What do I need to apply to US universities?

Jun 2024

7 Minute Read

Tagged as: How to Apply

This article discusses the items you'll need to complet college applications and the other components (like extracurriculars, volunteer hours etc) that are expected

One of the keys to a successful application is sending ALL of the right materials and documents on time. If a student meets only the minimum requirements, the student has little chance of being accepted.

Some of the most popular private US universities receive 40,000 – 50,000+ applications every year. However, many of them have room for fewer than 2,500 students. It is also important to make sure that application materials are easy to locate. Some of these materials are more time-consuming to deal with than others, so it is important to start gathering them as soon as possible (at the beginning of their final year in high school or before), backing up data, and staying in touch with recommenders. Here are some things you will need to have ready when applying to a US university.

Required components of every US university application:

  • Basic personal and demographic information.

  • Information on the student’s high school / secondary school. This includes name, location, grades, and all courses the student has taken.

  • Standardized test scores, such as the SAT, ACT, AP or IB exams.

  • Letters of recommendation. Generally between 2 and 3 are required; may be from counselors, teachers, and/or others like clergy or volunteer coordinators who know and have worked with the student in some capacity.

  • Personal essay. Depending on the school the student is applying to, they may need to write only a longer statement (usually between 300-500 words), or a series of 2-6 questions about general topics like the reason they applied to that school, their future career plans, or a life-altering experience they had.

  • Application fee. This nonrefundable fee of (typically) between $50 and $100 completes the application and ensures that the student will be considered for admission. If necessary, a fee waiver can be requested.

Other components

These are generally required, but the amount you need to have will vary from school to school.

  • Advanced academics. Course selection should be intentional (AP, foreign languages, IB, etc.) and driven towards a student’s potential future academic interests. Some students may also have the option of enrolling in higher education courses while in high school.
  • Extracurricular activities. It is a good idea early on to encourage student involvement with clubs, teams, and organizations that are diverse and allow a student to show long-term commitment, demonstrate leadership and initiative, become invested, and potentially translate exceptional skill or interest to the collegiate level. Some examples are sports, arts, debate club, student politics, academic clubs, and hobby or social interest groups.
  • Volunteer, Philanthropy, Independent Research, Internships, Summer Programs.Not only do activities outside school demonstrate growth, maturity, and leadership, but letters of recommendation from people outside school can be quite powerful.
  • Specialized Talents/Skills (performing arts, etc). Particularly for the most competitive schools, simply listing a talent is not sufficient. Any national or regional awards or competitions the student has attained or participated in should be listed, usually before anything that only deals with their school.  Otherwise, if there is nothing significant to note, it would be fine to leave it off the application.

Some parents have asked: "My student is not applying for a few months … or a few years. What should happen then?"

Start collecting materials now. While we do advise students on building their résumé for the application process, getting a jumpstart in the fall on counselor / teacher recommendations and school records is a good idea to ensure nothing is missing once the application deadline comes around.

It is very difficult to remember every award a student received in a 3- or 4-year span. Similarly, it is very difficult to ask a volunteer coordinator for a recommendation one or two years after a student’s work ended. The earlier these things are completed, the better. Applying to college is stressful enough without having to track down missing documents, people, or classes at the last minute.

For more tips on applying to college, download Occam's app Wend on the App Store!

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