How to Apply to Colleges in the UK as an American Student

Each year, thousands of American high school students decide to attend university in the UK, studying at one of the many high-quality universities in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Studying abroad for the entire university experience can give American students (defined as US Citizens) a new perspective and new opportunities to learn and grow. UK universities also offer some degree programs and other courses of study not found at colleges or universities in the US. While many students successfully apply to and are admitted to UK schools, there are some significant differences between applying to college in the US and the UK which will be important to understand.

Courses vs. Majors

A big difference between American and UK universities

As an American applying to college in the UK, it is important to understand the differences between the higher education systems in these two countries. This difference in curriculum and philosophy helps explain the differences in the applications themselves and why UK schools collect the information they do.

In the US, students are admitted to a college or university, then after that, they declare a major, their academic focus. Many schools do not require students to declare their major on their application, rather, students typically have until the end of their sophomore year to decide on their major. Other select schools or select programs at these do require students to declare their major on their applications and apply directly to their chosen major, but that is the exception in the US, rather than the rule. This means most American students are admitted ‘undecided’, even if they already know what they want to major in. Then, after being admitted, enrolling, and completing some required classes, they are able to declare their major, and that is what their degree will be in. Therefore, while the application evaluation process does take an American student’s intended major into account, it is also a more generalized, holistic evaluation, that is curious not just about a student’s preparation for their major, but their overall academic performance, extracurricular involvement, personal characteristics, and background and experiences.


Oxford, a Famous University in the UK
Applying to Colleges in the UK

In the UK, students are admitted directly into a ‘course’ at a college or university. Courses, or courses of study, are just like the majors found at American universities.

The difference between a major in the US and a course in the UK is that students apply to courses directly and are admitted into a specific course.

Typically, changing courses is possible, but challenging and requires a new application. In the UK, because students are admitted directly into a course, the evaluation is much more focused on their specific experience and background with that course and is less focused on a generalized, holistic evaluation of the student.

The UCAS Statement of Purpose

UCAS is the UK version of the Common App

The first step for American students applying to colleges in the UK is to set up a profile with UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. UCAS is a web-based platform that all students – UK citizens and international students – will use to apply to colleges in the UK. The UCAS application includes a statement of purpose, which is very important in how the admissions decisions are made.

American students should be aware that the UCAS statement of purpose is very different from the Common Application personal statement. The Common Application personal statement is a personal essay that introduces the applicant to colleges and is much more focused on a student’s background, personality, interests, and life experiences.

The UCAS Statement of Purpose, on the hand, is not really a personal essay, but rather a thoughtful articulation of why the student wants to study their chosen course, a detailed description of their academic and experiential qualifications for that course, and some personal insights as well. The UCAS statement of purpose is longer than the personal statement and is meant to be comprehensive, encompassing both a narrative introduction to the student with any relevant background information and an argument for why they should be admitted to their chosen course.

Students apply through UCAS and list and rank their intended programs and colleges, and the same UCAS personal statement is sent to every program that they rank. Then, the programs make admissions decisions and those decisions are reconciled with what programs students ranked. So be advised that the UCAS statement of purpose is sent to every school, so it should not mention a specific program or college that the student wants to attend. Instead, it should simply be a statement about your purpose in studying the course you’ve chosen and your qualifications for that course.

A-Levels and Other Subject-Specific Coursework

A major difference between British and American high schools

American students should be aware of the differences in high school curricula between American and British high schools. In the UK, high school students who plan to attend a university will enroll in A-level classes and take A-level exams in the subjects they want to specialize in. These A-levels help a student qualify for their university course. For example, a student who wants to be a doctor and enroll in a medical course at university would probably take A-level biology, math, and chemistry, but would probably not take A-level history or English. When they are being evaluated for their medical course, schools will look at their performance in these A-level classes and exams to determine if they are qualified. That means that when applying to universities, UK high school students will have A-level scores, and these scores are used to determine if they meet the qualifications for the program or course that they have applied for, but American students will not.

A-levels are somewhat similar to IB and AP level classes in terms of their content, but they are different from IB and AP level classes in many ways as well. American students will not have A-level scores when they apply to college in the UK, so they are therefore required, in almost every instance, to submit SAT or ACT scores in addition to all AP scores taken. Though imperfect, UK universities will use these several standardized test scores to try to determine American students’ eligibility for the program they’ve applied to. However, because US high schools do not have A-levels, some UK universities admit American students to a special ‘undecided’ major and then decide if they are qualified to enroll in their chosen course after their first or second year.

Though Different, both US and UK Universities Offer Exciting Opportunities to American Students

Attending college in the United Kingdom can be an exciting experience for American students and a pathway to uncovering life in a new country, as well as some special academic programs that are harder to find in the US. It is also an opportunity to experience a more focused and directed academic program, which is especially valuable for students who are clear about what they want to study and are ready to specialize and focus on this subject earlier than they might otherwise have in the US. To take advantage of the opportunities that studying in the UK has to offer, be aware that there is a different process for applying to UK universities and a different process UK universities use to evaluate their applicants, including and especially applicants from the United States.


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