• General information
  • Applications
  • Admissions decisions
  • Finances

Universities in the USA

The university options in the United States are numerous and varied with more than 4,000 institutions. US universities read and review applications holistically meaning that grades and test scores alone will not guarantee acceptance. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK use a qualification based process. In addition to the data about a student (grades and standardized test scores, the US holistic review places a strong weight on the voice of a student which is demonstrated through their essays, teacher feedback, and counselor evaluation. As a result, the application process tends to create a higher level of anxiety than it may for those applying to other countries because chances of acceptance aren't as clearly determined.

Education after high school takes on many forms in the US including but not limited to technical schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges and research universities. Each institution sets it’s own admissions requirements and application deadlines. Students must always confirm the details with the institution.

The calendar for US institutions is most commonly divided into two parts (semesters). At most schools, first semester begins in late August or early September and finishes in December. Second semester usually begins in January and finishes in May. Students graduating from high school typically apply between November and December of their senior year for admissions in the first semester of the following year.

After a student has finalized his/her university list, the first step is to locate the applications for each college/university. Almost all applications are completed and submitted online. The application can be found on the college/university website.

Approximately 500 universities accept the Common Application, which is a web-based application that allows students to send one application to multiple institutions. The Common Application, like other applications includes information about the applicant and family, educational history, extra curricular activities, one short answer question and one essay. Many universities using the Common Application also require a Supplemental Application that is also available on the Common App website.

Along with the student’s application, ISB will submit additional information. Most schools request the following: two teacher recommendations, a counselor recommendation, a secondary school report, transcript, and mid-year report with a mid year transcript. These documents are submitted online/electronically when possible.

Parts of US College Applications

(listed in order of importance according to NACAC Admission Trends survey)

  • Transcript/Grades in college preparatory courses (strength of curriculum)
  • Admission Test Scores (SAT, ACT, IB, TOEFL)
  • Essay/Writing Sample
  • Counselor Recommendation
  • Teacher Recommendation(s)
  • Extracurricular Activities

In the US, there are several application options. A few universities allow students to apply as an Early Decision (ED) Candidate. Early Decision is an agreement between the student and a university that if a student is admitted he/she is legally obligated to attend that university and withdraw all applications to other universities. The ED deadline is either November 1 or 15 and the university will inform the student of the outcome before the end of the year (December). Many universities have an Early Action (EA) option. Like ED, the student applies early and finds out in December about the decision, however, there is no obligation to attend that university. Some universities have a Rolling Deadline that means that applicants are reviewed and decided upon as they are received by the university. A Regular Decision means that all applicants are considered after a stated deadline with notification in Mid-March to April.

Admissions decisions

Students can apply to universities under Early Decision, Early Action, Priority, Rolling, or Regular admission. For more an explanation of each, visit the glossary.

Once the university has reviewed an application, they will notify the student with the decision (accept, deny, waitlist, defer). Definitions for each of these can be found in the glossary. Universities using “rolling admissions” usually notify applicants six to eight weeks from the time they have a completed application folder (with your test scores). Students applying in September sometimes hear in October.

On the other hand, many of the highly selective colleges use a notification date (approximately April 1st) and send out decision letters on or about that date.

May 1st Reply Date

Once you have your acceptance letters, you must decide where to go. The US candidate reply date is May 1st. If you don’t tell a school by then that you’re coming in the fall, they can, and often do, withdraw your acceptance. Notify all other schools that accepted you of your decision not to attend. An email is a great way to do this. If you’re sure you won’t be attending, notify the college promptly so they might be able to open up other slots for other (possibly ISB) students. Once you’ve made your choice, pay the nonrefundable enrollment deposit, which tells the school you are showing up in the fall. Also, check on housing arrangements. Read the materials you receive with the acceptance letter to see how you should take care of these matters. Thank all those who proofread your essays and wrote letters of recommendation. Teachers asked to write recommendations feel hurt when seniors forget to say thank you or fail to tell them the outcome of the colleges’ decisions.

Getting a Visa

If you are an international student going to college in the US, you will need a visa. You should receive a “Form I-20” from the college’s international student office with your acceptance letter. The US Embassy requires this form when you apply for your visa. You can’t enter a foreign country for university study unless you are a citizen, a permanent resident, or have an appropriate student visa stamped in your passport. Do not enter the US on a tourist visa! ISB hosts an informational meeting with representatives from the US embassy each May to help international students understand the steps necessary to secure a US visa.

Travel Plans and Orientation

Most US colleges begin in August, and many expect new students to arrive on campus a week or two before classes actually begin to go through an orientation program. Do not skip orientation. It’s a great way to meet new people and to get over freshman jitters before classes begin. ISB graduates always report that attending orientation was a big help in their adjustment to college.

Because August is a major vacation season, finalize your airline reservations as early as possible.

Otherwise, it may be impossible to get to campus on the proper date. If necessary, contact the college to find out when you should arrive.


It is possible to transfer from one school to another in the US. Generally speaking, the more prestigious a school is, the harder it is to transfer into later, because there aren’t a lot of students who leave these schools, and, if they don’t leave, there isn’t room for new student to enter. The easiest schools to transfer into are the ones with the highest attrition rates. You need to ask yourself why you would want to transfer into a school where a large number of students keep transferring out. If you do think you might want to transfer to a “better” school, it is sometimes possible. Transfers most often occur after the second year. By that time, a student has demonstrated he/she can do college work. Usually decisions are made in late spring. Colleges often expect transfer applicants to have a good reason for wanting to switch schools. Simply being unhappy at their present school isn’t enough. The best reason is deciding on a major that the previous school doesn’t have. The case has to be convincing. If a student comes across as the type of student who would be unhappy anywhere, he/she is not the type of student most colleges would want.

Senior Slump

After the college decisions have been announced, seniors often go through a “senior slump.” You have been accepted and you feel high school performance is no longer important. Beware! The fine print on the acceptance letter will probably say that your acceptance is contingent upon continued progress during your senior year. Each year, some students have acceptances revoked, are put on probation in college or have to attend summer school at the university due to final semester grades. Don’t let this happen to you.

Beyond Graduation

Once you’ve made your college decision and graduated from high school it seems like you should finally be able to take it easy. Not so fast.

Housing Contract

Housing information is usually included in the acceptance packet. Send this form in early to better your chance of getting good housing. In the housing contract, there is a form asking about your likes and dislikes. This information is used to match you up with a compatible roommate. You may be asked to comment (honestly) on areas such as neatness, study habits, smoking habits, and taste in music (remember to complete this form honestly, it could make a big difference in your roommate selection!). A college won’t guarantee to match you up with a perfect roommate, but they’ll try. Once you find out who your roommate will be (usually in July), contact him or her. Several colleges now have online roommate selection. You are able to post information about yourself and see information about others. Roommates are then able to mutually choose each other.

Health Documents

You will receive health forms, which need to be completed by a physician. You will also be asked to include an official copy of your immunization history. You will not be able to begin classes unless this form is completed. If your family does not have a record of your immunization, you should contact the school nurse before the end of the school year.

Finances & Financial Aid

One of the most important decisions made about attending university is how to pay for it! Families must have many discussions about what is expected and what can be provided before the student applies to university. There must be a clear understanding of who will pay for the cost of university and how much is available to invest in this venture. The best information about financial aid or scholarship at a particular university is available through that university. Many universities require a separate application for financial aid be completed in conjunction with an application for admission. The deadline dates may not coincide with the admissions deadlines so careful attention is needed to this. In addition, universities may require that additional information be submitted from the FAFSA or Profile.

Types of Financial Aid

Financial aid can be need based or merit based. Need based financial aid is awarded to students who have shown that his/her family does not have sufficient funds to cover the cost of education. Students prove eligibility through submitting documents to show assets and income that could be used to pay for college tuition and costs. Need based aid is often given in the form of loans, work-study and grants. Merit based aid is awarded to students based on academic excellence, talents, or achievements. Merit based is usually given in the form of scholarships.

May be awarded by government or by the university. No repayment is necessary for aid awarded in the form of a grant. US students may qualify for the Federal Pell Grant that the university will award in the form of a grant. The (US) Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is a campus-based program that is administered by the Financial Aid Office at participating universities. Some universities may offer institutional grant money to students with demonstrated financial need.

A campus based program (supported by the US government or by the individual university) where a student is employed part time on campus in order to earn money towards university expenses.

Money borrowed by a student or a student’s parents must be repaid with interest. US students with demonstrated high need may qualify for the Federal Perkins Loan Program. The most common loans are the Federal Stafford Loan (student) and Federal PLUS Loan (parent). In most cases repayment is begun six months after the student’s graduation from university.

Most scholarships awarded are merit-based awards. These are based on academic achievement, special ability, and extra ordinary talent. Funds may be from individual universities or from private sources.

Applying For Financial Aid

Net price calculators
The Department of Education is now requiring all colleges and universities to provide a net price calculator on their websites. This tool, available since October 2011, is intended to help families estimate the cost of college, based on their personal information.

FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid
Federal Student Aid is an office of the U.S. Department of Education that oversees the award of financial aid to U.S. citizens. Financial aid can be awarded through grants, loans and work-study programs. The FAFSA is the form used to identify students who qualify for such awards. The FAFSA can be completed after January 1 of the student’s senior year. Parents must provide income, tax, expenditure, asset and debt information in order for the financial need of the student to be determined. After completing the form on line, the student will be notified of the expected level of family contribution (EFC). This information is sent to the universities identified by the student and is the basis of the decisions made by the universities regarding a financial aid package.
Go to website.

Many private universities require that students complete the CSS PROFILE to be considered for financial aid. Please note – there is now an International Version of the Profile for those students seeking financial aid who are not US citizens.
Go to website.

Financial Aid Information for US and Non-US Citizens

International Student Handbook from the College Board (published yearly) has information tables on US College and Universities that state how much financial aid was given to students by individual universities. There are more than 3,200 universities listed and the book is both on line and we have a hard copy in our counseling office.

All non-American students who apply to a college or university in the U.S. must complete the following requirements:

  • Proof of funds: A statement from a bank official is required that will provide proof that the parents have sufficient funds that will cover the college expenses
  • I-20 Form: Each university/college will issue an I-20 Form to students who are accepted to their school and agree to attend.
  • Student Visa: The American Embassy will issue a visa to individuals with a valid I-20 Form.

Financial Aid Information for US and Non-US Citizens