The US is home to more than 4,000 higher education institutions, including eight of the top 10 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021.
Its size and global reputation has made the US the number one study-abroad destination in the world for international students, with the biggest numbers moving from China, India, Saudi Arabia and Canada for their studies. The most popular subjects for international students in the US are business and management, engineering, maths, computer science and the social sciences.
But with thousands of universities, huge differences in the style and the cost of institutions plus a rigorous college application process, many prospective international students find the idea of applying to study in the US overwhelming.
If that sounds like you, use this guide to help demystify the process.
What kinds of universities are there in the US?
There is a broad range of types of higher education institutions in the US, with something to suit every student’s interests. Before you begin, one thing to note about the US: the words “college” and “university” tend to be used interchangeably.
The most prestigious collective of colleges, the Ivy League, includes Harvard University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Yale University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. Together, these eight schools received more than 300,000 applicants for the Class of 2020, and the average acceptance rate was 7 per cent.
US colleges can be either privately or publicly funded. Most of the well-known institutions in the US, such as Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University, are private non-profit institutions that will have higher tuition fees, but usually more financial aid opportunities to go along with the added costs.
Another type of institution is the liberal arts college. Examples include Pomona College in California and Amherst College in Massachusetts. These schools offer a broad education in arts and sciences subjects that are designed to give undergraduates academic range as well as depth.
Then there are the historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, such as Howard University and Spelman College, which have majority black and ethnic minority student populations. These institutions were originally established to provide higher education to the African American community where it was previously denied.
In every state, there is at least one government-funded public college, which tends to have lower tuition fees for students who reside in that state. Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, technical colleges or city colleges, are similar to state colleges but primarily offer shorter courses leading to qualifications such as diplomas and associate degrees. Community colleges often have very strong links to four-year institutions and can be a good entry into prestigious four-year degree programmes.
Additionally, each US state has one or two systems of public universities that are governed by a system-wide governing body but have multiple affiliated campuses. Each of these different locations is considered an individual university in its own right. One such example is the University of California system, which includes the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Beyond the highest-ranked and well-known schools, there is a huge array of quality colleges in the US with different values, goals, teaching styles and costs. You can use the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings 2021 to compare colleges on everything from engagement, interaction with teachers and overall student satisfaction.
Most undergraduate programmes in the US are four years long and often include studying multiple subjects before specialising in the second half of your degree. Subjects you study alongside your specialisation are known as minors, and your specialisation is your major, or special concentration.
Extracurricular activities – including social societies such as sororities and fraternities, clubs and some of the world’s best university-level sports teams – are a central part of university social life on US campuses. They’re a good way for students to make friends with common interests.
How do you apply to study in the US?
The US is perhaps the most rigorous country in the world when it comes to college application criteria. American universities will consider your academic record over the last four years of your schooling, as well as your involvement in extracurricular activities and leadership positions and your personal characteristics when you apply.
There are three kinds of applications you can make to a US university: early decision, common application and the regular application. Some early decision applications can also go through the common application.
Early decision application deadlines are usually about 10 months before your course starts. Applying via the early decision route can increase the likelihood winning acceptance for some universities. However, it’s important to be aware that some colleges have agreements that state that if you win a place via an early decision application, you must attend that college and you must withdraw or halt all your other college applications. In some cases, US colleges will want you to also withdraw any applications to universities outside the US if they accept you on early decision, so be sure to check in with your college of choice on the details before applying through this route.
The Common Application (Common App), meanwhile, is a centralised process for more than 900 US universities, which means you can apply to multiple colleges through one online account. Common applications open on 1 August.
For all other universities, you can apply to them directly. The application deadline is often in January – seven months before you intend to start university – although the latest deadlines are in March.
Many US universities will expect you to undertake the SAT or the ACT for undergraduates, or the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) for postgraduates.
You should aim to complete these exams a year before you want to start university, usually in the month of August.
Your submission will almost always require an application fee ($41 on average), a completed application form, a personal essay, references, a transcript of grades and academic achievements, standardised test results and financial statements.
Depending on which kind of university and course you are looking at, you may need to declare your major when applying, which means that you need to have an idea of the subject you wish to concentrate on in the final two years of your course. In most cases, you can switch majors if you discover a new passion for a subject once at university, but it’s useful to have in mind at the application stage some idea of the route you are most likely to follow.
If you are put on the wait list of a college, this means the university liked your application but has chosen to make offers to other candidates first. The likelihood of moving from the wait list to a definite offer from your chosen college depends on several factors. These include how many students with offers choose to confirm their place, how the school wishes to balance the different chosen majors in its freshmen class, and how strong your application is compared with those of other applicants. In some cases, you are more likely to get off the wait list of a college if you have listed it as your first choice.
Watch: Everything you need to know about studying in the US
Do I need to take a language test to study in the US?
Most universities in the US require international applicants to take a test to demonstrate their competence in English as a second language, such as the TOEFL or the IELTS academic.
Because of disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many US institutions are now accepting English language tests adapted especially to be taken from home, including the TOEFL Special Home Edition and the IELTS Indicator. Many US colleges are also accepting the Duolingo English test, which can also be taken from home.
You can use this guide to find out the average scores for English language tests for Ivy League schools as a good benchmark, but most universities will have their specific requirements and list of accepted tests on their websites. If not, contact the international office of your college to check.
How much does it cost to study in the US?
Given the great diversity of universities in the US, there is also a huge variation in cost, and typically tuition fees for international students are higher than those for domestic students.
US tuition fees range from $5,000 to $50,000 (£4,074-£40,746) per year. On average, students graduate with $132,860 (£101,505) worth of debt.
But before you faint at these numbers and rule out studying in the US altogether, it’s crucial to know that there’s a difference between what’s known as the “sticker price” (the costs advertised on university websites) and the amount that students actually end up paying once all sources of funding have been considered.
It’s worth remembering that about 85 per cent of full-time undergraduate students at four-year public universities and 89 per cent at private non-profit universities benefit from some type of financial aid. Although the most prestigious US universities tend to have the highest sticker price, these colleges also tend to have the widest range of funding opportunities.
Accommodation options are varied for students at US universities. You’ll probably be able to choose from on-campus residential buildings, fraternity and sorority houses or private renting. Many financial aid opportunities and scholarships will consider accommodation needs alongside help with tuition costs, but it’s important to have a clear financial plan in mind to see you through four or more years of study.
And don’t forget cost of lifestyle. This will depend on where you study and your own personal preferences, but it is another factor you must consider realistically to avoid any financial troubles later on.
Many universities guarantee on-campus paid employment for students while they study, and international students with M-1 and F-1 visas are allowed to work in such roles. Many shops, cinemas and museums in the US will also offer discounts to students.
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What scholarships are available for international students in the US?
Several high-ranking universities in the US operate a “needs-blind” admission policy, meaning the financial background of candidates is disregarded during the admission process, and the university promises to financially support students so every successful applicant can attend.
Financial aid comes in many forms: scholarships, grants, assistantships and work-study schemes, and many of these options will be open to international students. For example, the University of Pennsylvania sets aside $6 million each year to fund graduates from outside the US and in neighbouring Canada and Mexico.
Funding information is available on each university’s website. Often, applications for funding and financial aid are made as part of your general college application, so it’s important to do your research early to avoid missing any opportunities.
There are also a few well-known government-funded US scholarship programmes for international students, for example, including the Fulbright Foreign Student Program and the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program.
How do I apply for a student visa for the US?
There are three types of visas for international students in the US: F-1 for academic studies; J-1 for practical training not available in your home country; and M-1 for vocational studies.
To study at a US college, you need to apply for the F-1 visa. Once accepted at a US college approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and you must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee of $350. After that, you’ll receive the Form I-20 and register within SEVIS.
Once you’ve completed these steps, you can apply for your visa at a US embassy or consulate – find your nearest one here. The fee to apply for your visa is $160, often with an additional small administration fee, depending on where you’re applying from.
You’ll also have to complete an additional form (DS-160), provide a photo and book an appointment at the US consulate of your home country for an interview. Bring your passport and copies of all your documents with you to the interview. At the interview, you must show proof that you have sufficient funds to support your stay in the US, and that you have strong ties to your home country through family connections, assets, bank accounts or some other means.
As an incoming student, you can apply for your visa up to 120 days before your course begins, but you can only enter the US on your student visa a maximum of 30 days before your start date.
What can I do after I graduate in the US?
If you want to stay in the US after studying, there are options.
The Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme allows international students on F-1 visas to remain in the country if employed in their field of study. F-1 visa students are eligible for OPT after completing their first academic year. OPT can be done both before or after completing your studies, but it’s important to remember that you are allowed to work only 12 months in total.
Graduates with science, technology, engineering or mathematics degrees may extend their OPT by 24 months and stay for just over two years to work in these fields. You must apply for OPT before completing your studies.
Top US institutions have a track record of excellence in the eyes of esteemed US employers, including Wall Street, technology and media companies. Colleges are also fertile ground for networking; obtaining internships and experience in the US market may help you gain employment later on.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in academia, the US can be a great place to start. You can browse academic openings in the US on THE Unijobs.
How many universities are there in the US?
There are approximately 4,000 universities in the US. You can use the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings 2021 and our best universities pages to discover more about which US institution may be the right fit for you.
Please note all costs and conversion rates were correct at the time of publication. These may vary over time.
Want to study abroad in the US? Learn about the US college system and how to apply for university in the US as an international student