Admission requirements for studies in the USA

Bachelor’s or master’s degree, semester abroad or summer sessions? Finding the right study programme is not easy. Especially not in the USA, where prospective students have to choose between more than 4500 accredited universities.

Admission requirements for studying in the USA can be a point of reference when selecting a higher education institution and a subject of study. This enables applicants to better assess their chances of admission to their chosen university.

Due to the decentralized structure of the US-American study system, universities can largely determine the application process themselves and autonomously decide on the admission of applicants.

No matter how different the admission requirements for studying in the USA may be, all US universities are subject to non-discriminatory allocation of study places, i. e. irrespective of age, gender, sexual orientation, family status, disability, religion, skin colour, ethnic or social origin.

Minimum academic requirements by study type

Although the exact application procedure varies from university to college, most accredited institutions of higher education in the U. S. have formal minimum academic requirements based on certain standards.

Bachelor in the USA

Applicants for a Bachelor’s degree in the USA require a university entrance qualification. This can be the baccalaureate, but often it is also sufficient to have a technical college entrance qualification.

In the U. S., high school graduates usually graduate after 12 years and henceforth have access to a university. Applicants from Germany who obtained their Abitur after 13 years may be eligible for the 13th school year. Due to the so-called Advanced Standing, studies can be shortened by one academic year, so that students study three instead of four years in the USA. In individual cases, the US universities check whether a shortened period of study is possible.

Postgraduate and Master studies in the USA

With an undergraduate degree – in most cases a bachelor’s degree – applicants are normally entitled to take up a postgraduate or master’s degree in the USA. Since a Bachelor’s degree usually takes three years in Germany and four years in the USA, there are occasional problems with recognition.

However, prospective students should not be discouraged by this, as the host university in the USA carries out individual case studies in these cases. The university staff will check which courses the applicant has taken during the Bachelor’s degree programme. They also include application documents such as letters of recommendation or essays in the decision.

Under certain circumstances, the higher education institution may grant a commitment, but this is conditional on the applicant taking additional Bachelor’s courses in the USA in order to fill any gaps in knowledge.

Depending on the type of Master’s degree programme, the admission requirements for studying in the USA may vary:

  • Academic Master: Applicants for academic courses of study must in some cases have a bachelor’s degree and previous specialist knowledge. However, many Master’s programmes are open to students from other disciplines.
  • Professional Master’s degree: In the case of professionally oriented Master’s programmes, the specialisation of the programme often plays a minor role. It is more important that applicants have a certain amount of work experience in a relevant area. This applies in particular to MBA programmes and to courses of study in the fields of education or engineering.

Doctorate in the USA

A prerequisite for doctoral studies in the USA is usually a very good to good master’s degree. For some VET programmes, a Bachelor’s degree is sufficient. In addition, some universities have combined Master’s and Ph. D. programs, to which bachelor graduates have access. Performances from the Master’s programme can often be credited to the Ph. D. programme.

Many universities require a GPA (Grade Point Average) of B for a Doctoral Degree, which corresponds to grade 2 in the German grading system. However, it is difficult to make generally valid statements on the required grade average. Particularly at doctoral level, there are large differences in the admission requirements for studying in the USA.

The exact selection criteria depend not least on whether students choose a scientific doctoral degree such as Ph. D. or a professionally oriented Professional Doctorate, such as Juris Doctor (J. D.).

From semester abroad to summer sessions: short term studies with low barriers to entry

Many American semester and summer programs are characterized by low admission requirements and are therefore particularly popular with international students. The barriers to entry are similarly low for an Academic Gap Year, a „trial period“ for high school graduates.

In many cases, both for „Study Abroad“ programmes and summer sessions as well as for „Gap Year“ programmes, the Abitur or Fachhochschulreife are sufficient. Some universities also set a minimum age for participation, which is usually 17 or 18 years.

In addition, there are semester and summer programs aimed only at enrolled students. Admission criteria include, for example, one or two semesters of study. In addition, higher admission requirements sometimes apply to Master’s students: If you want to take Master’s courses, you often need specialist knowledge. Using a Transcript of Records, applicants can prove that they have attended comparable courses at their home institution of higher education.

Language courses in the USA are also easily accessible to international students. Some courses are aimed at enrolled students, while other language courses are not restricted. In this case, applicants must only be 17 or 18 years old and have a minimum level of language proficiency. Other language programs are also academically oriented. After successful completion of the course, students can often follow a regular course of study at the university, provided that they meet the academic requirements.

Opportunity for applicants without Abitur: Community Colleges in the USA

Prospective students with no university entrance qualification can also fulfill their dream of studying abroad in the USA – and this without university admission. Almost half of all U. S. students initially study at a community college in the U. S. and thus gain access to the American higher education system.

Once they have successfully completed their two-year Associate degree at a Community College, graduates can in many cases switch to the third year of a bachelor’s degree course at a college or university. For studying at a community college, it is sometimes sufficient to have an intermediate school leaving certificate in combination with two years of vocational training.

Language requirements for studying in the USA

Regardless of the type of study, applicants whose native language is not English must almost always prove their English language skills for studies in the USA. The majority of American universities and colleges require a standardized language test.

Candidates usually have the choice between the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Depending on the type and subject of study, applicants must achieve a certain minimum score in order to qualify for the course of study.

Those who do not reach the required number of points still have the option of taking a placement test on site for some semester and summer programmes. Afterwards, it may be necessary to take an additional language course in the USA.

Alternatives to TOEFL and IELTS for one semester or summer sessions

When applying for a semester abroad or a summer school in the USA, applicants often have alternatives to IELTS and TOEFL. Some universities, for example, accept the DAAD’s language certificate. Many students prefer this language test because it is usually carried out at their home university and is cheaper than other language tests – in some cases even free of charge.

At some colleges and universities, it is also possible to submit a certificate from your home university confirming the required language level. In some cases, a certain grade in the Abitur is sufficient as proof. There are also universities which, for example, do not provide formal proof of formal language proficiency for German-speaking Summer Sessions applicants.

Typical USA: Academic admission tests

What seems unusual to applicants from Germany is widespread in the USA: academic admission and ability tests. In both the undergraduate and graduate sectors, there are a number of standardized tests used by U. S. universities to test the analytical skills and professional aptitude of applicants.

  • SAT and ACT: If you want to start a Bachelor’s degree in the USA, you will need a specific test result in the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT) at some universities. Both tests consist of linguistic and mathematical tasks, with the ACT being more science-oriented. Transfer students are usually exempt from taking part in the test.
  • GMAT: The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is probably the best-known aptitude test of American origin. In the meantime, in many countries, he has become a firm prerequisite for admission to an MBA program. The GMAT aims to demonstrate mathematical thinking as well as linguistic and analytical skills.
  • GRE: As an alternative to GMAT, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is also accepted in some cases, with the GMAT being mainly used in the economic sector. Similar to the GMAT, the GRE serves to test the academic abilities of prospective Master’s and PhD students.
  • MCAT and LSAT: In addition to the general ability tests, there are various subject-specific aptitude tests in the USA. In these, the suitability of applicants for a particular course of study is explicitly checked: in the case of MCAT for a medical degree course, in the case of LSAT for a law degree course.

Good to know: Students from Germany with an A-levels can be exempted from SAT or ACT at some universities in the USA. It is therefore advisable to discuss in advance with the host university whether test participation is required.

Further admission requirements for studies in the USA

In addition to the educational level, language and aptitude tests, other factors often determine admission to US colleges and universities. Very good to good grades are often required for graduate studies in particular.

Transfer students who transfer to a university in the USA during a bachelor’s or master’s degree program may also have different application requirements than first-year students. In addition to the technical requirements, some universities attach importance to a certain GPA, for example. For other universities, it is sufficient if transfer students have already studied at a university for a certain period of time or have a minimum number of credits.

In addition, motivation and / or recommendation letters for Bachelor’s and Master’s applicants are very often part of the application documents. Essays are typical for the USA. At Bachelor’s level, these usually have the function of drawing a personal picture of the applicant. In the case of transfer students, on the other hand, the motivation letter is usually used to justify a change of university and the choice of future university. Master’s and Ph. D. students, on the other hand, deal mainly with technical aspects in an essay.

There are colleges and universities in the USA that also request a letter of motivation and recommendation in the semester area. However, the majority of universities do not do so. This is one of the reasons why a semester abroad as a Free Mover is so popular in the USA.