The US and the UK supposedly have a longstanding 'special relationship' - but their university systems have grown to be quite different from each other. Here's our guide to the key differences, plus some tips on how to plot your way successfully through each of them.
In a nutshell
Applying to American universities is a complicated, cumbersome, and at times, counterintuitive process. International students in particular might find that they don’t understand why a university is asking for certain documents, or why the admissions process focuses on certain aspects of a student. A lot of differences from other application systems stem from the fact that the US is mostly concerned with the student as a person, rather than as an academic.
The UK university application process on the other hand - though not exactly a breeze - is far more straightforward. There's one process for applying to almost all universities, it doesn't involve that much paperwork, and for most courses, the admissions tutors mostly care about how good you are likely to be as a student on the particular course for which you are applying.
The US process tests a student’s independence. For example they have to invite their own recommenders, manage a wide variety of essays themselves, often register for and submit standardised tests themselves. The whole process requires significantly more motivation and responsibility from students than the UK system does.
It's a good idea to encourage students who are applying to the US to note down all the deadlines for each separate school to which they are applying, as they can quickly become confusing to follow up on. The UK process is much more teacher-led, and is also much more streamlined - the basis of which is the fact that students apply to all their universities on just one UCAS form.
For selective American universities, good grades are required for a student to be considered for admission, but essays, extracurriculars and other ‘soft’ characteristics make the difference between an ‘admit’ and a ‘reject’.
US universities want to know who the student is as a person, what they’ll contribute to the community, and most importantly, if they are likely to become a successful alumnus. On the Common Data Set, a standardised information form nearly all universities fill out, every highly selective school indicates that extracurriculars are as important as grades and standardised tests. In the UK, the focus is much more on grades, and if a student will be successful academically.
US schools are additionally focused on how the student will fit into the university. The admissions officers often ask themselves questions about how the student will contribute to the university, what the student will take a part of, and how the student will fit into the university community.
Whereas UK applicants apply for a specific course in the UK and then usually stick with that decision, in the US 20-50% of students apply undecided, and a larger number switch majors during their time at university. Even when applying to a certain major, students are normally not bound to stick to that major.
The exception for the US is when applicants apply to a certain school within a college. For example, students who do not apply to Wharton at UPenn can’t switch to Wharton after being admitted. The same goes for most engineering schools - students often can’t switch from the liberal arts school to the engineering school of a college.
In the US system students often have the first two years of their undergraduate studies to decide on the major, and a major is declared at the end of the sophomore (ie second) year of college. Furthermore, students are encouraged to combine different subject areas in double majors (more on this in the Breadth of study section).
4 years versus 3 years of study
Students will spend 4 years completing a Bachelor's degree in the US, as compared to the 3 years it takes in the UK. Furthermore, some vocational degrees such as Medicine and Law can only be done in graduate school, with students often studying a “pre-med” or “pre-law” stream beforehand.
It is worth noting that Bachelor's degrees are more highly rated in the US than they are in many other countries. In fact, 85% of the Harvard class of 2015 of students did not go on to get their Masters right after graduating. It’s extremely common and even encouraged for students to get a few years of work experience before starting graduate school, which has the added benefit that some employers might pay for a student’s education if they promise to come back to work for them afterwards.
Any single application to a US university could end up being more work than an entire UCAS application to 5 universities.
- Students will submit most applications through a unified application portal such as the Common App, but will then need to follow each application on a separate, school-specific application portal. These separate portals will be where the decisions are released later on in the US admissions process.
- One main personal essay will be required through the Common Application (or equivalent) website. This essay is highly important in the admissions process.
- A list of a maximum of 10 extracurricular activities or achievements will be required with the Common Application. Other application portals also tend to ask for a record of students’ activities.
- Students should be prepared to write at least one supplemental essay per school, often answer a list of short questions, and get teachers to write up to 4 letters of recommendation. These supplemental questions are different from the main essay, and should focus on different characteristics of the student.
- The supplemental essays are normally particular to the school in question, so each additional application needs a fresh essay.
- Form tutors / heads of sixth form / counsellors should realise that this process will require quite a bit of work: letters of recommendation will be expected to be somewhat longer than their UK equivalents, and the counsellor letter of recommendation will be an entire extra document.
What are my options?
There are under 200 universities in the UK, versus 2,500 four-year colleges in the US. The UK system offers less variety and is more clearly hierarchical, whereas students in the US can select schools on location, culture, size, resources and even number of dining halls. In reality, the amount of schools that will be appealing to international students is quite a bit smaller than 2,500. Small, rural schools with a not-so-great academic reputation probably won’t attract many international students. Unifrog’s US search tool therefore by default filters to only show the top 500 schools; students can of course choose to instead be shown everything.
Liberal Arts colleges provide a student-centered learning environment. There are no graduates - these institutions exist to teach undergraduates, and the teaching staff have explicitly signed up to deliver this service. Liberal Arts colleges are very thin on the ground in the UK - prestigious UK universities are all research institutions, and for many of their teaching staff, teaching undergraduates is a necessary evil.
In addition to their focus on teaching undergraduates, Liberal Arts colleges often provide their students with a very broad education. Students will be encouraged to take courses from a diverse spectrum of academic fields. Liberal arts universities are not more or less prestigious than large research institutions, and often send a good amount of students to highly competitive graduate programs every year.
These colleges often have their own ‘Common Core’ curriculum, or a set of classes that each incoming student has to take in addition to the classes that they are interested in for their personal majors. This curriculum often includes large discussion classes.
In the US, you could be an undergraduate playing your sport in a 100,000 seater stadium filled to capacity. 8 US universities have stadiums with capacity greater than 100,000; for context, Old Trafford which is the biggest capacity stadium in the UK’s Premier League has a capacity of 76,100.
The university sports system in the US works in divisions, Division 1 being the most competitive. Students that are extremely serious about sports can get recruited into a school, and can be given ‘full-ride’ scholarships.
Furthermore, university sports are often a large part of the social life at US institutions. A weekend could be spent going to a pep rally, watching a game, and then celebrating the outcome. Students at the University of Michigan report that they spend around 3-5 hours watching live sports a week.
In the US, the cost of private universities is approx 40,000-60,000 USD per year. Out-of-state costs for a public university are around 35,000 USD. However, financial aid is available and widely used. Harvard proudly states that 60% of its students are on financial aid, and a lot of private universities will cover all costs if a household makes less than 60,000 USD a year.
A handful of US universities operate needs-blind and full-need-met admissions for internationals - meaning that the university both doesn’t take into account your financial aid when considering your application, and also commits to meeting all your financial need if they decide to admit you.
In the UK the fees for UK and EU students are up to 9,250 GBP, which is excellent value, and in addition the cost can be paid after you have finished and are earning.
An important note on the cost of applying: unlike the UK process, where students pay 24 GBP for 5 applications, applications in the US are more costly. First of all, students pay per application they make, and application fees are usually 70-90 USD. This can add up if a student decides to apply to ten schools - which is about the average number to apply to. Furthermore, sending test scores (such as SATs, ACTs or English proficiency results) cost about $12 per school. As a general rule, each application to a US university will cost around $100. However, if students are currently receiving free school lunches and/or are or were on pupil premium, these fees are normally waived.
The United States has 58 (http://www.webometrics.info/en/node/54) universities in the top 100 most reputable universities for employers. If students are looking to work in the United States after graduating, the wide alumni networks US universities can help in finding a job. In fact, 20% of MIT students found jobs directly through alumni networking, and another 39% founds jobs through career fairs and internships with companies who had close relationships with the school.
At the same time, large US employers such as Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and McKinsey, know that prestigious UK universities are great institutions, and often recruit there almost as much as they do in the US.
US students rarely spend their summers going to festivals and relaxing. More often than not, students either find an internship or take extra courses over the summer to boost their employability. 83% of students at MIT did one or more internships during their time there.
International students should bear in mind that it can be quite challenging to get a job in the US, due to visa requirements and other legal issues. However, international students can be employed on campus in the university and this is a very common practice. Many students work part-time while studying in order to pay for a part of the cost of their tuition. In the UK, students are more likely to get work experience during the academic year thanks to initiatives such as sandwich courses.
Breadth of study
It is not uncommon for US students to double-major and do a minor in a third area they are interested in. Even if a student sticks to one major, they will almost always take a good chunk of courses in other fields, more out of interest than out of necessity.
Having a whole extra year means that US students can basically spend their first year exploring interests. In the UK, students will usually stick to the courses needed to graduate with their chosen degree.
Elite schools in the US consistently both get more applications per place than the top schools in the UK.
Because schools like Harvard, Stanford and MIT have created such strong brands around their institutions, they get an enormous amount of highly qualified students, both domestic and foreign. It is important for staff, students and parents to stay realistic when going into the application process. Unlike UK universities, where a student with A*A*A* is pretty likely to get into one of the top 5 universities in the UK, a student with the same grades and perfect scores on their standardised tests is by no means a likely admit for top-tier American universities.
What will make the difference are the other parts of a student’s application (the essay, the supplemental questions, the activity descriptions, the letter of recommendations). There are simply so many great candidates, and only a small amount of spots for international students. It is more important than ever for students to make sure they have a good combination of Aspirational, Solid, and Safe school choices.