Applying to American Universities – Part 1

March 12, 2019 | Blog, Education

Applying to American Universities can be difficult. Sandra Cress, an independent college advisor based in Barcelona, has written a special 2 part blog for MumAbroad Life on applying to university in the US. 

Why choose an American University
and how do I apply?


If you are reading this, you are probably a parent with a child in high school, and you and/or your child are considering universities in the US. Or maybe you’re just curious….or confused! With over 4,000 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities in the US, the whole process can be a little bewildering.

First off, please note: in the US we often use the terms university, college and school interchangeably. College and university both mean ‘institute of higher education,’ i.e. for post-high school studies. However, definitionally, college refers to smaller institutions that offer undergraduate degrees, and universities are larger institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The process can be overwhelming, particularly if you live outside the US, and your child doesn’t go to an American high school.


Wisconsin’s flagship University, University of Wisconsin at Madison


Why consider university in America?

There are over one million international students studying in the US. Despite recent drops in “new” international students, the US is still the number one destination for studying abroad, hosting almost 25% of all international students (the UK is 2nd with 11% of all foreign students). Widely known for their quality of teaching and research, US universities continue to lead in many cutting edge developments in business, science, technology and arts, and a US university degree is viewed as a worthwhile investment that sets a student apart in the global job market.

What are the choices of universities?

Community Colleges


Non-selective colleges that offer 2-year Associate Degrees (or college diploma) but not Bachelors Degrees. Community colleges are funded by local communities and tend to be commuter colleges, i.e. most do not offer on-campus housing, although some do. Because community colleges are much less expensive than 4-year universities, many students choose to go to community college for two years and then transfer their credits to a state or private university for two more years. Others attend community college for more remedial academic work before they transfer to a 4-year university.

International students are discovering that community colleges offer a great and affordable way to improve English language skills in preparation for university study. Further, many community colleges offer certificates in trade skills, which can provide strong career opportunities after just two years. Examples of these are certificates in Global Trade, Welding and Sustainable Design. (Google Community College Trade Certificate, for an endless list of types of certificate programs available.)

American State Universities


Each state funds a portion of its own university system(s). Most states have one university system, and all state universities are administered under that system. These universities can be small or large. College of William and Mary in Virginia has 8,600 students while the University of Central Florida has 63,000 students). Often, there are one or two flagship state universities in each state which have a high research profile and the greatest number of doctoral programs: UCLA (California), University of North Carolina and University of Michigan for example.

State universities offer a subsidized in-state tuition for residents of that state, and an out of state tuition for non-residents. States determine their own in-state proof of residence policy, usually based on where the student graduated high school (at an in-state high school), and/or where the student or his parents pay income or property taxes. Admissions at state universities range from highly selective (UCLA: 16% admissions rate) to not selective (Eastern Oregon: 98% admissions rate).

Private American Colleges & Universities


There are as many types of private colleges and universities as there are state universities. These can run from very small arts, religious or liberal arts colleges (just 100-500 students) to the largest private universities with student bodies as high as 38,400 students at NY University for example.

Useful resources for paring down a college list


My favorite is the book Princeton Review The Best 384 Colleges (the number of colleges included goes up slightly every year). I like the way the book is laid out, the cultural details provided about each school, and the details regarding the application process and the likelihood of admittance. Other resources that are highly recommended are Fiske Guide to Colleges (which is now available as an interactive online guide), Colleges that Change Lives (focusing on small liberal arts colleges), Barron’s Profile of American Colleges and US News and Review’s Best Colleges. In this age of connectivity, most of this information is available online, either through paid portals or free websites.


Small liberal arts college, Reed College Portland OR


Other important university terms

Liberal Arts


You will often hear the term ‘Liberal Arts College.’ This refers to the colleges which offer undergraduate degrees in liberal arts and sciences. Students in liberal arts colleges are required to take a range of courses in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, some of which obviously will be outside the student’s academic major. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller, with most class sizes being seminar-style, as opposed to lecture hall style.



Unfortunately, college rankings are a big business. This is particularly frustrating for those of us working in the college admissions arena because the rankings jack up the competitiveness of colleges that are ‘in vogue’ and can be a false mirage of what makes a college the ‘best’ place for a student (and, too often, the parents) to aspire. The oldest and best-known rankings are the US News and World Report . Times Higher Education offers the best known global university rankings. Rather than focusing on college rankings, it is healthier for students to determine the ‘best fit’ for themselves.



Determining ‘fit’ is one of the most important elements of choosing where to apply. There are many factors to help identify fit including:

Best learning environment – Does the student prefer discussion-based, seminar-style classes, or large lecture halls where the student is more self-directed? Does the student want access to research opportunities and Nobel prize-winning professors? Does the student prefer a school where teachers foster and encourage the student?

Size – Does the student want to be more of a large fish in a small pond where everyone knows who he/she is? Or does the student prefer a large cohort, with big-style university athletics and an endless choice of activities and clubs?

Location – Does the student want to be out in the country, or near the mountains, or ocean? Does the student prefer warm weather, or distinct seasons? Does the student thrive on the energy in a big city, and care less about campus culture?

Student culture – Does the student lean towards progressive, or is the student very devout? Does the student want to learn about students from other parts of the world? Does the student study hard and play hard? Does the student prefer a strong international student body? Does the student want a college where the students are more artistic or more science- or career-oriented?

Majors/Course of Study – If the student is very clear on what he/she wants to study, he should only include schools where that major exists.

Here are a just a few common sites where students can start to explore what may be the best fit for him/herself:

Part 2 of this series looks at the application process

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