Post Written by Lessa Scherrer, College Inside Track Consultant
Applying to college in another country is more than a romantic notion. There are many reasons why a college overseas might be a good fit for you. The UK is an especially good option as all classes are taught in English, there are many internationally-ranked programs (even outside Oxford and Cambridge!), a degree program is typically three years instead of four, and the total cost of attendance can be considerably less expensive than an equivalent degree in the US.
English and Welsh colleges and universities offer a much more focused degree path than the more familiar US system. Remember, you only have three years to complete your degree, so there is no time for general education requirements. There is also not much time available to try things out for students who don’t know what they want to study. It is very difficult to change majors from one department to another and doing so can often mean restarting your degree from day one. On the other hand, Scottish universities offer four-year degrees and are more flexible in terms of supporting undecided students.
To learn about and access the nearly 400 colleges and universities in the United Kingdom, UCAS is your friend. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is both a research tool and application platform, similar to the US Common App. There are some important differences, however. While the Common App allows you to apply to up to 20 member colleges and universities, UCAS only allows you to apply to up to five (5) programs. The “program” or “course” is what we would call a major, and students typically apply to a single, consistent major at various schools. This is because you will only write one personal statement that goes to all of your schools.
The personal statement is more like an American “Why this major?” essay than the Common App personal narrative. While there is some overlap between the two types of essays, the UCAS personal statement is more practical. Where it’s okay to write about your personal relationship with chicken nuggets for American colleges, the Admissions Tutors (tutor means “advisor” in the UK colleges and universities) want to see what you’ve studied related to chicken preparation (75%-90% of the essay) and your personal qualities and extracurricular experiences related to chicken nuggets themselves (10%-25% of the essay). You might also include your goals for work or a career in the chicken nugget industry and most of all, why you think chicken nuggets are so cool you want to study them exclusively for the next three years! Like essays for US-based colleges, your enthusiasm and insight are the things that are going to set you apart.
What else are you required to submit? Some UK schools will have standards for AP and/or IB testing. For example, Imperial College London, a highly-selective STEM school (think MIT), requires a 38-40 IB score or 5’s on at least three AP exams, typically physics, calculus BC or chemistry, depending on the program. You must submit proof of English language proficiency, even if you are a UK student. Some programs can require additional testing like the BMAT for medicine or biomedical engineering or MAT-STEP for mathematics or computer science. Many programs also require an interview.
A word about offers: Unlike American colleges who send out acceptances, UK colleges send out “offers.” Offers can be unconditional or conditional. Unconditional offers are typically only given to students who have already graduated. Most high school seniors receive conditional offers, which means they are accepted contingent upon the conditions set in the offer letter. Earning 5’s on certain AP exams or A or B grades in honors courses are typical conditions. (It’s not common knowledge but American acceptances are also conditional: although it seldom happens, if you don’t graduate or flunk your second semester, your acceptance can be rescinded.) Catherine Eames at Imperial College London emphasizes, “A conditional offer is a massive deal. It means the college really wants you!”
What happens if you don’t meet the conditions of your offer? You go on a waiting list of sorts: you can still be admitted if the college fails to fill your course with students who do meet their conditions. These decisions are not made until August, though, after the UK students’ test results are known. (School begins October 1.) Students must narrow down their college choices through the UCAS portal and are limited to a firm choice (first choice) and an insurance choice (backup).
Colleges where you did not meet the conditions of your offer would be an insurance choice. The colleges then use the registered choices of the students and the conditions met or unmet to determine their class for each course. It’s important to understand that your conditional offer is firm if you meet the conditions. That is to say if 100% of the students for a course meet their conditions and put that course as their first choice, 100% of the students are admitted. UK universities do not “shape the class” the way American admissions offices do.
Housing is frequently guaranteed for first-year international students, at an additional cost beyond the cost of tuition, of course, just like in the States. Rooms may be single or double and most have an “en-suite” or private bathroom. Students have access to shared kitchens in their “halls”/dorms and typically cook their own meals (the halls are “self-catering,” in UK parlance), rather than having a meal plan and cafeterias, although many dorms have restaurants or food vendors on the first floor.
If you know exactly what you want to study and are looking for lower-cost options, UK colleges and universities can be a good option for you. The student who thrives in the UK uni system is resourceful, resilient, and focused on what they want to study. If you are interested in going to school in the UK, be sure to talk it over with your CIT consultant, so you can pick the courses most relevant to you and your goals.