The world’s leading study destination for international students, the US boasts over 150 leading universities in the QS World University Rankings®. In 2014/15, the number of international students choosing to study in the US rose by 10% from the previous year to a record high of 974,926 students, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report, and seems likely to exceed one million in the near future. The most popular states for international students were California, New York and Texas, while the most popular subjects were business and management, engineering, mathematics and computer science.
Of course, it’s not just the high standard of US universities that attracts students from far and wide. Whether you’re attracted to the bright lights and fast pace of the big city or to miles of unspoiled wilderness; sun-kissed beaches or vast mountain ranges; the rustic and traditional or the sleek and modern, this huge and incredibly varied country has something for everyone.
Ready to immerse yourself in American college life? Read on for more information on top universities in the US, popular student cities, applications, visas and more.
The sheer volume and variety of universities in the US means you can be pretty confident of finding a suitable institution in your preferred setting. And if you don’t get it right the first time, moving between universities in the US is not uncommon, without losing any previous academic credit or having to start over.
Depending on your subject and study level, you might need to take an admissions test, such as the SAT at undergraduate level or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) at graduate level.
Undergraduate degrees at US universities typically take four years to complete. The first part of the degree is usually spent studying a wide range of subjects – some required and some electives – after which students choose the subject or subjects on which they want to focus – known as “major(s)”.
You may also earn a “minor” qualification alongside your major by completing classes in an additional field. This is often used to supplement the major degree. For example, business majors often minor in economics, while liberal arts majors may minor in philosophy. Some students also choose minors simply to explore a field they’re interested in, even if it does not closely relate to their major.
The academic year in the US is usually split into two semesters, with the fall (autumn) semester beginning in mid to late August and ending in December, while the spring term runs from January to May. Depending on where you’re from, you might find the academic terminology slightly different to what you’re used to.
The US currently has 11 entrants in the QS Best Student Cities index, with each city hosting a variety of prestigious universities as well as distinctive lifestyles and cultures. But which of its cosmopolitan student cities is the one for you?
As well as ‘The Big Apple’ and ‘The City That Never Sleeps’, New York City is sometimes called the ‘Capital of the World’. Few other cities conjure up as many associations, be it the skyscrapers that serve as towering monuments to the city’s financial power, the legendary music and fashion scenes, the bright lights and glitz of Broadway or those iconic yellow cabs.
If you want to be surrounded by the world’s best and brightest students and academics, then you can’t really do much better than Boston – especially if you include the nearby student-centered town of Cambridge, MA. This is the location of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, ranked first and third in the world in the 2016-2017 rankings. Other top universities in Boston include Boston University (89th), Tufts University (238th), Boston College (joint 299th), Northeastern University (joint 361st) and Brandeis University (401-410).
One of the most historic US cities, Boston is well known for arts and culture, particularly when it comes to contemporary classical music. But it’s not all serious academia and highbrow culture; the city is also renowned for its pubs and bars, and its fondness for sports.
In terms of wealth, population and cultural impact, Chicago only lags behind the behemoths of New York City and Los Angeles. Beneath those imposing skyscrapers is a vibrant and eclectic city, known for its lively mixture of cultures, live music and nightlife, and intellectual life. Nicknamed ‘the Windy City’, Chicago is the third most populous US city, with around 2.7 million residents. In 2015 the city hosted a record of over 52 visitors from home and abroad, making it one of the country’s most visited cities.
High-ranking universities in Chicago include the University of Chicago (10th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017) and Northwestern University (just outside the city) at 26th. Other strong options are the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (66th), the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) (joint 187th), and Illinois Institute of Technology (401-410).
The universities in San Francisco and the Bay Area which surrounds it include two of the world's most prestigious and best-known: Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, ranked 2nd and 28th respectively in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. The intellectual might of this pair has massively contributed to the area’s wealth, which is largely founded on the renowned technology hub known as Silicon Valley, home to high-tech corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
San Francisco itself, and the branch of the University of California which shares its name, is also known for its ground-breaking biomedical research. The city has been ranked highly on lists of the world’s most livable cities and is a popular tourist destination. Add mild weather, a liberal outlook and a strong party culture, and you can see the appeal for yourself.
Nicknamed ‘the City of Angels’, Los Angeles is inseparable from the creative industries on which its wealth is founded: music, television, and – most of all – film. Other things that might leap to mind when you think of the city are the bright Californian sun, beaches, and the perpetual pursuit of the body beautiful – after all, this is the home of “Muscle Beach”.
If you’d rather be exercising your mind than your body, there are plenty of prestigious universities in Los Angeles, including the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 31st in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. Worth a look if you want to combine studies with star-spotting!
In terms of fees, US universities do not tend to differentiate between domestic and international students. Public universities charge lower fees for students from within the same state compared to everyone else, while private universities usually have one set fee for everyone. To give you an example, the highest-ranked university in both the world and the US, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has set its tuition fees at $48,140 per year for all undergraduate and most graduate programs in the 2016/17 academic year.
However, fees vary significantly from university to university. Studying in the US certainly won’t be cheap, but most US universities are very good at providing accessible information about the cost of study – including tuition fees, course resources, accommodation, food, insurance and other expenses.
There’s also a good chance you will not have to pay the full tuition fees. At many universities in the US, a majority of students receive financial aid, via various grants, scholarships, loan and work-study schemes.
US financial aid is usually supplied based on two distinct criteria: merit-based and need-based. Need-based aid depends on an assessment of the student’s financial circumstances, while merit-based aid considers academic grades, athletic performance, involvement in organizations and other outstanding talents.
While international students are not eligible for federal aid provided by the US government, many universities in the US provide their own aid schemes – both need- and merit-based. Five US universities also offer fully need-blind admissions to domestic and international students: Amherst, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Harvard. This means students are accepted without any consideration of their ability to pay, and the university then pledges to contribute as much as is necessary to enable them to attend.
If you want to get an idea of what US financial aid you’re eligible for, use the ‘net price calculator’ on university websites (all institutions are required to offer this service).
To start your application to study in the US, you will need to apply directly to each of the universities you’re interested in. Remember that athletic recruitment and sports scholarships follow a slightly different timeline to regular applications, so it’s worth checking the application deadlines early (1-1 ½ years before enrolment) to avoid missing out.
Entry requirements for each university are different, but most involve completing an admissions test or essay, the SAT or ACT admissions tests, and providing recommendation letters from teachers. On top of this, most universities ask for a transcript of your grades and a personal statement.
If accepted, you’ll be entered into an international student database called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and sent a copy of the information stored on this, which you will need to check for accuracy.
It’s also important to ensure that you pay the application fee (the SEVIS I-901 fee) for this database service, which is US$200. A few universities also allow international students to apply for free online. The university will then provide you with a Form I-20 to present to the US embassy when you attend your visa interview.
Once you’ve been accepted to study at a US university, you will be ready to apply for your F-1 non-immigrant visa. In order to obtain this, you need to arrange an interview at your local US embassy, following the US visa requirements process below: