There are hundreds of universities in USA that have consistently secured dominant positions in the Times Higher Education ranking as well as the QS World University Rankings every year. There are currently over 183 universities in USA offering premium-quality tertiary education; California leads the pack with 15 top universities, followed closely by New York, Texas, and Massachusetts.

Fortunately, the USA is also a hotspot for international students with a myriad of options welcoming foreign pupils with open arms. If you want to continue your education at one of the prestigious universities in the USA but are confused about your preferences, here’s a detailed guide for local and international students comprising information about university choices and the admissions process. But first, let us know the difference between Ivy League and non-Ivy League colleges – a term that you often come across when searching for universities in USA.

What is an Ivy League College? (And what isn’t?)

Ivy League colleges, also known as the Ancient Eight, is a term used to label eight private research universities in the United States. They are famous for their connotation of academic excellence, selectivity/acceptance rate, and social elitism. Ivy Leagues have notoriously competitive acceptance rates and a substantial extra-curricular portfolio (along with stellar results) will be required for admission.

Whilst other non-Ivy League colleges may not come with the prestige and branding of an Ivy, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any top universities in USA outside of the Ivy League. Highly ranked universities in the USA also include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University and the ten University of California campuses – all of which are public universities offering world-class education.

*Rankings are based on statistics from the QS World University Rankings 2021.

Top universities in USA

1. Harvard University

universities in usa
Photo credit: Emily Karakis / Unsplash

Rank (as of 2021): #3 in US, #3 in the world

When talking about world-class university education and experience, it’s impossible to not mention Harvard University. In fact, the name “Harvard” has become synonymous with elite higher education and intellectual discourse. The university is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with over 97 undergraduate degrees and 57 concentrated majors across 19 fields of study. The most popular programs offered at Harvard include Arts & Sciences, Sciences, and Engineering, to name the top 3. There are also 12 graduate and professional schools. The core curriculum for the undergraduate programme is elective and hybrid with a focus on a philosophical, theatrical, and practical training of the specialised majors.

A brief profile of the admitted class of 2025 reveals an extremely racially diverse student demographic; with 15.9 percent of students being African American, 25.9 percent being Asian American and 12.5 percent being Hispanic or Latino.

Here is a table of the estimated range of costs incurred in an academic year at Harvard, reflecting an on-campus budget for international students, with the total cost incurred a year ranging from $78,028 to $82,178. Extremely talented, ambitious, and qualified students are provided with financial aid, which can be applied for here. In addition to Harvards’s scholarship fund, the school also offers aid in the form of student employment, optional loans and outside awards.

Harvard University
Address: Cambridge, MA, United States
Tel: +1 617-495-1000

2. Princeton University

universities in usa
Photo credit: murloc / 123RF

Rank (as of 2021): #6 in US, #12 in the world

Another member of the Ivy League, Princeton University, located in New Jersey, is one of the oldest universities in the world and ranks at number 12 in the 2021 QS University World Ranking with an overall score of 91. It has 42 degree-awarding programs and departments – with Social Sciences, Engineering, and Computer and Information Technology being the most popular fields of study at the university.

From emphasising theory and practice in a hybrid, creative, and innovative learning space, Princeton University has revealed strived to continually push the capabilities of its students. The university has also done extensive work to promote for diversity, equity, and inclusion across its campus. According to the latest reports regarding the student demographic at Princeton, the undergraduate population is made up of 29 percent Asians, 10 percent African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 39 percent white, and 10 percent multiracial.

Boasting one of the largest libraries in the world, Princeton is home to high-quality research activity that creates a rich student experience beyond world-class academics. Like Harvard, Princeton University offers a need-blind application process – meaning that there is no disadvantage in the admission process, even if you need to apply for financial aid.

With an estimated cost of $77,690 for a year of admission, Princeton offers one of the most generous financial aid programmes in the country. In fact, the school has a no-loan policy, meaning that student loans are replaced with grant aids that students do not need to pay back, ensuring they are able to graduate with little to no debt.

Princeton University
Address: Princeton, NJ 08544, United States
Tel: +1 609-258-3000

3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Photo credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Rank (as of 2021): #1 in US, #1 in the world

Third on our list is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT has played a prominent role in the development of modern technology and science and cultivates a strong entrepreneurial culture.

It has a highly competitive undergraduate program, admitting on average only 8 percent of the total applicants who get to choose and study from as many as 44 programs. MIT constitutes the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) as the core curriculum and foundation for the educational program.

As far as diversity is concerned, MIT recruits a diverse population of students comprising of Asians, Hispanics, Black or African Americans, American Indians, and others. In addition, their international student body population for the year 2020 to 2021 came to a whopping 3,580 – which is nearly 30 percent of the entire undergraduate population!

The annual cost of attendance is estimated to be around $77,020. This estimation, based on the 2021 to 2022 academic year, includes costs that are billed by MIT (tuition, housing and dining) as well as estimates for other expenses (such as books, supplies and personal expenses). As with most universities, MIT does offer a comprehensive needs-based financial aid programme. In fact, over 85 percent of MIT students receive some type of financial aid, including scholarships and work – reducing their annual fee to around $17,986.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Address: 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, United States
Tel: +1 617-253-1000

4. Stanford University

universities in usa
Photo credit: daybreakwithray / Unsplash

Rank (as of 2021): #2 in US, #2 in the world

Located in the technological hub of the United States is Stanford University in, a university situated right beside Silicon Valley in California. It spans one of the largest campuses amongst universities in the USA and is home to various maestros who have graduated from this top-ranked university to launch mega-tech companies like Google and Snapchat. It enrolls around 17,000 students yearly, which makes up an admission rate of 5 percent.

Extremely competitive and highly ranked across various university rankings, students at Stanford University earn their undergraduate degrees from three schools consisting of 40 academic departments at the undergraduate level. In addition, graduate students are given the option to further their studies in four professional schools that have programmes in law, medicine, education and business.

There are approximately 13 percent of international students making up the student population at Stanford – with 25 percent of the undergraduate population being Asian, 7 percent being African American and 17 percent being Hispanic. It is also worth noting that Stanford is one of the elite-level univerisites in USA with a disportionately high Asian demographic, with the amount of Asian students being near equivalent to their white counterparts (29 percent of the population).

All undergraduate programs cost $55,473 for domestic and international students, exclusive of other charges, including boarding and housing. Roughly, students are estimated to pay $78,898 annually given the charges for course books, supplies, and living expenses. Approximately 70 percent of Stanford students receive some form of aid to attend the school. About 58 percent receive aid directly from Stanford, including athletic scholarships and various grants. In 2020, over 47 percent of students received need-based financial aid from Stanford and paid an average of $13,600 towards their total bill.

Stanford University
Address: 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305, United States
Tel: +1 650-723-2300

5. California Institute of Technology

universities in usa
Photo credit: California Institute of Technology

Rank (as of 2021): #4 in US, #4 in the world

Also located in Pasadena, California, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a private research university with an impressive number of graduates comprising of Nobel Prize winners, Turing Award winners, and Field Medallists. Founded as a preparatory and vocational school in 1891, Caltech has always attracted brilliant scientific minds and has groomed many students into world-renowned scientic figures

If you are interested in pursuing a phenomenal career in Engineering and Science – especially Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth Sciences, Mathematics, or Physics, Caltech is a uniquely difficult yet wonderful place to study and start your career from.

International students make up around 30.5 percent of the student body, which is 681 out of 2,233 to be specific – constituting a diverse and inclusive international community in Caltech. For domestic and international students, the cost of tuition per year remains similar to that of MIT; between $54,000 to $57,000. Additional costs incurred by housing, board, books and supples, and personal expenses result in a total estimated cost of around $80,000 a year.

Being a school with high international student demographic, Caltech is need-sensitive in its admission process for international citizens. To that end, when a student applies for freshman admission with the indication of being an international citizen, the application prompts questions to confirm their understanding of Caltech’s financial aid policy.

California Institute of Technology
Address: 1200 E California Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91125, United States
Tel: +1 626-395-6811

6. University of Chicago

universities in usa
Photo credit: Alisa Anton / Unsplash

Rank (as of 2021): #5 in US, #9 in the world

Established in 1890,the University of Chicago, located in Chicago, is another top university of the USA that ranks at number 6 country-wide and at number 9 in QS World University Rankings. With only a 6.7 percent acceptance rate, the University of Chicago has 52 fields of ungraduate study programs. Its top five majors include Social Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Public Administration and Social Service Professions. The best thing about UChicago, perhaps, is that there are a whopping 91 Nobel Prize winners who graduated from the university – and former US President Barack Obama taught for 12 years at its law school!

Their class of 2024 profile reveals a diverse, multicultural undergraduate population comprising of 25 percent Asian, 10 percent African American and 15 percent Hispanic. International students amount to 14 percent of the total undergraduate population, which ranges around 200 to 300 students each year, depending on cohort size.

For domestic and international students, the cost of tuition per year stands at $59,256 and could come up to $82,848 (if considering student life fees, room and board, books and personal expenses.) With approximately 180 million in financial aid distributed (on average) each year, UChicago is committed to ensuring students graduate debt-free. Nearly 60 percent of their student population receive financial support, which can range from need-based aid or merit scholarships.

University of Chicago
Address: 5801 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60637, United States
Tel: +1 773-702-1234

Back to top

Admissions process for universities in USA

1. Admission criteria and entry requirements

universities in usa
Photo credit: Element5 Digital / Unsplash

Most USA universities accept high school certificates such as that of GCE A Level – accepted in more than 820 universities including Ivy Leagues – as well as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) for admission, scholarships, and financial aids.

Generally, the worldwide requirements for admission to universities in USA begin with the academic records of the candidates. The admission committee will review your academic marks throughout your school career if applying for an undergraduate degree or your GPA of 4 years if pursuing a graduate or Masters’ program.

Besides evaluating for eligibility based on academics, students are also required to meet the set criteria for English proficiency (non-native applicants) via the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test. SAT and ACT scores are also reviewed amongst other scores to determine the overall strength of the applicant.

Students who apply for graduate programs at universities in USA are required to show additional test score documents such as that of GRE or GMAT, wherever applicable. Master’s students need not take the ACT or SAT if they are applying through the Study Group. For international students, the entry requirements for a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in all universities in USA include completion of the international equivalent of US secondary education (Year 12). 

2. Application dates and timelines

Aspiring students can apply for fall, spring, or summer semesters. Although different universities in the USA have different application timelines, there are generally 4 types of deadline options.

Regular decison

Most preferred application date for all students, with admissions beginning in January and ending in March/April, for the Fall semester. Top universities like Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford follow this application window.

Early action

Under the early action deadline, certain universities push the application deadline early by a few months, which is around November. If a student’s application is deferred in this phase of admission, the candidate will be reassessed in the ‘regular’ applicant pool. The results for this window usually comes out in December.

Early decision

Early decision plans are binding – meaning that a student who is accepted in as an early decision applicant must attend the university. Unlike early action plans, which are not binding, early decision requires the candidate to withdraw all other applications to other institutions upon acceptance.

Furthermore, early decision programmes require applicants to file only one early decision application, which (depending on the institution) differs from early action programs which may allow candidates to apply to more than one institution. Schools that have more than half of their classes filled by early decision admits include Duke University, New York University and University of Pennsylvania.

Spring admission

Another type of regular admission, the other window of student admissions for an academic year is taken up in the Spring admissions, usually falling in October and November. Some popular universities offering Spring admissions include Boston University, Columbia University, and Duke University, to name a few.

3. Scholarships and visa requirements for international students

There are three types of visas for international students:

  • F1 for academic studies
  • J1 for practical training
  • M1 for vocational studies

The most common is an F1 visa for students who are applying for an academic degree in universities in USA, which is valid for a specific college and allows you to work during your stay. However, do note that this visa is only valid for 60 more days once you finally graduate. The visa application fee is $160 and requires you to show your acceptance into any of the universities of the US. Refer to our ultimate guide to visas in USA here for more information regarding application and additional documents.

Given the hefty annual tuition costs of universities in USA, there are plenty of scholarships for international students – government-funded as well as non-governmental funded, such as Fulbright Foreign Student Program and #YouAreWelcomeHere Scholarship, respectively.

Whilst the United States has some of the most expensive colleges and universities, the world-class, unparalleled quality of education offered makes all the money spent worthwhile. Fortunately, there are multiple options for scholarships for domestic and international students as well.

What’s the wait for, then? Start preparing for your admission application before the launch of the Fall or Spring semesters, so you have everything organised, in place, and right on track.

Back to top

More on The Finder:

USA Healthcare: Everything You Need To Know
Education In The USA: Types Of Schools And Curriculums For Your Child
Crime Levels In USA