• Key Factors
  • Choosing a School
  • Further Planning

Getting started: 5 Key Admissions Factors

1 Know When to Start
UK students need to start looking into the US process at the end of their GCSE year/beginning of Year 12, which in US equivalent is at the fall of the Junior Year. You will need to do plenty of research with your child and decide which schools to see. Once you have a target College list, you will then need to find out the desired score ranges and where your child stands in relation to these.

2 Standardized Test Scores
Your child will need to decide whether to take the ACT or SAT. Not everyone can get a perfect score on these standardized tests - not because it’s impossible, but because the tests are not designed that way. The overall score is NOT dependent on how well you do in relation to the actual questions, but rather how well your child does in relation to how well OTHER students do on the same test. The exam requires preparation and rewards those who are most prepared. View Kaplan's test prep options >>

3 Jobs, Internships & Volunteer Work
US admissions officers look to see what kind of story a students application tells. The criteria (in a rough order of importance) is as follows: school grades, SAT/ACT test scores, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, application essays and the interview. Extra-curricular activities are important to demonstrate your time-management skills and financial responsibility, and show you have a desire to learn and grow. It is important that you go that one step ahead to make yourself stand out from your College application away from just the educational aspects.

UK students are quite often discouraged from pursuing extra-curricular activities (school clubs, charities, sports, internships etc) in order to focus on grades. While good grades are indeed the most important factor in your child's application profile, they are only one piece of the picture.

4 Know The Competition Around You
Students will be evaluated in relation to their peers. At many colleges, international students make up about 10% of the incoming freshmen class. This means that there are only a small number of sports available to students from one country.

5 Know The Schools
There are many Colleges across America, each with its own unique characteristics. You will need to take into consideration a range of factors such as cost, location, and the quality of life. Please see the next tab for further guidance in selecting a school.

You can make your choice easier by considering a number of factors when deciding where to apply

The Basics

There are two broad groups of universities in the USA: public universities, which are supported by state governments, and are usually less expensive; and private universities, which receive no government funding, and are usually more expensive. However, many private universities offer significant financial aid, so investigate carefully before rejecting anything based on price. Within these two broad groups, there is a wide variety of size, status and focus.


The USA is a huge country, with a diverse climate and landscape, so location is another important factor to consider when making college choices. Do you want to be in the East or West, North or South? Year-round sun or knee-deep snow? Small town where everyone knows your name, or big city where you can get lost in the crowd? Remember to consider travel from home – colleges in rural locations are often far from international airports, and may be virtually inaccessible without a car.


At most American universities, you do not need to choose your major until after your first year, but you must consider academic offerings before you apply. If you have a particular major in mind, then check that the colleges on your list offer that subject. If you are still not sure what you want to study (and you don’t have to be sure yet!), then ensure that the colleges on your shortlist offer majors in all your possible fields of interest. Most universities also require you to complete some sort of core curriculum – be sure to check these requirements carefully. A warning about law and medicine: in the USA, these are post-graduate degrees with tough entry requirements, to which few international students are accepted.

Quality of Life

You won’t be in class all the time, so take time to investigate other aspects of college life. What are your housing options? Where will you eat? Will you be able to play the sports and be involved in the activities that you enjoy? If you are hoping to work on campus while studying, check that these opportunities are available; and if you hope to stay in the USA after graduation, check that the career service will be able to help you with your job hunt.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must consider the selectivity of the school. Many colleges have many more applicants than they have places, and at famous universities fewer than 10% of applicants are accepted (even though colleges such as Yale estimate that at least 75% of their applicants are more-than-qualified to attend). Be realistic about your college list – remember that your secondary school grades and standardized test scores are the most important elements of your application, and these should match (or exceed) the profile of the average incoming student.

To apply early or not to apply early?

Hundreds of colleges offer early decision admissions plans, which allow applicants to apply early (deadlines for early decision are usually in early November; regular applications are usually due around January 1) and get a decision by early January.

The Pros

  • Better chance of being accepted
  • Colleges tend to look favorably on a student who makes them their first choice

The Cons

  • Many people feel that the system puts too much pressure on students too soon. Students might feel compelled to apply early, even if they have not researched all of their options. Thus, they can end up bound to attend a college that really isn't the best fit for them.
  • Limits socioeconomic diversity in the student body. When accepted under the early decision system, you receive only one offer of financial aid. If that offer is unacceptable to you, you can then (and only then) decline the offer of admission. But if you choose to accept, you are effectively cutting off the chance of getting a better package from another school. That can be a huge disadvantage—one of the hidden benefits of applying for financial aid at a variety of schools allows you to play one offer over another.

A Compromise-Try Early Action

If you're child is a committment-phobe and isn't 100% positive that they can bind to that one and only school, then they can replace the early decision programs at most schools with Early Action. In place at many top schools already, including Harvard, Boston College, Georgetown, and MIT, early action allows students to apply early, but doesn't bind students to the school if they're offered admission. Instead, students can wait to see where else they're accepted, compare financial aid offers, and make their decision in the spring.

You will also need to consider the following

  • Letters of recommendation - selecting teachers from later school years who's subject may relate to a future area of study
  • Admissions essays - this is the opportunity to stand out from other applicants, painting an overall picture as a student
  • Transcripts - document on an official school letterhead with school stamp and consisting of all the grades a high school student has acheived in the various subjects taken over the years