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Empire-StateLast year, over 4,200 UK students chose US universities for their undergraduate studies. With over 4,500 universities to choose from, and a whole new vocabulary to learn, the admissions process can be daunting. With a basic understanding of a few of the terms and processes, however, and a good selection of reference materials, both students and advisors can overcome the challenges of navigating the US university admissions system.



US universities, like those in the UK, accept applications during the fall, September-January.  Also like the UK, many use a common application, helpfully named The Common Application.  All parts of the application are filed electronically, but schools may choose to send paper copies of letters of recommendation and exam results.  The student will need two letters of academic reference, and one main school reference discussing the student’s contributions to the school, both in and out of the classroom.  The student is asked to write one personal essay, but should be aware that many universities using the Common App require additional supplementary statements.  Students can link to their chosen universities through the Common App and find all admissions requirements through those links.  If a university is not listed on the Common App, the student will find the application on the university’s website.

Admissions Requirements

Most US universities require admissions tests. A student can choose between the SAT or the ACT, but should check with the university website to see if either is preferred.  In addition, the most selective of US universities often require the student to submit SAT Subject Test scores.  Most students sit for the SAT or ACT twice, so it is important to start the testing process early.  Students in their AS year should sit the exam in either January, May or June, with the idea of re-sitting it in their A Level year in October, November or December.  Registration is all online, and there is no late registration.  Students may register and get more information on and  There are no minimum scores required for admission, but a university’s website will give you an idea of the range of scores they will consider.  The SAT/ACT score accounts for about half of what a university considers in evaluating applicants; the other half comes from the student’s academic record, activities and interests, and the school’s recommendation.  As admission is rarely subject-based, there are no course requirements for admissions, although applicants would be expected to have some academic background for specialist courses.

Choosing a university

American-StreetWith so many to choose from, it’s important that students start the process by thinking about what type of a university they want by considering location, size, academic offerings and cost.  The best place to begin is on The College Board’s Big Future website.  Here, the student will be able to research universities, majors and scholarships.  It really is a one-stop-shop!  Another great resource is The Fulbright Commission, a US-government funded organisation to promote US education around the world. Their website provides a wealth of helpful information.

Funding a US education

Make no mistake; it’s expensive to study at US universities. The vast majority are residential in nature, and a student has to consider not only the tuition and fees but the room and board.  Tuition and fees can vary significantly from university to university, as there are no standard government-set fees as in the UK.  Private universities are generally the most expensive, with state-funded universities often less so.  However, as private universities often have more financial aid available, the price for the student can sometime be even less than at a state institution. 

The best source of financial aid is always the university’s financial aid office.  Few give merit aid; most give need-based aid, but sometimes not to international students, so this should be researched early on.  In addition to Big Future, students can get information about aid and scholarships from Finaid-The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid.


Ideally, students interested in applying to the US will begin the testing process in the spring of their penultimate year in school, with re-sits in the autumn of their last year.  Application deadlines vary, but the majority fall in November-January.  Students will receive a response to their applications in mid-late March, with March 1st being the reply day for Ivy League universities.  Students have until May 1st to make their decisions, and must notify their university of choice that they will be attending by that date.  Students who are also applying to UK universities and waiting for exam results in August should accept their US offer, and then if they decide to take their UK choice, simply notify the US university to say that their plans have changed.

So, whether it is for the flexibility of academic programs at a wide range of academic institutions or the chance to experience American university life, or simply the desire to gain a more international view of the world, there are many good reasons for students to want to study in the US.  Granted, the process is more complicated than that of UCAS, but the rewards can be great, and between The College Board and The Fulbright Commission, there is a lot of help to guide you through it!

Eileen Penman is an American-born graduate of the University of San Diego. Chair of the Guidance Committee of the European Council of International Schools (1995-2006) and member of the TOEFL Board, the SAT Advisory Board, the Advanced Placement Advisory Board, she is an expert educational consultant and adviser. Here, she shares with us essential tips and guidelines for supporting students applying to the US.


European Examinations: Grade Requirements

Country Examination Oxford Grade Requirements Cambridge Grade Requirements
Europe International Baccalaureate 38–40 points, including core points, with 7s and 6s in the higher level subjects. 40-42 points out of 45, with 776 in Higher Level subjects. For subject requirements, Standard Grades are broadly comparable to AS levels, and Higher Level subjects to A Levels.
Europe European Baccalaureate An average of 85% or above, with scores of between 8 and 9 in specified subjects. 85-90% overall, with 90% in the subjects most closely related to the subject applicants wish to study.
France French Baccalaureate French Baccalauréat or Option Internationale du Baccalauréat with an average score of at least 16. 16 or 17 (‘mention trés bien’) out of 20, with 16 or 17 usually required in specific subjects
Germany Abitur Abitur with a total mark between 1.0 and 1.5 with scores of between 14 and 15 in individual subjects. Typical offers vary from an overall score of 1.0 to 1.3 (1.0 being the top score). Scores of 14 to 15 (15 being the top mark) are usually requested in specific subjects.
Greece Apolytirion of Lykeio Apolytirion with an average of 19 / 20 points and normally 2 or more A-levels at grade A. Typical offers would be based on an overall average score of 19 and scores of 19 in individual subjects
Ireland Irish Leaving Certificate For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of AAA: H2H2H2H2H2H2 at Higher level.
For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of A*AA: H1H1H2H2H2H2 at Higher level.
For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of A*A*A: H1H1H1H1H2H2 at Higher level.
Leaving Certificate would be based on H1H1H1H2H2H2 for courses with an A*AA A Level entrance requirement and H1H1H1H1H2H2 for courses with an A*A*A A Level entrance requirement.
Scotland Highers and Advanced Highers AAAAB or AAAAA in Scottish Highers, supplemented by two or more Advanced Highers. Offers made to candidates on the basis of the Advanced Higher subjects are likely to be set at AA for two subjects, and AAB for three subjects.

AAA Usually required at Advanced Higher grade.

For subject requirements, Highers are broadly comparable to AS levels, and Advanced Highers to A Levels.

Wales Welsh Baccalaureate Advanced Diploma with A*A*A* to AAA at A-level. Offers are conditional on 3 A Levels studied within the qualification, rather than the overall Baccalaureate award. Students taking any modular A Levels are required to provide details of these and their UMS in their SAQ
Other countries and qualifications   Further information can be found here. Further information can be found here.



Rest of the world: grade requirements

Country Examination Oxford Grade Requirements Cambridge Grade Requirements
China Senior High School Diploma, University Entrance Examination (Gaokao) Senior High School Diploma, Chinese University Entrance Examination or ‘GaoKao’ would not be sufficient for candidates to make a competitive application. Senior High School Diploma is not sufficient, for ‘Gaokao’ offers are made on an individual basis but applicants generally need to achieve results within the top 1% – 2% of the gathered field. Contact individual colleges for advice.
India CBSE or ISC Class XII examinations Year XII qualification, studied with either the CBSE or ISC examination boards, with an achievement of 90% in each of the five subjects studied. Science subjects may also require that candidates take the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance examinations as a pre-condition for entry. Applicants from India must normally either be potential affiliated students (i.e. applying to study for a second Bachelors degree) or studying for the International Baccalaureate or A Levels. Applications from students taking CBSE or ISC Class XII examinations will be considered but only for the following courses: Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, Mathematics, Natural Sciences. To be shortlisted for interview such applicants will need to have achieved a minimum CGPA of 9.8 and grade A1 in their Class X examinations in the relevant subjects. Any offers of admission made to such students will be conditional on performance in the IIT-JEE or, in the case of Economics or Mathematics, on performance in STEP Mathematics.
Hong Kong Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education HKDSE with grade 5s in three elective subjects. (The exception is for candidates taking Mathematics, who would need a 5* in the compulsory Mathematics course and then a 5 in the Mathematics extended paper). 5*, 5* and 5 in three specified elective subjects, related to their chosen course at Cambridge. Demanding conditions may set in core subjects of the Diploma, particularly Mathematics and English.
Hong Kong Associate degrees from Hong Kong 3.8 or better Not specified.
Hong Kong Hong Kong Advanced Level Certificate AAA Not specified.
Rest of the world Cambridge Pre-U Diploma Conditional offers are likely to vary between D2, D2, D3 and D3, D3, D3 depending on the subject. D2 is considered to be equivalent to an A* grade at A-level and D3 to an A grade. Conditional offers likely to require Distinction level grades (D2 and D3).
Other countries and qualifications   Further information can be found here. Further information can be found here.
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