Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

Nuances of How to Apply to Undergraduate US Universities

POSTED ON 03/14/2023 BY The Red Pen

As leading undergraduate consultants who constantly study international education trends, we know that the popularity of undergraduate courses in the US is constantly growing. The academic year of 2021-22 has seen nearly two lakh Indian students enroll in US universities, which marks a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Between May and August 2022, a record number of 82,000 student visas were issued to Indian students.

But if you’re planning to apply for undergraduate courses in the US, it is essential to understand several unique components of the application process. While competitive colleges in India, such as IIT and medical schools, primarily require you to score exceptionally in the entrance exam to gain admission, the US application process is more multifaceted. Admissions committees of US institutions consider several factors and use a holistic approach to analyse your application before making a decision.

US undergraduate application nuances you can control:

1) Data:

A student’s grades and academic records are the most important factors in the application process. Admissions officers (AOs) need to assess if you can cope with their institution’s academic rigour and will want to look at several data points in your track record. Most colleges in the US ask for the following data:

  • High School Transcripts: Your transcripts should include all the grades you’ve achieved from grade 9 until the middle of grade 12, which is when you submit your application. AOs want to see how you’ve fared in school, so you must submit your internal semester-wise mark sheets and your board exam results.
  • Predicted Grades: Along with the high school transcripts, your teachers must provide predicted grades, which indicate what you’re likely to achieve at the end of grade 12. If there is a vast difference between the predicted grade and your final results, a college offering you admission may ask you to explain the disparity.
  • Standardised Test Scores: US colleges accept SAT or ACT scores. Neither test is easier nor preferred, and colleges view both equally. Recently, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when testing was unavailable, many colleges have become test-optional, meaning a student is not required to submit these scores as part of the application process. However, most students admitted to selective colleges submit competitive SAT or ACT scores. For example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you need a SAT score between 1510-1580 and an ACT score between 30-36. On the other hand, Emory University requires a score between 1470-1560 for SAT and 33-35 for ACT.

2) Talent:

AOs want to see what you do outside the classroom. Have you contributed to the school newspaper? Have you built an app? Have you volunteered at a pet shelter? Therefore, you must showcase your talent by pursuing extracurricular activities. Also, colleges in the US cultivate unique communities, and AOs want to see how the student will fit into them. According to Jorge Delgado, Associate Director of International Admissions at Brandeis University, “there are only so many hours in the day. So seeing how students have involved themselves outside the academic arena is a great way of understanding their potential fit for a university campus”.

All application forms have an “activities” section that allows you to showcase your extracurriculars. The Common Application form, for instance, lets you enter up to 10 activities. But it’s not mandatory to choose 10. In our experience as top undergraduate consultants, we’ve learnt that listing five activities that have contributed to your character and growth is far more valuable than just filling up slots in the application form meaninglessly. For example, if you’re a state-level sports player and require daily practice for matches, it’s impossible to engage in multiple activities meaningfully—this is something that AOs understand. Also, while adding extracurricular activities in the form, remember to list only those you have persistently pursued instead of adding activities you’ve participated in just once or twice. Our undergraduate experts believe that three years of focusing on origami is far more impressive than a one-time salsa class.

Additionally, your school counsellor (or another faculty member) must write a letter of recommendation. It is essential to talk to your counsellors and give them in-depth details about all the activities you’ve been involved in outside the school, so that they can write a compelling recommendation and corroborate the activities and experiences that you find meaningful.

3) Voice:

Allowing your application to echo your voice lets AOs know and understand you better. Here’s how you can amplify your voice:

  • Essays: The National Association for College Admission Counselling survey considers essays the fifth most important factor in the admissions process. They allow you to weave a narrative around a certain aspect or experience that defines you—something the rest of your application may not cover. For instance, in the Common App essay, you may write about an incident that changed your perspective, an experience that led to self-discovery or an aspect of your personality that’s unique within a 650-word limit. Our undergraduate essay specialists say that a winning Common App essay usually complements and strengthen the rest of the application. For instance, if you’ve mentioned your passion for playing the piano in the activities section, writing an essay on it is a good idea. You may talk about your first encounter with the instrument, how it impacted you, how you’ve pursued your passion and what kind of music you like to play. In addition to the Common App essay, many colleges ask you to write a few supplemental essays. The number of essays is institution-specific. For instance, Stanford University requires one long-form and three short essays, while the University of Michigan requires three essays ranging from 100 to 550 words. Usually, these essays ask you to elaborate on why you want to attend a particular college or undergraduate course in the US.
  • Alumni interviews: Here’s another excellent way to showcase your voice. After you’ve submitted your application, some institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, may invite you to connect with a member of its alumni for a non-academic interview conducted online or in person. While these interviews allow the college to know more about you, they will let you tell the institution why it should give you admission.
  • Demonstrated interest: Some students reach out to the faculty or admission team members to showcase their interest in the college. Unlike your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, demonstrated interest isn’t something you can explicitly put into your application. It’s the act of showing your eagerness to join a college through campus tours, overnight visits, information sessions and communication with faculty. While this may work for private colleges with very small classes, many undergraduate colleges have stopped considering demonstrated interest to level the admissions playing field. Carnegie Mellon University is one such college that recently announced that demonstrated interest is no longer a consideration.

US undergraduate application nuances you cannot control

1) Financial Aid:

International students applying for financial aid have a lower chance of admission. Currently, only seven colleges, namely Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Bowdoin College, are need-blind. However, Brown University has declared that it will be need-blind from the class of 2029 onwards. Admission decisions with a need-blind policy do not consider a student’s ability to pay but instead focus on accomplishments. However, these are some of the most competitive colleges to secure admission. For 2022, Harvard University had an acceptance rate of 3.2 percent, while the University of Pennsylvania’s admit rate was 4.4 percent. However, several colleges are need-aware. Colleges with a need-aware admissions process consider a student’s ability to pay while making admission decisions. If you require aid, they will only admit you if they can offer the financial assistance you need.

2) Legacy:

Even though they are extremely controversial, legacy preference is still practised by many colleges in the US. Legacy means that if the student has a family member that has attended the institution, they might have an advantage in the admission process.

3) Demographics:

US colleges pride themselves on the diversity on their campuses. Due to this, sometimes, the committee rejects competitive applicants from urban areas.

4) Institutional Priorities:

US colleges are businesses like all institutions and have their own priorities. For example, Harvard University often recruits players for their squash team from India. So, an Indian squash player may have a better chance of securing admission than another applicant. 

While these are a few nuances, the answer to how you can apply to universities in the US is far more complex and has several components that require careful consideration. If you’re not sure where to start or require assistance with these components, contact us.