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Although American institutions of higher learning dominate any given list of the world’s leading universities, exemplary universities are by no means exclusive to the United States.  For those who want to pursue higher education abroad, the United Kingdom is and has always been a popular destination. While some British universities do accept applications via the Common App, the majority of them exclusively use UCAS as the vessel of their applications.

What Is UCAS?

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is, in a nutshell, the U.K.’s version of the Common Application. Given that almost all British universities take their applications exclusively through UCAS, UCAS is essential for students, including those from overseas (international), who wish to pursue an undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom.

So, How Is It Different From the Common App?

While the services that UCAS provides is indeed strikingly similar to that of the Common App, the UCAS application itself is quite distinct from the Common App. Most of these differences reflect the fundamental differences between the specialized nature of British higher education and the tradition of liberal arts that is so deeply ingrained in its American counterpart.

For instance, while the Common App does give applicants the opportunity to provide some information on their respective fields of interest by asking students what they intend to major in, this choice is, for most applicants and institutions, by no means consequential (Exceptions: Schools of Engineering, Conservatories, etc.) When I say that this choice is not consequential, I mean it in the sense that as far as your chances of admission is concerned, it really doesn’t matter if you indicate that you intend to major in sociology as opposed to comparative literature. After all, switching majors is relatively easy, even routine, across most colleges and universities in the United States. UCAS, on the other hand, requires its applicants to apply to a specific course at any given university. It’s usually not easy to switch courses of study at British universities; most of the time, one would have to apply to the school as a first-year all over again.

This difference is also reflected in the composition of an applicant’s personal statement. If the Common App’s requirements for its personal statement are open-ended and vague, UCAS leaves its applicants with no such wiggle room. In comparison to personal statements submitted via the Common App, UCAS’ counterparts come across as relatively rigid and formulaic. UCAS makes it clear that personal statements ought to be concise and standardized in terms of format. For instance, while the maximum length for a Common App personal statement is generally understood to be ~ 1 page (~500 words), the precise On the other hand, personal statements submitted via UCAS are capped at exactly 4000 characters. Use them wisely.

Anything Else?

Another notable difference is that the Common App allows applicants to apply to as many institutions as one may want, as long as they can afford the application fees (Note: Most schools do grant application fee waivers to low-income applicants upon request). In contrast, UCAS allows applicants to choose up to six universities, with applicants paying £12 to apply to one university, and £23 for up to six. This creates a selection effect of sorts among the applicant pool in the U.K.; most students end up choosing not to use one of their six only choices for a crap-shoot application to a university that they know they probably won’t be admitted to. After all, it’s better to be safe and go to college than to be sorry and not end up at a university at all, right?

Ah, Got It. So I’m Totally Going to Get Into a British University Now, Right?

Not so fast. Most U.K. universities admit their applicants on a conditional basis. These conditions usually entail predicted grades. That is, once a British University accepts you, they’ll stipulate a certain threshold of grades for the applicant to meet.  For American students, this usually takes the form of AP/SAT scores. If the criteria the university sets is not met, the applicant would not be permitted to enroll at the university. Here in the United States, this is analogous to revoking a student’s acceptance due to low grades/AP scores during one’s senior year. This phenomenon is actually a quite bit more common in the U.K., and appeals rarely work. So don’t let senioritis get you; don’t slack off.

Bonus tip: Yo, prospies, are you still struggling with filling out your UCAS applications? Our friends at InstaEDU are giving you the hookup: Chat with college counselors one-on-one and get the help you need. It’s like a private college consultant but without the $300/hr price tag.



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  1. s0phichi on January 19, 2015

    Actually, most American students are able to get unconditionals (like me!) because they filled the requirements. Or, if they’re conditional, they’ll only be contingent on achieving a high school diploma (and just the diploma itself, not the grades), since UK schools don’t look at GPA (with exception of Cambridge & St. Andrews).

  2. s0phichi on January 19, 2015

    And don’t be disheartened if you happen to have a tough condition & miss it (it happens!)! Appeals are on a department-to-department basis, and I happen to know that at UCL they sent out a lot of really high offers and took many students despite them missing their offers.

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