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Meet Thomas Keen
at Columbia University
"Be honest about who you are and what makes you unique in your application. Your exam results are an important part but not the only part of your application. US universities really take a look at everything you submit."Laura, Yale University
When selecting universities, first consider whether you meet the minimum academic qualifications. As you prepare your applications, you should also keep in mind your application will be reviewed holistically and that both academic performance and potential and non-academic, subjective criteria will be evaluated too, such as extracurricular involvement and compelling reasons for choosing a university.
Establishing that you meet the minimum academic criteria for admission to the universities of your choice does not guarantee entrance to those universities, but is instead the first step in assuring that your application is seriously considered. To have the best chance at admission to a highly-competitive university, it is important to pair high marks with a thorough, carefully considered application package.
As a general rule, US universities will expect to see a similar type of qualification and results as British universities of a similar level of prestige and competitiveness.
As a minimum requirement for four-year bachelor's degrees, you should have completed at least five GCSEs at grade C or above (or five Scottish Standard Grades), including English and Math, plus be completing or have completed a post age 16 qualification. The most competitive universities will expect to see three A-Levels or their equivalent. This could include a minimum of three Scottish Highers, A-Levels alongside the Welsh Baccalaureate, the IB (see our IB FAQs handout) or Pre-U.
The slightly less competitive bachelor's programmes are likely to accept the BTEC. The Edexcel website provides a list of some universities who accept the BTEC. Many more do, and we encourage you to simply email or call the admissions office for more information. Additionally, some institutions, particularly two-year or community colleges, will accept students with other UK qualifications, such as GNVQs, GSVQs, HNCs or HNDs.
We also suggest that you not assume that US universities will know about or accept qualifications beyond GCSEs, A-Levels and the IB (which is available in the US). You should therefore email or ring the admissions office to double check they accept your qualifications and ask if you should submit additional information about them. Although US universities do not use the UCAS Tariff, it doesn't hurt to include information about the UCAS Tariff points for your qualification or the description of the qualification provided by UCAS, along with your transcript.
If you have only completed your GCSEs, you may wish to apply for a two-year associate programme at a community college, which will give you the option to transfer to a four-year bachelor's programme in a 2+2 arrangement. If you plan to apply for a four-year bachelor's programme immediately, the university may require you to sit the GED high school equivalency exam.
If you are pursuing a Foundation Degree, it is best to contact each university about their policies as to whether or not you will apply as a first-year or transfer student. Some US universities view Foundation Degrees as a gateway to higher education and will have you apply as a transfer student. Whilst other US universities may view Foundation Degrees as continuing secondary education and will have you apply as a first-year student if you have not yet attended a university and/or worked towards a bachelor’s degree. However, you may find that many US universities may not have heard of Foundation Degrees and will ask for more information about the programme you are enrolled in. Although US universities do not use the UCAS Tariff, it doesn't hurt to include information about the UCAS Tariff points for your qualification or the description of the qualification provided by UCAS.
If you have started university in the UK (even if you are just starting your first year), you will likely apply as a transfer student which has a slightly different admissions process than applying as a first-year student. You should however check with each university's admissions office to confirm whether you should apply as a transfer or first-year student.
This search tool may provide further information about how universities might view your qualifications.
Your academic abilities will be evaluated in the first instance by your results in Years 10-13 (such as GCSE, AS-levels and predicted A-levels) as reported on your transcript. However, your academic aptitude will also be assessed through your performance on admissions tests. Admissions tests are used as a common denominator to compare applications from different US states (there is no national curriculum) and different countries.
The stronger your academic record inside the classroom and on standardised tests, the stronger your chances of admission. If you have done particularly well on your A-levels or have further education qualifications, you may be awarded advanced standing by US university you attend. However, academic achievements alone will not guarantee entrance to competitive US university programmes.
Unfortunately, there is not an official grade conversion between US and UK marks. Instead, US university admissions officers either evaluate international credentials internally or require that students use an external credential evaluator. Below is a chart displaying approximate grade conversions that may be useful in determining competitiveness for admission and funding. (IB students see our IB FAQs handout.)
We do not recommend reporting a US GPA on your applications or transcript. Leave this field blank or report your UK results in their original format.
|GCSEs and A Levels
|UK Letter Grade
||US Letter Grade||US Grade Point Average|
|B||B+/A-||3.3 - 3.7
|Scottish Intermediates 1-2|
|Scottish Grade||US Letter Grade||US Grade Point Average|
|1 - 2||A||4.0|
|3 - 4||B||3.0|
|5 - 6||C||2.0|
|7||D/F|| 0.0 - 1.0
|Scottish Grade||Percentage||US Grade Point Average|
|A||70 - 100%||A|
|B||60 - 69%||B|
|C||50 - 59%||C|
|D||0 - 49%||
An extracurricular is any constructive activity not required to finish school, such as: paid and unpaid work experience, volunteering, sports, school activities, interests in the arts, hobbies, etc.
US universities are looking for well-rounded applicants who will be active in their classrooms and on their campuses because of the US philosophies of active learning in a classroom (ie discussions and group projects) and that the university is a living learning environment (which you will be active in and benefit from). From your application, they will also want to gain a sense of your character, personal interests and professional goals. By highlighting your involvement in extracurricular activities at school or within the community, you will be able to tell them more about who you are as a person, as well as place your academic achievements in context. Students that perform well academically while balancing extracurricular activities, such as sports, performing arts, community service, leadership roles and/or part-time work, are more likely to gain admission to a US university programme.
Universities also consider the background of the student and what was or wasn’t available to him/her and if there were other obligations (family duties, working to help support their family, etc) which might have taken away from time for academics or extracurriculars.
US universities know that there are excellent programmes in the UK. So why do you want to go to the US? Part of your job in the application is to convince the university that if given a place and/or funding you will take them up on the offer. Make them feel confident by giving compelling reasons for studying in the US and at their university.
Universities will also be looking for a detailed explanation of your interest in pursuing a degree at their institution. As explained in the overview of the admissions process, admissions officers will be assessing your application for entry into the institution rather than a particular field of study. We recommend that students compile a thoughtful list of reasons why they believe each of their chosen universities is a good match for them, as well as why they are a good fit for the university, and refer to these lists when writing admissions essays and responses to short answer questions. Again, the aim is to convince your reader (and yourself) that you are a good fit for the university.