US vs. UK Admissions: What You Need to Know

Friday, November 11, 2022

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While more and more international students are studying in the US every year, a number of students are also looking to the UK for university options. The US and UK university systems are dramatically different, however, and many international students struggle with determining which would be the best fit for their learning styles, goals, and interests. With these two admissions systems and processes differing so significantly, it’s important to understand the nuances of US vs. UK admissions and how to apply to each.

The Application: Common App vs. UCAS

Before deciding which system is the best option for you, it’s important to understand the application process for US vs. UK admissions. While many US universities – like the University of California school system – have their own applications, more than 900 are members of the Common Application. Other applications, like the Coalition Application, also include many member colleges, but the Common App is the closest to a “universal” application that the US has. Even though many colleges use the Common Application, schools have the option to require a supplement that asks additional, college-specific questions – so no two applications are truly alike.

In the UK, however, students use the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), application. Every university in the UK uses this application, and students can apply to up to five schools. The catch: students have to declare their majors upfront, so they’re not necessarily applying to just the university, but to a specific program within that university. Also, students must rank the colleges to which they’re applying in order of their first, second, third, etc. choice (which the admissions officers can see) and cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year – they have to choose one or the other.

While the Common Application allows students to “tailor” their applications to the particular college they’re applying to, the UCAS does not. Students have one application that is submitted to all the colleges they choose. There is no tailoring or customizing essays to fit different UK universities.

Emphasis: Academic vs. Holistic Review

Before applying, it’s crucial to understand how applicants are evaluated by US vs. UK admissions. While US admissions tends to place a strong emphasis on the “holistic review process,” taking into consideration the whole student inside and outside of the classroom, UK admissions tends to focus more on the academic side of things.

In the highly selective US admissions process, students are expected to offer something other than simply impressive grades and test scores. Application essays tend to focus on topics that are not academic, and students spend a lot of time highlighting how their extracurricular activities set them apart.

UK universities, however, expect applicants to discuss their academic achievements and interests, and they will want to hear why you are interested in the particular subject that you are applying for.

Testing Requirements

As we all know, standardized test scores often play a big role in the college admissions process. In the US, students will take the SAT or ACT, which covers a number of subjects like reading, writing, and math. Students will spend months preparing for these tests, and scores can often be the difference between the “no” and “maybe” piles at highly selective institutions.

In the UK, however, there is no SAT or ACT-equivalent college admissions exam. Students will take UK university admissions exams based on the programs to which they’re applying. Other test scores, like “A-levels” will be considered, however those scores are not specific to the university admissions process. Think of A-levels as an SAT Subject Test: they are subject-based exams that test students’ knowledge and qualifications in their area(s) of interest. Students also need to perform well on A-levels to complete their secondary degree.


Not everything involved with UK and US admissions is different. For example, both systems do tend to follow the same timeline – with some exceptions, of course. The UCAS opens in September, and applications are due in January for admission to the fall class. This is similar to the application timeline for a lot of US universities, where the applications are available in August or September and are due in January for fall admission.

In both the US and UK admission systems, academics are still the most important admissions factor. While the holistic review process in the US does emphasize other factors, if a student doesn’t have the academic abilities he or she will not be admitted. The same applies in the UK. Academics are paramount.

Additionally, both systems, depending on the school, can certainly incorporate both interviews and recommendations or references from an outside source. The main difference here, again, is the focus of these interviews and references. In the UK, it will be your specified academic interests, while in the US the focus will be more on what sets you apart.

Whether you plan to apply to colleges and universities in the US, or what to pursue a degree at a UK university, it’s important to know what’s required and what to expect.

Doing research and staying informed is important to university and college admissions success in both the US and the UK. For more information on the college admissions process, join our mailing list and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

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