The UK has a host of excellent universities, some of which are the oldest in the world, and many of which regularly rank among the top colleges worldwide. Oxford and Cambridge (collectively, Oxbridge) consistently place in the top five. The Russell Group comprises 24 universities in the UK especially renowned for academic prowess and acclaimed in the job market (roughly equivalent to the concept of the ‘Ivy League’). Naturally, these different universities bring a whole range of traditions, rituals and peculiarities, and with them, certain particulars to bear in mind during applications. Considering applying to one of these historic and prestigious universities yourself? Read on for things to consider.
Unlike for American colleges, there are no SATs or the equivalent to be done when applying to a university in the UK. There are no standardized tests that measure your capabilities in core subjects; rather, offers are made according to your performance in school. In the UK, this is done with reference to your A-levels (the exams you take which cover the material of your final two years of high school). A set of predicted grades is given based on mock exams at the end of your junior year, and these are then cited in your university application. For American applicants, then, you will cite your current and predicted GPA. The admissions department will consider this and make an offer conditional on your achieving certain grades, at the end of high school. If you have a strong GPA, you have a strong chance of getting an offer.
One of the reasons that English universities do not have such standardized tests is due to the nature of the courses: crucial to remember in the UK is that you choose the subject you are going to study before arriving at college. Many people do sole degrees, focusing on only one subject, such as Chemistry, or English Literature, or Math. Increasingly common are Joint Honors degrees, which combine two disciplines: I myself studied French and Philosophy, and a whole range of combinations are now possible, from History and English, to Physics and Math. This is a key contrast to the system in the US, where after a set of general courses in first year, you decide what to major in. Hence why core competencies are not tested; if you’re looking to study English, admissions aren’t concerned with your math level. You must thus have a clear idea of what you wish you study: you are applying for a specific subject at a certain university, not just applying to the university itself, and must tailor your application accordingly.
How then, do you show your capability and passion for your subject? Where you’ll get chance to do this is, along with your GPA, the most important part of the application process: the personal statement. This is what the admissions department will consider next to your grades, and this is your chance to make yourself stand out from the crowd, to sell your skills, and to really show your passion for learning. The personal statement is a short written piece, of only 4000 characters, wherein you demonstrate why you’re the perfect candidate for the place. You can talk about all the things that make you unique; your extracurricular activities, sports, music, interests; and most importantly, why you like your subject, and why you will excel at studying it at university. The statement is usually general, rather than aimed at one university in particular. Work on making it focused to your subject, and your skills, rather than talking about why a certain college appeals to you. For Oxbridge applications, the personal statement must be heavily academically focused; 80% of it should treat at length your passion for your particular subject and your academic prowess, while the other 20% can discuss extracurricular activities and the like. For other universities, this is slightly more relaxed; think a 60-40 split, instead. Focus your academic section on what draws you that field, the extra reading that you have done, and your interpretation of this reading, the questions it raises. This shows your analytical thinking and engagement with your subject. A good personal statement will take some work, but it is a great way to get you noticed and get you that offer.
Besides the predicted GPA and your personal statements, certain courses and universities will have other particular requirements as part of the application process, such as entrance exams, aptitude tests, and the like. These are, however, the exception rather than the rule. For most UK colleges, your GPA and personal statement are all that are required.
Oxford and Cambridge present a crucial exception to this, having their own particular requirements when it comes to admissions. After you submit your initial application, you will likely have to do an aptitude test, particular to the subject you are looking to study. There are a whole host of such tests: the MLAT tests your language capabilities, the HAT tests your history aptitude, ELAT is for English Literature, the MAT for Math; and so on. After this has been completed and considered along with your grades and statement, the university will decide whether to offer you an interview. It is only for Oxford and Cambridge that you will attend an interview. These take place in early December. At Oxbridge, not only do you apply for a particular subject, you also select the college within the university to which you wish to apply, and it is here that your interview will take place.
For Oxford, the interview is a crucial part of the admissions process, which goes a long way to determining whether you will receive an offer. You will likely have two or more interviews, with different professors, which is your chance to show your passion for your subject, and why you will excel at it. The tutors are not looking to catch you out; it is not about testing what you know (no one expects you to know everything about your subject in high school!) but seeing how you learn. They will present you with situations or questions which will not be familiar to you, to see that you can think analytically, and use your existing knowledge to make informed answers. The interview at Oxford is essentially a taster of what a university tutorial is like. For that reason, it carries a lot of weight in their decision. Cambridge, by contrast, places less emphasis on the interview. You will likely have one interview, which will further assess your academic prowess. Much more important here is your predicted GPA; if you have an excellent score, you are likely to receive an offer. Thankfully, these interviews are starting to be conducted remotely, via video conferencing, as well as in-person, so it’s not necessary that you make your way over to England should you receive an invitation.
This is a general overview of what to expect through the UK admissions process. The timeline varies according to the university, but for most, your initial application with personal statement will be due at the beginning of November. This normally includes a ranked list of five universities, with first and second choices that you must take over the others if you receive an offer from them. You will start receiving offers from early December onward, through to around April. Oxbridge applications are due earlier: your personal statement and grades must be submitted by the 15th October. Aptitude tests take place in early November, interviews in December, and there is a set date towards the beginning of January when you will hear about your offer.
Universities in the UK are prestigious, renowned and historic centers of learning, and bring with them a rich and varied academic and social life. You should now be prepared and ready for what to expect throughout the process, and how this differs from the US. For more specific tips and advice about steps along the way, it might be wise to consider an applications mentor. Good luck for the months ahead — should you choose it, you will love your academic life in the UK!