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.
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.
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.
High school students analyzing America’s higher education landscape today are wise to question whether it makes sense to pursue a degree at a college or university that is overpriced, ideologically stifling, and socially antithetical to their personal values. Yet, if they are serious about acquiring valuable knowledge for their career goals and for overall self-improvement, students should not cower at the thought of earning the exact degree they want wherever they want to earn it. While in most cases, young Americans will only consider college or university options in America, the good, and somewhat surprising news to many, is that there are terrific – and even superior – higher education options beyond America’s borders. In fact, young Americans may be better off spending their entire undergraduate careers in Western Europe instead of the United States of America. Here are four reasons why:
Earn Your Degree in 3 Years Instead of 4 Years
Why spend four years at Yale, Harvard, or Princeton when you could spend three years at Oxford, Cambridge, or Imperial College London? The standard undergraduate degree takes a good year longer to complete in the U.S. than it does in England, where the standard undergraduate degree is typically completed in three years. In fact, across Europe, many degrees are doable in only three years. Why does it take longer in the U.S.? Well, that’s mainly because in England and across Europe universities…
Don’t Waste Your Time on Required General Education or ‘Diversity’ Courses
In America it has become standard for large public research universities, small liberal arts colleges, and everything in between to require students to complete general education and distribution requirements that have little to nothing to do with their major area of study. This means that if you are an Engineering major you may still need to take a course in the social sciences in order to earn your degree. If you are Math major you may still need to take a required diversity course to meet graduation requirements. If you are an Economics major you may still need to fulfill a foreign language requirement before you receive your diploma. You get the idea.
Taking even a few required courses that you have no interest in adds up fast – so fast that soon you find yourself paying for an entire year of tuition that has nothing to do with your intended career or major area of interest. In Europe, especially in England, every class you take will be in your major (or as they call it, course) area. If you are studying History, every course you take will be related to History. If you want to immerse yourself in Business, all courses you take from day one until the day you graduate will educate you about business.
Male students in particular are often not as inclined to multitask as female students; therefore, men, pay attention: England’s style of higher education is best suited for the student who knows exactly what he (or she) wants to study and who does not want to mess around with subjects that are tangential to his (or her) goals. It’s one thing to get a broad-based education in high school; college is arguably the ideal time to focus on a very narrow subject deeply. Sadly, most undergraduate institutions in the U.S. don’t permit students to delve as deeply and fully into subject areas as their counterparts in England because of the many other academic requirements U.S. colleges and universities place upon their students.
Pay Less Money Than You’d Ever Expect for a European Degree
The retail price of Europe’s top universities is often far less than the retail price of tuition at America’s top universities. In many cases college is free to European citizens, which promotes great economic diversity of students attending European universities. In addition, many universities in England and throughout Europe participate in the U.S. Federal Student Aid Program, which allows American students to take out loans similar to the ones they would be taking out to attend U.S. colleges anyway. In Germany, college is essentially free to all non-citizens – even Americans, and one may not even need to learn German to study in Germany, as increasingly entire undergraduate degree programs in Germany are offered in English.
Expose Yourself to Amazing Experiences and Diversity Outside of the Classroom
If you are studying in a big American city you can of course go out to dinner at a great French restaurant or hit up the clubs in the trendy part of town. If you are studying in London, you can spend your entire weekend in Paris, Budapest, or Seville. In Europe, centuries worth of the culture and history of Western Civilization beckon around nearly every corner. While the U.S. is fascinating and filled with important sites and dynamic culture, if you are from the U.S., college is an ideal time when you could be exposing yourself to a life unlike any you have experienced in the past or will experience again in the future. Europe offers you just this sort of experience.
While many American colleges boast of diversity when pointing to the race, state of residence, or country of citizenship of their students, it is obvious to anyone who looks at the situation critically that such diversity is often superficial at best. At top American colleges especially, no matter a student’s race, state of residence, or country of citizenship, he or she is far more likely to be a son or daughter of a doctor, lawyer, investment banker, politician, or owner of a major company than he or she is to be the son or daughter of a farmer, factory worker, waitress, construction worker, or truck driver. Your college years should be the time to gain exposure to a greater diversity of people and perspectives than you ever could gain exposure to in high school or may ever be able to have access to again upon entering the world of work. Studying in Europe will allow you to do just that, as European universities attract students from all economic levels and all corners of the Earth because of their relative affordability and quality.
If you are studying in a small town in the U.S. your most likely social options each weekend will consist of getting drunk or staying sober in the dorms or off-campus with middle or upper class peers. As mentioned previously, in Europe, university students often come from a greater number of countries, cultures, and classes, and these individuals’ ideal diversions often does not come in the form of getting drunk at frat parties or at pre-game or post-game parties on and around campus. If you have had any social life in high school, college social life in the U.S. has a very real feeling of ‘been there, done that’ with a splash of greater excess. European students’ ideal form of socialization is on average more sophisticated than that of their peers in the U.S. both because of Europe’s lower legal drinking ages and more diverse social preferences.
Going to college in Europe often means attending class with and living nearby students who are more focused on their academic and professional goals and who socialize in myriad ways that average American students would never even consider on their college campuses. Europe is not for everyone; however, if you find yourself unhappy with or underwhelmed by your undergraduate study options in the U.S., you should seriously consider crossing the pond and challenging yourself to a style of education and a social environment utterly distinct from what you would likely experience at most colleges and universities in the U.S.