How to Apply to UK Universities

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The United Kingdom has some of the best and oldest institutions of higher education in the world, with the founding of Oxford predating the birth of the Aztec Empire. Numerous students wish to come from abroad to study in these schools, but they are often overwhelmed by the application system, which is unlike anything they’ve encountered before.

In this article, we’ll explain what the application process is for UK schools, what these institutions are looking for, and how you can maximize your chances of admission. The process is superficially similar to applying to US universities, but the differences can trip up the unwary. Here’s how to apply to UK universities.

The Application Process

All universities in the UK use the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to handle applications. This is similar to the Common App in the US, save that every school uses it, and no schools accept applications in other ways.

When you apply to a UK school, you are applying to a particular course of study, rather than the college or university as a whole. Thus, you must know ahead of time whether you want to study math or medicine, politics or physics, anthropology or art. There is none of the changing majors that US colleges allow, and sometimes encourage. The closest parallel in the US system are BS/MD programs, which also lock students into a course of study once they enroll.

You may apply to up to five courses of study, no more. Some students in the US will apply to up to 20 institutions, but the UK requires a more focused approach. As with the Common App, you create a single application on UCAS, and it is sent to every course of study you apply to.

UCAS itself has four sections:

  • Personal Details
  • Reference
  • Qualifications
  • Personal statement

The personal details are similar to those asked for by the Common App, establishing who you are, where you’re from, and what you want to study. This is also where you enter which courses at which schools you are applying to. You can apply to five courses at one school, or to five different schools. A notable limit is that you cannot apply to both Cambridge and Oxford; you must choose courses from one or the other.

The reference is from a teacher, known as a referee. UCAS only wants a single letter of recommendation. As with US letters, a teacher you have had recently is generally considered a better option. We also suggest getting a letter from a teacher in a subject related to the course of study you are applying to; such as a math teacher if you are applying to study statistics.

The qualifications section covers your academic performance. This includes both your school transcripts, and any preparation you have received outside of school.

Finally, there is the personal statement. This is very different from the Common App’s personal statement, and serves a different purpose. We’ll break down exactly what schools are looking for in the personal statement in a later section. There are no supplemental essays in UCAS, and all courses you apply to receive the same application. This means students usually apply to five similar or identical courses, as there is no way to address many disparate courses in a single application.

Many programs also offer an interview. The purpose of these interviews is to get more context on your past knowledge and preparation, and to better understand your thought process and passion for a subject. Unlike US interviews, there is less of a focus on getting to know who the student is. Not all schools request interviews, but many do.

What UK Schools are Looking For

Unlike the more holistic approach of US schools, UK schools focus more on academic preparation and give less attention to non-academic factors. Your academic preparation and motivation is the most important aspect of your application. While your academic performance is also key for US applications, it holds more weight for UK schools, as many of the other factors US schools consider are not factored in.

These schools want to see that you are prepared for and passionate about the course of study you are applying to. Because you aren’t able to change your course of study, schools want to make sure you are both prepared and eager for what you are getting into. There is also a greater focus on what you plan on doing with the subject in the future, and what career you plan to build out of the course.

Admissions decisions from UK schools are often conditional. While US schools may rescind an offer of admission if you don’t maintain your academic performance, UK schools frequently make their offer of acceptance entirely conditional, based on whether or not you perform as expected in your upcoming coursework and exams. Unconditional acceptance also exists, but it is not the default.

British students take the A-level exams, which don’t have a direct parallel in the US. Each course of study has its own academic requirements for international students, which must be met for acceptance. These often include specific requirements for classes, as many courses in math and the sciences will want students to have experience with calculus. You should research the specific requirements for any course of study you wish to apply to, to ensure you are eligible.

The Personal Statement

In the Common App, the personal statement is meant to introduce who a student is, as most American colleges take a holistic approach to admissions, and want to understand who students are as people. In contrast, the UCAS personal statement is meant to provide context for a student’s academic ambitions, and their interest in the course of study they wish to pursue.

The personal statement is limited to 4,000 characters, and 47 lines. It follows a four paragraph format: 

  • General course choice
  • Academic course choice
  • Wider experiences
  • Conclusion

In the essay, you are expected to cover what you want to study, why, and what specific preparation you have had for this course of study. This is to provide broader context to your grades, and demonstrate passion for and knowledge about a topic. You should also go into what your broader plans are for the future in this field in the conclusion of the personal statement.

This is similar to the “Why Major” supplemental essay some US schools ask for. Like the Common App’s personal statement, however, it goes to every school you apply to, so you shouldn’t include school or program specific details in the essay. This is also why students generally apply to similar courses at every school, as it is difficult to make a single essay relevant to multiple topics.

Making the Most of Your Application

First, you need to determine if UK schools are the right choice for you. If you are uncertain about what you want to study, or you want to explore multiple areas before choosing one, then the restrictive nature of UK schools may not be the best option for you. If however, you are certain about your academic passions, UK schools will allow you to focus on these more intensely, without the general education requirements of US schools.

As with all college applications, you should carefully study your options before applying. As you are limited in the number of applications, make sure each of the five courses is one you would be happy to attend. This will require a great deal of research into both the schools and the programs themselves.

As your academic preparation is the most important part of your application, make sure to emphasize what you have accomplished, and how you plan to build on these accomplishments through your course of study.

Final Thoughts

There are many things to like in the UK’s university system, but it is vastly different from the one found in the US. For some students the intense focus on a single subject, lack of general education requirements, and more academically focused admissions process are highly appealing, while other students benefit more from the holistic and liberal arts approach taken by most US colleges.

Every student is unique, and each has their own needs; what works well for one may be stifling for another. If you want to know more about UK schools, and whether or not the opportunities they offer are right for you, schedule a free consultation. We have a long experience helping students get the most out of their college applications, and are always eager to help.

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