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UES London: Admission tests for American universities
Jason Smith from UES London talks about applying for university in the United States. Well worth a read for those thinking of studying a degree across the 'pond'....
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UK universities are amongst some of the best in the world, but American universities have a few benefits that some students might be attracted to.


More and more students in the UK are considering going to the United States for their undergraduate degree. This is down to a number of reasons: firstly, the tuition fees in the UK have increased dramatically, making the cost of attending a college in the US seem much less unfeasible. Secondly, students have come to realise that a US education can be more varied and less restrictive in scope. And thirdly, because of sheer size alone, there are far more top-rated universities in the US than there are in the UK.

UK universities are amongst some of the best in the world, but American universities have a few benefits that some students might be attracted to. They tend, for example, to give their students much more time to make a decision about what they will specialise (or 'Major') in. For this reason, degrees in the US are normally four or five years in length (compared to just three), and the first year often comprises a lot of general subjects that cover a range of fields. This is great if you want to try your hand at a few different things, or know that you want a high level education, but not sure what in.

Applying to a US college

The application procedure for American universities is much more complex than the UCAS system in the UK. The main difference is that there isn't really a central system for applying; instead, you have to apply separately to each college. (There is something called the Common Application, though the top colleges will ask for lots of extra things in addition!)

The application window opens in the autumn of the year before you want to go, so just after you start your final year of sixth form (Year 13 in the UK). The latest you can apply is the following May, but the general rule is: apply as early as possible! There are various, sometimes complicated, application options, but the earlier you apply the more chance you have of getting in, as most Colleges will have filled their places long before May.

In order to be offered a place, you have to show that you're well rounded - not just academically capable, but the sort of person the college wants to have as an alumnus. You will need to fill in application forms, write personal statements, send in your transcripts, submit essays and perhaps attend interviews. Additionally, you will almost certainly have to submit scores for one or more standardised tests - the SAT or the ACT.

The SAT and ACT entrance exams

Many people will have heard of the SAT already. In fact, there is a choice of two basic exams: the SAT I and the ACT, and most US colleges require that you take one of these. They are both tests of English and mathematics ability, with the ACT also containing some science. They are scored on strange scales: the SAT is out of 2400, and the ACT is out of 36. Both tests cover lots of English grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension, and both have an essay component (which is optional in the case of the ACT - some colleges don't require it). They both also have lots of mathematics, and there is some science in the ACT.
Whichever one you do, you will find that they are both quite strange tests, unlike anything you've done before.

What's the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

Here in the UK, most people take the SAT I, and have rarely heard of the ACT. In the US, however, more people take the ACT! It's accepted by all the top colleges, and for many people it's a better choice of exam.

The main difference is that the SAT is two thirds English and one third maths, whereas the ACT is half English, a quarter maths and a quarter science. People often say that the SAT is more of an IQ test, in that the questions are more problem-solving puzzles than tests of knowledge. Other differences include:
  • The SAT is negatively marked, meaning you lose marks if you make a mistake, whereas the ACT is not.
  • The ACT goes into slightly higher-level maths, whereas the SAT maths is pitched at about GCSE level.
  • The SAT is a test of innate ability, while the ACT tests depth of knowledge.
  • The ACT essay is optional (though some college require it).
Both exams are long - about 3 hours 45 minutes for the SAT and 3 hours 30 minutes for the ACT. Both are also very fast: you get very little time for each question, and there are no marks for working!

What is a good score?
The SAT is scored in three sections: Reading, Writing and Math. Each section is marked out of 800. Top colleges (like Ivy League universities) normally require a score of at least 2100 in the SAT, with 700 on each section.

For the ACT, the four sections are classed as English and Math, reading and Science, with each being marked out of 36. You then receive an average score out of 36. The essay is marked separately out of 6. A score of at least 32 on each section is regarded as good score.

What about the SAT Subject Tests?
The tests don't stop there, unfortunately. There are also the SAT Subject Tests (SAT II), which are one-hour exams covering most subjects including higher-level maths, English literature, sciences, languages, or history. Many top colleges will ask that you take two or three of these in addition to the SAT I or ACT, to show off your abilities.

When do I take the tests?
The dates vary, but the tests are normally once a month starting in September and continuing through to January, with an extra two in spring. Note that you can't do SAT Subject Tests on the same day as the SAT I!

Most people will start doing their SAT I or ACT in the spring of their lower sixth (Year 12 in the UK). Then, if you need to, you can retake them in the autumn, and do your Subject Tests before Christmas. Ideally, you should have all your tests done by the beginning of December, so starting early is the best idea!

You can do the tests as many times as you like, but be aware that some colleges will see all the scores you get, so showing improvement is a good thing!

How do I get a good score?
Everyone can do well on the SAT or ACT. The key is LOTS of practice. Do not think that because you have good grades at school, it means you can simply walk into the exam and do well. You should start preparing early (in the February or March of your lower sixth - Year 12 in the UK). You have to become very familiar with the type of question that they ask, and develop techniques to become quick and accurate. There are lots of tip and tricks to doing well, and this is where tutoring comes in.

Private tuition and courses for the SAT and ACT

Most students find a bit of tuition for the SAT or ACT to be very beneficial, because a good tutor can explain how to approach the questions in the right way, and how to best maximise your time. Although you probably know most of the material, it's the WAY the questions are phrased that students find strange. You should choose your tutor carefully: he or she should have taken the test and know it inside and out. They should also be able to quickly identify areas that you need to improve on, and show you ways of thinking about questions that you'd never considered. After this, you should be able to practise on your own in the way you've been shown, and your scores will improve dramatically.

Another option is an intensive course: a week or so of instruction that introduces all the topics on the SAT I or ACT and shows you how to get good scores. Courses aren't quick fixes, but are an excellent way to get to grips with the material, so you can go away and prepare properly.

Don't be worried!
The above application process and tests might sound scary, but many people apply successfully to American colleges every year. The trick is to start thinking about it now and get the help you need!

For further information on dates or to register for your tests, consult the CollegeBoard (for the SAT) or the ACT website.

By Jason Smith

Jason is the founder of UES London, an organisation specialising in US entrance exams, including the SAT, ACT and graduate exams such as the GRE and GMAT. They can be contacted through their website here

Article UES LONDON









"...because of sheer size alone, there are far more top-rated universities in the US than there are in the UK."
















"In order to be offered a place, you have to show that you're well rounded - not just academically capable, but the sort of person the college wants to have as an alumnus."

















Start thinking now!

"Don't be worried!
The above application process and tests might sound scary, but many people apply successfully to American colleges every year. The trick is to start thinking about it now and get the help you need!"