Applying to US colleges? What should you be doing now?
March is an important time for those of you who have already applied to US colleges, as you will receive the results of your applications at the end of this month. For those applying next Autumn, your preparations for taking the SAT or ACT should be well advanced (but see under ‘Year 12’ below for information on possible closure of test centres due to the coronavirus). Here is a summary of what you should be doing now, depending on your school year.
If you applied by the ‘Regular Action’ deadline in January, the colleges will inform you whether you have been accepted at the end of March. Offers from American colleges are usually unconditional in that they do not depend on achieving particular grades at A Level, but be warned! Most colleges will check your actual A Level grades in August and if your results differ significantly from what was predicted, the offers you have received may be withdrawn.
What to do if you are accepted
- If you have more than one offer, choose the college that you feel is the overall best fit in terms of the academic curriculum, extracurricular opportunities and geographic location.
- Any offers of financial aid should come at the same time as offers of admission. Consider these carefully, as the level of financial aid offered will have a significant effect on your final choice. If you receive notice that your aid application is incomplete, quickly submit the missing information so that the aid decision can reach you during the month of April. If the aid offer is not sufficient to allow you to attend that college, contact the Financial Aid Office to discuss whether any adjustments can be made. Prepare for that conversation by thinking about any unusual expenses or situations your family may have (e.g. “My parents annually provide about £3,000 support to my grandmother overseas,” or “My father has recently lost his job and our income is £10,000 lower now than it was last year.”)
- If possible, contact recent UK graduates of the colleges that offer you admission, and chat to them about their experiences.
- Inform the colleges whether you wish to accept their offers by 1 May (this is a national deadline and is the same for all US colleges).
What to do if you are put on the waitlist
- This means that you narrowly missed out on being offered a place, but could still be offered one depending on the level of acceptance from other students.
- Stay positive, and be sure to let the Admissions Office know of any major achievements since you submitted your application, as these may increase your chances of success.
- Although they may not be your first choice, consider all other offers you have received from both US and UK universities.
- Accept a place at a college by 1 May. If you are admitted from a waitlist after that date, you can inform the college you accepted that you are changing your mind (and don’t worry; this happens all the time over the summer for all US colleges. It gives the first college a chance to admit someone from their waitlist to take the spot you have turned down.) Or accept no places and plan to take a gap year or enrol in the UK or elsewhere.
What to do if you are not offered a place
- Explore other options.
- Consider taking a gap year and reapplying next year. (If you do this, it is better to apply to a different group of US colleges as it is very rare for the same college to offer a place to a student the second time around, unless he or she has achieved something very significant in the interim.)
- If reapplying, identify an adviser who can review all aspects of your application and help with improvements and finding ‘good fit’ colleges for your particular needs and aspirations.
- If taking a gap year, use part of the year on activities that will enhance your application, such as community service, work experience, academic research, or enhancing still further an extracurricular skill or activity (or any combination of the above).
IMPORTANT. Effect of coronavirus on SAT and ACT testing.
Both the SAT and ACT administrations are monitoring the spread of the coronavirus around the world and several test centres in affected countries have been closed. At the time of writing (8 March) all UK test centres remain open, but this may change if the number of UK infections escalates in the coming weeks. If you have registered to take tests in April, May or June, please check the relevant websites for updates.
Link to information on SAT Test Centre closings.
The ACT website has a pop-up information box saying:
If any test centers for the April test date are closed, ACT will notify impacted students and test center coordinators directly, as well as post and update information regarding the closures on this website:
The following information assumes that UK test centres will remain open until the end of June.
- If you are taking the SAT or ACT next term you should already have booked your place at one of the Test Centres and your preparations should be well advanced. ACT test dates: 4 April and 13 June 2020. SAT test dates: 2 May and 6 June 2020.
- If taking the SAT, be sure to take advantage of the free online practice tools provided by the Khan Academy.
- If taking the ACT, free online test preparation is available at the ACT Academy.
- Once you have exhausted all the free online practice materials, there are a number of practice books available for purchase. They all contain full practice tests, but they differ as regards other content. For example, some contain more ‘test tips’ than others, some have a vocabulary supplement, some give full explanations of every answer, while others don’t. To look at the full range of books available, type ‘SAT practice tests’ or ‘ACT practice tests’ into your search engine, and choose the book that best caters for your particular requirements.
- If your practice tests are not yielding the scores that you need, you might consider applying to colleges that are ‘test optional.’ These include Bates, Bryn Mawr, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury and Smith, as well as New York University and the University of Chicago. A full list of test optional colleges can be found on the Fair Test website.
- But the most important task of all is to get good grades in all of the internal mock exams you are taking this summer. Since offers of admission to US colleges are not conditional on A Level grades (with the caveat mentioned in Year 13 above), any exams you sit this year will take on greater significance than they would have done otherwise.
- Although there is not a huge amount for you to do this academic year in preparation for your US college applications, you should at least have researched the American college system and identified a long list of possible colleges you think might be suitable for you.
- If you are highly accomplished in a particular academic subject, you may wish to take the relevant SAT Subject Test a year early, as your scores will remain valid for at least three years. There are 20 subjects to choose from.
- To find out whether you are good enough, take the free online tests in your strongest subject(s), and if you get a high score, you should consider taking the subject test(s) early (on 2 May or 6 June 2020) as it spreads the load and you will have less to do next year.
- There is, however, one task that is absolutely crucial this year: work hard and get good grades for your GCSEs in the summer. Good grades will act as the gateway to whatever you want to do afterwards.
The contents of The Guide are relevant to British students since the application process for international applicants and US citizens is exactly the same. However, some of the terms used will not be familiar in the UK, particularly the names given to the last four years in a US high school. So for the benefit of British students, here are the four names and their equivalent for a UK secondary school:
Freshman Year: Year 10 England & Wales; S3 Scotland; Year 11 N. Ireland
Sophomore Year: Year 11 England & Wales; S4 Scotland; Year 12 N. Ireland
Junior Year: Year 12 England & Wales; S5 Scotland; Year 13 N. Ireland
Senior Year: Year 13 England & Wales; S6 Scotland; Year 14 N. Ireland
The same four names (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior) are used to describe the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th years of an undergraduate degree course at a US university.
We will be highlighting different sections of The Guide in the coming months, starting with information on standardised tests and financial aid.
Standardised tests: the SAT and ACT
Many US colleges ask you to take one of two standardised tests (the SAT or the ACT) as part of the application process. For some colleges, including Harvard, the tests are compulsory, for others the tests are recommended but not required, and some colleges do not require them at all. These are listed on the ‘Fair Test’ website.
The SAT and ACT are administered by two different organisations and US colleges accept both tests equally, so from their point of view it doesn’t matter which one you take. Both tests are mostly multiple choice and cover reading, writing and mathematics, but they are scored and structured differently, and the ACT also contains a science section. The best way of deciding which one to take is to try a free online practice paper for both tests and go with whichever one gives you the better score.
Both tests have an optional essay. However, the more competitive universities still recommend that you complete the essay section, so always register for ‘SAT with writing’ or ‘ACT with writing’. (For Harvard, the essay section is recommended but not required).
Free guides to the SAT and ACT
For information about the SAT, test-taking advice and tips, and sample test questions, download the SAT Student Guide 2019-20.
For information about the ACT including test prep, go to the ACT webpage for non-US students.
SAT Subject Tests
In addition to the main SAT or ACT test, some colleges also require you to take two subject tests, which are only offered by the SAT administration. Most top colleges require the tests, but some others have made them optional or do not require them. (For Harvard, the two subject tests are recommended, but not required).
The subjects offered are:
- Math Level 1
- Math Level 2
- English Literature
- US History
- World History
- Spanish/Spanish with Listening
- French/French with Listening
- Chinese/Chinese with Listening
- German/German with Listening
- Modern Hebrew
- Japanese/Japanese with Listening
- Korean/Korean with Listening
You should take your two strongest subjects, but if you are not taking any of the available subjects at A Level or for your IB, then the best two to take are Math Level 1 and English Literature. Math Level 1 is roughly GCSE level, and English Literature is largely a comprehension test which does not require knowledge of specific authors.
Applicants who are doing a mathematics A Level should take the more difficult Math Level 2 plus one other subject. You may not take both Math Level 1 and Level 2. Two subjects to avoid for students outside America are US History and World History – even if you are an historian – as the syllabus is set from an American perspective and does not relate well to history courses taught in the UK.
The best way to get a good score in this type of test – both for the main test and the two subject tests – is to become familiar with it, especially the type of questions asked and the time allowed for each section. So it is essential to set yourself a weekly practice schedule in the three months leading up to the exam, so you reach peak performance just before the test date. When you run out of the free online practice tests, there are many practice books available for purchase online. Simply type ‘ACT practice books’ or ‘SAT practice books’ into your search engine to see what is available.
If you are in Year 12 and planning to apply to US colleges in the autumn, you should start your practice routine immediately in preparation for sitting the tests in April, May or June. The spring of Year 12 is a good time to take them as you will be well into your A Level or IB syllabus by that time, and will also have the opportunity to retake them in the autumn if your scores are not as good as you hoped. But don’t forget that if you retake them, you will have to pay the test fees again, so it’s a much better option to keep up your regular practice so you achieve the scores you need at the first sitting.
Summary: how to ensure you achieve good SAT/ACT scores
- Take both of the practice tests and go with whichever gives you the better score.
- A good score is one that fits the profile of the colleges you have selected (all US college websites have a page giving the range of scores achieved by admitted applicants).
- Consider test dates, the location of your nearest test centre, the availability of places and PLAN AHEAD.
- Familiarity with the test is the best way to boost your score, so make use of the free online practice tools (see below).
- If your test scores don’t reflect your potential, consider colleges which are test flexible (e.g. Chicago, NYU, Hamilton, Middlebury) or test optional (e.g. Clark, Connecticut College). Click here for a full list of test optional colleges.
Links to the free online practice material
For the SAT, there are also free online practice tools provided by the Khan Academy.
The ACT has its own ACT Academy where you can take full length ACT practice tests, and use learning materials including educational games, short skill tests, interactive apps and video lessons.
If you need additional practice material, books of SAT and ACT practice tests are available to purchase for around £20-25 each.
Upcoming SAT dates and deadlines (35 UK test locations)
There is only one remaining date this academic year to take the main SAT test: 2 May 2020. Register now to give yourself enough time to practise between now and the test date. SAT subject tests are available on 2 May 2020 and also on 6 June 2020, but note that you cannot take the subject tests on the same date as the main test. Therefore if you are taking the main test on 2 May, the only date available for the subject tests will be 6 June. (As an alternative the SAT test, you can of course take the ACT, which has different test dates – see next section).
SAT Test Date: 2 May 2020
Registration deadline: 3 April 2020
Tests available: SAT and SAT subject tests
Subjects available: Literature, US History, Math Level 1, Math Level 2, Biology E/M, Chemistry, Physics, French, Spanish.
SAT Test Date: 6 June 2020
Registration deadline: n/a
Tests available: SAT subject tests only
Subjects available: Literature, US History, World History, Math Level 1, Math Level 2, Biology E/M, Chemistry, Physics, French, German, Spanish, Modern Hebrew, Italian, Latin.
Upcoming ACT dates and deadlines (18 UK test locations)
The ACT offers a multiple choice reasoning test consisting of mathematics, science, reading and writing, but does not offer subject tests, which have to be taken under the SAT administration. There are two further available dates to take the ACT this academic year (see below) which are different to the SAT test dates so provide you with extra flexibility regarding when to take the tests. For the more competitive colleges, students should always register for ‘ACT with writing’, which includes a short essay in addition to the multiple choice sections.
ACT Test Date: 4 April 2020
Registration deadline: 28 February 2020
Tests available: ACT or ACT with writing
ACT Test Date: 13 June 2020
Registration deadline: 8 May 2020
Tests available: ACT or ACT with writing
Types of Financial Aid
Last month we gave you some tips about how to research the US college system to identify a short list of colleges that you might want to apply to later this year. An essential element of the research process is to find out which colleges provide financial aid to international students, and if so, how much you are likely to be awarded.
Since 2005, Harvard has provided generous financial aid to those families who need it, so that today, families earning less than $65,000 a year (around £50,000 at current exchange rates) pay nothing toward the cost of their son or daughter’s education. These students now also receive a $2,000 start-up grant that helps support move-in costs and other expenses incurred in making the transition to college. International students have the same access to financial aid as domestic students. Families earning up to $150,000 a year (about £115,000) with typical assets will expect to pay from 0-10% of their income towards university costs.
Other colleges with generous financial aid schemes include Yale, Princeton, MIT and Amherst, but others may not provide aid to international students, or may have limited aid available, so you should always check out all financial aid options before arriving at your final shortlist of colleges. The main types of aid available are:
This is the most common type of aid so is usually the first port of call for families on modest or middle incomes. As the amounts awarded by different colleges vary from year to year, you should check the websites of all your short-listed colleges to find out if you are eligible for financial aid, and how much you might receive. By law, every college website must have a ‘Net Price Calculator’ that will estimate the annual cost of a college education based on your family’s current financial circumstances. Not all such calculators will work for international students/currencies. Click here to see an example of one that works for all families.
When to apply: you should apply for need-based financial aid at the same time as you submit your admissions application, since an offer of financial aid, or lack of it, will have a significant effect on whether you accept any offers of admission you are sent by the colleges. You therefore need to receive any offers of financial aid at the same time as the result of your main application.
Many colleges, in addition to need-based aid, may offer merit-based aid for strong academic performance, or a particular talent in sport, the performing arts or other extracurricular involvement. As funding is usually reserved for top students, your SAT/ACT test scores should be well above those of typical students admitted to the colleges where you will be applying. To help you to assess your performance in comparison with others, the percentage of admitted students who achieved particular scores is shown on all college websites.
College sport is massive in the US and universities are keen to attract the best players, particularly for their varsity teams (premier league teams that play in organised inter-college competitions). Unlike academic scholarships where students simply submit an application to the college, the process for applying for sports scholarships is long and complicated. Click here for the Fulbright Commission’s web page on sports scholarships and the athletic recruitment process.
Some scholarships are also awarded based on specific personal qualities outlined by the university or an individual donor or sponsor. These qualities often correlate to the mission of the organisation or interests of the donor and could include country of origin, ethnicity, religious faith, interest in a particular field, gender, interests and talents. There should be information about such niche scholarships on the college’s website.