What Do American Universities Want? Your Complete Guide to the U.S. College Search and Application Process

How do you sort through all of your U.S. university options? How do you figure out what is required? And what do these schools really want to see on your application? Here's what you need to know.

The hardest part of any project is figuring out where to start, and the university application process is no different. If you are an international student considering the many colleges and universities in the United States, the process can be particularly overwhelming. How do you sort through all of the options? How do you figure out what is required? And what do these schools really want to see on your application?

Here’s what you need to know.

First, some important definitions . . .

College vs. university

Generally speaking, a college offers mainly bachelor’s degrees while a university also offers graduate degrees. Universities often have several “schools” within them, offering different undergraduate and graduate degrees. Because of this, universities tend to be larger than colleges. Of course, there are always exceptions, with some smaller universities out there and some colleges that award advanced degrees.

Scholarships vs. grants vs. loans

You can think of scholarships and grants in the same way; they are essentially “free money” applied toward your college education. Scholarships are often given based on merit, whereas grants are often based on your demonstrated financial need. Loans need to be repaid, usually after you graduate from the institution. Loans can originate with the university or college, from the state or federal government, or from a private company. Just remember that in most cases, international students are not eligible for loans issued by the U.S. government, nor are they often considered for need-based aid. You should, however, ask any school you apply to what kind of merit- or need-based aid they offer international students.

Standardized tests

These timed and often multiple-choice tests are given in the same format to all students who take them. Every college has different requirements when it comes to standardized tests, and the requirements may be different for international students (especially from non-English speaking countries). The most common tests are the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, and IELTS. Check each university’s requirements, and make sure you don’t miss the deadline to sign up for any of the required tests. Most students begin taking these exams in the spring of their junior year in high school.

Common Application

Hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States accept the Common Application (known informally as “the Common App”), a form that you fill out only once and send to multiple schools. Some colleges also have a Writing Supplement to the Common App, including an additional essay or short-answer questions. Some universities offer the choice of filling out their own application instead of the Common App. If a school offers both the Common App and their own application, they cannot give preference to one over the other. Choose whatever works best for you. If most of the universities you are applying to accept the Common App, it’s usually easier to choose that option, especially if you are applying to many schools.

Reach vs. good fit vs. likely

These are terms students and guidance counselors use to describe an individual student’s college list. “Reach” schools are those that might be difficult for you to get into. “Good fit” schools are those you feel you are probably the best match for. “Likely” schools are those where you are very likely to be admitted. One person’s Reach school could be another person’s Likely school; this varies based on the individual student’s performance in high school and the average profile of students that university has accepted in the past.

Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

Some colleges have multiple deadlines and application types available. Regular Decision application deadlines for the fall semester usually occur in the preceding January or February, and students receive a decision by April. Regular Decision also means you have not made any commitment to the school—if you are accepted, you can choose to go elsewhere. With Early Action, you submit your application earlier (usually in November) and get your decision earlier as well (usually by December), and you can still apply to other schools. Early Decision, however, is a binding admission decision, though it follows a similar timeline as Early Action. If you apply to a school under Early Decision, you are agreeing to enroll if you are admitted. If you have submitted other applications and you receive an Early Decision acceptance, you must contact the other colleges and withdraw those applications. Both “early” options are intended for students who are positive they have a first-choice school and feel prepared to apply by the fall, but it’s good to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each option with a counselor. Some schools also allow students to enroll starting in the spring semester (in January); those deadlines typically fall in October or November.

Rolling admission

Some colleges have what is called “rolling admission” instead of regular or early options. With rolling admission, the sooner you apply to a college, the sooner you receive a decision. Schools with rolling deadlines often accept applications as late as April or even through the summer months, which is helpful if you start your college search late.

Time to do research

Now that you have a grasp of some of the common university application terms, where do you begin? The first step has to be research. There are literally thousands of universities in the United States—how do you choose which ones you should apply to? Besides researching what universities are out there, you should also do some “research” within yourself. Ask yourself some questions about what you’re looking for in a college: Do you want to live in an urban or suburban environment? Will you thrive at a large school or a small school? Do you know what you want to major in? Are there certain extracurricular activities that are essential to you?

If your school has a university counselor, you should consider speaking with him or her about what schools might be a good fit. And countless websites have helpful interactive tools that generate lists of potential schools depending on your answers to certain questions. The College Board offers such a tool, and the ACT website has a great College Planning checklist.

Creating your college list

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a reasonable length (think 10–20 schools), you will want to investigate each of these potential universities further. Perhaps all of them match the criteria you had in mind, but which ones offer the best fit? The most effective way to explore universities is to visit their campus, take a tour, and get a student’s firsthand perspective of the college experience. If you are not able to travel to visit universities in person, many now offer virtual tours online, so you can still see campus for yourself. Others have student blogs and social media sites where you can get an idea of the campus culture and the student community. You can also learn more about each university’s location online and look for college fairs, visits to your high school, or other events in your area as well. Meeting with admission officers in person is a good way to get your questions answered, and college fairs can help you discover new schools to add to your list.

Check the requirements and deadlines

After finalizing your list, it’s time to sort out the details. Most colleges have pretty standard requirements: the application, a personal essay, two or three letters of recommendation, official transcript(s), and standardized scores. But there are often variations to this list, especially for those applying to art programs (you might need a portfolio) and for international students (you might have to submit TOEFL and SAT scores). You also want to make sure you understand the deadlines for each university’s application. Usually the application deadline is also the deadline for all supporting documents, so it’s important to check in on your application status with each school throughout the process. If the university’s website is confusing, give the admission office a call or send them an e-mail—they are there to help.

Tips and tricks for filling out your application

There are three sections of the application that students seem to get particularly nervous about: the transcript, letters of recommendation, and the personal essay. The best way to feel better about these requirements is to understand what they are meant to do. In short the transcript is meant to give an overview of your academic performance, and the recommendations and essay are meant to allow the person reading your application to understand you as more than a set of numbers.

Remember that your transcript is not being read in a vacuum. It’s important to do well in school, but it’s also important to challenge yourself, improve each year, and take classes beyond the requirements. Admission counselors look at your transcript along with a “school report” that indicates what your school requires and what kinds of courses are offered, so they can evaluate not just how well you did but how well you took advantage of the opportunities offered to you.

When it comes to recommendations, try to choose teachers who know you well both inside and outside the classroom. Ideally, these teachers will have taught you throughout high school so they can attest to how you have grown. If this is not an option, choose a current or recent teacher who knows you well. Many schools require one recommendation to come from your school counselor, so make sure to meet with him or her as well. Whomever you choose, make sure to ask early and provide as many details as possible. Most teachers are not required to write recommendations, so be as helpful as you can by providing all of the documents, links, and information they need to complete the recommendation successfully (and on time!).

And finally, for the essay, remember that showing your individuality is just as important as being grammatically correct. Start with a “hook,” an introduction that draws the reader in, and tell a memorable story that defines you and sets you apart as an individual. The most memorable essays are not always lists of accomplishments or tragic stories; they are a representation of your personality on paper. So be honest—and have someone edit for grammar!

How American colleges review candidates

The United States is probably one of the only places in the world where most colleges review applications holistically. While many countries use a simple formula that accounts for only grades and/or test scores, most U.S. colleges consider everything you submit: grades, test scores, recommendations, essays, and your extracurricular activities. Colleges in the U.S. value diversity—of race, of culture, of interest, and of experience—so they evaluate the application as a whole package. Admission counselors also value how involved and active you were outside the classroom. That doesn’t mean you should join four new clubs senior year, but it’s important to include that community service position, that leadership role for your school’s club, or that activity you dedicated yourself to for multiple years. This is especially important if interviews are not offered as part of the application process. Universities want to see how you have contributed to your community in the past—from tutoring and child care to theater and sports—as it’s a good indication of how you might contribute to your college community in the future.

The best piece of advice

As you go through your university search, remember that you are not just searching for a school, but a temporary home. Once you get your acceptance letters, you usually have to make a choice between a few options. Sometimes finances make that choice for you, but, if they don’t, the best person to listen to is yourself. It’s easy to go with your parents’ favorite school, the school your friends like best, or even the one with the highest rankings. But none of these opinions will make you happy once you are there. Listen to others’ advice, but, if finances allow, make your own choice. You did the work—pick the university that’s best for you.  

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