Applying to Universities in the UK- a brief primer

Many students are intrigued by the thought of going to the UK for university.

Many students are intrigued by the thought of going to the UK for university. First, a geography lesson: 

The UK consists of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Of these three, Scotland’s university system is four years and our university system in the US is based on the Scottish system. England, Northern Ireland and Wales will require students to study one subject, which is specified in the application (done through an application system called UCAS). The way around this is to do a Joint Honours degree, that may or may not take longer than three years. 

With four years to complete a degree, Scotland coursework covers several subjects the first two years before students specialize their last two. 

There are 166 universities in the UK. The University of Oxford is close to 1000 years old, and of course, we all know it is highly ranked for many reasons. University of Cambridge is also highly ranked and extraordinarily competitive. 

One piece of nomenclature to sort out is that mostly out of the US, higher education is referred to as university. College is referred to as pre university and can range from what we address as high school or perhaps trade school or community college. 

Preparing for UK Universities

While some students I have worked with have dreamt of attending university in the UK since they were in grade 9 or before, they prepared well and had the foresight to look ahead. By this, I mean: 

Knowing that the UK’s system is one that is test oriented. Remember, that in the UK (and for that matter, most of the world), the curriculum is standardized. This means that in other countries, many students take a cumulative exam after a certain number of years, and that means that score is paramount in the acceptance of university in the UK (along with a Personal Statement and Referee (reference) Statement). In the US, there really is not a standardized curriculum. The closest we come is Advanced Placement.  International Baccalaureate is considered a standardized curriculum.  Our school trajectory is 12 years, many countries have a 13 year trajectory. 

So two things to take into consideration. Students in the US need test scores- in some cases, that means either the ACT and SAT and/or Advanced Placement. Or, students can opt in, if available, to the IB curriculum. Some universities may be satisfied with a solid ACT or SAT score, or just solid AP scores. And if taking IB, IB scores will suffice if meeting the universities requirements. 

The second piece to consider is that in the UK, students determine what they want to study as they make an application. In this case, it determines the curriculum path a student wishes to take in high school. For example, if a student wants to study History in the UK, then the student would take as many history courses as their school would allow within reason. If on the AP path, the student would take AP exams within that trajectory: AP US History, AP European History, AP Human Geography, etc. Universities in the UK are very transparent about what scores they wish to see. You can find the requirements on each university’s webpage. 

Being Accepted or Not

If the student is a senior and still needs a certain number of AP Exams, or is in the IB program, the student may receive a Conditional Offer based on the AP or IB scores which we know come in July. Most students do receive a conditional offer, it is rare that students receive a Firm offer. All universities do wait until they see that high school diploma and final transcript. 

Crafting a list

While in the US, a student can apply to an infinite number of schools, though wise schools do limit the number in order to be reasonable and remain sane due to the number of essays a student will write. In the UK, students have a limit of five universities they may apply to. 

Researching universities comes down to requirements, and as previously stated, requirements in the UK are transparent. The subjective pieces of information come from the Personal Statement and the Reference (known in the UK as the Referee Statement). This year, the Referee Statement has taken on a new format, which can be found on the UCAS website:  – this is the first year of this format and therefore, there is only a template and a loose example. 

Students need to determine geographical preference and course preferences, keeping in mind that it is all about the courses rather than the university itself. University of Southampton has an extraordinary Engineering Department, which is not known to many people, University of Plymouth has an extraordinary Marine Science program, etc. So, homework to look for these programs is important. 

Generally speaking, students may craft a list of 10-15 schools and narrow down to five, because five is the allowable number for a student to apply to a UK university through their UCAS system (University and Colleges Admissions Service): Like in the US, choosing universities on a system of ‘reach’, ‘target’, ‘safety’- but with fewer choices. Students must choose between Oxford or Cambridge. The universities like London School of Economics, Oxbridge, Imperial- I consider those aspirational- those are very competitive schools with some extra hoops to jump through. 

Applying to US and UK Universities 

Many students I work with apply to both US and UK universities. I recommend that students have a US backup in case they don’t meet their conditional offer. But, as a reminder to students, Early Decision applies worldwide. This means that students can apply Early Action. If a student applies Early Decision and is accepted to the university of choice, then all applications must be pulled, even from abroad. 

In the end… 

If planning ahead, then a student can determine their curriculum path in the US early on. If a student determined a later in their curriculum path, just know that they will have to determine an academic path and take those exams, though, some schools might state: 

SAT score of… or AP score of … 

ACT score of …. Or AP score of …

It could also read:  A combination of the above in a variety of ways depending on test scores. In the end… ‘it just depends’. 

Or, it may just be AP scores. 

Please reach out to World Student Support with any questions.