Applying to a University in the United Kingdom

UCAS - University in the United Kingdom

Studying at a university in the United Kingdom is highly specialized. Students focus on one specific area (for three years in England or four years in Scotland) compared to the broader approach favoured by North American institutions. For students who have developed an interest or passion in a narrow area of academic study, a post-secondary program in the U.K. may be an appropriate fit. It is also an appealing choice for students who want to pursue direct-entry programs in law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and veterinary sciences.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is the U.K.-based non-profit organization that manages and facilitates the application process for all institutions of higher education in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their website contains information on every aspect of the application process: program research, video tutorials, sample person statements, financial matters and much more.

Academic programs are referred to as “courses” in British lingo, and there are over 37,000 currently on offer. Students may choose up to five courses at any university in the United Kingdom (each course has its own unique code to identify it). All courses are searchable on the UCAS, though the best information about each course is located on the university’s official website.

A student’s UCAS application has several components:

  1. Students will need to list final grades from all completed high school courses. They will also be required to list current courses with a predicted final grade (provided by their teachers) for each.
  2. Applicants must submit one, and only one, reference letter from a teacher or academic advisor. It is strongly recommended that this letter be from a teacher in the student’s academic area of interest, or from the academic advisor, who may be able to weave together critical feedback from several teachers in the related area.
  3. Significant weight is put on an applicant’s personal statement (limited to 4,000 characters). This is the student’s sole chance to go beyond grades and others’ feedback and speak candidly about his or her reasons for applying to that particular course. Unlike college essays written for American colleges, the U.K. personal statement is not meant to convey one’s unique personality – it is a focused statement that aims to convince the reader of one’s academic readiness in a specific subject area. Extracurricular activities and interests should not be discussed unless they can are relevant to the particular course of study and provide additional evidence of preparation.
  4. Highly selective programs will shortlist a number of students for an interview. These can be arranged through Skype, but students may choose to do the interview in person.

UCAS has only two deadlines: October 15 and January 15. The October deadline applies to students who have selected courses at Oxford or Cambridge (students may only apply to one) or direct-entry programs in law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and veterinary sciences. The January deadline applies to all other courses.

Students often wonder what they must do or submit that is not captured within the UCAS process. There isn’t much, and perhaps nothing at all depending on the student.

SAT or ACT scores, though required by many American universities, are not required by any university in the United Kingdom; however, applicants who have them may submit their scores if they believe it will enhance their application. Students whose first language is not English may be required to submit IELTS or TOEFL scores. Some highly selective courses in the U.K. require students to take specialized standardized tests (for example, applicants to the PPE course at Oxford must take the Thinking Skills Assessment). These details are listed in the course description on UCAS and on the university’s website. AP courses are not required, though at the most selective institutions they will certainly be expected.

The most important task for current Grade 11 students is to focus on finishing the year with strong marks. Those who wish to apply for direct-entry programs should be in the process of arranging relevant volunteer work to do over the summer – this will demonstrate depth of commitment and can strongly enhance the personal statement. They should also register and begin studying for any standardized tests that their course requires. Otherwise, the summer is an excellent time for students to research different institutions (including cost) and, if possible, visit campuses. It is also strongly recommended that students begin a draft of their personal statement over the summer so that they can begin the revision phase with their university counsellor or advisor when classes resume in September.

Though the UCAS system demands more time and attention from students than Canadian university applications do, their academic advisor is ready to help out with any and all aspects! As long as students start early and plan accordingly, the process need not at all be a stressful one.


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