Applying to American Universities – Part 2

April 17, 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. 

Application timeline




These three terms refer to where the student should ultimately apply. A general rule of thumb is that a student should apply to 2-3 schools in each of these categories. Another rule of thumb I use is that a student should only apply to schools where he/she would be happy to attend. I don’t believe there is only one dream school for any student. I believe there are MANY schools where a student will thrive.

A safety school is a school where the student’s academic performance and standardized test results exceed or far exceed the average grades/scores of accepted students.

A target school is one where the student fits comfortably in the middle 50% of grades/test results of accepted students.

And a reach school is one that has an admissions rate of less than 35% (this % can vary), or where the student may not have quite the same grades/test scores of the middle 50% of accepted students. There are many websites that parse out these details on each school. These should be used as guidelines.

Here are just a few of the websites that can give you a rough idea of a student’s chances for admissions:

Holistic Admissions


Most selective colleges use a range of factors to consider which students to admit. These factors include: Academic performance (grades, rigor of high school coursework, standardized test results), personal qualities (as gleaned from teacher references, application essays), extracurricular activities (leadership and depth and commitment to activities outside of school, including clubs, sports, arts, social services, etc.), and other factors.


Wisconsin’s flagship University, University of Wisconsin at Madison

Early Decision/Early Action/Regular Decision/Rolling Admissions


There are several choices students have for applying to college. An Early Decision application is a BINDING application, usually completed by early November, that commits the student to accept an offer of admission from that college. An Early Action application is a non-binding application that is completed in the first part of November, which results in an acceptance/deferral of decision or denial before the end of the year. A Regular Decision application is usually due the first week of January, with a decision being determined by around April 1. A college with rolling admissions accepts applications at any date, until the incoming first-year class is full. Please note: Each college has its own admissions deadlines and decision dates, but these are general rules of thumb. Aside from Early Decision acceptances, students usually are required to commit to a college by May 1.

Financial Fit


What can the family afford? It is best to consider family finances before going too far down the road of where to apply. It is heartbreaking to see students accepted to their top choice college only to learn that the family cannot afford for the student to attend. I will break down issues of finances at a later point.


General Application Timeline

This is only a general outline of steps required to apply to university in the US.   If you keep to this timeline, you will be prepared to apply to the colleges of your choice. Please beware – there are unique standardized test dates and registration requirements for international students, and it can be time consuming and expensive to sit for these exams. Also, exams are only offered in limited locations, so it is important to keep track of registration deadline for exams and location of the exam.   

1st/2nd Year of High School


In the US, many college-bound students and their families start preparing for college admissions in the first or second year of high school. This can include rigorous course selection and course projection, meeting with high school counselors, standardized test preparation, and commitment to extracurricular activities, as well as productive use of summers. Some families start touring colleges as early as the summer after sophomore (2nd) year.

3rd Year / Junior Year


October  – take PSAT

SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test and PSAT is the Preliminary SAT standardized test. Find more information hereThe PSAT exam is a test that will give the student an idea of how well he/she is prepared to take the SAT, which is one of the two standardized entrance exams still used by most colleges and universities. Students taking the PSAT can “opt in” for interested colleges to connect with them through the student search service. Through the preliminary test, the student will learn his/her weaknesses, where he/she may need to focus on test preparation.  Finally, the PSAT is the qualifying test for National Merit Scholarships – but only American citizens and residents are eligible for these scholarships.

For a list of colleges that are “test optional,” check out: This list is regularly updated as more and more colleges are moving towards “test optional” admissions policies.  


Macalester College St. Paul MN


Spring break – tour US colleges

Many international families won’t have the resources for physical college visits. However, if you can afford to, it is a great benefit to visit and tour a selection of colleges, to better understand what the environment is like and to better craft a good college list.  Spring break is a great time to do this, as it gives students a chance to see what colleges look like in-session. If the student can’t travel to the US, then be aware of the nearest college fair. College fairs usually take place in the Spring and Fall. Usually, a broad range of colleges have representation at college fairs and they are anxious to meet you and tell you about their school!

More information about college fairs can be found at the following links:

Spring – take practice ACT and SAT tests

It is advisable to take these tests on your own to determine which test better reflects student performance.  All colleges accept both tests equally, so it is important for the student to identify which one better suits his/her testing capabilities.
ACT (American College Testing)
SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

May/June – take relevant Advanced Placement (AP) and/or SAT Subject exams

Successful performance on AP exams can give the student college credit and/or advanced standing.  Each college has its own policies regarding accepting AP scores for college credit. Further, good results on AP exams will strengthen student applications for selective colleges.  Students are allowed to take AP exams even if they did not take the related AP course in high school. However, it is important to study the AP exam prep materials to ensure that the student has covered all the necessary curriculum components that will be tested. Find more information hereSome more selective colleges strongly recommend or require 2-3 SAT Subject tests, along with either the SAT or ACT standardized tests. If the student is applying to selective colleges, be aware of these requirements!

By end of 11th grade / Junior year

– Identify which high school teachers should write college recommendation letters.
– Draft college application resume.
– Complete inventory of qualities for “best fit” colleges.
– Draft preliminary list of colleges, grouped in “Safety, Target, Reach.”  Reach out to admissions representative of colleges that are high on list.
– Take at least one of either SAT or ACT.

Summer between Junior and Senior year

– Start researching colleges and making a preliminary college list.
– Discuss financial aspects of attending university in the US.
– Use time wisely, engaged in activities related to your central passion and/or working for income.
– Begin work on college application (Common Application becomes active online August 1).
– Do test prep for either ACT or SAT standardized exams. (Khan Academy offers free online SAT test prep. There are other test prep sites online, as well as test prep books, and test prep classes. All can work well, depending on the motivation of the student).
– College tours, if feasible.

12th Grade / Senior Year



– Request letters of recommendation from teachers.
– Discuss college plans with school counselor.
– Finalize college application list. Determine whether applying Early Decision or Early Action to any schools. Visit regional college fair, if still looking to complete college list. Note final test dates accepted for Early Decision/Early Action applications.
– Finalize standardized test schedule, and prepare.
– Review/revise application essays
– Keep calendar of all deadlines and requirements.  Organization is a big part of the process!!
– Check email every day, as this is the primary way universities communicate with students.


– Complete Early Decision and Early Action applications.
– Schedule admissions interviews if offered.
– Make sure teachers and counselors providing recommendations and transcripts have submitted them. If necessary, build in time for translating letters of recommendations and transcripts. All transcripts and letters of recommendation will need to be provided in English.
– Make sure all relevant test scores are ordered from the standardized test company.
– Keep checking emails every day.


– If applying Regular Decision (RD), ensure application is on track – with recommendations, transcripts ready to be submitted (keep in mind that high schools are closed for winter break when RD applications are generally due, so plan ahead!) Order standardized test results for RD applications.
– If applied Early Decision/Early Action, decisions will be provided by universities before end of year. Keep track of admissions decision dates.
– If semester final grades are due at the end of December, ensure final grades/transcripts submitted to all schools.
– If applying for grants/financial aid, ensure applications and relevant paperwork is completed by deadline


– You should have completed all your work.  Keep in touch with schools.
– Schedule interviews for RD applications with any school that offers them.


– RD Decisions offered
– If possible, if trying to decide where to attend, visit schools under consideration.

May 1

– Common Deadline for accepting offer of admission. Congratulations!!

Part 1 of this series looks at why you might choose an American University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + 10 =