United States of America
About the Higher Education system in the US
The United States has an excellent higher education system with some of the best universities in the world. Nearly half of the universities in the Times Higher Education Top 100 are in the United States but there are some even better places to study once you look beyond the rankings.
There are thousands of types of higher education institutions to choose from including:
- public universities
- private universities
- community colleges
Below, you’ll find explanations of the different types available:
Four-year colleges or Universities:
These offer undergraduate courses leading to a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Sciences. Universities also offer graduate courses, such as Masters or PhDs.
- Public colleges are funded by the State in which they are situated. Students from outside the state, which includes international students, are charged the higher ‘out of state’ fee. This can still be lower than fees at private universities. Public Universities are generally larger than private institutions and can be comparable in size to big universities in the UK.
- Private colleges are funded by student tuition fees and by private donors. They are generally smaller than public/state universities, but often more expensive. Private universities can be for-profit and not-for-profit.
- Did you know? The Ivy League refers to 8 private universities in the North East of the US. Originally a sports league, the term Ivy League has become synonymous with good quality education. Most of these institutions are in the Top 50 Universities in the World according to the current THES World Rankings. There are also a list of Public Ivies which details some of the best public universities in the US.
Two-year colleges or Community Colleges:
These institutions offer Associate Degrees which take 2 years to complete, providing students in a particular geographic area Higher Education options. Some courses prepare students for the world of work and are generally vocationally based. Others are designed to help students to top up their studies to Bachelors degree level at a University. This is also known as a 2+2. This route is often seen as a cheaper way to go to University.
Liberal Arts colleges:
Most US degree courses follow the Liberal Arts philosophy. Students take general education classes in subjects such as science, humanities, languages, maths and English. Usually students choose a major in their sophomore (second) year. Liberal Arts colleges specialise in this curriculum. These institutions are usually small, with good staff-student ratio. Students are usually taught by faculty staff rather than Graduate Teaching Assistants that can happen at large research colleges. There are both public and private Liberal Arts colleges.
Specialist colleges or universities:
Rather than provide a general education in a wide spectrum of subject, these institutions focus on their specialise subject. Specialist institutions include academic fields such as: Music, performing arts, science and technology.
Single gender colleges:
Most universities and colleges are now co-educational but it is still possible to study in single gender institutions. For more information visit the Women's College CoalitionThe US higher education style is different to the UK system. In most cases you will take core general education classes in subjects such as science, humanities, languages, maths and English alongside your major (main) subject. Unlike in the UK, you choose your major subject when you are at university. This is usually during your second year. You can also select a minor (secondary) subject. You can specify a proposed major when you apply but usually you have the freedom to change your mind at a later stage. The one notable exception is "pre-med", the preparatory major that leads to medical school.
Bachelor degrees usually take four years to complete. Associate degrees take two years at community colleges and you can often transfer to university to undertake a further two years of study to top-up to a Bachelor’s.
Some subjects, such as medicine or law, are not available at undergraduate level. There are pre-med and pre-law courses but these would not qualify you in these professions - they are preparatory qualifications. Further study is required to practise as a doctor or lawyer.
Entry requirements for American Universities
Entry requirements will vary across the US but as a minimum you will likely need 5 GCSEs A* - C to include English and Maths. You will need to be studying post-16 qualifications (ie A-Levels). For more competitive universities, you will need to be studying at least 3 A-Levels or their equivalent. For less competitive universities, vocational qualifications, such as BTEC National Extended Diplomas may be considered.
If you are studying the International Baccalaureate (IB) then you may be given advanced placement which means that at many universities you could be offered to start your Bachelor’s in your second (sophomore) year. Students with good, relevant A levels may also be awarded advanced placement but this is unlikely to be equivalent to a full year at most universities.
How do you apply to American universities?
A small number of universities use a central-based admissions service called Common Application to process applications but for many you will have to apply directly to the university.
Typically you will be expected to:
- complete an application form
- supply transcripts of your academic performance (from year 10 onwards)
- submit admission exam results
- provide two to three references
- write two to three essays
- pay an application fee of $50 -$100 per university
- undertake an interview (for some universities)
There are now nearly 500 universities that use an application system called Common Application. This enables students to complete an online form that can be then sent on your behalf to the member institutions. There may be additional information required called ‘supplements’. These vary from institution to institution, so it’s best to check on the Common Application website for more details.
If the institution is not part of the Common Application system, you will need to apply to the college/university directly.
You will be asked to answer 2 or 3 essay style questions as part of your application. It is advisable to spend time writing the essay so that you answer the questions fully and directly. This may be the only opportunity to set yourself apart from other candidates.
Topics vary and a university may want to know more about your academic interests, or your extracurricular passions, or want to find out more about your personality. You may be given a choice of which questions to answer. You will be told a suggested length of the essay response.
Some of the essay questions will be similar so you will be able to adapt and re-use these but ensure they are unique for the university you are applying for.
The essay questions have a different format to your UCAS Personal Statement so don’t be tempted to copy and paste.
Many applicants will be required to submit admission test scores but check with the universities or community colleges that you are interested in whether they require one and if they do, check which one you need to do.
US Universities and Community Colleges use standardised tests to determine your academic readiness for higher education. Test scores and results may also be used to assess you for certain financial aid and scholarships.
Why are admission tests necessary?
Unlike the UK, where students take post-16 qualifications which are graded against a mark scheme, in the US, students who take the High School Diploma are graded against their classmates. American school leavers are also required to undertake admission test.
In addition, admission tests are also useful for international comparison.
Which tests can I take?
The most common admissions tests are:
- ACT (American College Test)
- SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)
For competitive universities you may need to take the extended versions of these tests: the SAT Reasoning Test and 2-3 SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT with writing. You can take these tests at centres across the UK.
Prior to March 2016, the format of the each test differed so this significantly affected which test a student might choose to take. Nevertheless, due to major changes to the SAT in March 2016, the two tests are now very similar so you may decide to take both SAT and ACT.
SAT test (as of spring 2016)
The SAT Test (sometimes called the SAT Reasoning test or SAT1) is logic-based exam. From March 2016, it is available in both print and computer. The test lasts for 3 hours, or 3 hours and 50 minutes if you complete an optional essay. The test is scored out of 1600 and split into different sections including:
- A 65-minute evidence-based reading and writing section with a maximum score of 800. The reading sub-section contains multiple-choice reasoning questions based on 500-750 word passages from US and World Literature, History/Social Studies, and Sciences. The new SAT does NOT have sentence completions. The writing and language sub-section tests your expression of ideas through multiple-choice grammar questions pulling from 400-450 word prose passages relating to Careers, History/Social Studies, Humanities, and Science.
- An 80-minute math sectionwith a maximum score of 800. Caculators are allowed in 37 questions (55 minutes), and not allowed in 20 questions (25 minutes). Maths questions are above GCSE level and includes trigonometry (5%). There are two types of questions in the math section: multiple choice and grid-in.
- A 50-minute essay (optional)in which you analyse how an author builds an argument in a given passage.
Unlike in the old SAT, there is NO penalty for wrong answers in the new SAT. Therefore, you don't have to worry about loosing points for guessing incorrectly.
You may be required to undertake additional subject specific tests so that you can showcase your knowledge in particular subject(s). The SAT Subject Tests (sometimes called SAT2) last one hour and are knowledge-based exams. They can be taken on the same day as the SAT test.
Subject tests are closely related to the US curriculum and can be taken in the following subjects:
- Sciences, either biology, chemistry or physics.
- Languages, either Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, or Spanish.
- History, either US history or world history
Competitive universities will usually want two subject test results but some will ask for three. In our experience the subject tests that cause the biggest problem to British-educated candidates are the two in history. It might be a wise strategy to avoid these as this is where the difference in high school curriculum between the UK and US is most widely experienced.
Basic SAT fees:
- The SAT Reasoning test costs $81 without essay/$92.50 with essay (which includes a $38 international processing fee).
- The SAT Subject test costs: $64 per registration (which includes a $38 international processing fee) + $18 per non-language with listening test or +$26 per language and listening test.
All test fees are non-refundable. There are additional charges, for example, waitlist charges or if you require extra score results. Check out the SAT College Board international fees page for further details.
The ACT lasts 2hours and 55 minutes and covers 4 areas:
- Multi-choice grammar section
- 60 question maths section
- Reading comprehension
- General science section
There is an optional 30 minutes writing section.
The ACT does not use negative scoring. However, the questions are jumbled up in terms of complexity so leave a question if you do not know the answer.
The ACT costs $79.50 (which includes international testing fee of $40)
The ACT plus writing costs $96.50 (which includes international testing fee of $40).
All test fees are non-refundable. The Writing Test fee may be refundable under certain conditions.There are additional costs for standby testing, extra scores copies and changing test centre or date. More information, please visit the ACT fees page.
When should I take my Admissions Tests?
Admission tests are scheduled several times a year. Most applicants interested in going to study in the US straight after sixth form or college will take their admission test(s) in the summer term of Year 12 or the Autumn term of Year 13.
You can take the SAT in October, November, December, January, May and June. Please note that Language with Listening tests are offered only in November.
You can take the ACT in October, December, February, April and June. The ACT plus Writing Test is not available in February outside of the US.
It can take around 5 weeks for your SAT and ACT results (up to 8 weeks for ACT plus Writing test) to be sent to you and your universities, so bear this in mind for any application deadlines that you need to meet.
Where can I take Admission Tests in the UK?
To find SAT test centres in the UK, please visit:
NB. You have to select individual nation states, e.g., United Kingdom – England. If you just select United Kingdom, your search will probably return no results.
To find a list of UK ACT centres, please visit the ACT website:
- Check which test(s) you need for the university you are interested in. If you take the ACT, you may still need to take SAT Subject Tests.
- Be prepared and use practice papers. Consider using a test preparation service to help you.
- Register early. Some test centres fill up quickly.
Please remember that admission tests make up only a part of the application process. To find out what else you will need, click here.
Selecting your referees
You have to select 2-3 referees to support your application. Your chosen university will give you some advice on who they would suggest you get to be your referee. This will undoubtedly include somebody who knows you academically, i.e. a teacher at school.
Whoever you choose make sure that they know you personally and can support the admissions procedures of your chosen university. Also, make sure that they try to adopt the American approach to writing a reference which is much more full of praise and,perhaps, hyperbole than the British approach.
In addition, it is recommended by US Universities that you waive the right to see the supporting statements of your referees. The university admissions team deem them to be more honest.
When to apply?
UK school students need to apply to US universities in Year 13 or 2nd year of college. Application deadlines are set by individual universities and vary from institution to institution, however, they usually offer a choice of dates, known as regular application deadline, early decision and early action. There are also colleges that have rolling application deadlines.
There are usually early application dates in mid October/early November in the year prior to entry; and regular application dates around January in the year of entry.
Applying to a US university takes time and preparation. You will more than likely have to apply to each university separately. Even those universities that use the Common Application system may ask for supplementary information. In fact, the majority of them do.
We would advise that you apply to 5-6 US universities, not all of which should be of the same standing. If your application is rejected, you are unlikely to be able to apply to the same institution again in the future.
Remember that, unlike the UK, you apply to an institution and not a specific course so you need to spend time thinking about why your chosen university is right for you.
As a general rule, the following timescales apply, but it is advisable to check with individual universities for the exact date.
Regular decision deadline: These are often around December / January time, but can be as late as March. You can expect to receive your decision in Spring.
Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA): Deadlines for ED and EA are generally around mid October/beginning November. You should expect to receive a decision by December.
Rolling Admissions: Usually you can apply to these colleges between Autumn term and the Spring term of Year 13 and expect to receive a decision four to six weeks later.
Students must have all supporting documents with the university by the deadline date, including any admission tests scores and additional information requested by the university.If you are considering applying early, here are some points you should know:
- Early Decision is a legally binding decision allowing you to apply to only one university in the early application cycle. If accepted, you must withdraw your applications from all other US universities and take up your place at this university.
- Early Action allows you to apply early to several places. You are encouraged not to abuse this system and apply to too many. You are not allowed to early apply to more than one of the following colleges: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. This is know as single-choice early action.
If you are rejected from a University one year, then generally speaking it is regarded as a rejection from that university for life, at Bachelors level at least.
How much does it cost to study in the USA?
What will University in the US cost me?
You will need to pay for your college fees and your living costs. How much that will be can vary enormously, depending on the type of university you attend and how long your course is. Sometimes the published price for attending a college will include costs for accommodation and food but often these need to be factored in separately. Additional costs to consider include books, travel, healthcare and your student visa.
The headline price, also know as the sticker price, is not always the cost that many students will pay. The ‘net price’ is the actual cost students pay for a place at any given university. This is usually calculated by taking the sticker price minus any grants or scholarships to which you may be entitled.
To work out what might be available to you, most universities and colleges are now required to have net price calculators available on their websites. These take into account your personal circumstances and the university’s financial aid policies and give you a better indication of the fee you will pay.
Interested in attending a public university or college? As an international student, expect to pay the out-of-state fee.
There is no standard tuition fee set in the US so the price of tuition can vary. Private universities are generally more expensive than state-funded public universities or community colleges, however larger scholarships are more often awarded by private universities.
Some students choose to attend community colleges for 2 years to undertake an associate degree and then top up at a university for another 2 years. This is generally a cheaper route to gaining a Bachelor’s degree in the US and is gaining in popularity among US students in some states.
Many universities quote fees that include the cost of living on campus and most food costs (meal plans). It is worth bearing this in mind when comparing the overall cost of a US degree with that of a British qualification.
Living costs for studying in the US include: accommodation (and bills), food, course materials and books. Don’t forget to factor in visas and travel including your airfares. Check out the individual universities for information on local living costs and estimated monthly budgets. Another additional expense that can be quite noticeable is health insurance.
If you are looking to go to university in the US, you will need to start planning how you will pay for your tuition fees and living costs. It is highly recommend that you research your funding options alongside choosing a university.
How will I pay US University costs?
Once you have a realistic idea of the costs of attending an American university, here are some options on how to fund:
- Personal savings / family help - this is the first point of call. Even if you are eligible for scholarships and/or grants, there will be upfront costs that you will have to pay before you receive your first installment, for example, your student visa and flight costs.
- Grants and scholarships.
- Student and personal loans.
Grants and Scholarships
In the academic year 2010/11, EducationUSA reported that around 1000 US four-year colleges offered over $10,000 of financial aid to international students. Finding financial aid for international students is possible, but your personal circumstances will be taken into account to see what packages will be available to you.
Here are some examples of different types of financial aid:
Grants are assessed based on your financial need. Universities that offer these will assess your ability to pay, using your family income as a gauge on whether you are entitled to a grant.
Scholarshipsare usually awarded on the basis of achievement or merit. These can include academic achievement or sporting achievement. There are also scholarships given from outside organisations depending on your personal background. Some examples include: your religion, ethnicity, country of origin, or gender.
To receive a sports scholarship, you must be prepared to research your options and, in many cases, undertake a highly competitive recruitment process. Check closing dates because many sport scholarship deadlines are much earlier than regular admission cut-offs.
Some examples of sports scholarships that are available for UK students include: Football (soccer), golf, tennis and basketball.
Sports scholarships are generally awarded on a yearly basis for up to 4 years. You will be expected to maintain a satisfactory academic record alongside playing your sport. You will most likely compete in varsity matches/competitions against other universities.
Generally speaking, you do not need to pay back grants and scholarships, but always check the terms and conditions.
Applying for financial aid
Each university will have different timescales for applying for financial assistance, so check individual webpages for further details.
Around 400 colleges and scholarship programmes use the College Board Financial Aid Profile to assess your financial ability to pay. Check to see if you need to fill this in and then find out more at the College Board website
- Look for grants and scholarships alongside researching universities. Some funding deadlines are early in the year.
- Compile the information that you may need to support your application. Information requests may include: Admission test scores, academic transcripts, your family’s financial information. You may need to write an essay or provide a reference. For certain merit-based scholarships, you may need to audition, attend a sports trial or send a portfolio.
- Make sure you read the funding terms and conditions - you may need to keep your class results above a certain grade-point average whilst at university to continue to receive your funding, or you may need to get involved in certain campus activities (sports teams, societies etc).
Please note: when applying to University in the US, you will often be asked how you expect to fund your studies. Some universities assess students on a need-blind based when considering your application, that means that these institutions will not regard your financial circumstances when deciding admission.
If you choose to study outside the UK, you are not eligible for a student loan from the British Government for your tuition fees or living costs. The US Federal government will also not lend you money if you are a non-US citizen*. Therefore, if you need to borrow money to help fund your studies in the US, it will be likely that you will have to take a personal loan from a (UK) bank. If you are considering this, remember that you will be charged a commercial rate of interest and you will be expected to make repayments during your studies.
Important: In order to get your American Student Visa, you will need to declare how you intend to finance your first year at your chosen university.
*If you are an American or dual national, then you are able to take a US Federal Loan from FAFSA
Ways to save money on a US Bachelor
Doing a 2+2 programme is an excellent way to get an American Bachelor degree without the huge price tag costs. Firstly, you will study an Associate degree at a Community College and then you can transfer to university study for a further 2 years and receive a Bachelor degree.
Community colleges have articulation agreements with certain universities/colleges for 2+2 programmes. Check out individual community colleges websites for further information.
How do I get a visa to study in the USA?
You are required to hold a student visa for the duration of your studies. You can find out more information about student visa from the US Embassy in London.
Can I work there as a student?
Your student visa allows you to work up to 20 hours a week on campus. You are not allowed to work off campus on a student visa. Upon graduation you can apply for a visa to work for up to 12 months. It is possible to apply for 12 months after the completion of an Associate Degree and then for an additional 12 months upon completion of a Bachelors Degree.
Which are the best universities in the USA?
- California Institute of Technology
- Stanford University
- Harvard University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Princeton University
US University jargon explained
ACT- American College Test is one type of admissions test that applicants wishing to attending university in the US may be required to take. Find out more here
Admissions test - A standardised test which assesses your readiness for university. You may be require to take a general reason or logic-based test, or a knowledge-based subject specific test. Find out more here
Advanced Standing - Some universities may offer entry straight into the Sophomore (second) year if you have studied certain qualifications. Examples of qualifications that may be considered are Advanced Placement in the US or the International Baccalaureate in UK. If successful students could studying a Bachelor degree in three rather than four years
Common Application- An application service that represents nearly 500 US universities. Applicants can use this system to apply to several universities at the same time. Please note: that the majority of universities that use Common Application request additional information and/or essays. See the Applying to American Universities section.
Community College - See the Types of American Universities section
Core class - General education classes in subjects such as science, humanities, languages, maths and English. Students are required to take some of these subjects alongside their main subject.
Double major - Some students choose two main subjects, similar to a joint or combined honours degree in the UK. Students take a majority of their classes in these fields. The subjects do not need to be related.
Early Action- This term is used during the Application process. You can submit your application to university for early consideration. Dates vary, but deadlines are usually around mid-October/Early November the year before entry. With Early Action applications, you are allowed to decline any offers you are made. Certain institutions only accept Single-Choice Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action) which means that you cannot apply early to other universities or colleges).
Early Decision - This term is used during the Application process. It refers to a legally binding agreement between you and one university. If you apply with Early Decision you are agreeing to attend the university that you are applying to if you are accepted. You must withdraw all other applications. Dates vary, but deadlines are usually around mid-October/early November the year before entry.
Freshman year - First year of college or university.
Ivy League - The Ivy League refers to 8 private universities in the North East of the US. Originally a sports league, the term Ivy League has become synonymous with good quality education. Most of these institutions are in the Top 50 Universities in the World according to the current THES World Rankings.
Junior year - Third year of study at university.
Liberal Arts philosophy - The US Higher Education system promotes gaining knowledge in a breadth of subjects. As a result, students studying degree programmes will be expected to take general education classes in a range of subjects.
Major class - The main subject a student chooses to study at University/College. This is usually decided midway through your second (sophomore) year.
Minor class - Students can take specialise in a secondary subject alongside their major (main subject).
Private College/University - See the Types of American Universities section
Public College/University - See the Types of American Universities section
Public Ivies - Public universities or colleges that are deemed to be as good as their Private Ivy League counterparts.
Regular Decision - This term is used during the Application process and refers to the deadline by which universities or colleges will consider your application. This is later than the earlier deadline options but can be from December through to March. Check individual institutions for exact dates and details.
SAT - Scholastic Assessment Test is one type of admissions test that applicants wishing to attending university in the US may be required to take. Find out more here.
Senior year - Fourth year of study at university.
Sophomore year - Second year at university.