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How To Apply To UK Universities As An International Student

18 JUL 2022

The UK is a popular destination to study as it is home to some of the best universities in the world, including Oxford and Cambridge, along with the ‘Russell Group’ made up of 24 prestigious institutions, including University College London, King's College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Imperial College London.


Why Apply to UK Universities?

But what makes these UK universities so sought-after? In addition to having top academic reputations, excellent faculty support, research opportunities, study abroad and internship programs, as well as state-of-the-art academic and athletic facilities, these top UK universities attract the best professors into teaching positions and guide all students to academic success.

With academic success comes employment opportunities! Often top university alumni 'recruit from within,’ meaning they actively recruit soon-to-be graduates from their former universities to employ at their current workplace. Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and Amazon all actively recruit from top university campuses.

Students who attend top UK universities also benefit from higher post-graduate salaries. In fact, graduates from the world’s best universities achieve salaries that are often over $40,000 USD more per year than the average post-graduate student salary!

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Key Differences Between UK and US Universities

The US and UK offer a variety of options when it comes to studying at some of the finest institutions around the world. Here are some highlights of each education system to help you decide which path is best for you:

UK vs UK Higher Education System
US Education SystemUK Education SystemBoth US and UK Education System
Flexibility due to a unique liberal arts educationA focused and in-depth approach to learning Unrivaled resources and professors at top universities
A wide range of clubs, activities, and extracurricularsFinancial assistance less significant due to lower costsGlobal reputation and recognition as leaders in higher education
Various scholarships and financial aid opportunitiesShorter path to some professions (e.g. law, medicine)Access to elite graduate and internship opportunities
Ability to compete athletically at an elite level with recruitment & scholarshipsThe tutorial system at top UK universities such as Oxford and CambridgeExtensive alumni network and low student:faculty ratio

What You Need To Know About Applying to UK Universities

Top UK universities are highly competitive and the application process may seem daunting since it can differ greatly for international students from those at home. The good news is that with the right advice and guidance, the university application process is more than manageable!

What kind of student are UK Universities look for?

UK Universities look for scholars with 75% of the application focused on academics

The first thing you should know if you are considering studying at a top university is that they actively seek students who will contribute unique and exciting perspectives to their campuses. If you prepare well in advance and submit applications that are competitive on a global scale, you have a great shot at getting into a world-class institution!

UK universities look for scholars: capable academics who are passionate, rigorous, and resilient in the pursuit of knowledge.

Every year, hundreds of students apply to top universities in the UK. What this also means is that the competition is also higher than ever; meeting the minimum entry requirements is now no longer enough to guarantee a spot at a top UK university.

Universities are now looking for qualified applicants that have gone above and beyond to distinguish themselves both in and out of the classroom — however, fret not! Achieving your dream university goals is not impossible, with the right preparation and guidance.

Keep reading to find out what UK universities look for when making their admissions decision, and what deadlines to remember!

A Day in the Life: University of Cambridge Economics Student

How to Apply to UK Universities?

The UK University and College Admission Service (UCAS) is the application used when applying to universities in the UK.

Before beginning your UCAS application, you must know exactly what you want to study, as there isn’t much wiggle room in the UK curriculum to change courses once you have started your study. You can only apply once per cycle.

Once you know what you want to study, it’s time for you to begin the application process.

  • Register for an 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).
  • You will have to fill out a section about financial support. This is so whichever university you choose can assist you on your journey and better understand your financial situation.
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Application Process

1. Course and University Selection

The UCAS application only allows you to apply to a maximum of five universities, with some exceptions. You can also apply for courses in multiple subject categories; however, this will be a problem when you start to write your personal statement so try to stick to one.

2. Educational History

Depending on what programme you are looking at, the entry requirements vary. Most degree programmes in the UK will require that the student have passed either A-levels and attained certain grades, for example, 4 B grades, or equivalent grades in a BTEC or GNVQ.

3. Personal Statement

The personal statement is an important part of your UCAS application which gives you a chance to describe to admission officers your ambition, skills and experience.

4. Reference Letter

Reference letters are required to give admissions officers a better idea of who you are as a student. That being said, it’s best to pick a professor or someone who knows you on an academic level, to write a reference letter for you.

5. Non-EU students

All of the information above still applies, but there is an extra hoop you need to jump through in order to get into a UK university.

  • You’ll need a Tier 4 student visa to study in the UK. In order to obtain this visa you will need to submit:
    • A current passport
    • Proof that you can support yourself and pay for your studies (depending on your circumstances)
    • Medical examination results

How Zhen Yuan Got Into Oxford

Academic Requirements for UK Universities

Below is a chart on the grades required from both Cambridge and Oxford. While these grades are what is displayed on the universities' websites, they are just a rough guide on what is expected from students. Most successful candidates tend to have grades that are much higher including often having an extra A-level, or the country’s equivalent.

The grade requirements also change based on course selection, i.e. requirements for Land Economy in Cambridge are different from Economics in Cambridge, as it is for Medicine and other courses offered at both universities.

Cambridge vs Oxford Academic Requirements
CambridgeOxford
AS/A-LevelA*A*AA*AA- A*A*A
IB40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level39+ points, with 766 at Higher Level
AP CoursesAt least five AP Test scores at grade 5At least four AP Test scores at grade 5
ATAR99+98.75+
HKDSECore Subjects: - Grades of 5 in all core subjects, and grades of 5* in one or two relevant core subjects Elective Subjects: - 5*55-5*5*5 in their electivesCore Subjects: - Grades of 5 in all core subjects, and grades of 5* in one or two relevant core subjects Elective Subjects: - 555-5*55 in their electives
SAT1460+1400+
ACT32-33+32-33+

Do note that minimum entry requirements are only the threshold you need to cross to get your foot in the door. In our experience, the typical offer is much more demanding: successful students often score higher than the minimum requirement set out by the university.

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UK Entrance Exams

Certainly, many applicants to Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities in the UK have a stellar academic record at school. However, it is the university-specific admissions tests that often lift UK candidates above the competition academically and land them the all-important interview.

Medicine: BMAT and UCAT

Students applying to study medicine at Cambridge or Oxford are required to sit the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and other universities require the United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT), both testing areas such as scientific knowledge and application, aptitude and skills, and concept analysis and critical thinking.

Law: LNAT or CLT

Students seeking admission to Oxford or Cambridge Law will sit the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) or the Cambridge Law Test (CLT). These exams test a student’s verbal and reasoning skills, ability to interpret information, deductive and reasoning abilities and ability to analyse information and draw conclusions.

TSA

The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) measures your ability in critical thinking and problem solving, skills that are essential for success in higher education.

MAT

The Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT) is a test used by the University of Oxford to assess the aptitude of students applying for undergraduate degree courses in Mathematics, Computer Science, and their joint degrees.

TOEFL/IELTS

The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) are two of the most widely-accepted tests to certify your English proficiency. More than 9,000 colleges, agencies and other institutions in over 130 countries accept TOEFL scores!

Extracurriculars/Supercurriculars

In university admissions, there is less emphasis on extracurricular activities in the UK than in the US as the selection criteria in the UK tend to be largely academic.

Generally, extracurricular activities are briefly discussed in a personal statement to demonstrate skills and qualities including leadership and teamwork. However, ‘Supercurricular’ activities  — things you do to explore subjects and develop your academic skills beyond your school studies — are highly beneficial to UK applications.

This includes reading, podcasts, online courses, research, relevant work experience or volunteer work, writing, projects, debating, and other activities revolving around your academic interests.

UK Personal Statement

The goal of your UCAS personal statement is to address what you have done that demonstrates interest in your course, what you hope to achieve with your UK university course, and what you hope to do after your course.

This is your chance to showcase your passion and understanding of your chosen subject, separate from your exam results.

The length of your personal statement will be limited to 4000 characters / 47 lines, or roughly 600 words.​ Do not go over the character limit for your personal statement as UCAS will not be able to process this.

Oxford Strategist on UK Personal Statement Advice

Interviews

Interviews are a great way for a university to get to know you better, see how well you can articulate your ideas in person, and figure out if you are a good fit for your chosen course.  

For UK universities, especially in the case of Oxbridge, the interview is conducted like a verbal test. In these tests, the interviewer is assessing your academic potential and your passion for your chosen course. The interview replicates the tutorial/supervision, the main teaching style at Oxbridge, and is therefore assessing your fit for this learning experience.

For example, an English student may have to discuss a poem in their interview whereas a mathematics student will spend time solving a complicated equation. 

Reference letters

Reference letters are required to give admissions officers a better idea of who you are as a student. That being said, it’s best to pick a professor or someone who knows you on an academic level, to write a reference letter for you.

The main difference between the UK compared to the US is that you are only allowed one reference letter — which will go to every university you apply to. This should be from someone who is best able to comment on your academic abilities, your commitment and motivation for your chosen degree course.

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What Scholarships are available for UK universities?

Scholarships for undergraduate international students in the UK are very limited and extremely competitive. Below you can find some of the private scholarships as well as University scholarship opportunities for undergraduate international students.

Private Scholarships

  • Jardines Foundation Scholarship
  • Cambridge Trust scholarship

University Scholarships

University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham offers ‘’Undergraduate Excellence Awards’’ for high-achieving scholars from around the world. Applications close in April every year. The University also offers sport scholarships for successful sportsmen.

University College of London

The University College London has its own scholarship finder. There are plenty of options for international students.   Students can explore in detail what possibilities are available to them based on their subject interests and background.

University of Bristol

The University of Bristol provides a list of International scholarships to help the best and brightest overseas students, including those from the EU, study at University of Bristol. From Economics, Policy studies to Accounting and Finance they offer from £5,000 to £10,000 per year depending on the subject.

University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield offers International Undergraduate Merit Scholarship from £2,000 to £2,500 to international students depending on their course. Use our student funding calculator as a guide to available funding and financial support including scholarships offered in your chosen department or faculty.

University of Brighton

The university offers a number of merit based international undergraduate scholarships each year. They also offer sports scholarships. More information can be found here.

University of Manchester

The University of Manchester offers a variety of scholarships and bursaries for undergraduate international students. There are subject-specific awards, travel awards, and university funding.

Warwick University

Warwick University has a list of scholarships for international students by country that are available for students outside of the UK and EU.

Durham University

Durham University offers The International Excellence Scholarship to international students of outstanding academic ability.

University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh offers three different types of undergraduate scholarships to international students: The Edinburgh Global Undergraduate Mathematics Scholarships for Math students, Robertson International Scholarships for History, Classics and Archaeology students, and the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies International Scholarship for Veterinary students.

University of Leicester

The University of Leicester offers a variety of scholarships for non-EU undergraduate students such as The President’s Undergraduate Scholarship Scheme and the College of Science and Engineering Undergraduate Scholarship Scheme, but on top of that they offer bursaries and discounts as well.

Key Application Stages & Deadlines for UK universities

DateApplication Stage
15th OctoberEarly UCAS deadline for Oxford & Cambridge
October - NovemberOxbridge/Imperial Admissions tests
November - FebuaryCertain CS/STEM interviews
Early DecemberOxbridge interviews
DecemberEarly application results
December - MarchMedicine interviews
15th JanuaryRegular UCAS Deadline
January - February Regular application results
July - AugustMost universities will confirm your place

Uk Admissions Preparation Timeline

How Crimson Helped Jessica Get Into Oxford to study Biological Sciences

How to Find the Right UK University for you?

Choosing the right university can be confusing and challenging since they all offer different courses, locations and experiences.

To begin, we suggest doing some research online. Our How to Choose Your 5 UCAS Courses eBook provides a step-by-step guide to building your perfect list of UCAS universities, with expert insights from Crimson’s Oxford Strategist Abbi Colwyn. You can also use our UK University Admissions Calculator to generate a list of schools that match your academic profile and interests, then check out our University Profiles page to learn more about these universities.

Go to open days at the universities you’re interested in. Students and parents can attend these events to see what studying at the university is like. Use this time to ask any questions you may have about the particular university to staff or students.

Explore the various cities these universities are located in. Maybe it’s London, a 21st-century city with a history stretching back to Roman times, or Manchester, a textile powerhouse with an 18th-century canal system. Either way, it’s important you do your research and perhaps even pay a visit before deciding on the best university for you.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential schools, you can work with our expert Strategists to develop your academic prowess outside the classroom and build the strongest possible application that ticks all the boxes admissions officers will be looking out for.

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How Crimson Pathfinder can help you with applying to UK Universities

What if there were a tool that would simplify the application process, tell students exactly what they need to include, and break down the deadlines in easy-to-manage steps? We have just what you need.

Crimson Education just released Pathfinder — a comprehensive in-app tool that not only helps students stay on track but helps them quantify the value of activities they do in preparation to apply to competitive UK schools. Learn more about Pathfinder in the video below.

Introduction to Crimson Pathfinder UK

Final Thoughts

Crimson Education offers intensive, holistic, personalised support for students applying to universities in the UK. All support is delivered one-on-one by a team of expert strategists and mentors. Our services cover every step of the UK admissions system

Our mentors are experts on university admissions who have attended the top universities in the UK themselves. Through a combination of support from the Strategist, Application Mentor, Admissions Test Tutor and Interview Tutor, our services ensure students are prepared – academically, emotionally, and personally – to reach their maximum potential in secondary school, during the university application process, and beyond.

If you would like to give yourself the best chance possible of gaining admission to universities like Oxford, UCL, LSE, or Cambridge, book a free consultation and talk to one of our academic advisors now.

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