According to Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, the top 10 universities are all in the U.S. (Caltech, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and UChicago) or the U.K. (Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London). All of these schools attract applicants from around the world who dream of attending a prestigious university. However, just because a student might be qualified Oxford doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a shoe in for a top tier American university and vice versa. If you are applying to both U.S. and U.K. universities, your applications for each group of schools will look very different and should highlight different aspects of your personality and academic record. 

Here is an overview of the main differences between US and UK applications: 

 

Number of applications

In the U.S., the number of universities you can apply to is virtually unlimited – as long as you get creative. You can apply through a combination of university specific applications (like the UC application or MIT’s application), the Common App, which connects students with the most universities and allows a maximum of 20 applications, the Universal Application, and the Coalition Application. 

In the UK however, there is one centralized application portal, UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) through which all undergraduate and postgraduate students apply. The UCAS allows a maximum of five applications. Another key difference is that in the U.S., you can apply to every top tier school if you want to (even though we would advise against that) whereas in the UK, you have to choose between Cambridge and Oxford. 

 

Review process

Most colleges in the U.S. practice “holistic review” during the college admissions process. That means that they not only take into account a student’s GPA and test scores, but also place significant weight on their extracurricular involvements and achievements, their letters of recommendation, and their college essay. While colleges in the U.S. don’t necessarily seek “well-rounded” students the way many people think, they do want students who have more to them than one very specific academic interest. Your U.S. applications should demonstrate your quirks, hobbies, and passions to so that your admissions officers can better picture you on campus. 

When applying to UK schools on the other hand, your test scores and grades are the main factor colleges consider. In terms of essays, you will want to focus on why you have chosen the particular major that you are applying to, your past experiences in that field, and future aspirations. 

 

Testing requirements

U.S. universities generally accept the SAT or ACT as well as 2-3 subject tests as a part of a first year applicant’s application. Students in the United States typically begin studying for subject tests in their freshman or sophomore year, when they take their first Advanced Placement classes. Once students in the United States enter their junior years, they typically begin preparing for either the SAT I or ACT, and take one of the two by the end of their junior year or beginning of their senior year. 

To apply to schools in the United Kingdom, the requirements for testing may depend on the school you are applying to. For instance, UK schools may allow the SAT I, SAT II subject tests and/or AP exams to meet the undergraduate application requirements. Some schools may not require any of these tests for entry requirements; however, just like test-optional schools in the US, sending in your standardized test scores to colleges and universities will only benefit your overall application.

Some schools, such as the University of Oxford, require major-specific admissions tests. For example, if you intend to study History and Economics at Oxford, you are required to take the History Aptitude Test, or the HAT. This exam consists of one question, which prompts applicants to analyze a primary source. Applicants will be assessed on their ability to think critically and carefully as well as construct a thoughtful response that demonstrates thorough analysis. There are other tests to choose from depending on the major you intend to pursue, such as the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT) for students interested in Medicine or the Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT) for students intending to study Computer Science or Mathematics.

 

Declaring your major and your first few weeks

At the majority of U.S. colleges and universities, you don’t need to declare your major until after you have enrolled, during your freshman or sophomore year. Even at colleges where you do declare a major as a part of your application, you typically have the flexibility to change your mind, and it’s a relatively easy process to change your major (as long as it’s within the same school or college within the university). In college applications to schools in the US, you may often encounter essays that require you to reflect on academic and extracurricular experiences that inspired you to pursue your indicated field of study. Although you do not need to formally declare that you will study a particular subject, it is important to demonstrate strong interest in the fields you’ve chosen.

If you intend to study in the United Kingdom, you can expect to start studying your field right as you enter your first year. At Oxford, your first few weeks would typically begin with Freshers’ week, the class before classes start. Typically called Week 0, Freshers’ week is when first year students can explore clubs and organizations through the Freshers’ Fair and get a feel for their school’s social scene. 


Whereas students in the United States can expect to begin classes in August or September, students in the UK begin their term in the late fall, typically in October. Students are accepted into their department of study during the application process.. Oxford refers to their first term as Michaelmas, which takes place between October to December. Students in the U.S. follow a semester or quarterly schedule, but schools like Oxford organize their school year by eight week trimesters – starting from Michaelmas to Hilary and Trinity, which ends in June.

So whether you decide to study in the United States or in the United Kingdom, it’s important to research your schools beforehand and find the “best fit” school for you! 

Remember to take the differences in application process, pedagogy and term length into consideration! Best of luck!

You may also like

Do my senior grades matter?

Should I take a gap year?