Find dream school: go through universities and conduct self-evaluation
The first thing you should know is that compared to the United Kingdom (read How and When to Apply to a British University) there is no unified system for applying to American universities, and there is no limit to how many universities you may apply to. This means that you will have to check in with each university one by one to familiarize yourself with their admissions requirements and determine if your background matches these requirements, or not. For example, there are usually certain prerequisites for most STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors in sciences and technologies, so you should make certain that they are shown in your transcripts. If you are applying for more practical majors such as journalism or education, practical experience in the related industry, or an internship at a newspaper or in a school, for instance, will help a lot in your CV. For international students, these experiences will be better if they are in an English-speaking environment with English portfolios.
The earlier you prepare, the better
After evaluation, you should know what you need to improve to make your background match your dream school’s requirements. That’s why the earlier you start to prepare your application, the better. Imagine that you are in your last semester and discover that your dream school requires linear algebra? The best time to bring your CV into conformity with your preferred school’s requirements would be in May or June before your last school year starts, when you will still have a chance to add relevant courses to the transcripts or to arrange internships during the summer. If you are not satisfied with what you are learning in your bachelor’s degree studies and want to change your emphasis in a master’s program, a minor would help.
Hardcore requirements: the thing that will decide your admission level
In all the requirements, there are differences between “hardcore requirements” and “soft competencies”. A good GPA will definitely be the most powerful weapon in your application profile. For non-English-native international students, English test results will be another “hard index”, especially for majors in social sciences and humanities, in which your SAT, TOFEL, GMAT and/or GRE grades can even decide to which level of universities you can be admitted. For international students, some universities also require a WES report to evaluate the quality of your transcripts based on the American education system. This process will also take a while, so it’s better to start as early as you can.
Soft competence: the thing that will make you unique
In the meantime, the question of “soft competence” refers to the application documents you upload to the universities when applying. They will distinguish you from other candidates who have GPA or test results that are similar to yours. It can be the summer school or scientific research experience that proves you have devoted yourself to your chosen field to lay a solid foundation. The articles you have published, the hands-on internships or practical experiences you have accumulated by being immersed in real-world industry, the honors you have earned or even outstanding campus extracurricular activities will also be helpful.
Most American universities require writing samples to show your soft competence. A typical set of documents will include a CV, a personal statement and/or statement of purpose, a portfolio, and 2 to 3 recommendation letters which should be from either your course teacher or your supervisor in a research project or an internship. So it’s better to find someone who can evaluate your performance, at least if it has been a good performance. If you have almost failed in one subject, then it’s better not to bother that course instructor.
English writing skills play a key role in application
The better the universities are, the more they will emphasize written documents (STEM majors may be the exception). There are differences in writing requirements among different majors. Business, economics, or management majors tend to give extra questions for written responses, and some of them could be professional and difficult. While arts majors focus more on the quality of your paintings, musical memos, photos or videos, some will even have additional writing tasks for you to fulfill.
All the application documents should be in English, and that’s when you should work hard to write well to “brag” about your experiences, making the soft competition even more competitive. And please remember to modify each version of your written statements to match the different preferences of the various universities that interest you, and never apply to all the universities with the same statement. You may find one universal statement will be enough to apply for British universities; but trust me, this will make a bad impression when an American admissions committee reviews your package.
After application: patience is important, as well as training your English speaking skills
Some universities may also ask you to show financial credibility during the application period, but that will not always be a requirement. When all the documents are ready, feel free to apply. The deadline for application varies, but usually between the end of October to the end of February. More and more universities will ask you for an interview after reviewing your application. Then all you need to do is to be patient, the admission results usually come in March to May. By the way, if you get an “early decision” admission, it means you can’t choose other universities anymore. So be careful when you apply to decide which one you want to be “ED” admitted to, while bearing in mind that this only exists in the bachelor’s degree application process.