Bonas MacFarlane US College Application Service – an introduction


The benefits of a US college/university education are undeniable. Students can continue exploring a huge range of interests throughout the course of an undergraduate degree. Some universities even allow the freedom for students to design their own modules.

Teaching faculty is exceptional, every individual student effort is ‘credited’, assessment styles are varied, and there is the flexibility to change course whilst always moving forward. Indeed, the average undergraduate student changes major (course) three times over the course of a university career.

The campuses themselves are warm, spacious, and inspiring places welcoming an academic elite to unique college communities.

What is involved?

Applying to US universities requires a far more significant investment of time, thought, money and energy than applying elsewhere. It is highly advisable to start the process early – quite simply, a great deal is involved.

Academic Record

For the most sought after universities, your child will be expected to have a very good academic record. He/She may also need US standardised test scores. He/She will need excellent school references, very well written application essays, and an interesting wider student profile showing in-depth involvement and commitment.

Comparison with UCAS

Many parents are scared off by the complexity of the US admissions process. In comparison to UCAS (where a set of predicted grades and one personal statement suffice for application to five different universities), applying to US colleges is a lengthy and strenuous process.

As private institutions, each US college or university sets its own rules and requirements. Moreover, it is essential that institutional priorities are understood and considered to successfully align an application. Without this expertise, chances of acceptance are significantly reduced. We have seen too many talented international students fail in the presentation of their applications and for this reason primarily, we urge parents to seek professional guidance.

What is involved? Types of applicant

In our experience, there are three types of applicant to the US:

i. the student whose parent(s) has studied at a US college and is forced to rely on his or her previous experience and/or limited knowledge. Institutional priorities and systems shift over time, and the parent’s experience may not be relevant today.

ii. There is a student/family that relies solely on guidance from school. The school is competing against firms that have invested millions of dollars in creating highly effective services.

iii. Finally, there is the student/family that uses the support of an educational consultancy.

Successful Applications

A child’s future is too important to be put into the hands of ‘interested amateurs’ or into the hands of experts with differing priorities or fields
of expertise. Successfully applying to the world’s top universities does now require professional support. We have seen many applications that
are convincing to the untrained eye. The last draft changes to our most recent success to Yale may have seemed unimportant, but it is the subtleties in the presentation of a young person to an anonymous admissions team that require professional guidance.

Applying to US colleges is a lengthy and strenuous process. As private institutions, each US college or university sets its own rules and requirements.

Our Services

Our services, which can be used individually or as part of a package, include the following:

Application Management

We guide the student to producing the strongest application possible.

We supervise each component of an application, liaising with family and school to set timelines and monitor deadlines along the way, to ensure that an application and its supplements are successfully aligned to institutional priorities and the student’s strongest suits.

College Selection

We conduct individual or continuous consultations to help a family decide on suitable schools. There are just under 4,000 universities and colleges in the US. Each is trying to create its own unique community, so the right ‘fit’ of a student to a college is key – not least for the likelihood of success of an application.

We have unrivalled knowledge of a vast number of the top institutions. It should be remembered that undergraduates in the US are members of a college community first; members of an academic elite second.

Successfully applying to the world’s top universities does now require professional support.

College Visits

We can arrange private college and university visits. Our network of past and current Heads of Admissions enables us to present the very essence of a college community to a student and his/her family.

We can accompany a student and guide a family in asking the right questions, making appropriate introductions. Many universities welcome direct dialogue with families.

We view college visits as a crucial part of the decision-making process that grants the students a real ‘feel’ of the college campus and community.

SAT & ACT Tuition

We provide our own ‘general strategies’ SAT/ ACT tuition and work with specialised US partners to provide the most effective test preparation programmes. Standardised testing remains a central element to a successful application to many of the top universities.

We conduct a diagnostic assessment to determine a student’s suitability to either the SAT or the ACT format before recommending a programme. All of our tutoring models for standardised testing concentrate on maximising score. This, unfortunately, is not the area to discover a ‘love of learning’.

For students in the British system, SAT/ACT testing is so important for three reasons:

  1. U.S. standardised testing focuses heavily on a wide vocabulary and an excellent command of English grammar. The mechanics of English grammar are largely ignored in the British education system, even at the top independent schools.
  2. U.S. standardised testing in Mathematics focuses heavily on topics that are not covered by GCSE or AS Maths syllabi in the UK (eg. Geometry). Students need the cultural-curricula literacy to perform well in these tests.
  3. U.S. standardised testing is virtually all multiple choice. Assessment styles in the British system do not prepare students with the techniques for this exam format.

We have seen first hand how much more effective SAT/ACT preparation can be if delivered by specialised professionals.

Writing, Essay & Art Support

A strong application to the US demands that a student is a highly proficient writer. Even the top humanities students in the British system will often need writing support for their US applications.

While we will never write an essay for a student, we provide continuous guidance on the crafting of a personal essay – considered more of an art form in the context of the common application.

We can organise writing courses and/or art coursers to discover and/or improve writing style or to create an outstanding art portfolio. We can involve a mixture of exceptional writing tutors, subject specialists, and consultants with college-specific admissions experience to ensure that the creative parts of an application stand out from other applicants.

Mentoring for US college applications

Even the top humanities students in the British system will often need support for their US applications.

We work with a student and his/her family over a period of six to thirty-six months to support and recommend choices of academic and extra-curricular pursuit that are likely to strengthen the overall US college application. We involve, as necessary, a number of mentors and tutors to support and guide a student towards creating a student ‘profile’ that combines strong academics with interesting and in-depth extra-curricular involvement.

We guide a family to align a student’s course choices and extra-curricular activities with prospective college applications. Starting early, mentorship can be one of the most effective methods to helping an applicant really stand out from his/her peers.


1. Why and how are US college applications fundamentally different from those in the UK?

US colleges use an admissions department to build a community of students. British universities use members of academic faculties to select students for courses of study. Many top US universities are private institutions; therefore, they have total discretion in their admissions policies. British universities are heavily funded and bound by anti- discriminatory admissions regulations.

The application process in the US mirrors a university’s attempt to create a community. The university admissions process pays heightened attention to the whole individual, seeking to attract the many different individual parts needed to create an interesting and diverse ‘whole’ student body. As such, an applicant needs to have a profile that suggests he or she is likely to become fully integrated and both draw from and add to the college community.

Applications to UK universities are read by teaching faculty. A student applies to an academic course and is accepted (or refused) almost exclusively on the basis of academic merit. Applications to US colleges are read by admissions officers who are independent of academic departments and trained to select candidates who ‘fit’ the university and the institutional priorities of the moment.

The supplements of college applications are a good way to judge a university’s character. A recent student with whom we worked wanted to apply to the University of Chicago. He was highly mathematical and saw things mostly in black and white. The University of Chicago is ‘quirky’ in some ways. Its supplemental essay prompt read, ‘Describe your favourite joke without ruining it.’ Our student found this prompt ridiculous and frowned upon the choice of topic. He went to MIT instead. The titles of supplements are the university’s chance to share its character with its applicants. If you don’t like the attempt, you’re unlikely to enjoy the educational experience.

2. How can a student present him/herself as an exceptional candidate?

There are many ways, but the chances are that your child is what the Americans would call a good ‘all rounder’ – that is to say, he or she has a strong academic profile and is skilled in a number of areas beyond schoolwork. There are very few students who are world-class in one discipline by the time they apply to college. Those to whom the second scenario may apply will present their applications differently. But consistency of involvement in academic or extra-curricular pursuits, as well as excellence, can be considered ‘exceptional’.

Historically, US colleges sought all-rounders and students were encouraged by their counsellors to try a vast number of activities. Times have changed and generally it is now preferred to have developed fewer interests to greater depth. But the key to an application is the ordering of the information. We’ve seen applications that are convincing to the untrained eye, yet it is the subtleties of presentation that require specialised professional guidance.

The application for our most recent success to Yale would have looked good enough as it stood to most – high GPA, near perfect SAT scores, a beautifully written essay and interesting activities. Yet we and the family both believe that it was the re-ordering of this information in the application and the inclusion of a wonderful art portfolio that helped an incredibly hard-working and deserving student present himself well enough to be accepted. With such tight timeframes for admissions officers to consider applications in a pool of strong candidates, the importance of presentation cannot be underestimated.

3. Why can SAT/ACT tutors charge $500 per hour?

We’ve seen the results of top SAT/ACT preparation programmes. Both formats (exam boards) are carefully designed. As such, they can be carefully prepared for. With a firm understanding of the structure of the exams and the techniques required to maximise scores, students are able to do very well even without strong subject knowledge. In short, the model can be dissected, understood, and beaten.

There are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding standardised testing for US admissions. The bare truth is that testing is big business, and that students can absolutely prepare for it. There is huge investment

in diagnostic testing around SATs/ACTs and first class research and development in technology from test preparation providers. Many of the top tutors are also SAT/ACT curriculum designers and share their own input in formatting the exams for a premium. As capitalistic as it sounds, those with the ability to invest the most time, money and thought into preparation are usually those who will achieve the best scores.

A keen Russian student with her sights set firmly on UCLA chose to work with our specialist US partner. She scored 17 on her initial ACT diagnostic test. After 5 hours of focused tutoring, she scored 26 – an improvement of 9 composite points. The maximum score on the ACT is 36, and most top universities will require a score of around 30 or above. In light of the rest of her application, UCLA would happily accept a score of 26.

4. What is the best way to select colleges?

Not through any published ranking system. There is no official ranking system for US universities, only those produced as marketing devices for firms selling products. So ignore as much as possible the ‘top ten’ discussions. The most important aspect, always, is finding the college communities in which your child is most likely to enjoy the educational experience, be considered as a good ‘match’, and thrive.

Limiting selection to a few Ivy League colleges is the worst approach – both for the probability of a student’s acceptance and the chances of his/her success during an undergraduate career. Most top brand universities have acceptance rates of under 8%; Stanford in 2014 was 5%.
It is essential to play the field a little and show flexibility towards opportunity. Indeed, 9 of the 10 American CEOs in the Forbes top 100 companies were not educated at Ivy League institutions. There are hundreds of exceptional universities worth your consideration, even if you keep the Harvards and Yales of this world as ‘reach’ schools. But it is important to protect against and educate your child in the numbers game, maintaining a positive yet realistic attitude.

Some families consider location as paramount; others the “name” or reputation of the institution; some the flexibility of the liberal arts core of the curriculum; others the size and/or type of campus; others their own family connection and/or history. The simplest answer is to research, get advice from those who know, and if possible, visit. Many times, on paper, a school may look wonderful, however, a visit will ensure that a student feels comfortable on campus and happy with his/her choice.

Former US Consultants at Bonas MacFarlane talking at The Independent Schools Show in London