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About US Universities

The US Undergraduate Landscape

Higher education in the United States follows a liberal arts model of education, emphasizing the broad-based study of various disciplines (like the sciences, the humanities and the arts) as well as an in-depth understanding of your chosen field of study, or major.

At most public and private research universities — whether you go on to study Engineering at MIT, Economics at Penn State or Comparative Literature at Harvard — you will be required to take a few classes that teach you foundational knowledge in writing and quantitative reasoning.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) focus on teaching the liberal arts and sciences. They are usually undergraduate focused, and do not offer graduate programmes. Classes at LACs tend to be smaller and more discussion based owing to the small cohort sizes.

Public Universities

Public Universities (or state schools) are publicly funded. They offer lower tuition rates for state residents and are typically very large, comprising over 10,000 students. They are often made up of multiple campuses (like the University of California colleges, for example).

Private Universities

Private Universities are not publicly funded and unlike liberal arts colleges, they do offer graduate programmes. They usually only have one campus, and are typically quite research focused. The Ivy League colleges are all private universities.

What do I need to get into a Top University?

Universities in the US will consider both academic and non-academic factors in making their admissions decisions. You are required to demonstrate competency and skill in both of these regards.

Academic Requirements

IB; or A-Levels; or APs; or GPA

Either the SAT or the ACT.

You need two teacher recommendations and one non-academic recommendation.

Applications require at least a few accomplishments that are academic in nature (eg: Honor Roll / Olympiads / Research).

Non-Academic Requirements

You should have at least ten meaningful extra curricular activities from Grade 9 onwards. These should demonstrate your interests and accomplishments outside the classroom.

Universities look for mature, driven students who will go on to become leaders in their fields. You should try to showcase instances of you taking initiative and showing leadership in and outside of school.

Universities want to know that you have made an impact in your community. You should demonstrate how your community (school or otherwise) have benefited from your actions.

Your college essays should give admissions counsellors insight into who you are, what experiences have shaped you, and why you are the best fit for the university you are applying to.

How do I apply to US Universities?

Step 1

University Choice

Decide which universities you want to apply to. You should consider not just rankings, but other factors that contribute to student experience like location, design of curriculum, size of classes etc. You should also decide whether you want to apply via Early Action / Early Decision or via Regular Decision:

Early Decision is typically restrictive and binding. This means you can only apply to one university as an Early Decision applicant, and if you get accepted, you must accept the university’s offer.

Early Action is not binding. You can apply Early Action to your top university choice and also apply to other universities under Regular Decision plans. You do not have to accept the university’s offer if you get in.

Regular Decision deadlines are usually in the first week of January in the year you intend to enrol in university. You will receive acceptance offers in May and you may decide where you wish to matriculate then.

Step 2

Creating Accounts

You need to create an account on an application portal in order to submit your university applications. There are three common portals used in university admissions:

This is a centralized platform allowing you to apply to hundreds of universities with a single application. More information about creating a Common Application account can be found here.

The Coalition Application allows you to apply to over 140 member colleges. It includes a “Locker” to upload all of your supporting documents in one place. See all member colleges here.

Some universities (notably MIT and the University of California system) have a separate application portal. Students must apply directly to these universities. More information can be found on each university’s Admissions website.

Step 3

SAT Scores

Submit your standardized test scores. Click here for the SAT score requirements and here for the ACT score requirements at top universities. You can send your SAT and SAT Subject Test scores directly to colleges via the College Board website. You can send your ACT scores to colleges via the ACT website.

Step 4

College Essays

Write and submit your college essays. Each university will require supplemental essays and will have university-specific prompts of a few hundred words each. Click here to see a list of some of the most creative supplementary essay prompts.

Step 5


Craft and submit your resume. Your resume should provide information about your educational background, your extracurricular/work commitments and your academic accomplishments.

Step 6

Recommendation Letters

Contact your teachers and request your letters of recommendation. You will need two recommendation letters that are academic in nature and one recommendation letter that is non-academic in nature (written by your Form Tutor / Civics Tutor / NS superiors etc).

When are the application deadlines?

There are two application cycles in US university admissions — Early Action or Early Decision, and Regular Decision. To learn more about the difference between Early Action and Early Decision, please click here.

Early Action / Early Decision

Most Early Action/ Early Decision deadlines fall on November 1st of the year that you are applying in.

Regular Decision

The Regular Decision deadline for most universities is the first week of January in the year that you will be enrolling in.


A notable exception is the University of California system, which does not accept Early applications, but has a deadline of November 30th.

Is there any benefit to applying early?

Applying early indicates to schools that they are your top choice. The most recent statistics show that there is a distinct benefit to applying early — in some cases, close to 50% of the cohort was filled by early applicants.

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