your academic credentials fall well within, or even exceed, the school’s range for the average freshman student. This means that your application will most likely be accepted.

The labels of the different schools depend on the strength of your application, your grades, your resumé and other qualifications. This classification is therefore individual. What may be a “reach” school for one student may be a “safety” option for someone else. The only thing that is for certain is that top schools such as Amherst, Duke, Cambridge and Stanford will always feature in the Dream category, no matter your grades or personal profile.

To assist you in you analysis of plausibility we’ve provided two examples below:


A rule of thumb for choosing safety-schools

You must think the school is worth attending (considering tuition fees, other alternatives etc.) in order for it be be worth your time and money.


How many universities should you apply for?

In the USA you can apply for as many different schools as you like. The question of how many is therefore a question of balance between quality and quantity. What is the best way of distributing your time and effort? Most applicants stick to less than 10 different universities.






3.7 When to Apply – Early Application?

Early application is an advantage

It is always advantageous to submit your application early. There are many reasons to apply early. It indicates a strong drive and interest in studying at a school, and it indicates a sense responsibility and an ability to manage your time.

How much an early application impacts your chances of being accepted is unclear and difficult to predict. Statistics from American universities suggest that the acceptance percentage for early applications is twice as high (roughly). For example, if the normal acceptance rate is 8% (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), the early application acceptance rate is about 16%.

Early applications are quite regulated. There are both specific deadlines for early applications and rules for how many schools you can apply early to. Different universities have different rules, and they are explained below.

Deadlines for early applications to American universities are set beginning through mid-November. If you submit your application before this deadline, your application will be reviewed as part of the “first round” and you’ll receive notice from the school already in mid-December. If you submit your application after the early application deadline, it will be reviewed as part of the “main round” along with all other applications received before the first of January (even if it is submitted just one day late). It is therefore important that you keep track of the exact deadline for each school that you’re applying to.


Early Decision, Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action

How many universities are you allowed to apply early to? There are three different rules: Early Decision (ED), Early Action (AD) and Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA). Each university picks which rule they will adopt. Below you’ll find a comparison between the three rules:


Rule Binding? Only oneuniversity? Examples of universities
Early Decision Brown UniversityUniversity of Pennsylvania

Columbia University

Single-Choice Early Action Harvard UniversityYale University

Princeton University

Early Action University of ChicagoNotre Dame University



Early Decision

Binding, limited to one university

Early Decision is the strictest rule out of the three. It implies that you’re only allowed to apply early to one university. You must wait for the January 1st round with all your other applications. You must accept the offer from your Early Decision school and withdraw your other applications, should you be accepted.


Single-Choice Early Action

Non-binding, limited to one university

Single-Choice Early Action is somewhat less strict. You can still only submit one early application, but you are not required to accept the offer if you receive a “yes”. You can instead wait for your other offers before making up your mind.


Early Action

Non-binding, non-exclusive

Early Action is the most flexible rule for early applications. You may apply to as many schools as you like, and you’re not required to accept any offers.



Your possibilities of early applications are dictated by the specific policy adopted by each university. You can find out which rule applies at which school on the following link and/or on the specific school’s admissions pages.

Common Application:




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