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Differences Between US vs UK University Applications

Two of the most common destinations for our students tend to be the United States and the United Kingdom. However, students often can’t decide whether or not to apply to one region or the other because they’re uncertain about their chances of success for certain institutions and because of their unfamiliarity with the systems of both countries.

To help, we’ve summarized the six main differences between the application processes for the US and the UK and split them according to where in the application process this information is pertinent: pre-application, during the application, and post-application.


  1. Emphasis on academics versus well-roundedness

Applicants to top UK universities can obtain successful admissions results by excelling in rigorous courses pertaining to their intended course of study. They need not excel in unrelated subjects, and UK universities do not have such high expectations for students' extracurricular performance outside of the classroom. In the US, however, top universities expect students to excel in very rigorous subjects in all core academic areas (English, Math, Social Studies, Science). Thus a student applying to MIT likely needs to take IB or AP English and attain a grade of 6+/4+.

Additionally, US universities expect students to demonstrate well-roundedness outside of the classroom: sports, the arts, leadership, and service. Thus, even if a student's grades might be a bit weaker, showing strong persistence in those four areas could help their application for top US universities. The takeaway here is that well-rounded students may be better positioned for US universities, whereas students who are specialists (e.g., strong only in STEM subjects) may have a better chance at UK universities.

During the application process:

1. Application System

The UK has one centralized application system for almost all of the country’s schools: the University and College Admissions System (UCAS) is used for the majority of UK universities, though Oxford and Cambridge use a separate admissions portal. The advantages of UCAS is that students only have to complete a single application – the process is much faster and simpler than in the US. However, because UK applicants submit a single application to multiple schools and programs, they can’t mention the schools by name or point to a specific feature of these schools as a reason why they are applying to them. Instead, the focus has to be on their intended area of study and their readiness to undertake the relevant coursework. UCAS is particularly challenging when students are considering different programs at different schools (e.g., Economics at UCL and Engineering at ICL) because both schools receive the exact same application and personal statement.

In contrast, the US applications allow for more tailoring to individual schools and programs. There are two main application portals, the Common Application and Coalition for College Access, as well as separate portals for some schools (e.g., the University of California schools, including UCLA and Berkeley, use their own separate portal). Although students submit the same personal statement or core essay to all schools on the same portal, they also have the opportunity to write supplemental essays and change parts of the application for each school they apply to. This is a double-edged sword: it takes more time to prepare applications to US schools, but students can tailor their applications to different schools and even different areas of study.

2. The Number of Essays to Write

As previously mentioned, students typically only need to write one essay for UK schools. This one essay is a personal statement that explains their interest in a program of study as well as their experiences that contribute to their interest.

However, for US schools, the number of essays students have to write may differ substantially from school to school. If applying through the Common App and the Coalition system, students have one central essay that answers a specific prompt to send to all the schools. This prompt may not be related or limited to a student's academic interests; in fact, many of the prompts make it likely that students may not even talk about their field of interest at all. In addition to this core essay, students will have to write 1-5 additional supplemental essays depending on the schools that they apply to. Some schools like New York University only require one additional supplement, whereas some schools, like Columbia University, may require three or more additional supplemental essays and even “lists," like a list of books that students have enjoyed reading in the past year. However, the number of essays students actually have to write from scratch is smaller than one may think; because a lot of schools have overlapping prompts, students can reuse and recycle some of the essays for multiple schools.

3. Application due dates

Applicants to US schools should also be aware of the different deadlines. Whereas UCAS applications are submitted mid-January for all UK schools, in the US different schools have different deadlines. Moreover, many schools offer early deadlines (Early Decision, Early Action, and Early Decision 2) in addition to regular deadlines. These early deadlines may mean applications are due as early as November 1.

4. Interviews

In the UK, only Oxford and Cambridge require interviews for all prospective students. Meanwhile, in other universities, professional training degrees such as law, medicine, and education nearly always require interviews, whereas humanities and social science degrees are less likely to. For schools and programs that do in fact interview applicants, the interview is weighed heavily in the school's decision.

However, in the US, students have the option to interview with the school they’re interested in to indicate heightened interest and as an opportunity to advocate for themselves on a higher level. Such interviews play a secondary role in US university decisions and in most cases have little impact.


1. Conditional Offers

In the UK, students receive conditional offers based on their predicted grades. For example, a student may receive an offer to study Economics at Warwick based on their predicted IB grades. The offer will stipulate that the student must achieve a 6 or better in each higher level subject or the offer will be rescinded.

In the US, admissions offers are essentially final. Even if a student performs lower on final exams such as APs and IBs, the university is unlikely to rescind the offer. In the US, offers are usually rescinded only if a student gets in legal trouble, is suspended for a violent offense (e.g., fighting), fails a course, or attracts negative attention for posting inappropriate content on line (e.g. racist remarks). In other words, US universities only rescind offers when there are more extreme circumstances.

Still not sure which region best matches your application strategy? No matter where you are in your college search journey, Dragon Prep can help you to research schools and refine your college lists with our Admissions Consulting services. For more information, call or WhatsApp 9835 8011 or visit to learn more!


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