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The Application Process to Study in the USA

Kicking off college applications can be quite the challenging task - find out what you need and how to get going to study in the USA!
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The Application Process to Study in the USA

Jul 25, 2022Date Published
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The Application Process to Study in the USA

The USA isn’t known as the “land of opportunity” for no reason. The number of international students the country welcomes every year is a testament to this fact. With a spectacular higher education system, innovative classroom practices and teaching, and a flexible student-focused learning approach, it’s little wonder that the USA remains at the top of the list of popular study abroad destinations. An American degree is instantly recognisable around the world. It lets future employers and educators know that you’re an intelligent, creative, and skilled individual. Enrolling in a US school also gives you the chance to get hands-on work experience in the USA’s powerhouse economy! All of this creates plenty of opportunities to build up your career as well as further academic pursuits. So, where do you need to begin to study in the USA?

What are the Requirements to Study in the USA?

Unlike the UK and certain parts of Canada, the USA does not have a central platform connecting you to its thousands of universities. Nonetheless, you could send off more than one application through a couple of central platforms. The Common Application, which connects you to over 900 universities in the USA and worldwide, is the most popular of these for undergraduates. Depending on the schools and programs you want to apply to, you may be sending off applications directly to the university and/or applying through the Common Application. Here’s a quick overview of what to expect to study in the USA as an international student!

1. Choosing the Right School

The right university for you is something you can only figure out by putting in the time and research. We always recommend narrowing down the criteria important to you in your ideal university before kicking off your research. What program do you want to study and which universities offer the best when it comes to that program? What type of budget are you looking at to study in the USA? Are you hoping to apply for scholarships? Where in the USA do you want to live and study? After all, it’s a massive nation and there are plenty of variabilities to expect, from costs and culture to landscapes and weather. Working off these questions helps you pinpoint and shortlist the universities best matching your needs.

One item that you do need to keep in mind though - your school needs to have SEVP approval. A SEVP-certified school has government authorisation to admit and host international students! You can’t begin the process to apply for a student visa in the USA without admission into a SEVP-approved school. So, when doing your research make sure all the schools you’re considering meet this condition!

2. Academic History and Qualifications

Whether you’re just graduating from high school or already have a degree or two to your name, all universities want to see your academic background. This is a good benchmark for admissions committees to tell whether you’d be a good fit for their program and university. Alongside academic transcripts from all the schools and institutions you attended, prospective undergraduate students also need to submit your secondary-school leaving results. Now, US universities widely accept SAT and ACT scores - both standardised tests that US students take in high school. These tests aren’t exclusive to US students, though, and international students often sit them too to submit a stronger application.

Standarised High School Leaving Tests (US)Test Components
Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)
  • Reading
  • Writing and Language
  • Math
American College Testing (ACT)
  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional)

These test scores help universities select the candidates they believe will thrive in their programs. Internationally-recognised qualifications like the international A-level and the Cambridge AICE diploma are typically valid too!

If your secondary school leaving certifications are under a state or national examination board, you may need to get credentials evaluation through a service like the WES. It’s a good idea to look into the entry requirements of the universities you’re planning on applying to early on. Take a closer look at the academic requirements these schools list for international students specifically and whether your qualifications fall within the list. If you’re unsure about whether or not you need credential evaluation, it’s best to contact the university directly with your queries!

3. English Language Proficiency Requirements

As an international student, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll need to submit proof of your ability with the English language. Since your classes are going to be in English and this is the language you’ll use in academic, professional, and everyday settings, your school wants to know that you have a good grasp of it! To gauge whether you meet the required language levels, US schools will typically accept English proficiency test scores. Do be sure to check the accepted exams and scores your chosen program and university asks for! The score bands can vary across programs within the same university and across universities, so be extra careful checking up on these.

Your English proficiency level can play a major role in your final admissions decision. We recommend planning and preparing to sit for your English proficiency exams up to a year before you start university. This gives you enough time to prep and practice, sit the exams, arrange for reviews or resits if you don’t hit the target scores, and have the scores ready for your application way before deadlines!

4. Additional Admissions Exams

Depending on the program you’re planning on applying to, schools may ask for other admissions exams scores to evaluate if you have what it takes to succeed in that field. If, for example, you’re applying to a graduate business program or school, many US schools might ask for GMAT scores. Other graduate programs may ask for GRE scores. If you’re planning to study medicine, your school might ask you to sit for the MCAT. On the other hand, if you want to study a bachelor's degree in law, you might need to submit LSAT scores.

As with your English proficiency exam scores, prepping and sitting for these tests as early as a year before your start date is a good idea. You give yourself plenty of time to research, study, and practice for these exams. And all this additional prep time helps you hit the target scores you need to show admissions officers that you’re the obvious choice for a spot on the program!

5. Resumes and CVs

Many US universities want to know more about you beyond your academic qualifications. Your resumes and CVs are a good place to spotlight things your admissions officers might want to know! Your participation and the roles you played in school clubs or during extracurricular activities can say a lot about your character. Whether you had a leadership role (e.g., team captain), administrative role (e.g., student council treasurer), or a behind-the-scenes role (e.g., drama club stagehand), the hobbies and activities you dedicate yourself to outside the classroom give admissions officers an idea of the type of future university student you’ll be.

Do you have any employment history? Whether this is a full-time job or a part-time gig, community work, or volunteering, listing these out tells universities a lot about you too. They may get an idea of your drive and ambition, your ability to lead or collaborate, how well you manage your time between the classroom and other passions. They get a clearer picture of the kind of person you’ll be as an addition to their community. Your achievements and accomplishments will help admissions committees see you as more than the grades you got in your exams.

6. Written Samples

Whether you’re applying to a US university directly or applying through a central platform like the Common Application, one or more writing samples are a common requirement. A college essay is your chance to get across your personality, motivations, worldview, goals, ambition, and more in a way your resume and transcripts can’t. You may have to write a short piece outlining why you chose this program and school and why you believe you’re a good fit for it. You might get an essay prompt that you need to chew on, interpret, and discuss in your written piece. In some cases, especially if you’re applying through the Common Application, you may need to submit both a Personal Essay and a college-specific statement of purpose.

Some programs might ask for samples of previous written work - research papers, a creative writing portfolio, any published works. Universities might also ask for supplemental written pieces alongside the main essay. These could be questions requiring short answers or more detailed bits of prose. Graduate programs might ask for research proposals for studies you hope to carry out or your research intent as part of a postgraduate program.

The written component of your application could be what seals the deal for your application.

We can’t stress enough how a great, memorable, thought-provoking, and/or impactful essay can set your application apart to admissions committees. Your statement of purpose, research statement, and so forth, meanwhile, tell admissions committees and faculty members the purpose and goals with which you wish to attend this university. How do these make you the right fit for this program and school? You get to make a stronger case for your application in your writing to supplement the rest of the package.

Because written samples are such an important component in your application, they deserve the time, effort, and care to make sure they’re perfect. Look into the essay prompts, questions, or other written sample requirements your chosen schools are asking for. Start brainstorming, drafting, and writing as early as a year before the start date of your chosen universities. You want to craft up the perfect piece that best represents you, especially the parts of you that are harder to get across in standard documents like resumes and certificates. Get your counsellors, teachers, professors, and even friends and family members to take a look and give you feedback.

7. Proof of Financial Ability

US universities want to know that you can afford to study in the USA and live there as long as your program lasts. Proof of financial ability lets them pick the candidates with the ability to enrol and complete the program. It gives admissions committees a better idea of who to consider for certain types of scholarships too. Plus, it helps universities select candidates with the legitimate intent to study in the USA. This helps SEVP-approved schools and consular officers identify genuine students during the US student visa application process.

Different schools have different requirements for what they consider as proof of financial ability. Depending on your chosen school, you may have to arrange for any of the following:

  • Family bank statements
  • Documents from your financial sponsor
  • Scholarship letters
  • Documents from your employer verifying your annual salary

Look into exactly which form of financial proof your chosen school is asking for. Verification of your financial ability is an important factor in your application. Without the appropriate proof, you risk missing your chance at admission.

8. Other Documents

While the above are staples in most applications to study in the USA, the list is by no means exhaustive. Different universities and programs within each university may have different requirements. To make sure you submit a complete application and secure your acceptance in one go, look into what these requirements are as early as possible. Starting as early as one year before the intake date of your program gives you enough time to get everything together. Remember, getting your acceptance from a SEVP-certified school is stage one. You still have to arrange for your visa, accommodation, and travel to start classes on time and in-person in the US.

The Common Application

With over 900 US universities accepting undergraduate applications through the Common App, it’s a great option to explore if you want to apply to a handful - or more - universities to secure your chances of studying in a US college. The application opens each year on the 1st of August, although you can create your account and begin collecting the information you need before that date. While the Common App doesn’t connect you to every single college and university in the USA, it does connect a considerable number of institutes across all 50 states. This means there’s a strong chance the college or university you’re planning to apply to accepts the Common Application.

What is the Common Application?

As the name suggests, this is a single platform you build your core application on, with supplemental information that each university requests. This means that you essentially enter a solid block of information that most university applications ask for only once. The “common” section of your Common Application that you enter only once and send to every university includes:

  • Personal Information
  • Address
  • Contact details
  • Demographics
  • Languages
  • Geography & nationality
  • Household:
    - Marital status of parents (relative to one another)
    - Your permanent home (if your parents don’t live together)
    - Number of dependents (children) if any
  • Information about each parent and any siblings, including personal information, academic background, professional information, etc.
  • Current or most recent secondary school or high school
  • Previous or other secondary or high schools attended
  • Previous or other colleges and universities attended
  • Grades
  • Current or most recent courses and subjects
  • Honours (academic awards, dean’s list, honour roll, etc.)
  • Community-based organisations
  • Future plans
  • Tests - option to self-report your scores or future test dates for the following standardised tests:
  • ACT/SAT/SAT Subjects
  • AP
  • IB
  • Cambridge
  • PTE Academic
  • Duolingo English Test
ActivitiesDetails about your activities outside of the classroom
Writing - Personal EssayAn essay between 250 and 650 words, in response to one of seven Common App prompts. Each of the schools you apply to receives a copy of this essay

*Not all of the items in these sections are compulsory

You may need a few weeks to collect all the information you need to fill out the Common Application. The good news is that once you do, you don’t have to re-enter all these basic details - you can apply to multiple universities with the same standard core application!

College-Specific Requirements

Once you complete the “common” portion of the Common Application, you can tackle the college-specific requirements. For each college that you select, you can view specific details for that institution under the My Colleges tab of your application window. This includes the contact details, specific requirements (such as standardised test scores and writing supplements), application deadlines, and so on! Through your Dashboard, you can also track each of the colleges you’re applying to and your progress with each application.

College Questions and Writing Supplements

Along with the Common App Personal Essay, each college has its own set of questions for applicants. These could be very general questions requiring straightforward answers in a few words, or questions that require more thought, logic, and/or creativity. Some - but not all - schools also ask for writing supplements! Since there’s so much variety in what each university is looking for, we recommend looking into the types of writing requirements to expect for each school before beginning your application.


Like the core Common Application, you only need to fill the Recommenders and FERPA section once. Once you fill out the details, they apply to all the colleges you're hitting “Submit” for! Here, you authorise your counsellors, teachers, and so on to share personal information about you with the schools you’re applying to. Essentially, this lets your referees and counsellors send in things like your transcripts, recommendation letters, and so on to complete your application. Once you complete the FERPA section, you can invite your chosen Recommenders.

Review and Submit

We aren’t exaggerating when we say the college application process can be a long one. But as long as you meticulously check off every step, all that’s left to do is review your application, make sure everything is correct and up to date, and send it off. And there you go - you just submitted your application(s) to study in the USA!

Concluding Thoughts

While there is no single platform through which you can apply to all US universities at all study levels, there are a couple of options to consider, with the Common Application being the most popular.

Whether you are submitting your applications through the Common App or directly to universities, we have two critical pieces of advice for our future international students. Number one - start working on your applications to study in the USA early. There’s plenty of legwork to do, be it on- or offline, to collect the information you need. You may have to sit admissions tests, gather background information and bank details, and more.

And number two - be sure to thoroughly check the entry requirements for each university. The application process to study in the USA can vary quite a bit depending on where you're applying. To increase your chances of getting admission, you need to make sure you have every item universities are asking for in your application package. And not only must that package be complete, but it should be quality. Get the professional help and advice of your school counsellor or another expert to strengthen your application. Make sure you’re presenting the best version of yourself to universities when you hit “Submit”!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How to apply for university in the USA online?

While the procedures and requirements may vary from university to university, you will generally be able to apply to any US university online! This could be a direct application through the university’s website or through a single platform like the Common Application. The latter lets you build a core application with information most universities ask for, that you can then use to apply to multiple universities (with supplemental information as necessary).

How can I apply for education in the USA?

The USA has a massive international student population. Some estimates cite nearly a million international students enrolling either in person or remotely between 2020 and 2021. So it’s not really a guess to say that it’s a popular destination for students from around the world. US universities welcome diversity and many have rich, multicultural communities thanks to their international student bodies. To apply to a US university, you will generally need to provide:

  • Academic transcripts and certificates of qualifications
  • Proof of financial ability to support your study and stay in the USA
  • Proof of your proficiency in English
  • Test scores of standardised and/or subject-specific aptitude tests (e.g. GMAT, GRE, SAT, ACT, LSAT)
  • CV/resume
  • Written samples (e.g., college essays, statement of purpose, research intent, supplemental writing, etc.)
  • Portfolios/published research/previous assignments etc. (depending on the program and study level)
  • Reference/Recommendation letters

Some programs and universities may have additional and specific requirements for their applicants. It’s very important to research these requirements carefully to know exactly how to build a complete application!