Studying in the USA

With a population of over 300 million people and more than 4,000 universities, the USA offers great diversity in terms of course subjects and experiences. Every year, over 1,000 Irish students go to college there. The quality of education provided is acknowledged worldwide, with many high ranking universities. The US is also renowned as the home of the latest technological advancements where students can gain first-hand knowledge about cutting edge technologies coupled with excellent research opportunities.

Although it takes considerable time and effort to prepare for studying in the US, it is possible to find a course which is the right fit and which can lead to a great experience. You will find plenty of information about studying in the US here, covering an overview of the higher education system in the US, how to search for courses and apply for them, as well as important things like visa requirements, fees, costs and funding opportunities.

Understanding Higher Education in the USA

Choosing a course in the US can be rather difficult as there are so many different types of degrees, universities, colleges and schools. This section outlines the main options available to students after completing their secondary education.

Public Universities

Public universities are state-funded institutions and are usually very large in size. They are cheaper than private universities), but they can still be rather expensive unless you get a scholarship. See information about Fees here. The terms ‘colleges’ and ‘universities’ are equal in terms of education level and social status.

The three highest ranking public universities are University of California, Los Angeles; University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; and University of California, Berkeley.

Private Universities

Private universities are supported by tuition fees and private donations. They typically have smaller student numbers, a close-knit community, better campus facilities and are more expensive to attend. They also have more funding set aside for international students, especially need-based scholarships.

You might have heard the term ‘Ivy League universities’ in relation to elite universities. Ivy League is the name of an ‘athletic conference’, i.e. a group of private university based sports teams which play competitively against each other. The following eight private universities in north-eastern USA are incorporated in the Ivy League: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University.

But the term ‘Ivy League’ is commonly used to refer to the eight universities beyond the sporting context as the universities are considered elite colleges which are highly ranked and have very competitive admissions with an acceptance rate of approximately 10% of applicants.

Community Colleges                                               

Community Colleges (also referred to as junior colleges) primarily offer two-year associate degrees. You can either take the vocational or technical route to prepare for the workforce, or you can prepare for your undergraduate degree by progressing to a university or liberal arts college for 2 years to complete a bachelor degree. This is often a cheaper option and less competitive compared to going straight into an undergraduate degree in a university.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal art colleges are private, not-for-profit Higher Education institutions which allow students to look at a range of different subject areas, from humanities to science, and their interconnections, before specialising in any one or more areas. What distinguishes liberal arts colleges is that teaching is typically in small classes, with a lower student-to-teacher ratio compared to large universities. Liberal Arts colleges also tend to have a holistic approach to study, with a residential campus which aims to foster social skills and dialogue. Most liberal arts colleges only offer undergraduate degrees, but some also offer graduate programmes (e.g. Masters or Doctoral level).

Two types of undergraduate degrees

Associate’s Degree: Typically two years in length and offered at Community Colleges. Associates degrees often focus on vocational or technical skills. Similar to a Diploma at Level 6 in Ireland (see

Bachelor’s Degree: Similar to a Bachelor Degree in Ireland (QQI level 8). Usually four years in length and typically includes:

  • General education courses in a wide range of subjects;
  • A major, which is a concentrated field of study;
  • Supporting courses for the major and
  • Electives which are a student's free choice.

An undergraduate degree is designed to be completed in four years. However, unlike Ireland, there is no fixed timescale in which students must complete their degree. Instead, a degree is awarded after a student has completed a required amount of ‘credits/units’ or semester hours.

Usually a student will need to accumulate approximately 110-130 credits in order to graduate, with each course on average earning 3-4 credits. Continuous assessment is a feature, where each course (class) per term is graded and then the grade is converted into a numeric equivalent called a Grade Point Average (GPA) on a scale of 0 - 4.0 which indicates how well a student is performing.

For more information, see the US Department of State website which provides a ‘5-steps’ guide to international students interested in studying in the US.

How to search for courses

There are several sites and search tools available to help you find a suitable course:

  • There are a number of independent websites which allow you to search for colleges and courses by the subject you are interested in, by geographic preference, or by a range of other criteria that you specify. The following are some examples of such search engines:
  • If you have identified one or a select few colleges you would like to attend, log on to the college and university websites to access detailed information about degree programs, application procedures, academic departments, on-campus facilities, and other topics. Often, you can also find a copy of the course catalogue (Prospectus) to read online or download to read later.
  • You can also write to the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at each of the colleges you are interested in for an application form and a prospectus.
  • If you want information about acceptance rates, average SAT and ACT scores, college costs, financial aid information, enrolment numbers, college descriptions, photos, and other useful data to help you choose a college click here.

Application procedures

The main student intake is in September but many colleges also have a smaller intake in January. The application deadlines for the September intake are typically in March or April, but it can be earlier for more competitive courses as each university has its own deadline (which can be as early as November in some places!).

The main thing to note is that it takes time to complete a successful application. It can take anything from a year to 18 months – so start early!

Secondary school students in Ireland who are interested in studying in the US after their Leaving Cert should begin exploring areas of interest and thinking about all available college options in 4th Year or Transition Year. By 5th Year they need to start pinning down the right colleges for them and preparing for the SATs (see info on SATs below). Beginning the process early will mean that students are ready to submit their applications in 6th Year.

Unlike Ireland, there is no single application system for higher education courses, so each application will vary according the requirements of the particular college. However,over 750 public and private colleges and universities in the USA are members of the Common Application system. Their website provides details of application deadlines, fees and other requirements.

Typically, the process of applying to a college is as follows:

  1. After you have selected the colleges to which you would like to apply, complete and return the application forms direct to each college before their individual deadline dates.
  2. There is no limit to the number of colleges you can apply to, however, most students apply to between three and eight colleges to keep costs down. An application fee is required with each application form. Submit the appropriate amount in U.S. currency with your application. Most institutions will not process your application without the fee.
  3. Colleges usually notify their applicants between April and June. Note the deadlines by which you have to reply if you are accepted.
  4. If you are accepted by more than one institution, write to the one you decide to accept, and pay a deposit if required.
  5. You should also write to those whose offers you wish to decline. It is courteous to notify an institution if you will not be accepting their offer of admission.

The application

Colleges in the US review applications holistically, meaning that they look at a number of elements of the student.

An application to an American college will typically include:

  • A completed application form
  • Personal statement and two to three essays
  • Standardized test scores (SAT or ACT, plus SAT Subject Tests, if required)
  • Two or three reference letters
  • Transcript of final four years of school (all courses, grades, Junior and Leaving Certificate scores)
  • Application fee
  • Interviews

All of the above will be taken into consideration when reviewing your application as colleges want to see well-rounded candidates who both have good grades and are involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports, volunteering, the arts, or work experience.

Standardised Test Scores (SAT)

Most students who want to study in the USA must sit a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT exam).

The SAT exam is held in Ireland every year on various dates from October to June at three locations: St. Andrew’s College, Booterstown; St. Conleth's Ballsbridge; St. Augustines, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. Details are posted here.

Students must first register to take the SAT, and request the Educational Testing Service and then forward their scores to the institutions to which they are applying.

The SAT includes:

  • Reading Test
  • Writing and Language Test
  • Math Test
  • SAT Essay (optional, check requirements of specific college)

Some institutions may also require SAT 2 - subject tests - which measure the candidates' knowledge in specific subjects.

The SAT is typically taken by fifth and sixth year students. Irish students should pre-register at least six weeks in advance. The total testing time for the SAT is approximately 4 hours.

Online sample questions and preparation materials are available here


While there is no universal deadline for colleges in the US, it is safe to say that you need to allow for a lot of time for planning and applications as you may need to scramble up documentation such as:

  • Documents confirming your previous education (high school, Bachelor's or Master's diploma or official transcripts);
  • Standardised test scores, if required;
  • Copies of your passport, passport size photos, birth certificate, etc;
  • Proof that you will be able to afford your education and living expenses abroad;
  • References from past teachers or employers.

A university will normally set a deadline for around April-May, when applying for an autumn semester (starting in September-October). However, some will have much earlier dates, and on the other hand, there are many programmes that end up not being completely filled up and you may be able to apply under a late registration.

Fees and costs of living

The cost associated with studying in the US is higher than most other countries in the world. It is worth remembering that although the tuition fees are very high, many students cover such costs with scholarships and grants, which are not just for financially disadvantaged students.

Average annual tuition fees for undergraduate degrees in the US:

  • Public college (4 years) US $26,000
  • Private college (4 years) US $35,500
  • Liberal arts college (4-years) US $50,000
  • Community college (2 years) US $3,500

For up-to-date information and statistics, see:

Estimated living expenses for students is US $10,000-$16,000 per year, which includes accommodation, food, travel, textbooks, clothing and entertainment expenses.

The eduPASS website has information on Calculating College Costs as well as lots of practical information about living in the USA:

Funding opportunities

Many Irish students have in the past secured scholarship support to study in American colleges, in particular, sports scholarships (among them, famous Irish athletes Sonia O’Sullivan and Eamon Coughlan).

Students should be aware that partial funding is more common than full funding, unless you have academic, athletic or artistic talent. Scholarships are hugely competitive, so students should make contact as early as possible with potential coaches or faculties.

Some funding opportunities available from US universities (but not all) are open to international students, and offer a variety of scholarships that recognise academic record, demonstrated leadership ability, contributions to the community, or special interests and talents for example. Contact the university you plan to attend and ask for information on potential scholarship options. Students should do this well in advance of actually submitting an application, as they will then know what scholarships they might be eligible for. A separate application for Financial Aid will typically be required.

Another option is to search for external sources of funding and there are numerous online resources available, for example:

It is worth noting that there are restrictions relating to how much a student in the US on the F-1 Visa can work and earn so make sure to check the current restrictions if you plan to fund your studies with part-time work. See the US Embassy in Ireland website:

Visa requirements

You will need to apply for Visa in order to study in the US. If you are accepted by a college, you will receive a letter of admission, together with the form required to apply for a visa, the "Certificate of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant F-1 Status”.

For up-to-date and accurate information, visit the US Embassy in Ireland website: