Applying for Colleges and Universities in the United States

So you are thinking about applying for college or university in the United States. What now? The process is actually quite long and daunting, but if you break it down, it may help you focus on your goal ahead.

What you need

Let's start off with a simple checklist of what you will need to apply to most colleges or universities in the US.

  1. GPA (Grade Point Average)
  2. For those who already attend schools under the American system, you will be familiar with a GPA. For those who do not, however, your GPA is basically a number that represents the average of all of your grades throughout your high school years. Your school will have a way to convert all of your grades into a number for each class that you take, as well as a way to calculate the average over your high school years.

    Now, this is where it can get confusing. Some schools will have a scale out of 4.0 for GPAs (meaning that A+'s across the board will get you a 4.0), while other schools will have a scale out of 4.0 with honors weighting. This means that classes that are more difficult, such as AP classes or classes that are considered "honors" classes, may give you a 0.5 GPA boost for that single class. Of course, the effect is not as obvious for just one honors class as the number is still averaged over all the subjects that you take. However, this means that different high schools have different scales.

    Each school will also have its own conversion system, which may get even more confusing. However, colleges and universities realise that discrepancies in GPA calculation are an issue and will take it into account when reviewing your application. They should also have an idea of how your school calculates GPAs based on previous applicants from your school.

    Here is a guideline of grade boundaries:

    GPA

    Letter Grade

    Percent Grade (%)

    4.0

    A+/A

    95-100

    3.7

    A-

    90-94

    3.3

    B+

    86-89

    3.0

    B

    83-85

    2.7

    B-

    80-82

    2.3

    C+

    76-79

    2.0

    C

    73-75

    1.7

    C-

    70-72

    1.3

    D+

    66-69

    1.0

    D

    63-65

    0.7

    D-

    60-62

  3. SAT or ACT Scores
  4. Both of these exams are standardised aptitude tests. As mentioned above, it is quite difficult to compare GPAs from different schools as each school has its own system. Thus, SAT and ACT scores can be used for colleges to compare you to all other applicants. These two exams test you on various sections including English, Mathematics and Science. To see a more detailed comparison of the differences between the two tests, (see our post on SAT vs. ACT).

    SAT and ACT are usually a good indication of the colleges/universities you have a shot at getting into.

    Once you receive your score, you will be able to get an idea of your percentile, which compares you to all other exam takers from your year. This is usually a good indication of the colleges/universities you have a shot at getting into. Something else to note is that some colleges/universities allow for a "superscore", which means that you may combine the highest scores for each section if you take the exam multiple times.

  5. A Recommendation (or Maybe a Few)
  6. Most colleges/universities in the US will ask you to submit one or more recommendations. This is another way that they use to pick between applicants with similar scores. Colleges/universities in the US not only look at students' scores, but also look at personality traits and skills that make the student a better fit for their school. Thus, recommendations are one way to determine whether or not they believe you are a match for them. Keep in mind that teachers usually have a standard recommendation that they will use, as they usually have to write multiple recommendations each year. Teachers are also, however, willing to go above and beyond in writing recommendations for students that they believe deserve them. That said, there are some things that you can do to maximize your chances here. See Asking Your Teacher for Recommendations for some tips.

  7. An Application Form
  8. Depending on the colleges/universities you would like to apply to, the application for you fill in will be different. A few common types include the independent application, Common Application and Coalition Application. The college/university may have an independent application that details all of their requirements. You would fill out the application on their designated portal and send it to them through there.

    Some schools may choose to have you fill out a supplement, within which each college/university will ask you to answer any additional questions they may want.

    The other common types are the Common Application and the Coalition Application. For these two types, the college/university accepts the general portion of the Common or Coalition Application so that you may save time by only filling out the information once and being able to apply to multiple schools. However, some schools may choose to have you fill out a supplement, within which each college/university will ask you to answer any additional questions they may want.

What else you "MAY" need

The following items in this list are things that you may need depending on your circumstance and your college/university's requirements.

  1. SAT or ACT Essay Section Scores
  2. This is something that is completely dependent on not only the colleges/universities you want to apply to, but also may depend on the major(s) you would like to apply to. Most students don't have a clear idea on where and what they would like to study until later on, so the advice here is to play it safe and take the SAT or ACT with the essay section. This may seem like a hassle as you would have to prepare for an extra section on the exam; however, this will save you some time in the future if you do decide to apply to a program that requires the essay section. If you need help deciding whether or not you should take the essay section, see Should I do the SAT/ACT Essay?.

  3. SAT II Exam/SAT II Subject Test Scores
  4. SAT II exams and SAT II subject tests refer to the same things. These are standardized exams that test you on specific subjects such as Chemistry or History that are graded on a scale of 200-800. Unlike the SAT or ACT exams, SAT II exams demonstrate your understanding of a specific subject. They also come in helpful to demonstrate your interest in studying a subject further at college/university. Because the nature of these exams are to show your deeper understanding, students tend to score higher on these exams. Thus, a good score would be 600-700, while a great score would be 700+.

    Usually, these are only required by the top-tier institutions, and usually, two or more exam scores will be required.

    These scores also depend on the colleges/universities that you would like to apply to. Usually, these are only required by the top-tier institutions (we are talking about mostly Ivy League institutions), and usually, two or more exam scores will be required. Some colleges/universities will "recommend" these scores, which means that you probably should take the exams. They may also specify what subjects you need to take the exams in (for example, one in mathematics/science and one in the humanities). Other colleges/universities are more flexible and may even tell you that they can consider AP or IB exam scores in place of SAT II exam scores.

  5. AP Exam Scores
  6. AP or Advanced Placement exams are taken at the end of each school year in May. These exams test your knowledge and skills that you have acquired from taking an Advanced Placement course in school, usually throughout one school year. Students' answers are scored on a scale of 5, with 5 being extremely qualified, 4 being well qualified, 3 being qualified, 2 being possibly qualified and 1 being no recommendation.

    Some colleges/universities in the US give credit for students who receive high scores in AP exams (defined by each school, but usually 3,4 and 5), so that these students do not have to take as many foundational courses at the college/university. This means that some students will be able to graduate early or be able to take more courses that interest them. Top tier schools may also wish to take AP exam grades into account for admission decisions, although this is not the main goal of the AP exams.

  7. IB Exam Scores
  8. IB or International Baccalaureate exams are taken at the end of undertaking courses that are under the IB program. To get a score on an IB subject, the student not only has to undertake the exam at the end of the (usually) two-year course, but also has to complete all other elements of coursework. Each subject is scored on a scale of 7, with 4 as the minimum score to pass the exam. Furthermore, some students may choose to undertake the IB diploma, which involves completion of six IB subjects along with some extra elements.

    Regarding college/university applications to the US, IB exam scores hold similar weight to AP exam scores. This means that some colleges/universities in the US give credit for students who receive high scores in IB exams (defined by each school, but usually 5,6,7). Likewise, it means that these students do not have to take as many foundational courses at the college/university. This means that some students will be able to graduate early or be able to take more courses that interest them. Top tier schools may also wish to take IB exam grades into account for admission decisions.

  9. TOEFL or IELTS Scores
  10. Unlike any of the previously mentioned exams, TOEFL/IELTS exams are for students who are not native speakers of English. These two exams are usually for international students who wish to demonstrate their proficiency in the English language.

    If your school's main language of instruction is English and you have attended an English-speaking school throughout your school years, then you do not need to take these exams.

    Again, different colleges/universities have their own policies on who needs to take these exams as well as the scores required to apply to their institution. However, as a rule of thumb, if your school's main language of instruction is English and you have attended an English-speaking school throughout your school years, then you do not need to take these exams. The best way to find out whether or not this is true is to ask your school's administration office, as sometimes your school's official language of instruction depends on how they registered with the government. 



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