Introduction to the UK Application Process
UK Application Guide
3. Introduction to the UK Application Process
Photo: UCL, London
In the following chapters we provide a comprehensive overview of the contents and deadlines of a UK university application to.
3.1 Why do you want to study abroad?
Many people begin the UK application process to universities abroad without finishing. This is commonly due to lack of motivation. Before investing time and money in your application, you should consider why you wish to study abroad. StudyAdvantage encourages international studies, as long as the applicant is motivated and driven.
Good reasons to study abroad (UK and USA)
- You wish to receive an education of the highest possible academic standard, with the possibility of meeting professors and partaking in world-leading research.
- You want a degree taught in a different manner (ex. American “Liberal Arts”)
- You’re interested in cultural and linguistic education, and seek a diverse, multi-cultural experience outside the classroom.
- You want a challenge that will shape you in a different way than what is possible in your home country.
- You’re attracted to a specific student life/campus culture (ex. The “American college experience”, the ancient traditions at the Oxbridge universities or the “big city environment in New York”)
- You aim for an international career; it can be useful to start building an international CV and network already in college.
Reasons NOT to study abroad
- There are great university programmes of international standard offered in your home country.
- It is expensive. Although there are many ways of financing your studies, the price tag for international studies is usually quite high.
- An international degree may not be recognized in your home country.
- It is sometimes far away from home, and it may be difficult to stay in touch with family and friends, the cost of going home may be high and homesickness can be problematic.
What is the best part about studying abroad?
“The broad education – I wouldn’t want to spend three years studying just one subject. There are too many interesting subjects. I also think many people don’t know what they want to do after highschool – studying in America allows you two years of trying out different subjects in order to make up your mind.”
Marika Baltscheffsky, Brown ’13
“The best part about studying at a college abroad (especially in the US) is that your school is more than just a place for studies – it becomes a home since you live on campus with all your friends, and all your extracurriculars take place on and around campus.”
Amira Abedallah, Harvard ’15
“For me, the answer is simple: studying abroad maximizes your personal development by putting you in an international and progressive environment.”
Henrik Hansen, Warwick ’14
“Apart from just world-class education, international schools attract interesting people from all over the world, resulting in a fun and exciting environment. For example, a debate about death penalties in Sweden is not as dynamic and fun as the same debate when the participants have different backgrounds, perspectives and opinions.”
Anna Leijonhufvud, St Andrews ’15
International studies make the world a better place
StudyAdvantage strongly believes that international studies make the world a better place. Fresh perspectives create new opportunities.
3.2 The Universities in the UK
In the UK, the universities are commonly categorized by the era in which they were founded. These categories are listed below.
This group contains the English-speaking world’s oldest schools, founded between years 1000-1600. The schools are characterized by their grand architecture and high prestige.
- Oxford and Cambridge. Often grouped ”Oxbridge” schools.
- The old, Scottish universities, commonly referred to as ”The Ancient Universities of Scotland”: St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen
- Trinity College, Dublin (which is not part of the UK, but commonly falls into this category)
Red Brick Universities
These six universities were founded during the industrial revolution in the fast growing industrial hubs of the UK. They are all big schools, both in terms of student body and resources, and they offer degrees within most different disciplines. The schools are characterized by the red brick facades of the university buildings.
- University of Manchester
- University of Birmingham
- University of Liverpool
- University of Leeds
- University of Sheffield
- University of Bristol
Plate Glass Universities
In the 60’s, there was a nation-wide evaluation of the british educational system which highlighted the need for easier access to university studies across different social classes. The report resulted in the establishment of numerous new learning institutions. Many of these schools are today some of the leading universities in the country.
- University of Warwick
- University of Bath
- University of Essex
- University of Kent
- University of York
- Lancaster University
- City University London
- Heriot-Watt University
University of London
University of London is a network of numerous universities, art schools and research institutes in and around London. The network originates from the merger of University College London and King’s College in 1836 and has since grown to include more schools.
- University College London (UCL)
- London School of Economics (LSE)
- King’s College
- London Business School
- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
- Queen Mary
- Royal Holloway
Don’t get “Oxbridge Fever”!
Many aspiring international students who dream of studying at top universities in lack knowledge about the wide range of schools on offer. They may have heard of famous schools like Oxford and Cambridge and assume that these institutions are the only options worth the effort.
While Oxford IS a great school, it is far from the only great school in the country. An undergraduate degree from UCL or Edinburgh, for example, is highly regarded.
There are many gems to be found. Although they are not featured among the top 10 in the international ranking lists, they can provide a first class academic degree and university experience. We therefore advise you to do a bit of research about your different options and to create your own “top list”.
Universities to check out:
- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
- University of Exeter
- Lancaster University
- Heriot-Watt University
- University of Edinburgh
3.3 The education systems in USA and the UK
The educational systems in the UK and the US differ quite a bit. In the table below, we compare the two to bring some clarity to the distinctions between the two, and to put the UK system into perspective. You’ll also find that there are a few similarities between the two.
The first step after completing high school is a “basic level” degree – commonly referred to as an “Undergraduate Degree”. After graduating with an undergraduate degree, you have the option of doing a “Graduate Degree”. This division is true in both USA and the UK.
|Undergraduate-degree||3- or 4-year bachelor’s degree at university Ex: BA (Bachelor of Arts) or B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science)||4-year bachelor’s degree at college (sometimes part of a university) Ex: BA (Bachelor of Arts), B.S.E. (Bachelor of Science in Engineering)|
|Graduate-degree||1- or 2-year master degree||1- or 2-year master degree. 3-year J.D. (law)|
|3-year or more (average 7 years) doctorate degree (Ph.D.)|
|3-year (average) doctorate degree (Ph.D. or DPhil)|
Words, concepts and definitions
”College” vs. ”University”
In the UK, schools generally do not provide only undergraduate degrees (American-style colleges). Instead, “College” refers to a small part of the university where students live, study, eat and perform extracurricular activities. Oxford- and Cambridge University each consist of roughly 30 different colleges, for example.
“Business School” has become a common phrase amongst people with the ambition of a career in business or finance. In the UK, many great business schools have emerged in recent years. Amongst the more reputable ones are Warwick Business School and Cass Business School. Both schools offer undergraduate- and graduate degrees. London Business School is another great alternative, but offers only graduate degrees.
Scottish ”Master of Arts”
The Scottish educational system is closer oriented towards the American one than the English. Undergraduate degrees at Scottish universities are four years long and closely resemble American “liberal arts” programmes, where you try many different subjects in your first two years before deciding on a specialization. People are commonly confused by the fact that a Scottish social sciences-focused undergraduate degree is referred to as a “Master of Arts” degree, whereas a science-focused degree is called a “Bachelor of Science”. Note that there is no difference between these two qualifications – both are undergraduate degrees. The confusing titles are due to old, Scottish academic traditions rather than the contents of the programmes.
“Honours” in the UK
In the UK, “Honours” or “Hons” is sometimes added as a prefix to the name of an undergraduate degree (Ex. “BA (Hons) in English”). The meaning of this addition is that the degree directly qualifies you for postgraduate studies (doctorate level studies) without having to do a graduate level degree in-between.
Important difference between the UK and USA
- In the UK you apply for a specific academic programme, whereas in the USA you apply to a specific university and only pick academic field halfway through your degree.
- In reference to the point above, British degrees specialize you in an academic discipline as you focus on the same field for three years, whereas an American degree allows you more flexibility and is thus one year longer (4 years instead of 3).
3.4 Important Questions When Choosing University
Which type of university do you wish to attend?
Your choice of school should take more things than just studies into consideration. Keep in mind that the institution you choose will serve as your home for the coming three- or four years (depending on programme and country of studies). The students at the university will be your closest friends for the duration of your studies. The geographical location and resources of the school will determine the range of extracurriculars and activities available to you.
Finding the right university environment where you feel at home is key to academic success.
Below are some questions to assist you in choosing the right university:
Size and geographical location
- Do you prefer studying at a big or small school?
- Do you wish to live and study in a city, suburb or on the countryside?
- Do you want the school environment to be new and modern or old with a rich history?
- What climate do you prefer living in?
- How far away from home is it?
- Do you want to practice a certain sport/activity?
- Does the school offer the activity you wish to engage in?
- How much time are you willing to spend on your studies?
- Do you require a specific study track/academic discipline?
- Does the academic ranking and prestige of the school matter to you? How much?
- Do you wish to take part in research activities?
- Do you prefer a strictly regulated academic programme or more flexibility?
- What type of students do you wish to live and study with?
- What type of parties and social events matter to you?
- Do you wish to study at a university with a specific career-focused programme?
- Do you wish to have the opportunity of doing internships/traineeship during your studies?
- Does the university provide good career mentorship?
- Is it important that your school is located nearby a big city, for the ease of attending interviews, work etc?
What made you decide to study at your university?
“After doing an internship within PR, I knew I wanted to work in the field. USC was one of very few schools offering a degree with the possibility for a major in Public Relations. Additionally, the school has an amazing “school spirit”. I fell in love with the school already when I first set foot on campus!”
Anna Birkstedt, USC ‘13
“Studying psychology requires an eye for detail and the ability to observe and and see things critically and objectively. To sharpen these skills, and to gain new ones and evolve and develop as a person is what ultimately brought me to my decision.”
Jeffrey Casely-Hayford, Bath ‘14
“I was attracted by the amazing city of Edinburgh, the academic ranking of the school and of course the golfing opportunities!”
Oscar Selemba, Edinburgh ‘14
3.5 Why is the UK Application Process so Demanding?
The UK application process can often be seen as somewhat foreign and highly demanding, comparing to that of many other countries. Many high school students in their last year of studies jokingly say that their most time consuming extracurricular activity is in fact their application. Below are a few things to consider if you feel like the application process is demanding.
- You’re competing for a spot at an English-speaking university. You are not only competing against British and American applicants but every English-speaking applicant in the world who wishes to study at your institution. The competition is fierce and often times there are more than ten qualified applicants for each spot.
- Since perfect grades are a bare minimum among applicants, universities must broaden the application process in order to easily pick top candidates.
- As a foreign applicant from a country with a different university system the process can seem difficult as you may lack some of the support and know-how from your immediate surrounding. This kind of support is, however, available to Americans who are applying for school in the USA simply because their school system is designed for it.
Here is an article about the competition between top-school applicants and the application consultants who are making money off of it:
An article about how a few select high schools in the UK manage to enroll disproportionately many graduates to the Oxbridge universities:
Get a feel for the help and support available to applicants in the UK
3.6 Choosing university and plausibility analysis
It can be useful to go over the chapter Personal Profile as part of the process of choosing university.
Choosing university and doing a plausibility analysis
No matter which country you are applying to, it’s important to to assess your different options and research the schools that you are interested in.
A commonly used method is to divide your top schools into the following three categories:
Dream schools are the universities that you dream about. They are often high ranking and have low acceptance rates. Even with perfect academic credentials, you will be lucky to get accepted to these schools.
Reach schools are schools where your academic credentials fall below the school’s range for the average freshman (first year student). Reach schools are long-shots, but should still be possible.
Safety schools are your backup options – schools where your academic credentials fall well within, or even exceed, the school’s range for the average freshman student. This means that your application will most likely be accepted.
The labels of the different schools depend on the strength of your application, your grades, your resumé and other qualifications. This classification is therefore individual. What may be a “reach” school for one student may be a “safety” option for someone else. The only thing that is for certain is that top schools such as Amherst, Duke, Cambridge and Stanford will always feature in the Dream category, no matter your grades or personal profile.
A rule of thumb for choosing safety-schools
You must think the school is worth attending (considering tuition fees, other alternatives etc.) in order for it be be worth your time and money.
How many universities should you apply for?
In the USA you can apply for as many different schools as you like. The question of how many is therefore a question of balance between quality and quantity. What is the best way of distributing your time and effort? Most applicants stick to less than 10 different universities.
In the UK you are limited to 5 schools. If you are 100% certain about going to the UK, you should consider applying for one or two schools in each category (dream, reach, safety). This way you can spread your risk while maintaining your chances of being accepted to your dream option.
3.7 When to apply – early application?
Early application is an advantage
Whether your dream university is in the England or Scotland, it is always advantageous to submit your application early. The process is the same for the two countries, and the UK application process is handled the same way across all universities in the country.
There are many reasons to apply early. It indicates a strong drive and interest in studying at a school, and it indicates a sense of responsibility and an ability to manage your time.
Most universities process applications on a running basis. They do not wait until the last application day for all the application to come in. So, the earlier you submit your application, the more spots are still available at the university, and thus your chances increase as you may be the first one to apply with your specific profile. The risk of “blending in” amongst the masses of applicants increases the further along in the acceptance process your application is reviewed.
To conclude – we strongly recommend submitting your UCAS application as early on as possible, as this will drastically increase your chances of being admitted.