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The Uni American Dream

Lots of sweating happening in the exam halls – but what's the next step? If your offspring is considering uni stateside, read on!

US flag, mortar boards, blue sky

With university fees creeping ever northwards, popping over the pond for tertiary education doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea anymore. Here Laurence Goodwin, International Universities Coordinator at Wycliffe College, explains how to jump through the hoops.

Decide whether it’s for you

Around 9,000 UK students are currently studying in the US, a figure which is set to grow, but it’s still not a well-trodden path and with the complicated testing process, sorting out scholarships and funding, and the sheer plethora of choice, research and forward-planning is essential. Schools like Wycliffe College can help students and parents navigate their way through. I joined as international universities coordinator in 2013 and in that year also launched a Standard Assessment Test (SAT, the US college entrance exam) preparation programme. We’ve had great success in placing students in American universities – in 2016, our then deputy head girl Amelia Henley gained a place at Harvard to read maths and chemistry, with a substantial scholarship. It might feel like a mountain to climb to get there, but the rewards can be great – according to a recent Council for Industry and Higher Education survey of 230 UK companies, one in three employers favoured applicants with international study experience.


Narrow down your search

There are 4,500 US colleges and universities offering undergraduate degrees, an overwhelming choice that can leave students and parents not knowing where to start. But the flipside is that with such a wide range of US universities on offer there is a greater possibility of finding one that suits any type of student, regardless of their particular interest or learning style, than might be possible in the UK. Undergraduate degrees in the US are quite flexible too, which means students have the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects and change direction if they want to before they specialise. The Fulbright Commission, which helps UK students get US university places, suggests prioritising the factors that are most important to you and then using online search engines or a print directory to identify the universities that meet your criteria. Once you get a list of around ten to 20 good options, then you can research those in-depth.


Do your homework

Check university websites and really explore the academic department, international student services, financial aid and student activities pages. It is important to choose universities based on your needs and wants. Universities can tell whether a candidate is truly passionate about what they offer – the US application is designed to root that out. When it comes to applying, you want to have a shortlist of around six to eight. Make sure your list is well-rounded in terms of competitiveness of admission. Unlike UCAS applications, US university testing is more comprehensive and focuses not only on academic learning, but also on reasoning. And it often begins in the penultimate year of school, meaning that students, parents and teachers all need to be aware of the potential impact on school work.


Prepare for the test

There are two admissions tests for US universities. The first is the SAT Reasoning test, a three-hour test comprised of sections covering Maths and English. The test is designed to measure critical thinking and analytical skills, and also features a 50-minute optional essay section. The second is the ACT, a curriculum-based exam testing students in English, Maths, Reading and Science Reasoning. The test is 2 hours, 55 minutes with an optional 40-minute essay. The more competitive US universities will require students to submit essay scores regardless of which test they have taken. Schools can help students prepare for the whole process by giving them support well in advance – when they’re preparing for GCSEs ideally. Students who end up going to the US have an easier time if they start early, certainly earlier than they would start their UCAS applications. Time and the space to explore what’s available is crucial to having a successful programme – both for students and the teachers mentoring them through the process.


Get support

It is important to understand what qualities US universities are looking for, so teachers need to be more ‘American’ in terms of developing relationships with US university admission directors – who can divulge exactly what they value in an application. It is a mutually beneficial relationship; they are interested in finding students who fit their mission and academic profile and we, as counsellors, are trying to find the very best institution for our students. The Fulbright Commission is a fantastic resource – it is doing some really amazing work in both the independent sector and the state sector through its work with The Sutton Trust, which is helping to improve social mobility through education. Other schools in your area may be running small college fairs or hosting events with admissions officers which your students may be able to attend. A relatively small number of teachers in the UK specialise in US and other international admissions so it is in your best interest to seek them out and share your knowledge and resources. It’s really worth attending the Fulbright Commission’s USA College Day in London (Fri 28 to Sat 29 Sept at the ILEC Conference Centre). It is the largest US university fair in the UK with more than 180 exhibitors representing universities in the US and educational service providers. USA College Day and follow-up visits by admissions officers to your school are both a great way of engaging with current admissions trends.


Websites to explore

The College Board’s Big Future

The Princeton Review

The Fiske Guides – available as books and e-books

The Fulbright Commission has detailed pages on the entire process, including scholarships and financial aid:


woman red top green grass

Laurence Goodwin is International Universities Coordinator at Wycliffe College.


Wycliffe College is a co-ed boarding and day school in the Cotswolds for pupils aged 13 to 18. To read the Muddy Stilettos review of the school, click here.

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