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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 12/20/2010

Tips for applying to U.K. universities

By Daniel de Vise

In today's Post, I write of the upward trend in American students -- especially from the Washington region -- applying to U.K. universities. The best British schools rival the best American schools in global prestige. And they're cheaper. And they're easier to get into.

I was talking last night to someone from the British Council, an official educational and cultural organization that has offices within the British Embassy, and she started suggesting some tips for U.S. students applying abroad, more than I could fit in the story.

Here, then, are some official tips for applying to U.K. universities, courtesy of the British Council.

(Read on for a separate Q&A with Oxford!)

Tips: Applying to U.K. Universities

It's December -- but do you still have time to apply to top universities?

Yes, you still have time to apply to U.K. universities for fall 2011 enrollment. The U.K.'s common application system for undergraduate admissions, UCAS, doesn't close until March 2011.

However, universities and colleges do not guarantee to consider applications they receive after January 15, and some popular courses may not have vacancies after that date. Please check with individual universities and colleges if you are not sure. You are advised to apply as early as possible -- the sooner you apply the faster you could hear back.

With UCAS, students apply to five universities (or programs) at once, with one personal statement, one recommendation "referee" and one fee -- only £21 ($32.65). Though specific requirements will vary across universities, you will need your SAT and/or ACT scores, GPA and AP or IB scores.

Why are AP or IB scores required by almost all U.K. universities?

The way students study and are tested in AP courses is the closest comparison to the U.K. system called A-Levels.

[Editor's note: Several other sources told me that students who are in IB or taking a full load of AP courses and doing well should have little problem getting in at a good U.K. university. On the flipside, I got the impression that students who aren't on the IB/AP track or some equivalent would not find it a smooth transition and probably wouldn't get in at the top U.K. schools anyhow.]

How do I find the right fit?

It's about geography and subject of study.

Geography: There are more than 180 universities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. U.K. Universities are in large metropolitan cities and historic small villages all tied together by public transportation.

Subject of study: Know what you want to study?

In applying to universities in the U.K., students select the topics to study as well as the university as part of the application process. Whether it's molecular biology, Arthurian literature, costume design, economics or international relations, students declare their intent in their application. In the personal statement, students express why they want to study that subject. You can start exploring universities by subject at

What if I need more information about specific programs and universities?

Before and after applying, contact the USA contact in the international office at the universities. The name and contact details will be located on each university's Web site. Whether you have big questions or small details you need answered, contact them directly. They are on Skype, Facebook and e-mail so it's easy to get in touch.

What does a "conditional" offer and an "unconditional" offer mean in acceptance letters?

As with U.S. colleges, universities in the U.K. will send a letter when you're accepted. Until you graduate from high school and receive your final AP scores, you will have a "conditional" offer. This just means that they expect you to graduate and earn your expected scores. This is the same in the U.S., but it's just worded differently.

Logistically, what else do you need to know?

  • Plan ahead and take deadlines seriously.
  • Check that your passport is up to date.
  • If you are using U.S. Federal Student Aid and/or private student loans, start working on the process around May/ June.
  • You can apply for your student visa 90 days before you start class. Make sure you start working on the process in advance. Check the U.K. Border Agency Web pages in May/June.

Learn more at

Today's Post story focuses largely on the University of St. Andrews, the top U.K. destination at present for American students.

I posed some questions to Julia Paolitto, an official at Oxford University, about what they look for in American applicants. It was too much to fit in the story, so I will reproduce the Q&A here.

How does a student from a U.S. high school transition comfortably into Oxford? I gather your students plunge straight into their major, whereas here students generally study a broad range of subjects. Would Oxford be better for someone who's completed something like an IB diploma?

Students at Oxford all share one thing in common: their passion for a chosen subject. For many students this starts in the final two years at school, whether in the U.S. or the U.K. Studying at Oxford is much more than just choosing a major, it is the total immersion in a subject -- more like studying a graduate style program in the U.S. than an undergraduate program, but the small price is that this comes largely at the exclusion of other subjects. So whereas an English major in the U.S. might account for 30 percent of study time, a student of English at Oxford would dedicate 100 percent of their time to that subject. The IB or American High School curriculum are both a fine preparation for the undergraduate programmes at Oxford, though we will take very keen interest in the AP, SAT Subject Tests and IB higher level courses to ensure that they are appropriately aligned with the chosen course at Oxford.

Does Oxford come over here and recruit anywhere or do students just come to you? Do you have a sense of the common scenario that leads a U.S. student to choose Oxford?

Yes, Oxford visits the U.S. twice each year with a program of events, normally around Easter and also in September, leading up to the 15th October deadline, which is of course much earlier than most U.S. institutions.

Our students from the U.S. are adventurous in attitude, especially for their subject. The idea of sitting down one-on-one with a world-leading professor for an hour, each week, for three years, discussing their favourite topic in depth, often seals the deal. Some have connections with the U.K., but others just want something different that will place them in a highly competitive position for the future.

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By Daniel de Vise  | December 20, 2010; 12:08 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions  | Tags:  British universities for American students, Oxford, US students applying to UK universities, applying to U.K. universities, colleges in the U.K.  
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