While we strive for these guides to be as accurate as possible, the Common App sometimes changes its format. The best and most up to date information can be found on the Common Application website.
The Common Application has one required personal essay that you can choose from a list of seven prompts. This is sent to every university to which you apply. Universities can also set their own supplemental questions for you to answer.
Staff from your school can create their own accounts and attach reference letters, transcripts and school profiles to your application. Visit our School Documents page for further information.
Extracurricular activities and honours
The Common App gives you space to list up to 10 extracurricular activities, as well as any merit-based honours or awards you have won at school.
The ACT and SAT
Admissions exams (also known as standardised tests) are a way for universities to compare applicants who might come from different backgrounds and educational systems across the USA and the world.
Results are used to support part of a university’s admissions and merit-based scholarship decisions. They can assess, among other things:
- Verbal reasoning and language analysis
- Critical reading
- Mathematics and data analysis
Are they required?
Universities can set their own admission requirements. Most will require the submission of admissions exam/standardised test scores.
However, some universities are test optional. This means they will not hold it against applicants who do not submit scores. In lieu of a test score, a test optional institution might require you to submit a graded piece of coursework or controlled assessment.
A full list of test optional institutions can be found on FairTest.org.
View the pages in this section to learn more about the exams, testing dates and useful tips.
There are two undergraduate admissions exam formats accepted by US universities:
You can also sit the ACT with Writing.
There are online resources comparing the two tests side by side, like this table from the Princeton Review.
Which test you take is up to your personal preference. You can take free sample tests on each exam’s website, and should play to your strengths. Please note that since September 2018, the ACT has been computer-based for international test-takers.
Check the exam and language proficiency requirements for each university to which you apply.
Test centre locations
Location might determine which test you take:
English language proficiency
If you have not been educated in an English-language school (eg a Welsh-language school or an overseas school) you will likely have to prove your proficiency in English. You should check which exam each university accepts, but the most common are:
ACT and SAT scores are valid for five years. You can resit them multiple times, and some universities will combine the highest marked sections from each test date, known as superscoring.
However, each standard exam costs around $100, and universities will view multiple retakes critically.
You should take the exam(s) when you are most confident you will score as highly as possible, and in time for your scores to be considered by the universities to which you are applying.
Registration deadlines are typically five weeks before each ACT or SAT testing date. You must register before these deadlines to sit the exams. Otherwise you will be put on a waitlist and admitted to the test centre on a first-come, first-served basis if seats are vacant.
ACT test dates
Check official testing dates and test centre availability via the ACT website
SAT test dates
Check official testing dates and test centre availability via the College Board website
Take the time to thoroughly prepare for any admissions exam you have to take. They are the main gatekeepers of admissions decisions.
If you don’t hit the range a university is looking for, it is unlikely the rest of your application will be considered. American students applying to university will have been familiar with these tests for several years before they take them.
However, British students are capable of performing excellently and achieving the highest possible scores.
You should sit several full, timed, practice tests including the writing portions, and plan a revision programme focussing on areas you need to improve.
There are many free resources to help you get a feel for the test format and revise appropriately:
- Official ACT test preparation
- Official SAT practice tests
- Official SAT daily questions
- Khan Academy Official SAT Practice
- Kaplan Test Prep ACT resources
- Kaplan Test Prep SAT resources
If you need additional assistance, you can also consider using a test-tutoring organisation to receive a higher level of personalised support and services.
US university application essays are much more personal than UCAS statements. Strong essays can set you apart from other applicants, bring your application to life and showcase who you really are as a person.
As well as the Common App essay (if applicable), universities might ask you to write two or three supplemental essays.
Although some universities vary, the essays are typically 500-750 words long, and universities usually ask questions covering similar themes, such as your:
- Personal identity
- Academic interests
- Extracurricular activities
Some real examples of essay questions include:
- "What makes you happy?"
- "Which aspect of our curriculum or undergraduate experience prompted your application?"
- "How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics linguistics and philosophy."
- "Write about something you love to do."
Because the questions can vary so much, you shouldn't try to force a prepared answer. Respond organically to the question.
But remember your are preparing a well-rounded application package. There should be lots of things you want to highlight across elements of your application, and personal essays are an excellent opportunity to do so. Below are some things to think about, which might also inform how you choose your essays from the prompts given by a university:
- Connect the dots between your extracurricular activities and your school work
- How will you contribute to the student life or campus diversity?
- How are you unique?
- Describe your academic fit at that particular university
- Give specific reasons for choosing that university
- Are you excited about a particular subject concentration or studying under a specific faculty member?
- What are your short or long-term goals?
- How does this university fit into your further plans and career goals?
- What does it really mean to be you?
Essay writing tips
- Stop and think. Have you done enough research into choosing this university to fully convince them you are a good fit? Do you have a list of all your extracurricular activities and most important experiences?
- Brainstorm your research. Think about your essay as a marketing tool - how do your experiences match up to the personal and academic fit of the university? Note these links down. Remember that some of these can be highlighted in your reference letters, so try to avoid writing about areas you want your referees to talk about.
- Think creatively. You don't need to constantly use metaphors and other figurative devices if that's not your personal writing style, but you should have an essay structured with a coherent and interesting theme or narrative.
- Write an introduction. This should be your hook, and should pique the reader's interest. It can be as simple as an anecdote or a quote that illustrates your main point.
- Answer the question. Use your brainstormed links and arrange them into two to three well-connected paragraphs that adhere to your central theme.
- Conclude the essay. What is the reader meant to take away? How will they remember this essay in particular? Try to connect this back to the theme you introduced at the beginning and end on a powerful, impactful note that highlights what unique personal trait you are bringing to their campus.
Other important things to keep in mind:
- Address the essay question fully
- Use clear, concise language - say what you mean
- Avoid vague or empty statements (eg "I love America"), clichés and cultural references unfamiliar to US audiences
- Make sure all references to university names are correct, especially if you re-use essays across your applications
- Proofread extensively, read it out loud and ask several people to read it for you
- Avoid repeating too much information mentioned elsewhere in your application
- Address any obvious gaps or weaknesses in your application, perhaps turning them into a positive
Here are some successful personal essays, for inspiration:
Universities in the USA want to know about you and your school. They assess your admissibility holistically and in the context of your peers, your circumstances and the opportunities available to you.
One of the ways universities make these judgements is through the documents submitted by your school on your behalf. The usual required school documents are:
- Two to three reference letters (letters of recommendation)
- School profile
Letters of recommendation should be written by at least one current teacher of an academically rigorous subject and one senior school administrator (headteacher, head of sixth form, higher education adviser, etc). If you have left school and cannot contact potential referees, seek the university's advice on appropriate alternatives.
If possible, referees should know you well and be familiar with your activities outside of the classroom. A third reference could be written by an adult from an extracurricular activity, your job, or a performing arts teacher to create a well-rounded group of references.
Reference letters should reinforce how you meet the university's admissions criteria and speak positively about your ability to succeed academically and contribute to the school community. You should meet with your referees and discuss which aspects of your application you'd like them to highlight. This might include:
- Anecdotes about you
- Academic potential
- Successes in and out of the classroom
- Involvement in school life
- Academic interests
- Career aspirations
- Suitability and reasons for studying in the USA
Above all, encourage your referees to avoid being too restrained and modest. American referees will be enthusiastic cheerleaders for their students.
If given the option, you should waive your right to see all recommendation letters to guarantee their authenticity.
It is your responsibility to notify your referees of submission requirements, formats and deadlines.
Transcripts are official high school documents in the USA. In the UK, transcripts are more commonly seen when you graduate university. They are documents produced by an institution as a record of your academic performance.
Your one-page school transcript should include:
- Official school letterhead, stamp and signature
- Years attended
- Achieved and predicted national grades from the last four years of secondary education
- (Years 10-13 in England and Wales, S3-6 in Scotland, Years 11-14 in Northern Ireland)
- Academic honours and awards
- Explanations and equivalencies of new or unfamiliar qualifications for university entry
- (EPQ, Pre-U, Welsh Baccalaureate, BTEC, etc)
- Information about how curriculum reforms relate to a student's subject choices
- (eg which A-levels are new standalone qualifications/which AS-levels still contribute to A2-level)
- Plans to resit any exams
- Extenuating circumstances
- How your choice and number of subjects compares to the average student
If you changed schools within the four years before graduating, you should ask your previous school to produce a similar document.
Like the reference letters, your transcript should be submitted directly by your school.
If your school needs a template to follow, you can download our example.
To place your school within the context of other UK institutions, universities require a school profile. This can be as little as a paragraph at the top or bottom of your transcript, or as much as a multi-page document.
In general, it can include:
- Type of school
- (in the USA, "public" means state funded, and academies are comparable to charter schools)
- Admissions process, if applicable
- School history and cultural/local information
- School ethos, mission statement or ideology
- Quotes from inspection reports or the press
- League table position
- (especially important if the school is ranked low but your grades are excellent)
- Student body
- (demographics, single sex or mixed, class size, etc)
- Percentage of university enrolment
- (broken down by Oxbridge, Russell Group, etc if possible)
- If your school ranks pupils by performance or not
- (this is common in the USA, so readers will expect your class rank if there is no explanation)
Any information your school can provide about its comparison to other schools in the UK will be useful to US admissions offices.
Make sure your school is aware of deadlines and submission requirements.
Having an interview is not a requirement for admission. However, they can be an ideal opportunity to highlight characteristics and interests that are easier to convey in person than on paper.
Some universities might have an interview opt-in field on their application forms, and some universities will automatically contact you after you apply to see if you are interested in interviewing. For other institutions, you might have to explicitly state you would like to interview.
US university interviews are different to those for British universities. It is unlikely you will be interviewed by a faculty member. Most often, interviews are conducted by admissions staff or alumni volunteers.
You might speak over a phone or video call to the USA, or the representative might be in the UK.
Unlike the UK, the interview will not be a test of your subject knowledge or intellectual prowess. Instead, they often focus on subjective aspects of your application, such as your:
- Academic and extracurricular interests
- Goals and aspirations
- Reasons for applying
Like any interview, it is important to practise and be prepared. Ask family, friends or teachers to conduct mock interview with you.
You should become familiar with making well-organised and thoughtful answers, but avoid memorising prepared answers or repeating verbatim points you have made in your application.
Questions to cover in your mock interview sessions might include:
- Why do you want to attend this university?
- Why do you want to study in the USA?
- What do you think you will major in? Why?
- How would you describe yourself?
- What is your greatest accomplishment?
- What is your strongest/weakest characteristic?
- What kind of impact do you see yourself making on our campus?
- What is the most significant contribution you’ve made to your school or community?
- What do you see yourself doing in the future? In five years? In ten years?
- What is your favourite book? Who is your favourite author?
- What extracurricular activities are important to you?
- Tell us about a current event you're following.
You should also prepare some questions to ask the interviewer. These might include:
- Why would you recommend attending this university?
- How would you describe campus life at this university?
- Do you have any advice for me as an applicant?
- What impact did attending university have on your career?
- Anything you want to know about the university but haven't found out yet
Make sure you have done your research and don't ask something easily answered on the internet.
Additional interview tips:
- If possible, schedule your preferred university's interview last so you build experience with the others
- Be confident, genuine and enthusiastic
- Take notes during the conversation
- Revise your university research
- Read up on current events related to your academic and extracurricular areas of interest
- Send a thank you e-mail or note immediately after each interview
Once you’ve applied, it’s time to wait for the decisions to be released. There are positive and proactive ways to respond, no matter which decision you receive.
There are three types of decision:
- Offer of admission
- Not accepted
Offer of admission
If you are accepted to a university, congratulations! The institution will likely send you information on why you should accept their offer and how to do so.
Within the offer of admission you will also receive an outline of what financial aid or scholarship funding they will give you.
To respond to their offer, you can:
- Accept: If you need to think about your options, remember to circle back to the factors that are important to you, and pick the university which meets the most of these. Remember, if an early decision application admits you, you have to accept. Acceptances in general must be made by 1 May.
- Decline: If you decide not to accept a university offer, let the admissions office know politely and as soon as possible. You might end up applying there for postgraduate study, so don’t do anything to tarnish the university’s opinion of you.
- Defer: Gap years are not common in the USA and there are few formal processes to ask for a deferment. If you have to postpone enrolment for a year, ask the admissions office for guidance as soon as possible. If you decide to defer, there is a chance you will have to apply for funding all over again in the next application cycle.
Being put on a wait list means you had strong enough credentials to be considered for admission, but there were more competitive applicants in that admissions round. There is still a chance you will be offered admission.
Students who were offered admission might decline their place, and you will want to be at the front of the queue. To do this, make sure you follow instructions on how to remain on the wait list.
If this is a university you definitely want to attend, let the admissions office know you will enrol if offered a place, and inform them of any significant updates to your application.
Be professional, positive and succinct in your communication.
The best advice is to not take it personally. Remember the admissions committee faces the difficult task of choosing a limited number of students from a very large applicant pool.
If you believe something major was missed or overlooked in your application, do ask about it. Otherwise, respond courteously and thank them for reviewing your application. You might apply to this university as a transfer student or for postgraduate study.
It is possible to transfer from a UK university to a US university, as well as between US institutions part of the way through a degree. This is made possible by the flexibility of the credit system at US universities.
As well as meeting the basic university entrance criteria, transfer applicants are expected to:
- Complete at least one year of university study before transferring
- Be performing well at the current institution
- Have clear reasons for transferring to a particular university or college
- Have clear study plans and objectives at the new institution
- Study for at least two years at the new institution
Although some requirements such as admissions exams might be waived for transfer students, it is not an easy path to admission. The most competitive colleges have even more demanding admissions standards for transfer students. It might also be difficult to attain funding.
Application deadlines are later for transfer students than first-year admissions. For entry in the fall/autumn, transfer application deadlines are typically between February and March. Spring entry application deadlines will likely be in the early autumn.
You will be required to submit:
- Application fees
- Official transcripts from your secondary school and current university
- Reference letters (these can be from current professors)
- Admission essays
- Personal statement outlining your reasons for transferring - make sure you focus on positives, and do not criticise your current institution
You should contact the university to which you want to transfer, to find out their transfer application requirements and processes.
You might be asked to use an external credential evaluator, to see how the courses you have taken at university so far match up to the new university’s curriculum requirements.
If you haven’t met the typical requirements for a first-year student, you could be asked to take additional classes once you enrol. Alternatively, if your modules at your current university far exceed the new university’s requirements, you could be granted advanced standing.
Tips for success
To make the transfer process as smooth as possible, you should:
- Make sure all academic records are official and bear the original stamp or seal of the issuing institution
- Submit official course descriptions for all the university courses you have taken so far, including:
- Summaries or outlines of the major topics covered in each course
- The number of units or hours required in lectures or laboratories for each course on a weekly basis
- Term/semester lengths
- Required texts for each course
- Credit value of the course according to your current university
- Provide information on the total number of credits required for your current degree (an honours degree in the UK is normally at least 360 credits)