Studying in the USA – a viable option?

According to the Fulbright commission, more than nine thousand British students enrolled at a US university last year, and the number is on the rise. Although US tuition fees are still much higher than UK fees, ( $20,000-$60,000 annually or £12,786 – £38,360), – it’s not quite the insurmountable hurdle you’d imagine.

So – how to afford the fees? As in the UK, there are thousands of eligible high schoolers who simply can’t afford the fees, but there are solutions. US colleges have never been fully government-funded, so have always had to raise funds through charitable donations. Many therefore, have large endowment funds and can offer financial aid to international applicants. There isn’t a single organization governing these scholarships, but there are many web sites with information, and individual college web sites give details on what they offer. (The term “bursaries” is rarely used by US colleges.)

The US education and college “app” (application) system is completely different from the British version. Experts advise international students to allow 18-24 months working back from the date they want to start college. Although it seems like a lot of time, British applicants need to-

  • Research the colleges that might suit them. (I strongly advise widening the net and looking at more than just the well-known Harvard/Yale/MIT options). There is no over-arching body such as UCAS so students must wade through individual college web sites.
  • Look for financial aid, if needed. As mentioned, it is out there but finding it and submitting the paperwork adds a considerable amount of time and effort.
  • Take the standardized test (ACT or SAT) that most colleges require of international students. This is a timed, multiple-choice test and is quite different from anything British students are used to. British applicants compete against American high schoolers who have been practicing these tests for months, so test prep is a must.
  • Have test scores sent to the colleges they are applying to, which can take a month or more.
  • Have high school information sent to colleges. Teachers are asked for fairly in-depth reports* on applicants and some US colleges require applicants to use a Credential Evaluation service to compare foreign academic scores.
  • Have financial (ie. bank) information sent to colleges to prove ability to pay for the first year.
  • Fill out the application form(s). This takes more time than most foreign students realize. Most colleges require at least two personal essays, which should be proofed by at least one other person. Students are selling themselves to colleges so this essay cannot be rushed off in one draft.
  • Apply for a visa. Students can only apply for a US student visa once they have finally committed to one college. This college initiates the paperwork for the visa request so students holding multiple offers cannot proceed until they make a decision.
  • Apply for housing, send in doctor’s form etc. Once a student has a confirmed place at a US college there are many steps to complete before being able to attend. Choose and pay for housing, submit physical reports from the local doctor, register for classes and, in most cases, attend the International orientation session.

*Because of the amount of input required from teachers and other school staff, I strongly suggest that students with “sketchy” relationships start mending some fences, pronto!

It can be daunting to even consider applying to a US college, and expensive if you feel the need to hire a consultant. However, with sufficient time, it is possible for students (and their families) to undertake the whole process themselves.

To help international applicants manage the US application process (including deciding whether it’s even feasible in the first place), I have written “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”, which also has a Facebook page for questions and further information.

Author Bio – Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who’s lived in the USA for over 20 years and has attended university in the UK and the USA. She has one child at a US college and another currently looking at both US and UK colleges. Toni is the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom”, writes for the BBC America “Mind the Gap” web site, and blogs as Expat Mum

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