• Key Factors
  • Choosing a School
  • Further Planning

Getting started: 5 Key Admissions Factors

Getting started can be a little daunting; we've put together a handful of key factors that will help you in this journey.

1 When to start
The ideal time for UK students to start looking into the US admissions process is the summer break following your GCSEs or beginning of Year 12 at the latest. Do plenty of research; identify which schools you're interested in and which you'd like to visit. Once you have created your target US university list, your next step is to find out what the SAT/ACT score ranges are and where you stand in relation to these.

2 Standardized test scoring
The US admissions test scoring is different to that of the UK content based exams. The SAT and ACT scores are not marked based on how well you personally do in relation to the actual questions, rather, how well you do 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
American admissions officers love a well-rounded individual and look to see what kind of story a student's application tells. The criteria (in a rough order of priority) are as follows: A-Level 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 show you have a desire to learn and grow. Make yourself stand-out from the crowd by excelling both academically and in extra-curricular activities.

4 The Competition
International students make up 5.3% of University students in the US. Competition is rife and you will be evaluated in relation to you student peers. This is why it's vital for you to make your application stand out!

5 Knowing The Universities
There are many US universities across America, each with their 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 the right university for you.

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

The Basics

There are two 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 groups, there is a wide variety of size, status and focus.


Consider the US as more of a continent of different countries - that's how huge and diverse the climates and landscapes are. Location is another important factor to consider when making university choices. Do you want to be in the East or West, North or South? Year-round sun or knee-deep snow? Small towns where everyone knows your name, or big city where you can get lost in the crowd? Remember to also consider your commute – universities in rural locations 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 universities on your list offer that subject. Most universities also require you to complete some core curriculum – be sure to check these requirements carefully.

Quality of Life

You won’t be in class all the time, so take time to investigate other aspects of student 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, you must consider the selectivity of the school. Universities tend to have many more applicants than they have places, at Ivy League universities less than 10% of applicants are accepted (even though universities such as Yale estimate that at least 75% of their applicants are more than qualified to attend). Be realistic about your list and remember that your A-Level grades and SAT/ACT 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 American universities 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

  • Increases your chance of being accepted
  • Universities tend to look favorably on a student who makes them their first choice

The Cons

  • Some feel that the system puts too much pressure on students too soon. You may feel compelled to apply early, even if you haven't researched all your options. With this you run the risk of being bound to a university which isn't the best fit for you.
  • Limits the financial aid offering you receive. 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 remove the chance of getting a better package from another university. This is 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 aren't 100% positive that you can commit to one school, then you can replace the early decision programs at most schools with Early Action. This option is active in many top schools already, early action allows you to apply early, but doesn't bind you to the university if they're offered admission. Instead, you can wait to see where else you're accepted, compare financial aid offers, and make your decision in the spring.

You will also need to consider the following

  • Letters of recommendation - selecting teachers from your later school years who teach subjects that may relate to a subject you'd like to read at university
  • Admissions essays - this is your opportunity to stand out from other applicants, and paint an overall picture as a top candidate
  • Transcripts - these are official document with your Sixth Form letterhead and stamp. Consisting of all the grades you have achieved over the years