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The UK has consistently been among the most popular education destinations in the world, with many of the country’s universities topping the rankings. Oxford and Cambridge – also known as Oxbridge – have been household names for several hundreds of years, and universities like Imperial and London School of Economics reign supreme in the sciences and social sciences respectively.

From the top London schools like UCL and King’s College or Scotland’s Edinburgh, and well-known places like Manchester or Warwick, the UK has an incredible diversity within its educational landscape that will provide a great place for any student. However, applications to the UK differ from most other places like the US or Singapore, leaving those students with questions. Must I choose my degree before applying? What are some things to look out for? And, above all, what is the application process like? At Prep Zone, we guide you with your UK University applications so that you have the best chance at getting into your dream school.

Choosing Universities and Programmes?

Unlike the US, the UK has fewer choices for universities, but with still over 130 options for colleges, students can get overwhelmed with choice. With so many schools in one place, rankings alone won’t be the only metric of choice for students. At Prep Zone, we employ a multifaceted approach to school shortlisting for our students with a few key components.

The first thing to know about UK Universities is that you are limited to choosing 5 universities only. The UCAS system – or UK’s application portal – places this limitation on students, which means that picking your universities has to be very strategic. We often recommend students selecting at the minimum one safety option, paired with mid-tier and competitive options, but this advice can change depending on your profile and target course. With a limited number of schools you can apply to, be very careful – a university shortlist that is not carefully thought out may leave you without options!

The second important aspect of university selection is your degree or major. Remember: in the UK, applicants must choose not just the university, but the course within that university they are applying to. In most cases, students apply to the same programmes for the 5 options they have in different universities, because only one application is sent to all universities. This means that you not only need to know what your strengths and interests are early, but you also have to do your research on where your major is taught best.

Advantages of UK vs. Other Universities

The UK has some of the best universities in the world. If you were to look up any ranking, the list of top 20 or 30 would probably have more schools in the UK than most other countries. The institutional histories of many universities there (Oxford is almost 1,000 years old), government funding and historical prestige means they attract the best students and professors.

The UK has a phenomenal focus on depth of study. Because one must choose their degree or major before applying, they can be certain that their education will focus strongly on that subject. This is especially excellent for those who know what they want, or are focused on going to graduate school early. It can also allow you to enter a career, such as Law, more quickly than you could in places like the US or Canada.

UK universities – or at least the English ones – have undergraduate courses that are only 3 years in length. This too is an advantage for those who want to begin their professional lives earlier, or those who aim to study their Master’s or PhD’s afterwards. In Scotland, all programmes are 4 years, but many provide students with Master’s level accreditation.

Finally, a good number of universities may offer programmes that have a year abroad or internship year option, which is great for students seeking a more diverse experience or who want to enter the workforce with ease.

The Application: UCAS Admissions

Most students are understandably concerned about the application process. Applications to the UK require strategic thinking, foresight in knowing your target degree, and polished application items. At Prep Zone, the average student joins our consulting service early in Year 11 (first year of A Levels), but some begin even at Year 10 to maximise chances. So, what does the application look like?

The UK employs a unique way to assess applications, as they layer their requirements.

Whilst UK universities do look into applications holistically, they still employ minimum standards for academics each student has to meet. In that sense, academics are really important when applying through UCAS – falling below the cut off more often than not means an automatic rejection. However, top UK universities employ a less opaque process of evaluating applications that usually provide students with more certainty than the holistic admissions approach of the US.

Whilst there is a strong focus on grades, non-academic components of your application can be just as important. If an absolute majority of candidates meet the required minimum for your university and degree programme, how can the universities possibly choose between applicants? That is where other aspects such as profile, tests, interviews and personal statements come in. Because meeting the minimum requirement does not guarantee entry, we recommend students apply not just to reach universities, but also to target and safety universities.

But let’s cut to the chase. What do universities evaluate and like to see in students? There are three main areas that will make up your chances of admission: Academics, Profile, and the Application.

Academics: Grades & Tests

Naturally, academic achievement is the bedrock of any university application. In the UK, almost 70% of your application can be determined by final grades, depending on the degree, which comes in the form of cut offs.

The great thing about the UK is that they are transparent with what minimum requirements you need to have, and where they must come from. Most UK universities will look at your predicted (and then final) grades only, so if your performance in school was not consistent, that is not a problem.

What do universities consider good grades? We can look at top, mid and third tier universities:

  • American curriculum: 3-5 AP tests with scores of 5 (top tier) | 3 APs with 4 (mid-tier) | 3 APs with 3 or below (third tier)
  • IB: 40+ (top tier) | 35-39 (mid-tier) | 30-35 (third tier)
  • A Levels: AAAA (top tier) | AAB-ABB (mid-tier) | ABB-BBB (third tier)

Standardized testing is NOT required for IB and A Level students by UK universities, which is a huge advantage. However, some universities may require the SAT or ACT from US curriculum applicants.

What are good test scores?

  • SAT: 1450-1500 (Oxbridge) | 1350-1450 (mid-tier) | 1200-1350 (third tier)
  • ACT: 33-36 (top tier) | 30-33 (mid tier) | 27-29 (third tier)

The most important thing to remember is: there are minimum scores required. Do your research prior to selecting your schools so that you are not excluded by default by any of your 5 options.

Profile: Volunteering & Co Curricular Activities

A great profile can make or break an application. As most of the top universities apply the same minimum to all applicants, they need to differentiate between them.

Students can improve their profile by adding more co-curricular activities in and outside school – for example, participating in sports and volunteering, and engaging in professional opportunities such as internships. There can be an overlap between the profile and academic opportunities, such as summer school programmes, extra classwork, research and Olympiads.

You may think: Are some activities better than others? Unlike in the US, the answer for UK universities is typically yes. Universities in the UK want students primarily to have a profile that demonstrates interest in their target course; breadth and diversity of experiences is relevant, but can be secondary. This is precisely why students are encouraged to think about which major they want to pursue much earlier in the process.

So how do universities determine that you have a good profile? There are some common ways to improve your admissions chances.

  1. Independent Learning: Universities like to see if you go beyond the minimum required curriculum at your school. Do you read news in this field? Do you have a reading list that is more academic? Maybe you have done online courses? All this can make you stand out, especially if you do not have a class in your chosen programme (like Law).
  2. Research: Universities greatly value students who have taken up research projects on their own or with their school. If you’re an IB student, you can try to make your EE topic relate to your programme choice. A*Star or even school research can really help!
  3. Industry Experience: Some programmes are not the most academic in nature, and students benefit from trying their hand at the profession through internships or shadowing. If you are interested in law, interning at a law firm can be really beneficial!
  4. Extra-curriculars: Your extra-curricular activities can be very important if they have components relevant to your degree option. Are you interested in finance? Holding a treasury position in a club at your school would be an experience to highlight. Have you chosen your degree as English and been part of the drama club? That is very valuable.

Compared to other regions, UK universities still value a student’s profile to a great extent. This means that while you are in high school, you cannot simply lock yourself in a room and study. Throughout grades 10-12, try to accumulate interesting experiences and build your profile.

The Application: Recommendations, Essays & Interviews

Things like profile and academics are activities students do naturally in high school. While it takes time to plan it, they are often less deliberate than this last aspect of your admissions chances – the application itself.

The UK stands out in its application process, which is very unique. All students apply through UCAS, and they select only 5 degree options. They only write one application, and it is sent to all 5 options.

The main application deadlines vary by university. If you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, you must send in your application by October 15th. All other applicants, unless you chose medicine, have to apply by January 15th. International applicants are encouraged to apply earlier than this deadline though, as some schools start making offers as early as November.

Firstly, remember that you will need one recommendation. Ideally, this is a teacher that taught you an advanced class in a subject you indicated interest in.

As such, remember to tell your school early!

The most important part of your application, however, will be the personal statement. The personal statement is not a creative essay per se. Instead, you will have to describe

  • a) your motivation to study your chosen degree, and
  • b) your ability and aptitude for the degree.

Here are some tips:

  • Talk about academics: Many think your grades will be sufficient to show your academic abilities, but that doesn’t necessarily demonstrate passion for the subject. Talk about why you like your chosen subjects, or if you cannot study it in school, related subjects (Law, English or social sciences, Engineering, Physics or Math).
  • Describe non-academic experiences: The universities will want to see if you are engaged with your degree outside of the classroom. Remember not only to talk about what you have done, but how it increased your overall motivation and skill-set for the degree.
  • Do not mention university names: All 5 of your options will receive the essay. Do not mention one of them, as it must be general.

The personal statement has to be 4,000 characters (including spaces) long at most, which is around 670 words. While it is not as much writing as in the US applications, the essay needs to be even more carefully thought out to include most of the things you have done with concision. Most Prep Zone students start crafting their essays at least in July before their last year in high school, so they can be ready by the October deadlines.

Applying to Oxford or Cambridge?

If you are interested in applying to Oxford or Cambridge, your applications will be somewhat different. Whilst you still have to apply through UCAS and submit the personal statement and recommendation, more will be expected from you. Remember: you can only choose to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, so choose wisely.

Deadline: Applications are due by October 15th. As such, all your materials, profile building and personal statement have to be finished much earlier.

Mandatory interviews: Interviews are conducted for all degrees in Oxbridge. Most if not all other UK universities do not require interviews, but in Oxbridge, the universities will test your academic understanding of the subjects. You have to have good knowledge of your chosen degree programme. This is considered the most challenging part of the Oxbridge application, for which students prepare months in advance.

Aptitude tests and Writing samples Many degrees in Oxbridge require an additional test. Oxford PPE requires the Thinking Skills Assessment, History – the History Aptitude Test, and Biomedical sciences – the BMAT. Prep Zone helps prepare students for most of these tests, but if you are preparing independently – start early. Some degrees will ask for additional materials such as research papers. Cambridge usually asks for these as well, but they have developed their own in-house tests that are administered along with the interview.

Finally, your overall application has to be stronger. Research experience is expected. If the minimum academic cut off is 39 in IB or AAA, make sure you go above and beyond that. Personal statements tend to be more academic in nature, and your recommendation has to stand out.

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