US vs. UK Colleges: Which Application Process is Right for You?

Colleges like the Ivies might be at the top of your list. But whether you’re American or international, you’ve most likely heard of Oxford and Cambridge, or even King’s College, London or University College, London. If studying abroad is up your alley, you’ve probably even thought about attending them. Whether you have a passing interest in colleges in England or whether you’re seriously considering them, Cardinal Education is here to give you the scoop on college application processes both in the UK and in the US.

The American College Application Process: Generalized, Essay-Heavy, All About You and Your Extracurriculars

You may already be familiar with the process of applying to college in the United States. First, you create a balanced college list, filled with schools of varying difficulties to enter. Then, you write a personal statement essay as well as any supplemental essays that each college might require. Finally, you may be called in for an interview. These are the basics, and within that, here are the features that really define the American college application process:

It’s writing-heavy and writing skill-oriented. On top of a 650-word personal statement for college, you will have to write dozens of supplemental essays for all of the individual colleges. Some schools may ask for a simple “Why do you want to attend our school?” while others go all-out in pushing you to think and express yourself on the page. On top of Stanford’s three 250-word essays, they also ask you to write several 50-word “supershorts”: deceptively simple due to the word count, but devilishly tricky to find exactly the right thing to say. As for Harvard, they ask for several essays, as well as an optional essay of any length that you’ll definitely want to write to increase your chances. Your success will depend on how well you can express yourself.

It’s also holistic and puts more emphasis on your extracurriculars. Your GPA and test scores, of course, are a huge factor, but who you are as a person is a major part of that picture as well. The purpose of having to write all those essays is so that admissions officers can see the personality behind the transcript. Not only do you need top grades and test scores, but you also need to be a thoughtful and well-rounded individual who can show that off on the page, and who can really come alive to wow your interviewers with your personal best. Your feelings about and your reflections on your personal growth really matter in this application, as you’ll want to emphasize your uniqueness as you present yourself to the admissions officers. What’s more, your extracurricular activities are all important in convincing American colleges you are a young leader who is ready to change the world!

But it’s not always consistent, and it can be expensive. The Common App is used for most colleges, but unlike UK schools that use only UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), some American colleges–such as Georgetown–use a different application platform entirely. Many schools also charge a hefty application fee which UK schools do not; for UCAS, there is only one flat fee to apply to any five schools you like. If you want to dive headfirst into the American admissions process, you’ll have to keep all of this in mind.

The UK College Application Process: For the Committed Specialist and Test-Taker

Applying to colleges in the UK seems the same on the surface: you write a personal statement, you send it off, and then you wait patiently to see if you’ve qualified for an interview. But there are a few features that distinguish this process from college applications in the US, which you need to consider if you wish to apply to UK colleges alongside or instead of American ones.

You need to know a lot about your intended field of study. In America, students may change their major many times over the course of their college career. In college in the UK, however, you must study the major you apply for.

The UK system works best for those who not only know what passions they’re going to pursue in college but also have a certain degree of expertise in it. Your college interview, unlike in the American system, won’t be all about getting to know you more as a person. Instead, it will emphasize assessing whether you are passionate about and qualified in the subject that you applied for and elaborated on in your personal statement. These questions are often highly specific and require detailed, nuanced, and well-thought-out answers. Some college interview questions for Oxford, across several subjects, have included:

  1. If you could save either the rainforests or the coral reefs, which would you choose? (Biological Sciences)
  2. Do bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should the government do something to limit how much they get? (Economics and Management)
  3. How would you design a gravity dam for holding backwater? (Engineering)
  4. Is violence always political? Does ‘political’ mean something different in different contexts? (History)
  5. How many ways are there to cover a 2 x n rectangular grid with 2 x 1 tiles? (Mathematics)
  6. JK Rowling has just published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different from writing for adults? (English Literature)

Your interview performance will depend largely on how you are able to answer such questions extemporaneously. You may not need to express your personality as deeply as an American interview expects you to, but to do well, you’ll need to be the kind of person who regularly researches and thinks about the field you’re interested in. Ideally, you can also quickly and eloquently construct a logical point about issues in that field.

Your test scores are all-important. The American college system puts an extremely heavy emphasis on GPA. But UK high schools don’t have GPAs, so UK institutions don’t take GPA or transcripts that seriously–if they take them at all. Moreover, extracurricular activities don’t matter as much in the UK system as they do in the States. Instead, they will zero in on test scores such as AP, IB, SAT, and ACT, because those are the most easily equatable to UK schooling’s testing system, known as A-levels. After this, you’ll also have to do well on an entrance exam for your program. 

This might be a good option for you if your GPA is somewhat lower than you would like and your extracurriculars aren’t very well-rounded, but your test results are stellar. You’ll need top scores in relevant APs (3 scores of 5) or IBs (6 or 7).

However, less required writing benefits those who might not like to write. If you aren’t the best at expressing yourself through your writing, or if you do not enjoy it, this may be the app for you. UK colleges only require one personal statement, the one you write through the UCAS portal; this personal statement is also a far cry from the narrative nonfiction encouraged by American college essays. While they do want to see some of who you are in order to ensure you can be a positive addition to their community, the main emphasis is always on how well you can express your knowledge of your major. UCAS advises students to write a three-paragraph personal statement like such:

  1. Use the opening paragraph to sell the reader your excitement for your chosen course. 
  2. Then, write a chunky middle paragraph with evidence of things you’ve done that prove your interest in that course. You should also use this paragraph to briefly discuss your skills and good qualities, as well as any transferable skills that you may have.
  3. Finish with a personal touch in the final paragraph. Mention any unique interests/hobbies you may have, and other facts about yourself that show you can fit in with university life.

Less emphasis on extracurriculars also benefits those whose activities are rather weak. If you had a few great internships relating to your field of study but nothing much outside of that, this will hurt your chances in the American system–but the UK system will still welcome you with open arms. Given the fact that you must study your major of choice, it’s no wonder that the UK application process is hyperfocused on selecting those who have already committed; you’d only need enough experience to fill out that aforementioned chunky middle paragraph in your personal statement. So don’t worry if you’re not simultaneously the founder of a startup, and a starter on the varsity soccer team, and chief editor of the school newspaper, and the ultra-successful president of a culture club. The UK system doesn’t ask for a resumé’s worth of well-rounded extracurriculars; it only asks for a specific passion.

So Which One Should I Choose?

Ultimately, that decision is yours to make. Think about how well you can fulfill the requirements of each of these different application processes–which one you will stand out the most in. Just as importantly, think about which country you want to study and live in as well. You might end up taking a path that wasn’t originally what you pictured, or you may end up applying for both! 

This is a weighty decision, perhaps one of the most important you’ll make as you apply to college. If you need someone to discuss it with, we’re here to help.