Top US Universities: How to Ace the Admissions Process

27/04/202322 minute read
Top US Universities: How to Ace the Admissions Process

In today's highly competitive admissions landscape, gaining admission to a top university in the USA requires thorough preparation and a clear understanding of what top universities seek in applicants. To increase your chances of being accepted, you need to learn how to craft a flawless application and be aware of when and how to start preparing.

What Top Universities Look For

If you're planning to apply to a top university in the USA, it's essential to understand what these institutions are looking for in their applicants. While grades and test scores are definitely important, top universities in the USA also value well-rounded applicants who have pursued their interests and passions in and out of the classroom.

How to Get Into Your Dream College

1. A strong academic profile

Building a strong academic profile is crucial when it comes to applying to top US universities. It's important to challenge yourself academically by selecting rigorous courses that align with your interests and academic strengths. Maintaining a high cumulative GPA throughout high school is also important; it demonstrates your ability to excel academically. Even though many universities have opted for a test-optional policy, standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and AP exams can still play a significant role in the admissions process, so it's important to prepare for them and take them seriously.

2. Exceptional extracurricular activities

Top universities look for students who have pursued their interests and passions outside of the classroom and have demonstrated leadership and teamwork skills. It's important to choose activities that show leadership, reflect your interests and showcase your strengths. This could include participating in a club, volunteering in your community, playing a sport, or pursuing a creative endeavor. It's better to have a few activities that you are deeply committed to rather than superficial involvement in many activities.

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3. A compelling personal statement

Top universities in the USA look for candidates with unique qualities and characteristics that set them apart from other applicants, and personal statements are the best way to showcase your unique qualities, passions, and strengths. Your personal statement should provide insight into who you are as a person and what makes you stand out from other applicants. It's important to be honest, genuine, and reflective, and to share personal anecdotes that illustrate your character and values.

4. Strong letters of recommendation

Securing strong letters of recommendation is crucial when it comes to applying to top universities in the USA. It's essential to choose recommenders who know you well and can speak to your strengths and potential as a student. Building strong relationships with your teachers and mentors throughout high school is important, as this will ensure that you have advocates who can vouch for your academic and personal qualities.

The Application Process to Top Universities

The application process to top US universities typically involves several steps, and the process can be quite competitive. Planning ahead, applying early, and staying aware of important deadlines can help maximize your chances of success. Here's a guide to follow when preparing your application to a top university:

US university application timeline and deadlines

Nine Months Before Applying

Take the SAT or ACT for the First Time: Taking the tests early allows you to assess your strengths and weaknesses and identify areas where you need improvement. If you don't get the score you were hoping for, you can retake the tests after a few months of extra preparation.

Take an English Language Exam (if required): Some universities may require an English language proficiency exam such as the TOEFL or IELTS if you’re applying from a non-native English-speaking country. It's important to research the specific requirements of each university you're applying to and determine which exam is most appropriate for you.

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Six Months Before Applying

Request Letters of Recommendation: Decide who you’ll ask for a letter of recommendation; consider the teachers and mentors in your life who are knowledgeable about your experiences, skills and aptitudes. Giving teachers six months notice before applications are due allows them plenty of time to complete your letters of recommendation.

Start Writing your Common App Essay: The Common App is the application platform used by most universities (except for the University of California schools). It's a good idea to start brainstorming and writing your Common App essay before the application opens. Getting a head start on your essay before the school year gets busy will help you stay ahead of schedule.

Five Months Before Applying

Write Supplemental Essays: Most universities ask for supplemental essays in addition to the Common App essay. Get them done right away so you can refine them and work on the rest of the application over the next couple of months.

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Four Months Before Applying

Take the SAT or ACT Again: If you didn't get your desired score on your first SAT or ACT attempt, this is the time to retake the test(s). Remember, universities typically consider your highest score, so a better result can improve your chances of acceptance. If you've previously identified areas where you need to improve, you’ll be better equipped to get the score you're aiming for on this try.

Research Your Financial Aid and Scholarship Opportunities: Many schools offer their own financial aid and scholarship programs. Even if you don't qualify for financial assistance, many organizations and programs offer students large and small amounts of money for college.

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One Month Before Applying

Don't wait until the last minute to submit your applications. Aim to have everything finalized and completed one month before they are due.

If you apply in the early round, your application will be due early to mid-November of your senior year. Calculate that as your application due date and work back from there to determine when to begin the application process.

If you apply in the regular round, your application will be due around January 1 of your senior year. Adjust your timeline accordingly, and don't forget the Christmas holiday is before the deadline. Give yourself plenty of time to work around any holiday vacations or festivities.

Important University Application Deadlines 2022/23
November 2022Submit Early Action and Early Decision applications
Mid-December 2022Receive EA and ED results
January 2023Submit Regular Round applications
January and February 2023Attend interviews
March and April 2023Receive Regular Round results
May 2023Decide which university you will attend!

Top Universities in the USA

The US is home to several top universities that consistently rank highly in various college ranking systems. These universities comprise both Ivy League and non-Ivy League schools and are located throughout the country.

Here are the top Ivy League and non-Ivy League schools based on popular university ranking lists.

Top Universities in USA 2023
Ivy LeagueNon-Ivy League
Harvard UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Princeton UniversityStanford University
Yale UniversityUniversity of Chicago
University of PennsylvaniaJohns Hopkins University
Columbia UniversityCalifornia Institute of Technology
Cornell UniversityDuke University
Brown UnivrsityNorthwestern University
DartmouthVanderbilt University

Are Top Universities Worth It?

While the exact answer to this question depends on your individual circumstances, top universities are almost always worth the effort. Top universities in the USA are highly sought-after by students seeking high-quality education, and it's easy to see why. Although getting into a top university is highly competitive, the advantages that come with getting a degree from one of these universities are significant, and sometimes life-changing. Here are some of the key benefits of attending a top university:

1. Unparalleled Education

Top universities in the USA attract the best and brightest faculty members, who are often leading experts in their fields. With access to cutting-edge research facilities and a wide range of academic resources, students at top universities in the USA are able to learn from the best and stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in their field. Additionally, top universities often offer a more diverse range of courses and programs, giving you the opportunity to explore your interests and develop a well-rounded education.

2. Employment

Attending a top university can give students a significant advantage when it comes to securing employment. Many employers value the prestige and quality of education associated with top US universities, and having a degree from one of these institutions can be a key differentiator in a competitive job market, putting your application ahead of many others.

Additionally, top universities have a wide network of alumni who are often well-connected and successful in their fields. This network can be an invaluable resource for students, providing access to internships, job opportunities, and mentorship programs.

3. Developing important life skills

Top universities in the USA often have a highly competitive and challenging academic environment, which can help students develop resilience, time-management skills, and a strong work ethic. Additionally, top universities offer a range of exceptional extracurricular activities and student organizations, giving students the opportunity to develop leadership skills, build their social networks, and explore their interests outside of the classrooms.

Final Thoughts

Attending a top university in the USA can be a life-changing experience that offers unparalleled education, employment opportunities, and the development of important life skills.

When applying to these institutions, it's important you understand what they're looking for in their applicants to build a strong application profile. Following a timeline and planning ahead can help maximize your chances of success in the competitive application process. Overall, attending a top university is worth the effort and can provide significant benefits for your future career and personal growth.


Which top universities don’t require SAT?

Some of the top US universities no longer require SAT scores. You can view a full list of universities that don't require SATs here.

It's important to note that even if a university does not require the SAT, they may still consider SAT scores if they are submitted, and the absence of SAT scores may be weighed against other application factors.

Which top universities have early action?

Many of the top universities in the US have a non-binding early action application option. These include:

  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Yale University
  • University of Chicago
  • Duke University
  • Georgetown University

Can I apply to US universities without TOEFL?

Some US universities may allow international students to apply without submitting TOEFL scores, but this varies depending on the university and the program you're applying for. Some universities may accept alternative language proficiency tests, such as the IELTS or the Duolingo English Test.

Some universities may also waive the TOEFL requirement for students who have completed their high school or undergraduate education in a country where English is the primary language of instruction.