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How To Study In The UK: Demystifying The Process

11 MAR 2020

Let’s be honest. Is there any reason to go to university in the UK other than fish and chips?

I mean, who actually cares about their university’s long history, traditions and prestige?

All you actually want to do is eat fish and chips, right?

Well, regardless of why you want to go to school in the UK, your first step is to apply.

Thankfully, I’m here to help you navigate the wonderful world of UK applications... you’re welcome.

Let’s start with how to choose universities to apply to.

Ready? Let’s go!

How to Choose Universities

You're probably familiar with Oxford and Cambridge (collectively known as Oxbridge), but did you know that the UK actually has 130 universities? Crazy!

However, unlike in the US, where you can apply to as many universities as you want, the UK limits you to just five, so it's important to choose wisely.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help you narrow down your list.

1. Pick Your Course:

Because UK universities require you to basically be an expert in the course you are applying to before you enter university, you need to decide what to study very early on. I’m talking as early as 10th grade so that you can tailor your high school classes to fit your prospective college degree.

The good thing is, not all universities offer all courses so the easiest way to start building your list of unis is to figure out which ones offer your course.

However, if you are looking to study a more popular course, such as economics, there may be around 30 unis that offer your course. While that may seem like a lot of unis to look through, keep in mind that not all courses were created equal.

In the case that you do choose a more popular course, do your research to see how each curriculum is structured, where that uni sits in the rankings for that course, and what else that uni offers.

2. Location:

Do you want to go to school in a city that parties? Or in a quiet, rural city?

Are you keen on London? Or do you want to study in Scotland?

Looking for an actual campus? Or a uni in the middle of a city?

You will be spending the next three plus years of your life in your uni’s city so make sure it’s a place you like.

3. Facilities and Extracurricular Activities:

Most unis will have your basics: libraries, gyms, student centres, etc.

However, some will have much nicer facilities and many more clubs and social organisations for you to join.

Research the unis you are considering to figure out if they have the facilities and extracurricular activities you would like to have at your disposal. Depending on how sporty or social you are, these factors can be just as influential in your decision as the course itself!

4. Degree Fees:

Not all unis are the same price and depending on where you are from – some may be way cheaper for you to attend than others. Being able to afford your course is important, especially if you are an international student (more on this later).

Check to see how much your course will cost and whether or not you can afford it as you are narrowing down your list of options.

5. Academics:

Are you smart enough to get into your chosen course at the unis you’ve selected?

You may not have met the academic requirements for your course at one uni but that doesn't mean you won't make the cut at another!

Make sure you know the academic requirements of each of your chosen unis ahead of time as it could save you a lot of heartache further down the road.

Section Thoughts:

You can only apply to five universities in one application cycle so the more research you do ahead of time, the more likely you will be to actually receive an offer from your universities.

Be realistic about the unis you have the best chance of getting into, so you don't waste precious space on your application list.

Clearly, there are many different factors to consider when choosing unis, but remember that the easiest way to quickly narrow down the list is by checking which ones offer your course.

After that, it’s all up to your personal preferences. Be honest with yourself and you won’t go wrong.

The Application Process:

The UK’s Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) is very similar to the US’ Common Application.

However, unlike the US application, you need to know exactly what you want to study and what kind of career you want before beginning your application. Sounds crazy, right?

Don’t worry! We are breaking down the process for you.

First things first, the three-step online application set-up:

Register for an UCAS Apply account online. You can only apply once per cycle so it is extremely important that you apply correctly the first time around.

Fill out your personal details (i.e. your name, phone number, address, email address, and more). This part is easy. No worries yet.

Depending on your previous responses, a section about financial support may appear. Don’t freak out! The universities simply want to help you fund your journey and to do so they need to know about your financial situation.

Once you’ve filled out your basic information, the rest of the application goes as follows.

Application flow

1. Course and University Selection:

The UCAS application only allows you to apply to five universities, with a couple of exceptions:

There’s a four university limit if you’re applying for medical courses (medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, or veterinary science). That means picking a different course if you want to use your fifth option.

You can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in one cycle.

2. Educational History:

Unsurprisingly, UK universities highly value your exam scores so you must list all of your scores on your application.

Don't worry if you are still waiting for your scores to come in. List the names of your exams and send in your scores once you receive them.

3. Employment History (not including volunteer work):

Here's where you talk about your work history (if any).

This section is a chance to convey your work ethic and commitment to something aside from your studies, so it can help to have some work experience, even if it’s just a summer job scooping ice cream.

Bonus points for anything related to the course you want to study in, such as working as a dental assistant, in an art museum, or tutoring children in English.

4. Personal Statement:

This is your opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Write about your desired course in the most genuine, intelligent, and passionate way and you are guaranteed to wow the admissions officers. But keep it relevant. Unlike US university applications, your personal essay is not a time to write about the best pizza you’ve ever had or the day your dog died.

5. References:

Ask your favourite teacher or advisor to write you a super nice letter. Make sure it’s someone who knows you on an academic level and can write about contextual achievements.

Pro Tip: Give your referee a list of your achievements along with anything you may want them to go keep in mind or mention when writing your letter. Maybe don’t remind them about the time you started a food fight in the eating area...

6. Fees:

One course: £13

Two or more courses: £24

Additional Oxbridge Requirements:

Thinking of applying to Oxford or Cambridge? You will have a few extra forms to fill out first!


Extenuating Circumstances Form (ECF): This allows your teachers to provide contextual information about you such as medical conditions, family illnesses, and anything else that may further inform Cambridge about your life or reasons why your previous exam results may not reflect your true potential.

Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) or Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA): In addition to all of the questions on the UCAS application, you'll need to fill out these questionnaires as well.

Photo: It’s hard to think ahead sometimes but the photo you send will be used on your student ID card for the entirety of your studies, so make it a good one!

Additional Written Work: Depending on your course, you may need to submit one or two essays from relevant A Levels/IB courses, which you will probably need to talk about in your interview.

Shortlisting: Here’s the fun part. Based on ECF, AS level grades and UMS scores, personal statement and the flag system+, Cambridge will determine whether or not to interview you and/or send you an offer.

  • For every hardship you’ve gone through, you will receive a flag. The more flags you get, the more likely you are to gain admission over someone who is academically equal to you. See, sometimes the bad things in life turn out to be beneficial. That being said, don’t worry if your life has been perfect thus far, you can still get into Cambridge. Promise.

Pre-Interview or At Interview Exams: Most courses require you to take additional diagnostic exams to test your knowledge at your school or a nearby college. Click here to find out whether or not you will need to take an exam for your course.

Interview(s): If you are shortlisted, you will be invited to interview. Luckily, Cambridge interviews about 80% of their applicants each year. Show off your skills, knowledge and admiration for your course and you will be fine.


Extenuating Circumstances: Sort of like the ECF form for Cambridge, except Oxford doesn't make you fill out any additional forms. Just fill out your extenuating circumstances right on the UCAS application. Woohoo!

Additional Written Work: Most courses require you to submit a sample of your academic writing. It must be original and no longer than 2,000 words. Time to start sifting through four years of work… Check out more details about what you’ll need to send in here.

Admissions Exams: Yes, you will probably need to take an exam and yes, your score basically decides whether or not you’ll be shortlisted and ultimately interviewed. Study hard. If you do need to take an exam, your course will be listed here.

Shortlisting: Based on the written exam and the flag system. Again, please don’t worry if your life is perfect. You still have a chance of getting in.

Interview(s): Same deal as above. Get shortlisted, get interviewed.

International Applications

If you are an international student, most of the information above still applies to you but there are a few extra hoops you need to jump through in order to get into a UK university.

Here’s what your process will look like.

1. Fill Out the UCAS

  • Find Your Courses: Search for courses you are interested in and make sure your prospective courses are recognised in your home country (if you plan to return after your studies).
  • Academic Qualifications: The academic requirements depend on your course but most universities accept IB, SAT, ACT, AP and A Level scores. Make sure to check the requirements far in advance to ensure you can complete them all before you graduate. Some of them are much more rigorous than other universities’ requirements. Think: five AP courses with a 5 on each exam.
  • Take an English Language Exam:

Most UK universities will require you to take an approved English language exam, especially if English isn’t your first language. All the more reason to brush up on the difference between whether and weather!

  • Obtaining a Student Visa:

Once you accept an offer, you will need to get a Tier 4 student visa. In order to obtain this visa you will need to submit: your English exam results; a current passport; proof that you can support yourself and pay for your studies (depending on your circumstances); Tuberculosis test results

  • Finances:

Your tuition and financial aid may vary from EU students but don’t worry! More on this below.

Section Thoughts:

Remember that your course is everything at UK universities. Your high school classes, personal statement and interview(s) should all revolve around your chosen course. Not to mention that switching courses at any point is extremely difficult and almost unheard of.

Take the time to figure out what you want to study and then apply.

Luckily, the application is pretty straightforward (especially compared to the US application system).

Key Dates

6th September: UCAS Apply opens.

15th October: Deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, and most medicine, dentistry, and veterinary courses.

19th October: Deadline for COPA (Cambridge).

22nd October: Deadline for SAQ (Cambridge).

2nd November: Cambridge deadline for most written work and pre-interview assessments.

10th November: Oxford deadline for written work.

December: Your Cambridge interview will likely take place in the first three weeks of December.

Early December: Your Oxford interview will likely occur in the first 2 weeks of December.

Mid-Late December: Oxford decisions posted.

January: Cambridge decisions posted. If you are pooled, you may have another interview in January.

15th January, 18:00 UK Time: Deadline for most other UCAS undergraduate courses.

End of January: All Cambridge final decisions posted.

25th February: UCAS Extra opens today. This allow you to apply to a sixth university if you have been declined by all of your other choices or if you do not want to attend any of the universities you have been accepted to.

24th March, 18:00 UK Time: Deadline for most art and design courses.

4th April: Deadline to respond to any offers received on or before 31st March.

4th May: Final day for universities to send out their decisions for applications received by 15th January.

8th June: Deadline to respond to any outstanding offers, unless you applied through UCAS Extra.

22nd June: Extended deadline to respond to any outstanding offers, unless you applied through UCAS Extra.

30th June, 18:00 UK Time: Final deadline to apply. If you apply after this date your application will automatically be sent to Clearing.

4th July: Deadline to apply for UCAS Extra.

5th July: IB results posted; Clearing opens.

20th July: Deadline to reply to offers, including UCAS Extra.

8th August: SQA results posted.

17th August: A Level results posted.

31st August: Deadline for all conditions to be met; Deadline for adjustment services.

20th September, 18:00 UK Time: Final deadline for 2017 courses.

30th September: All Clearing vacancies are removed.

23rd October: Final day to add a Clearing choice and final day for universities to accept Clearing applicants.

Final Thoughts:

Applying to any university can be stressful but the more organised you are, the less stressful it will be.

The most important thing to remember when applying to universities in the UK is that your course dictates everything – from where you can go to university to your personal statement to your financial aid. So choose wisely!

Start thinking about what you want to study and where you want to study sooner rather than later. It will save you a lot of anxiety in the future!

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