While we have previously discussed some of the biggest differences between the undergraduate student experiences in the United States and United Kingdom, today we are going to elaborate on the top five major differences between applying to colleges and universities in the United States and applying to universities in the United Kingdom.
5. Focus on Course, Not College/University Rankings
Students and parents applying for American colleges and universities are obsessed with particular college names and perceived prestige. College and university rankings proliferate. Some students and parents are smart enough to focus in on niche rankings such as best undergraduate engineering programs or undergraduate business programs; yet, most are intent to focus on only overall college and university rankings.
When building your UK uni list, it’s imperative that you focus not on overall university rankings as much as on course rankings. Courses are what they call majors in the UK, and course rankings are where it’s at when it comes to determining best fits for you. Why? Unlike the the undergraduate experience in the US, which most often demands students take required general education and distribution courses in addition to those in a student’s major in order to graduate, in the UK, students dive headfirst into their courses (majors) and never look back. Most UK undergrads won’t take any classes in subjects beyond their courses; thus, you must ensure that the course you study for three years (undergrad is only a three-year experience in England) or four years (Scotland still goes four years and is a big reason undergrad is four years in the US) is one of the highest quality and best fit for you, as your educational experience at that university will be synonymous with your educational experience in that course.
To find course rankings, you must search for “league tables” or “subject tables.” Some of the best are the Guardian‘s league tables, The Times‘ subject tables, and the Complete University Guide‘s university league tables.
4. If an IB Diploma Student, Forget about SAT and ACT; if an AP Student, AP Test Scores, ACT Scores, and SAT Scores Really Matter
IB Predicted Scores are your silver bullet! If respectable (36+) to great (40+) they will save you from having to ever think about taking those pesky American standardized tests known as the SAT or ACT. Yet, in reality, if you are hedging your bets and also applying to colleges in America at the same time as you are applying to colleges in the UK, you probably won’t be skipping the SAT or ACT all together. If you do take those two tests and/or SAT Subject Tests, and do well on them, by all means report your scores to UK universities, but do realize that as an IB Diploma candidate, you really don’t need to. It is highly recommended you spend as much time earning strong IB predicted scores by no later than October of your final year in high school in order to most impress UK admissions committee about your academic wherewithal. Beyond reporting grades on your official high school transcript, the only other academic numbers UK universities will want to see from you before they make a decision on your application will be your IB predicted scores (both individually and in total).
If, on the other hand, you are in AP courses, you really do need to run the table on testing: you need to not only take a good number of AP courses in order to be a competitive candidate for top UK undergraduate programs, you also need to be able to present to the UK universities strong scores on AP tests and the ACT or SAT (and for top programs/universities, scores from the SAT Subject Tests).
If you have not taken any AP courses, your only chance of getting into to top UK undergraduate programs is if you are capable of taking and doing very well on the SAT or ACT and SAT Subject Tests and/or AP tests. This is not an easy task if you are not in a very rigorous high school curriculum.
3. UCAS Application Limits You to Only 5 Universities
The American higher education industry – and yes, it is absolutely an industry – encourages students and families to shell out hundreds of dollars applying to an obscene number of colleges. Students applying to America’s most selective colleges and universities are now routinely applying to no fewer than nine colleges, and many students are applying to fifteen or more. This is madness if for no other reason than there is no way that a student applying to fifteen colleges is going to have much idea why college four is so much different or better than college twelve on the list. It’s ironic, then, that many of nine or more colleges a strong student will apply to will ask questions like, “why do you want to come to our college?” on their applications when most students don’t have the time or ability properly answer that question, as they are serial appliers.
The relatively new American custom of applying to so many colleges is propagated by the colleges themselves in a transparent attempt to drive up application numbers in order to drive down acceptance rates and thus look more selective than they really are. The Common App, which is notorious for collecting millions of dollars and then blowing it quickly and wastefully, “limits” the number of colleges a student can apply to using its site to a ridiculous twenty! Yet, even that limit can be exceeded by industrious and neurotic students who find a way to apply to more Common App schools if they try hard enough. This is not even counting the number of colleges one can apply to beyond those colleges that are members of the Common App. The sky’s the limit and this creates an application arms race that all American college admissions officers will tell you to your face is just dreadful but their enrollment management overlords celebrate all the way to the bank!
Compare that mess to the relative tranquility of applying to universities in the UK, which has the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), an independent charity funded by advertising and fees charged to applicants and to universities, to thank for preventing such an application arms race from occurring in the UK. The UCAS doesn’t allow prospective student to apply to any more than five (yes glorious 5!) universities in any given year-long admissions cycle.
As an added stake in the heart of those students and families obsessed with prestige of practicality, UCAS also does not allow any applicant to apply to both Oxbridge and Cambridge in the same year. This is the equivalent of the Common App declaring that no applicant can apply to Yale and Harvard in the same year. Not going to happen in the money-drenched US higher education industry. Imagine the cries of horror from the Upper West Side to Studio City if such a policy made it across the Atlantic. Don’t hold your breath.
Thus, applying to UK universities is for those who have limits, self-control, and enough self-possession and focus to actually research which five UK universities would be the best fit for their interests and goals. Applying to US colleges is for gluttons for punishment.
2. Your Teacher/Counselor Has to Write a Different Type of Recommendation (a.k.a a Reference)
While the standard advice we give to students applying to US colleges is to pick to write your teacher recommendations two teachers who love you as people and as students – teachers who will be willing to share anecdotes about your character and influence on the community in their letters of recommendation – such advice is not applicable for the type of recommendation letters you should procure for your UK application.
UK universities are all about collecting objective information (this is a theme that shines particularly bright when it comes to point #1 below), and as a result, UK unis don’t want a teacher recommendation that reads like a love letter! In fact, below are the exact areas of focus UCAS asks recommendation, or using British terminology, reference writers to focus on:
- A student’s post-16 academic performance and their potential for success in higher education.
- Why they’re suited to their chosen subject and career path, plus their attitude, motivation and commitment.
- Skills and qualities like aptitude and enthusiasm, plus current or past achievements that will help with their chosen subject area.
- Achievements, work experience, and extracurricular activities that relate to their chosen course(s).
- Any commitments (like January AS assessments) that might prevent interview attendance on a particular day.
- Any factors/personal circumstances that might affect their performance (consent must be gained first to mention health or disabilities).
- Avoid repeating any of the information they’ve given in their application, unless you want to comment on it, and avoid mentioning any particular university or college.
As a result, make sure that if you are a student applying to both UK and US universities during the same admissions cycle that you discuss with your counselor and teacher referees/recommenders how their reference letter for the UK must be more focused on accomplishments, attitude, and academic potential and their recommendation letters/teacher evaluations for the US must be more focused on story-telling, emotion, and intangibles.
Final word on this topic: by UK law anything a teacher or counselor writes in their recommendations will be accessible to the student if the student seeks it out in the future. FERPA waivers end at the US border, so there is no truly confidential UK letter of reference.
1. Your Personal Statement Must be Direct and Goal-Focused
What is your favorite word and why? What would you do with a million dollars? What is one thing your future roommate should know about you? What is one community you are a part of and why do you find this important? Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea; what prompted you to act, and would you make the same decision again?
The six questions above are just a sample of the crude psychoanalytical nonsense that US colleges conjure up when developing college application essay questions/prompts. The last one was one of the five options to choose from on the much-used Common Application, which has hundreds of colleges as exclusive members and over 700 college members total, most of which are American colleges and universities. If you are applying to highly selective colleges and universities in the United States you are going to have to answer questions like those asked above.
You thought you were applying to study business or biology and your scholastic merit would determine whether or not you were admitted? Ha! Foolish you! You in fact are applying to an institution that is focused on one thing above all else: your identity! Social engineering is a tame description for what is going on in most American college admissions offices these days; however, the powers that be in higher education call such a focus on identity in college applications “a useful tool to enroll diverse classes capable of demonstrating our commitment to inclusivity.”
As America’s colleges are all about creating “diversity” in their student populations, one tool they use to build an entering class full of “diverse” students is an essay prompt that compels students to share back stories that provide information that the colleges are either unable or unwilling (because of discrimination laws) to ask for directly elsewhere in their applications. You thought college application essays were a way to assess a student’s writing? Nope. If colleges actually wanted an unadulterated view of a student’s actual writing, they would require students to submit their ACT Writing section or SAT Essay section scores. Yet, more and more colleges are doing just the opposite by declaring they don’t want to see such scores.
College application essays are a wonderful way to gather a lot of subjective information about a student and his or her background and not be called out for socio-demographic bias while doing so! As such, the typically successful American college application essay must combine at least a sprinkling of virtue signaling in just the right proportion relative to wearing your heart on your sleeve and doing so in an eloquent enough manner all while ensuring you have a thesis, body, and conclusion and don’t go over 650 words!
If you find that which is described above unsettling, we recommend you seriously consider applying to universities in the UK. Why? In the UK, applying to college is even more streamlined than it is in the United States, and the big player in the application market, as mentioned above, is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), a UK-based organization that operates the application process for British universities.
The great news is that the personal statement on the UCAS has a focus that is refreshingly pertinent to your actual reason for applying in the first place: your interest in and goals for your course of study. Specifically, students should answer in 4,000 characters or fewer the following questions (taken directly from the UCAS site preparing you to write your personal statement):
Why are you applying for your chosen course(s)? Why does this subject interest you? Why do you think you’re suitable for the course(s)? Do your current or previous studies relate to the course(s) that you have chosen? Have you taken part in any other activities that demonstrate your interest in the course(s)?
So, basically, you are writing about why you are applying – your ambitions and what interests you about the subject, course providers, and higher education and what makes you suitable – any relevant skills, experience or achievements gained from education, work or other activities. For international students it is also recommend that your personal statement touch on why you want to study in the UK and why you want to be an international student rather than study in your own country.
Unlike the common application experience (and especially the Common Application experience) for students applying to US colleges for which you need to be emotive, reflective, personal, and focused on illustrating personal growth usually by throwing out identity-landen examples of adversity you’ve overcome, on the UCAS you are directly addressing your interest in and reason for pursuing a course of study.
Final words of wisdom
Research, research, research. Education UK is a wonderful place to start (it’s like College Board’s Big Future or Naviance’s College Search function but tailored specifically to schools in the UK). Then, always visit specific university websites for the latest information on deadlines, programming, and policies. Finally, if you can visit universities in the UK before applying, that is a great idea because you want to be sure studying in a foreign land is in fact the right choice for you and even though it may seem great in theory, seeing life in the UK up close may change your perspective greatly.