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Across the Pond for Uni: 5 Tips for Applying to College in the UK

Laura Cobb December 01, 2018

Thinking about applying to college “across the pond?” With more than 370 choices, many of which are the world’s top-ranked universities, higher education in the United Kingdom could be a great option for many college-bound students. But, before you jump right in, it’s important to be aware of how applying to college in the UK differs from applying in the US. Here are five tips to help the process go from bonkers to brilliant!

UCAS logo

Understand the Application Process

All universities in the UK utilize the UCAS (Universities and College Admissions Service) application. Although, it’s good to know that some UK universities do appear on the Common Application such as the University of St. Andrews, University of Aberdeen, and King’s College London. If any of these are on your list, it might make sense to apply using the Common App. Otherwise, get ready to cozy up with UCAS!

The UCAS application is fairly similar to the Common App. There are sections for demographics, education, test scores (both SAT and ACT are accepted), an academic reference, and a personal statement (more on that later!). However, there are some key differences, the biggest being that you apply through your high school. UCAS asks that high schools register as centers, which allows school counselors to review the application for accuracy, upload an applicant’s reference, and submit the finalized application. If your high school is not registered with UCAS, no need to fret. UCAS also gives the option of applying as an individual. However, if you express to your school counselor early on your plan to apply to colleges in the UK, he or she may decide to register with UCAS - a free and fairly straightforward process.

Another major difference from the Common App is that you are only permitted to apply to five universities. Once you’ve received decisions from all five choices, it is possible to apply to additional colleges. This would be in the case of not receiving any offers or electing to decline/withdraw applications from your five initial choices. Another restriction is concerning “Oxbridge” (Oxford and Cambridge): students can only apply to one of these institutions during a given application cycle.

Finally, be forewarned that you will come across many terms that you are unfamiliar with. When that happens, don’t stress – Google is your friend! While we do share the English language, there are some differences in terminology used in the UK college application process. A good general resource to help with deciphering the lingo can be found here.

Become Familiar with the Timeline

Each year, the UCAS application opens at the end of May. Students can begin submitting applications as early as September with final apps submitted no later than January 15th. Note that Oxford, Cambridge, and schools of medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science have a deadline of October 15th. Universities typically notify applicants of admissions decisions by March 31st.

Know What You Plan to Study

The majority of undergraduate programs in the UK are three years long and students must specialize (i.e. choose a major) from the very beginning. In most cases, applicants apply to an individual college (think: academic department) within the larger university which means they will be indicating their chosen course of study before even being admitted. The exception to this is Scotland, which has undergraduate programs organized similarly to US universities, allowing students to choose their specialization after the first year or two.

Be Prepared to Write a Not-So-Personal Personal Statement 

While college essays for US schools may cover a wide range of topics including struggles or triumphs in an applicant’s personal life, the UK personal statement must be focused solely on the intended course of study – yet another reason to know what you plan to study before applying!

In 4,000 characters (roughly 500 words) or less, you should convey the following: 1) why you are drawn to this particular academic area, 2) what special skills or perspectives you will bring to the academic program, and 3) how your studies will relate to your future career. Even though it’s called a personal statement, in this case the focus should be purely academic, not personal.

Sit and Wait (and Know the Possible Outcomes)

Some time after submitting your application, you will receive one of three decisions from each university: unconditional offer, conditional offer, or unsuccessful. Unconditional means that you have been accepted to the college – hooray! If you get a conditional offer, do not be alarmed; it simply means that the university would like you to do one or more things before being admitted. In some cases that could mean taking an additional AP course or getting a certain end-of-course grade in one of your classes. The good news is that once the condition(s) has been met, the student is guaranteed admission. Just as in the US, once an applicant firmly accepts an unconditional offer, they must decline offers from all other universities.

Use these five tips to help you more easily navigate the UK college application process. Then, hopefully, there will be some actual navigating of the UK (by foot, rail, or double-decker tour bus!) in your future. Cheers!

For more information about studying in the UK check out:

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Tagged: college applications, UK, UCAS

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