UK and US University Applications: The Key Differences

Image shows the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze.

An increasing number of UK students are looking to the US for undergraduate study, and it’s not hard to see why.

The experience of living and studying abroad can be life-changing, and with so many of the world’s top universities located in the US – and no language barrier – it’s naturally an attractive place for the prospective undergraduate. If you’re thinking of applying to some US universities this year, there are some fundamental differences between the UK and US university admissions processes that you need to know about; unfortunately, the same application form will not suffice for both. Even if you’re not applying to a US university, you might still find this article useful because it will explain the key differences between a UK and US university application; lured by misconceptions perpetuated by popular culture, some students write American-style university applications to UK universities and wonder why they don’t get many offers. With this guide, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to tailor your application appropriately. Let’s start by looking at what the differences are; at the end, you’ll find a summary of things to remember when you’re writing your applications for either side of the Atlantic.

Different people assessing your application

Image shows a group of people having a meeting.
A very different type of team assesses UK university applications as compared to US ones.

One of the first things to remember when applying to a US university versus a UK one is that the groups of people assessing your application in each are very different. In the UK, it’s the university’s academics who have the say on which applicants gets given a place: your application will be assessed by a member of academic teaching staff in the department to which you’re applying. These are the people who would be teaching you if you were to be given a place. In the US, it’s the admissions office for the whole university that makes the decisions – mere admin staff. In the UK, those admin staff would only be there to support the academics in making their decision. The result of this difference is that you have two very different audiences to appeal to.
In the UK, you’re writing your personal statement to appeal to people who are experts in their field; you must impress with your knowledge of the subject and the opinions you’ve formed about it (they know their stuff, so they will notice anything that’s factually incorrect or misunderstood), and perhaps try to show them your awareness of more obscure scholarship or topics within your subject. Being experts, they will spot your appreciation of less well-known areas of the subject. In the US, on the other hand, you’re writing for people who won’t necessarily have much subject-specific knowledge, but who will instead be focusing more on what would make you a valuable member of the university community.

Different level of focus on the non-academic side

Image shows a painter with an easel set up looking over San Francisco.
You may be extremely proud of the time you spent winning awards for your landscape painting, but UK universities are more concerned with your academic prowess.

Perhaps because of this difference in who assesses your application, there’s a big difference in the level of emphasis placed on the non-academic parts of your application. In the UK, much emphasis is placed on the academic side of a student’s application. Extra-curricular activities are merely the icing on the cake to an application that primarily focuses on academia. Such activities are good to have on your application because they demonstrate that there’s more to you than your subject, and show that you’ve achieved your impressive academic results despite doing other things with your life; but they’re certainly not the most important aspect of the application or a factor that will swing the decision in the student’s favour.
In the US, on the other hand, extra-curricular activities and other non-academic virtues are considered much more important, and crucial for providing context to your academic achievements. Remember, it’s not the academics who are deciding the fate of your application, it’s the admin staff – and they’re trying to create a community of students who will actively contribute to the life and soul of the university. Talent in sports, music and other extra-curricular activities will therefore be admired, as will part-time jobs, leadership roles and volunteer work. What’s more, they’ll look at your background. If you have a diverse family background and/or a relative who’s been to that university before you, you stand a better chance of getting in. It may not seem fair, but if you have a relative who’s donated money to the university, you’ll have an even better chance (though this probably isn’t going to be the case for an international student).

Different academic expectations

Image shows a full lecture theatre.
UK universities prioritise how you will fit in academically.

The UK and US have very different approaches to higher education, a fact that’s reflected in the different expectations universities have from students’ applications. In the UK, universities expect students to be quite specific in their academic specialities, valuing students who are exceptionally talented in one particular subject and who have put their efforts into growing their knowledge and skills in this specific discipline. In the US, universities are happy for students to fall into either end of the academic spectrum: either very specialised and incredibly good at one specific subject, or an all-rounder – someone who’s knowledgeable about many subjects, but to a lesser degree.
This is because the American university system allows for a wider breadth of subjects, rather than the singular focus you see in UK universities. US degrees last four years rather than the three standard in the UK, and though you’ll have a main focus – your “major” – you’re also likely to take classes in a number of additional subjects not related to your main one. In fact, you don’t usually decide what your main focus is going to be until the end of your second year at a US university, and, having studied a variety of subjects, your focus may end up being completely different to what you might have been anticipating when you initially applied. In the UK, the situation is very different, as you focus exclusively on one subject right from the word go. To summarise, UK universities value depth of knowledge, while US universities value breadth.

Entry to the university versus entry to the subject

Image shows Nuffield College, Oxford.
Many a British student has lost out on UCAS offers because of writing, “I really want to attend Oxford University” or similar – but that’s the correct approach for US application.

UK university applications focus on your desire to study a particular subject; you write the personal statement with no mention of which universities you’re applying to, and then it gets sent to all of them via UCAS. In the US, your applications are tailored to each university you apply to. You explain in detail why you are applying to that particular university and why you’re a good fit for that specific institution – so there’s a university focus, not a department focus. This means you have to be extra careful to ensure that you’re sending the right application to the right university! Arguably, this way of doing things encourages you to think even more carefully about which university you’re applying to; rather than simply filling spaces on a UCAS form, you have to outline exactly why you’ve chosen a particular university and why you’d be right for it. You’ll need to do your research very thoroughly to be in with a chance of writing compellingly about your reasons for applying.

A-levels versus the SAT

Image shows an exam hall with papers on the tables.
A-levels and SATs test different skills in different ways.

Another difference between UK and US university applications is the way in which your academic credentials are assessed. In the UK, your academic record consists of your GCSEs and A-levels, with A-levels the primary means of ascertaining the academic level at which you are operating. You might have to sit an entrance exam for some subjects at top UK universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, but these are few and far between. In the US, you are assessed by means of an exam called the SAT, or “Scholastic Assessment Test”. This is a compulsory part of the admissions process for most US universities, no matter what subject you apply for, and it tests your abilities in writing, mathematics and “critical reading”. Again, this reflects the difference we mentioned earlier in the breadth of US university education compared to the depth of the UK equivalent; the admissions test focuses on more general academic skills, rather than testing the aptitude for specific subjects demonstrated by A-levels. As an international student, you have to pay $91 to take the SAT, and the test lasts three hours and 45 minutes. You’ll find more information about the SAT in our article SAT Tips and Advice: How to Do Your Absolute Best.

The personal statement versus the College Application Essay

Having taken into account these differences, then, let’s recap what the major differences will be between your personal statement for UK universities and your “College Application Essay” for US universities. If you were hoping to be able to use the same text for both, think again!

Personal statement

Image shows a young man sitting on a roof, working on his laptop.
The challenges of writing a personal statement are different to those of writing an application essay.

A strong personal statement for a UK university demonstrates the following key traits.

  • It’s subject-focused, showcasing your interest in the subject, your academic knowledge and your ability to think in the right way about it.
  • It shows what you’ve done to pursue your interest in the subject beyond the classroom.
  • It explains your desire to study the subject and how it fits in with your long-term aims.
  • It avoids humour and clichés.
  • It contains no mention of university name, focusing instead on the subject.
  • It’s a maximum of 7,000 characters.

College Application Essay

Image shows graffiti of Waldo.
The University of Chicago once set the question, “So where is Waldo, really?”

The “College Application Essay” is the name given to the US equivalent of the personal statement, and it’s designed to demonstrate your writing abilities as well as your personality. Universities will give you two or three essay questions to respond to in your essay, and will set their own word limits. One tends to focus on you as a person, and another on your academic achievements, and often another on “why us?”. There may also be a “creative” question, which will be designed to test students’ ability to think in the right way, and to write engagingly on an intellectual topic.
This essay has the following key differences from UK personal statements:

  • It showcases far more of the student’s personality, background and non-academic accomplishments, showing the student to be likeable and the sort of person that the university would want among its student body.
  • It demonstrates interest and aptitude for a range of subjects.
  • It’s entertaining and interesting, displaying more self-confidence than a UK personal statement (and to the UK student, this may feel more arrogant than they’re used to).
  • It often offers anecdotes and narratives to reveal the student’s personality and motivations, relating specific episodes in the student’s life and giving insights into their feelings; it might even talk about how the student has overcome some kind of adversity. Specific details are recommended to add colour to these stories – names, places, emotions and so on.
  • It focuses on why you want to study at that named institution.
  • The word count is set by the individual university.

The weighting given to this essay relative to other aspects of the application (such as academic results and references) varies from one university to another, but it’s certainly important enough that a good one could swing a decision in your favour, so it’s worth devoting the time to getting it right. You won’t be able to copy and paste your personal statement from a UK university application to a US one, as the expectations are very different. You may, however, be able to reuse some aspects of it but adapted to an American audience, with the differences outlined in this article in mind. A US university education is very different from a UK one, and this difference is naturally reflected in the admissions process. Being aware of these different ways of doing things is essential if you want to make a good an impression across the pond as you do here in the UK.

Image credits: banner; meeting; painter; lecture; Oxford; exam; writing; Waldo.