How to create a standout UK or US university application

When it comes to securing a place at a sought after university, the pressure is on to stand out from the crowd. We offer insights into what it takes to prepare a winning university application, and provide expert guidance on the differences between UK and US admissions.

How to create a standout UK or US university application
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Competition for places at world-leading universities in the UK and the US is fiercer than ever and students can no longer solely rely on good grades. With students becoming increasingly willing to study overseas applicants at top universities are competing against students from across the world.

The global appeal of a US college education

Speaking at the 2017 Independent Schools Show in London, Dr Jon Tabbert, managing director of Dukes US Applications, explained the explosion in applications from UK students to study at US universities in recent years. “There are currently 11,000 British students studying in the US. Tuition fees have had a large role to play but also the academic breadth that is possible at American universities which just isn’t possible in the UK system,” he said. While students in the UK are required to have developed a subject specialism, often at A Level, higher-education institutions in the US understand that someone aged 17 or 18 has not necessarily decided what they want to do.Explains Daniel de Witt, US education consultant at Bonas MacFarlane Tuition & Consulting, “In US higher education, they focus their core curriculum around the liberal-arts approach. Even if a student has decided that they would like to study engineering, they will still be required to study a broad curriculum which will involve, for example, a little bit of maths, philosophy, French and science. It is through the discovery of those classes that they start to find out for themselves their major area of interest.“So being undecided as a teenager in the US – applying undeclared – does not pose the same problems as it can in the UK. It’s a different mind-set in the US.”With more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the US, compared with just over 150 in the UK, there are an enormous variety of institutions and courses to choose from.Offering the ability to study a broad curriculum for the first two years and to defer the choice of a major area of study until much later than in the UK, studying stateside can be an enticing prospect for aspiring undergraduates.

Differences between UK and US college application

According to Mr Tabbert, the application process to American universities is ‘holistic’. “Yes, they’re looking at school grades, but they are also going to weigh up SAT/ ACT results, letters of reference, your personal statement and extra-curricular activities,” he said.And it is evidence of sporting and musical achievements, alongside community or charity work that is increasingly important for applications today. This is one of the key differences between US and UK university applications.“American Universities look at the interface between A grades and extra-curriculars,” he said. “In the UK, it’s solely about grades.”Students need to make a very clear distinction between the different elements of applying to a UK and a US university says Mr de Witt.“In the UK, it is very black and white: students receive a conditional offer based on a set of predicted grades accompanied by brief biographical information and a short personal statement not exceeding 4,000 characters. There’s not much to it, and it can be relatively formulaic. If the student gets the grades, they go to that university.“Because the ethos behind a US undergraduate degree is still based on the liberal arts, and due to its multifaceted, multidisciplinary education, there is a lot more data that students can include in their applications.”Academic performance will always be at the core of any decision, but there is space to reveal a large amount of a student’s character in a US university application.In the UK, students apply for up to five different university courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), an online system with a database of courses and entry requirements that processes UK university applications. In comparison with this process, applying to US colleges can be a lengthy process with much more direct communication and collaboration with the colleges themselves.As US colleges are private institutions, the rules and requirements for each are different, so it is essential that the priorities of each individual institution are understood and carefully considered in order to align a student’s application successfully.

The importance of the Personal Statement

Although entry requirements differ wildly from college to college, there are no interviews for US universities; instead the ‘Personal Statement’ – an academic essay – is a vital part of the admissions process.William Wheelan, president and founder of Sentia Education, a test preparation and tutoring company in New York, cautions that the 500–600 word personal statement is not an academic argument but a reflective piece of writing. “It’s important to show your journey, to share a secret, to build a narrative,” he said.Students must realise very early on that they need to show, and not tell, universities why they should be awarded a place on a course, based on solid evidence of a commitment to their subject.“It’s far more of a revelation of one’s character, and it should go into some serious depth,” says Mr de Witt. “A strong application in the US demands that a student is a highly proficient writer.”

Academic requirements for admission to higher education

In the UK, students’ academic achievements are typically measured by their performance at GCSE, A Level, Pre-U or the IB Diploma, and they will, more often than not, form a part of a conditional offer from their chosen university or college.In the US, there is no national set of examinations taken at the ages of 16 and 18, as is the case in the UK, so some element of standardised testing is required for university entry. These standardised tests, known as the SAT and the ACT, include multiple-choice assessment in maths and English. Both have equal weight in a college application. International students applying to US colleges will need to take either of the two tests.

Timing of the application process

With so much involved in the application process, it is advisable for students to start thinking about their options long before applications are due.TASIS The American International School in England, based in Surrey, offers a four-year college-counselling curriculum. Students are advised to start exploring their higher-education options at the age of 14, when they begin in the upper school.Wherever a student decides to apply, most college counsellors and education consultants would agree that matching the student’s abilities, passions and interests to the course that will help them to continue along that path will maximise their chances of standing out in a crowded and highly competitive field.
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