How to apply to a US Ivy League university

Darllenwch yn y Gymraeg

In this week’s blog, Bishop of Llandaff student Thomas Burr, who has been awarded a place at Harvard University, gives his insight into applying to a college in the US.


I probably decided to apply for an American University around halfway through Year 11. I can’t quite remember my exact reasons for wanting to apply. Maybe it was the liberal arts education that meant I didn’t have to specialise straight away. Maybe it was the fact that going abroad for university would surely force me to mature and become more adaptable. Maybe it was just a fun idea. Either way, I looked into it and quickly discovered that applying to a University in the US is a whole different ball game.

For starters, I discovered I wouldn’t be applying for a university; it would be a ‘college’, which is what Americans call undergraduate institutions (they reserve the term ‘university’ for the more mature postgrads). Secondly, I discovered that UCAS becomes pointless; the Common App becomes vital! The Common App is the most commonly used method to submit applications to US colleges and hasn’t got a limit on the number you can apply to. Therefore, forget only applying to 5 unis – you can apply to 55 US colleges if you wanted to! However, with each application to each individual college, there is a fee of around $70 so doing that may cause a hefty dent in your bank balance.


A major constituent of a person’s application comes in the form of SAT scores. Though the SAT tests are multiple choice (bar an essay at the end that colleges often require), timing is strict and though the test lasts around 3 hours, it feels more like 30 minutes! Many colleges also require additional SAT subject tests which you can take in maths, science, literature, history or a language. For both these tests, I’d definitely recommend buying a revision guide that you can get pretty cheaply second-hand on Amazon; practice really does help in getting you used to the content and format.

Obviously, the earlier you take them, the more time you have to try again if the first or second attempts don’t go to plan (as mine didn’t!). But even if you take your first one in year 13, you’d be fine! They’re not half as scary as A-Levels and admissions officers understand that internationals aren’t prepped for them as US students are. Besides, the holistic nature of their admissions process means they look at test scores just as highly as that trampoline competition you came first in.

Other constituents of the application are teacher reports and the infamous ‘Personal Essay’. The personal essay is NOT to be compared with your UCAS personal statement – they are VERY different things! Whereas with a UCAS personal statement the emphasis is very much on academics, the US personal essay is focused on you. What makes you stand out? What event has shaped you more than any other? Your personal essay (normally chosen from a range of around 4/5 titles) should reflect your interests and qualities as a person. People write about all sorts of things – examples I read ranged from talking about being short to Winnie the Pooh. Though this may sound crazy, they actually give people the opportunity to really speak from the heart rather than just the mind. It’s likely they’ll also interview you but it’s more of a chat than a grilling; they just want to get to know you in person.

So, I hope I have shed some light on the US application process! It can seem a daunting process that at times can leave you thinking ‘What have I signed up for!?’ However, I’m sure you will get a heap of support (my school was so encouraging for both me and my dearest friend Ben) and trust me; US colleges offer unbelievable opportunities. And if you get just one acceptance letter, it’s worth it.

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