UK and US University Applications: Five Key Differences You Need to Know

Each autumn, I see more and more of my students opting to apply to universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly, international students see universities in the US and UK as competitors and want to maximize the options available to them by applying to both countries.

As you know from my previous post, the academic culture in the two countries could not be more dissimilar. It follows, then, that the applications and the application process are handled in very different ways in the US and UK. Many applicants make the mistake of treating the two as perfect substitutes, when they are not. Put simply, you cannot approach applications to the British and American universities in the same way!

Read on to learn the five keys to a successful application on both sides of the pond:

1. Applying to a subject vs. applying to a university

UK: You will apply for entry to five degree courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, commonly known as UCAS. This means the academic subject for which you are applying takes center stage in the application, and must be the focal point of all your application materials, including reference letters and the personal statement.

US: You will apply for entry to the university, rather than a specific academic subject. The majority of American college students enroll with undecided majors, a practice which is not only acceptable, but strongly encouraged at many institutions. Rather than entering with a specific course of study, universities will often have you apply to a specific undergraduate faculty, such as the engineering school, business school, or school of fine arts and assess your suitability for these disciplines at large.

2. Writing requirements

UK: A single personal statement is sent to all of the universities you select in your UCAS application. Hence, its content cannot be tailored to each institution, and you must focus more on discussing your chosen academic subject. The personal statement, very simply, must convey two things: 1. Why you are applying for your chosen course, and 2. Your suitability for it, by referencing relevant skills, experience and achievements. For those applying to more than one degree course, the single personal statement must be relevant to all of the academic disciplines for which they are applying. The writing style is conventional and straightforward. Humor is to be avoided, as is an anecdotal writing style.

US: The American college essay, by comparison, is a far less straightforward task. Firstly, the writing requirements vary from school to school, meaning that the average applicant has to do a great deal more writing to apply to five American schools than they would five British ones. Most colleges will require you to compose a personal essay where you will be asked to reflect on meaningful life experiences, milestones and challenges. If your chosen college is one of 513 members of the Common Application, then you can write a single Common Application essay, which will be sent to all your participating institutions.

The piece does not have to academic in nature, and, indeed, many of

the most successful essays are not. Admissions committees are looking for a snapshot of who you are and how you think. In addition to this, most competitive colleges will require a further essay, which generally asks you to explain why you want to attend the college, what you have to offer the community, as well as your future goals. With these sorts of questions, the American universities are looking for responses that demonstrate your genuine interest in their institution.

3. Who is reading your application?

UK: Applications are sent to the individual academic departments for consideration. They are read by teaching staff in department to which you are applying, who are most interested in your academic achievements in your chosen subject, suitability for the demands of the course, and potential to succeed within it. As academics, they will be most impressed by an application that demonstrates a nuanced appreciation for their subject, so do your research thoroughly!

US: Applications are read and evaluated by admissions officers, administrative staff members who are specifically tasked with the job of building a well-rounded incoming class. Rather than looking solely at an applicant’s at academic prowess, admissions officers are trying to create a diverse and balanced student body. The emphasis, hence, is more on showcasing why you would make a valuable member of the university community.

4. Extracurricular activities

UK: Participation in extracurricular activities is not considered a deciding factor in UK admissions, unless the activities themselves correlate very strongly with your chosen academic field. Personal statements should certainly not concentrate on your extracurricular achievements, no matter how impressive, as they have little bearing on the outcome of your application. Stay focused on academics!

US: Extracurricular activities and other non-academic qualities are considered incredibly important. Athletic, artistic, or musical talents are great assets to your application, as are any part-time jobs, leadership positions, and volunteer work. Even your personal/family background will be considered. You are encouraged to discuss all of the above in your application, alongside your academic achievements.

5. Admissions decisions

UK: British universities generally do not accept students outright; rather they make what are known as conditional offers. These are offers of admission contingent on the applicant achieving certain final year grades, which the university will specify in the offer letter. The system is structured this way, because British students do not receive their A-Level results until the summer following their final year of school. As such, if you do not meet the terms of your offer, there is strong chance that the university will rescind it. Once the terms of the offer are met, it becomes an unconditional offer.

US: American universities accept students outright. Barring exceptional circumstances, such as an expulsion or failure to graduate, US universities are by and large not concerned with the final grades you receive.

The UK and US might be the twin pinnacles of global higher education, but whatever you do, do not consider them perfect substitutes. These dissimilar academic cultures require totally different approaches to the application process.