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Navigating College Applications in the U.S. vs. the U.K.

Student at Oxford University walks to class

IvyWise Live: Understanding the Differences Between U.S. vs. U.K. Universities

In this talk, IvyWise college admissions counselors will introduce the types of universities, academic offerings, and student experiences found in each country. Attendees will learn how each system evaluates applications to make admissions decisions and how applicants should approach the U.S. Common App and U.K. Universities and College Admissions Service, known as the UCAS.


By Kimberly, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

The concept of studying outside of the United States for college can be alluring. There are opportunities to travel, to immerse yourself in a new culture or language, and to become a more informed global citizen. However, many American students are not aware of the differences in the degree offerings between the U.S. and other countries, nor how the application process will differ between applying to colleges and universities in the U.S. versus applying somewhere abroad.

Given the common language and the strength of their higher education offerings, the U.K. is the second most popular country for American students to study in and provides a great example of the distinct differences between applications for U.S. institutions and other systems of higher education. Please keep in mind that this is a quick overview of U.S. versus U.K. admissions — there are always exceptions to every rule and certainly lots of nuance for both processes.

Undergraduate Degree Structures: U.S. versus U.K.

Before we get into the admissions process for the U.S. vs. the U.K., let’s look at the degree structures for undergraduate programs in both countries. You will see there are some key differences between them.

Degree Structure in the United States

When we talk about the idea of college in the U.S., we’re most commonly referring to the four-year college experience that leads to a bachelor’s degree. Much like in American high schools, the first two years of college are typically filled with a variety of classes, often referred to as general education requirements or a core curriculum. This is the basis of a liberal arts education — the philosophy behind American higher education — which ensures you have a broad knowledge base and develop competencies across the humanities, math, sciences, and arts. Equally as important, it’s an opportunity for you to dabble in various fields before committing to a major.

In conjunction with a general education, you also get to pick a major — your academic focus. Whether it’s psychology, biology, or something as cutting-edge as media content creation, you have the freedom to choose. What’s more, you can sprinkle in additional elective courses to satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Degree Structure in the United Kingdom

Across the pond, students will find a more focused approach to undergraduate education. Unlike an American high school education, secondary education in the U.K. requires students to specialize in their final two years of study. In fact, where students on a similar track in the U.S. complete four years of study, those in the U.K. only complete three (though Scotland does things a bit differently with a four-year norm).

Instead, the U.K. track is much more specialized and doesn’t allow for many additional elective courses as you would otherwise be able to take in the U.S. Therefore, when students transition to higher education, they are prepared and expected to select a specific degree program, known as a course. No taste-testing, no broad liberal arts curriculum — students dive straight into their chosen field of study.

The curriculum at U.K. institutions is designed to give you a deep dive into your area of study, with few detours into elective classes. For American students who know what they want to study and are ready for the intensive focus on one discipline, the U.K. degree structure can be an excellent option. However, students who are undecided in their course of study — or who just want the option to take additional classes on topics that may interest them but that might not necessarily fall under their field of study — will struggle given the lack of choice in their coursework after admission.

Application Process: U.S. versus U.K.

So, how is the application process different in the U.S. versus the U.K.? We’ll summarize the main differences here. As stated before, there are always exceptions and nuances, so thoroughly research your specific schools of interest, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Application Process in the United States

For much of the United States, admission to a college or university is holistic. This means that your academic record is going to be reviewed first and foremost, but institutions also want to understand what you will contribute as a community member outside of the classroom. Because of this, your high school extracurricular activities and written essays are going to carry a lot of weight as well.

In the U.S., we place a lot of emphasis on the college essay. This is a chance for students to shine a light on their personality, share their unique experiences, and reveal their future aspirations. It’s a critical piece of most application processes in the U.S. and something that takes a lot of time and energy for students to perfect. The overall purpose of the essay is to add additional color to an application — to present a picture of who a student is beyond their grades (and test scores, if applicable).

In the U.S., most students will utilize the Common Application to apply to colleges. Some schools have their own school-specific applications, and some states, like Texas and California, have their own application for their university systems, but the Common App services over 1,000 colleges and universities. Students can apply to up to 20 schools on the Common App and submit an unlimited number of school-specific applications. In essence, the system is deregulated — most students apply to six to 10 schools overall. At IvyWise, we recommend aiming to apply to 10-15, with a healthy balance of reach, target, and likely schools.

Application Process in the United Kingdom

In the U.K., the university application process is a bit more straightforward, as they’re mainly interested in your academic qualifications. A strong emphasis is placed on standardized test scores — many institutions require specific combinations of AP, IB, SAT, and/or ACT test scores to be considered for admission to a particular course of study.

For American students, this requires some planning ahead. For example, if you want to apply for a course in biology, universities are likely going to want to see a high school curriculum that is heavy on math and science. Additionally, your test scores should support your academic successes in these areas, like scores of 4+ in two science AP courses with a 650+ on the math section of the SAT. It’s less about your extracurricular activities and more about whether you’re academically equipped for your intended program. The good news, however, is that the typical accepted qualifications are usually laid out clearly for each course of study on each university’s website.

Additionally, the personal statement in the U.K. is a concise introduction to your chosen subject. They want to see your passion, skills, and relevant experiences and how they all neatly tie to your future course of study. Unlike the focus on personality and growth for the U.S. college essay, the personal statement in the U.K. is expected to have an academic tone.

The application process in the U.K. is also centralized. All institutions use the same application, UCAS, and students can apply to up to five courses of study using the same application and personal statement — no multiple application forms, no supplemental questions, and no additional school materials. The process is far more streamlined (for better or worse!) than in the U.S.

College Admissions Counseling for the U.S. and U.K.

This was a very broad overview of some of the noted differences between the college application process in the U.S. and the U.K. As with applying to college in the U.S., students who are looking to study internationally need to do their research! At IvyWise, we’re fortunate to have counselors who are well-versed in U.K. admissions and other higher education systems worldwide. Need expert guidance? Learn more about working with IvyWise for college admissions counseling in the U.S. or abroad.

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