An article summarizing the main steps of the admission process to American universities, their timeline, and the particularities of applying to Harvard.
Here is a short guide to the American university admissions process at the undergraduate level and at Harvard specifically. It was written to give you a general idea of the process and our personal advice to help you succeed. However, always remember to check the official website of each university you are interested in for the latest information: there are specific rules for each school, which can change from year to year.
The steps of the process, and when to apply
The American college admissions process is a little more complex than Parcoursup, but don’t panic! If you do it in time, it’s not that complicated. Here are the main steps of the process, and some suggestions on when to start. Keep in mind, however, that our experiences are all different: some people start very early, others do everything at the last minute. Finally, for various reasons, there are students who apply after graduating from high school (i.e. taking a gap year). On the other hand, it is more common to enter Harvard College directly after graduation: it is not necessary to obtain another degree in France before applying.
– Start preparing for the SAT (details, schedule, and preparation tips available here) and the TOEFL.
The SAT is required by many American universities, so it is best to prepare early. The content, especially in mathematics, is not difficult for a French high school student with a solid foundation. However, it is a very different format and while it is easy to get a decent score, it is often more difficult to get a very good score. TOEFL is not always required (Harvard does not ask for a score) but consider checking with each school. I personally thought that except for the speaking and listening sections, preparing for the SAT was enough to pass the TOEFL (but remember to practice on mock tests to know the format!).
Nevertheless, standardized tests are only a small part of your record and it is very, very important to have a good academic record in high school.
– If you wish, take the SAT the first time. It is possible to take it several times and send only your best score to colleges.
Summer before senior year
– If necessary, continue with SAT preparation.
– Start researching the schools that interest you: beyond rankings, American schools are all unique. Some excel in engineering, others in political science. Some don’t have graduate schools and therefore have very few students (Williams College, for example), others offer master’s degrees and allow young bachelor’s students to network with tens of thousands of other students. In short, get informed because you can apply to up to 20 schools.
– Create a Common Application account: this is the platform where you will send your applications to each school.
On Common App, you will be able to fill out and send the applications requested by each school. You will be able to see which essays are required by each school as well as by Common App (there is often a prompt that tells you what type of essay they require). More sophisticated than the Parcoursup cover letters, essays take time and thought: get to them early. It is an important part of your application and a great way to stand out.
The first quarter of the senior year
– Find a counselor for your application: this is someone from your high school who will create their own Common App account, write a letter of recommendation, answer questions about your school, and post your report cards. Unlike American high schools, where there are specific people for this role, there are not always any in French schools: choose a teacher you trust, or a person from the administration you know well.
– Find two teachers from your high school (different from the counselor) who can write you a letter of recommendation. They will also need to create their own Common App account so get there early!
– Take the SAT and TOEFL if you haven’t already
– Write your essays. This step will probably take the most time. Allow enough time to write several drafts and get feedback from family and friends.
When preparing your applications, keep in mind that you will have to pay a certain amount for each school you apply to. For Harvard, the application fee is $75, and this may vary by school.
– Apply for scholarships: an article on financial aid at Harvard is available here. At Harvard, the deadline is November 1st for early action and February 1st for regular action. If you apply for regular action, you have a little more time to prepare your scholarship application.
Admission Cycle Submission of files for scholarships Admission results
action 1st November 1 November mid-December
Regular 1st January 1st February End of March
There are two application phases in the United States: early, usually November 1, or regular, January 1.
– Early: There are three types of early applications depending on the school: early action, restrictive early action, and early decision. All of these are different application phases than regular action since you apply in early November and receive your results in December instead of March. You show a real interest in the school, whose yield rate (percentage of accepted applicants) is important for their image. The only difference between early action and restrictive early action is that you can only apply to an early action school if it is restrictive. In the case of an early decision, you are committed to accepting the admission offer if you are admitted. Harvard only offers the restrictive early action option.
So this is an option if you have a school that you like above all else. The early admission rate is generally higher than regular admission, but keep in mind that there is often more self-selection among students applying early, and many early admit are legacies and athletes. So don’t panic if your file is not ready in November or if you prefer to improve your file while waiting for the January deadline. By applying early, you can be admitted, rejected, or deferred, which means that they postpone their decision until the next admission cycle.
– Regular: deadline is usually January 1st. Be sure to check if the deadline takes into account the time difference!
After you apply
– Have your interviews (one per school, if applicable): if you live in France, alumni from each university may contact you to set up an appointment. In the case of Harvard, you must set up an interview yourself: more precise instructions will be on your candidate space when you apply. Finally, some schools will not contact you, but this is not necessarily a bad sign: it is quite possible to be accepted without an interview. Interviews are offered to everyone regardless of your application.
Interviews for the United States are very different from those you may have prepared for schools in France or England. It is not a test of your knowledge or cognitive abilities. The interview is supposed to be an informal conversation about you, your interests, and what you have written in your application. It’s mostly about being yourself: they’re looking to see if you’ve been honest and genuine in your application, how well you speak English, and if you’re the type of person they’d like to see at Harvard. Show that you are passionate about what you do, and curious about learning and discovering, and you will be fine!
– Wait for the results! They will arrive in December if you apply early and in March if you apply regularly.
– If you are accepted
Early on, you will learn more about the specifics of each school. They will organize visit days during which you can stay on campus and attend classes. However, some (many!) of the accepted students, especially those living abroad, will not be able to attend. This is not a big deal! You can definitely get in touch with students before you choose your school on May 1st. You also have the possibility to take a gap year before you start school. Ask the schools that interest you.
– If you are not an American citizen, don’t forget to apply for a visa (F-1 with some exceptions) early enough.