IES University Prep

Applying to US universities


Click here for a FREE GUIDE TO OVERSEAS STUDY or to arrange a FREE ONLINE MEETING with James Burnett, Director of IES University Prep, to discuss your future plans.

Contact Us


Applying to US universities

Whether you are applying for the Ivy League colleges (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) or other top ranked colleges such as those that form the University of California, MIT, Stanford, or Caltech, the online application process needs a considerable amount of preparation. Here, we summarise the key points of the application so that you can start your preparation.

The Common Application

The Common Application (, otherwise known as Common App, is a nonprofit organisation that enables students to easily submit applications to universities across the United States. Common App represents nearly 900 universities and institutions, including all eight schools in the Ivy League, and most of the other top US universities. Applying to universities involves not just essays but also activity lists, test scores, family background information, personal demographic information, and more. Because Common App collects all of this information, you do not need to fill it out for each school you apply to.

The Common Application Essay

When you write your personal statement or “main essay,” you are actually answering one of the essay titles (“prompts”) designed by Common App. Just like other data, this essay needs to be submitted only once in order to be sent to every school. Moreover, if individual universities require supplemental materials, Common App will keep track of those for you too!

The prompts for this year are:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

When you log into Common App, you’ll see five tabs: Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App, College Search, & Financial Aid Resources. “Common App” is the section previously mentioned that tracks basic info, such as test scores, family background, etc. “Financial Aid Resources” is the section that collects information used for financial aid considerations, such as family income and assets (this page is seldom used by international applicants, as foreign students are not entitled to aid). However, the other tabs are used for actually applying, so we’ll cover them one by one.

College Search

Using this page, college applicants can search for universities using either their names or the names of the cities in which they are located. This is quite easy to use, and when you find the university you are looking for, you can add it to your list of schools.

My Colleges

This page keeps track of the schools on your list. From this page, you can add or delete universities, but more importantly, this is the page where you will submit school-specific requirements, such as supplemental essays and other materials. You will also use this page to select which term you are applying for, which program(s) you are interested in, which major you want, etc. The most important steps towards applying happen on this page.


The dashboard also lists your colleges, but rather than provide details, it merely indicates your progress in applying to specific schools on your list. In other words, whereas “My Colleges” can show you what the writing questions are, the dashboard will only tell you whether or not you have completed the supplements. Moreover, when you submit an application, the dashboard will mark it as complete, so you can see which schools you still have to work on.

University of California applications

Students applying to the University of California, including top  universities such as UCLA, use a separate online application system. The University of California application (UC application), includes nine schools otherwise known as campuses: Los Angeles, Berkeley, Irvine, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Davis, Riverside, Santa Cruz, and Merced. Because these campuses are quite famous, many international applicants will apply. However, the UC application is entirely separate from The Common Application.

Data Collection

The UC system, just like Common App, collects and stores your personal information so that you can easily submit it to several schools (the nine campuses) simultaneously. However, because the UC system only works with UC campuses, there are no school-specific supplemental essays! All you have to do is answer a few personal insight questions using short essays of 350 words or fewer. Before we discuss those essays though, let’s review the UC application website, which has seven sections:

1. About You

This section is where you input personal information, such as contact information, family members, citizenship and residency, etc

2. Campuses & Majors

Although the UC system includes nine campuses, you only need to apply to campuses which you choose. The good news is that you can select different majors for each campus.

3. Academic History

In this section, you will submit transcripts from all of your schools since grade 9. Additionally, if you took college-level courses in high school, or high-school level courses in middle school, you will include those.

4. Test Scores

Here you will submit your test scores for all standardized examinations (SAT, ACT, IELTS & TOEFL), as well as SAT Subject Tests, AP or IB exams, and international exams.

5. Activities & Awards

The Common Application also has this section; however, the University of California allows you to submit up to 20 items (i.e. activities/awards), and the descriptions are not limited to 150 characters (100 for honors) like they are in The Common Application.

6. Scholarships & Programs

As an international applicant, you can apply for scholarships or financial aid, but you seldom will. American universities do not guarantee financial support for foreign students, and schools (UC campuses included) consider financial need when determining which foreign applicants to accept.

7. Personal Insight

Whereas Common App has one personal statement of 250 – 650 words, as well as supplemental essay requirements for many schools, the UC system has four essays of 250 – 350 words. You will have eight prompts to choose from, and you will have to pick four.  Once these are complete, you are done. You do not have to write any additional essays.

Sign up to receive one of our newsletters