Choosing and applying to US universities

Here are some suggestions for selecting universities to apply to, and when and how to apply.

Researching universities

From the thousands of institutions in the US that offer programmes of study, you will need to create a list of the universities you would like to apply to. We recommend you select 10-15 universities to get more in-depth information about.

There are numerous websites providing advice and engines for searching universities online:

Peterson’s publish a number of guide books to selecting universities or courses, including Applying to Colleges and Universities in the United States, which is available from Fulbright New Zealand.

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Making a shortlist

From your research, we recommend you choose 4-6 universities to apply to. US universities charge a non-refundable application fee and applying to more than 6 can get expensive.

Your shortlist of universities should include:

  • 1-2 schools at the top of your range – universities that you would very much like to attend, but you’re not sure that your academic record and test scores meet their expectations;
  • 2-3 competitive, but not extremely selective schools - universities where you’re confident that your application will be given serious consideration; and
  • 1 safety school – a university that you are certain will accept you, because you more than meet their criteria.

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Criteria for choosing a university

Things to consider when comparing universities:


  • Majors offered;
  • Strength of programme;
  • Selectivity (entrance difficulty);
  • Cost and availability of financial aid;
  • Accreditation;
  • Academic facilities;
  • Type of institution – public or private, co-ed or single sex, etc.;
  • Enrolment size;
  • Campus setting and geographical location;
  • Sports and campus life;
  • Housing;
  • Services for international students.


  • Be clear about what you want to study and know exactly what speciality within your field you are intested in;
  • Look for a graduate programme that is recognised as being strong in your prospective field;
  • Don’t just research the famous institutions like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley and Princeton, as there are many other excellent schools in the US. The top universities are the most expensive and difficult to enter. Schools with good programmes in your field may not necessarily be the ones that are well known to you;
  • Note who is publishing research in your area of interest, and then find out where they are teaching;
  • Seek advice from New Zealand academics in your field;
  • Seek advice from US graduate students in your field who are studying in New Zealand; and
  • Use the internet for up-to-date information on US universities.

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Writing a personal statement

American universities want to get an idea of what sort of person you are, which is why they often ask you to include a personal statement in your admission application. For many students, writing the personal statement is the hardest part of the application process, but with the keen competition for admission to US universities, your personal statement often becomes a crucial element of your application package. It is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from the many other applicants with the same academic qualifications.

Make sure you tailor your written statement to the institution to which you are applying – the more specific you are, the more convincing you will be. Make sure your referees do the same for their references. References and personal statements need to demonstrate evidence of why you would be suitable for a particular graduate department.

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Application timetable

The process of applying to university in the US takes far longer to organise than the application process for study in New Zealand. We suggest that you start 12 to 18 months before you plan to begin studying in the US.

The following timetable is based on starting your studies in late August/early September. Mid-year admission (starting in late January/early February) may be possible, but you’ll need to check directly with the universities concerned.


Research 10 to 15 universities
Assess whether or not these universities meet the criteria you have identified as important to you. This research phase of the application process is perhaps the most important and shouldn’t be left to the last minute.

Seek financial assistance
Begin to investigate possible sources of financial assistance. This should include possible funding from the university as well as funding from other private sources.


Contact 4 to 6 universities
Choose from the universities you researched and contact the admissions office to request application forms, financial aid forms and any other forms for international students. Each university has a non-refundable application fee, so applying to more than six may be expensive.

Register for tests
Determine which standardised admissions tests you’ll be required to take and register to sit them.

Seek non-university sources of funding
Contact non-university sources of funding and request application forms.


Fill out application forms
Begin the process of filling out application forms and collecting all required material like transcripts and references. Start writing your application essay/personal statement.

Make sure you identify the application deadlines. These can occur anytime from November to February for those planning to start studying in August/September.


Submit applications
Complete your applications and submit all required items before the deadline. Apply early if you possibly can.


Notification of acceptance
Universities will notify you whether or not you have been accepted. They should give you an indication of how much, if any, financial aid they are prepared to offer you.

Write to the university you decide to attend to let them know you accept. Also write to the other universities that accept you to let them know you will not take-up their offer of admission.

Travel arrangements
Once your acceptance has been confirmed, you should start thinking about organising your travel top the US. Late August and early September are peak times for travel to and within the US so the earlier you organise your tickets the better.


Obtain a student visa
There are two main types of visas that are issued to students wishing to study at US universities – a Student (F) Visa and an Exchange Visitor (J) Visa. The first step for acquiring a Student Visa is being accepted for enrolment an accredited university. The university will provide you with a form called the I-20, and once you receive this form you may apply for a student visa. The process for acquiring an Exchange Visitor Visa is similar – once you are accepted into an accredited exchange programme they will provide you with a DS-2019 form which allows you to apply for an exchange visitor visa.

In New Zealand, visas for the US are issued by the US Consulate General in Auckland, and require an in-person interview. The process for applying for a visa is outlined on the US Embassy website.

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