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Applying to UK Universities: A How-to Guide

Have you ever pictured yourself attending university in England or Scotland?  You may be surprised to learn that it’s a more attainable goal than you think.

The United Kingdom includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This is especially true now, since Scotland recently voted to remain within the jurisdiction of the UK!  All the universities in the UK use the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service).

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Are there different categories of UK Universities?

Funny you should ask!  Universities in the United Kingdom (including England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) are typically grouped in six categories, based on their date of origin.  In the UK, age matters!  The most well-known and distinguished UK universities are considered “Ancient Universities,” founded before 1800.  These include the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge (collectively known as “Oxbridge”) and the University of St. Andrews.

Another category consists of Colleges Founded in the 19th Century, including those within the University of London and the former University of Wales.  Most of the universities in London are part of the public University of London system, founded in 1836 by Royal Charter.  London University consists of 18 constituent colleges, which operate fairly independently. Several award their own degrees, including King’s College London, London Business School, University College London and LSE. Imperial College London left the University system in 2007.

The remaining categories include colleges founded in the 20th century, such as the “Red Brick Universities,” large public universities founded in the early decades of the 20th century; and “Plate Glass Universities,” chartered after 1966.

Step 1: Become More Familiar with UK Universities

A unique and highly beneficial feature of the application process in the UK is that universities hold several Open Visit Days each year.  For example, Oxford has Open Visit Days in early July and mid-September.  For American students, you may not be considering college visits in the summer, so take note that the best time to go is during July when you are not in academic session. While typically you do not need to register for open days, advance booking may be required for some events.

Students, parents, and counselors can register in advance for a full day of scheduled presentations on admissions, financial aid, student life, and housing, as well as attend talks by professors in different “faculties,” or academic areas. It is advisable to visit at least one college, as well as a faculty talk in  your academic area of choice.  Staff are available to answer questions throughout the day.




Step 2: Choose an Academic Faculty

Attending college in the UK is fundamentally different than in the United States in terms of the high degree of academic directedness.  There is no such thing as “undecided!”  Students apply to specific “faculties,” or academic departments.  English universities have a three-year, highly focused academic program in which students apply for a specific subject or interdisciplinary grouping of subjects; and, if accepted, pursue this course of study throughout the three years.  Scottish universities have four-year degrees and a hybrid system in which students study three to five subjects during the first two years, confirm their preferred concentration(s) and study only those one or two subjects throughout their final two years.

Step 3:  Learn More About the Application Process

 Students apply to all UK universities through a common application called UCAS. Students may only apply to five applications to all UK universities, including only one to Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge).

The UCAS application opens September 1.  The application deadlines are as follows:

  • October 15: Oxbridge, and the faculties of medicine, dentistry and veterinary science
  • January 15: Most other UK institutions
  • March 24: Art and Design programs.

Admissions decisions are provided by March 31.  Your acceptance is often contingent on achieving certain academic outcomes at the end of senior year, such as attaining certain IB and AP scores.  For students taking AP courses, final decisions are not rendered until after mid-July, when AP scores are received.


Step 4: Write Your Personal Statement

The personal statement for UK universities plays a vital role in the process.  Since students are considered for particular faculties, the purpose of the personal statement is to establish that you are a good fit for your designated academic area.  The essay should demonstrate why you are drawn to a particular academic area, and what you will contribute to academic life at the university.

Unlike personal statements for US universities, the focus should be exclusively academic, not personal.  As such, the essay is more similar to the US graduate school personal statement.  The UK personal statement has a maximum of 4000 characters (about the same length as the US 650 word maximum).  UK admissions officers suggest that you spend 70-75% of your Personal Statement on academic aspects, such as courses and research. The remainder could discuss outside activities, but only if they are relevant to your intended courses of study.  For example, if you wish to pursue Politics, you could discuss the evolution of your interest in politics, relevant coursework such as AP Government, as well as your involvement in Model UN or Debate Club. Regardless, make sure you always tie your experience directly to your academic and career goals.

Topics that could be relevant to include are:

  • What are your primary areas of academic interest?
  • Why do you have these interests?
  • How would study of these areas relate to your future goals?
  • What are your relevant skills and perspectives?
  • What are your relevant extra experiences, such as outside reading, activities, work and internships?

UK Admissions Officers cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do your research about the universities and the subjects offered, and proofread carefully!  Keep in mind that the same Personal Statement will be read by all the UK universities you are applying to (up to five maximum), so only include information that applies to all the colleges. For example, only discuss courses of subjects that are available at all the universities you are applying to.

To learn more about the UK’s many fine universities, check out our blogs on Oxford, St. Andrews and Cambridge. And of course, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.

Inside Oxford’s Many Colleges

So, you’ve decided that the University of Oxford is a great fit for your intellectual curiosity and passion for classics, physics, law, or another of the fifty courses offered at Oxford. Now what?  For an introduction to Oxford, read our previous blog here.

Students can only apply to one Oxford College!

Students who wish to attend Oxford University can only apply to only one of the 33 Oxford colleges.  In fact, UK students are limited to applying to only five colleges total, of which only one can be from Oxford or Cambridge, collectively known as “Oxbridge.”

How do the Oxford Colleges differ?

While all the Oxford colleges share the fundamental qualities of intellectual rigor, self-directed study, and learning through small tutorials, they each have a very distinct identity.  For students who want to attend Oxford, there are a variety of factors that influence their decision of which college to apply to.

  • Course of study.  Academic subject area is the #1 factor because you apply to a particular course of study.  Each of the 33 Oxford colleges offers a subset of the full array of 50 academic fields.  For instance, if you are applying for Computer Science, you would need to restrict your options to one of the 13 colleges that offer this field. If you are interested in the “subject combination” of Computer Science and Philosophy, you would have only eight colleges to consider.
  • Age of college.  Age matters!  Some students are more attracted to the older colleges, because they feel they carry more prestige, or they like the feel or look. Professor Sir Drummond Bone, Master of Balliol College, established in 1360, says “Balliol is not only arguably the oldest but arguably the leading intellectual College in Oxford – and therefore in the World. It has stood on a single site longer than any other college in the English-speaking world.”




Oriel College, founded in 1326



Corpus Christi College, founded in 1517

  • Architecture and facilities. The architecture of the colleges varies greatly as a function of the era in which it was build and renovated, and the prevailing styles.  Students may also be attracted to particular features of the college such as the library, gardens chapel or dining hall.


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Balliol College has a magnificent, grand dining hall, with paintings of many of the Masters and people influential in the history of the college.

  • Location within Oxford. The campus is spread throughout the town of Oxford.  There is a centralized core of colleges, including the oldest. These colleges are also closer to the center of town, with access to restaurants and shops. Some students prefer these, and others prefer some of the outlying colleges that have more open space. Students may value whether the college is close to the River Thames, or meadows or the University Science Center.


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Close-up of High Street, one of the central streets for Oxford University, and the few adjacent colleges.



The Examination School building, on High Street, is where all Oxford students take exams.



Center of town includes more opportunities for socializing with classmates.

  • Extracurricular activities. Many colleges have a long history of depth in a particular extracurricular activity. For instance, New College is known for its choir, which performs world-wide; Magdalen College is known for theater and orchestra; and Mansfield for journalism.


  • Size of student population. The colleges vary from Wycliffe Hall, with 84 undergrads and 22 graduate students, to St. Catherine’s with 487 undergrads and 307 graduate students. Some colleges have no graduate students at all.



New College, 1 of the largest student populations, with 441 undergraduates and 300 graduate students


  • Size of the physical campus.  The colleges range from a small, intimate physical space, with perhaps one courtyard, such as St. Edmund “Teddy” Hall, to a larger physical imprint with a secondary courtyard and expansive gardens, such as Corpus Christi College.



St. Edmund “Teddy” Hall’s primary courtyard

  • Accommodations. Some colleges have all singles, like New College, whereas others have a mix of room types, as at Oriel College. Also, colleges vary in terms of how many years housing is guaranteed, e.g. Mansfield College guarantees housing for only one year, whereas Lincoln College guarantees for all three years.



New College, where all the rooms are singles.


  • Degree of formality.  The colleges vary in terms of how formal or informal they are.  At more formal colleges, faculty dress in formal gown-attire, students may need to dress up more often; and students are required to address faculty by their titles of Dr. or Professor.
  • Alums of the college – both famous and familiar.  Balliol College draws students who want to study PPE partly because three recent Prime Ministers of England attended Balliol and studied PPE! In addition, students may be influenced by which colleges their friends, classmates, favorite teachers, family or community members have attended. Jesus College was founded by Elizabeth I, has always had Welsh affiliations, and has the only Celtic Library at Oxford. As result, Welsh students are often steered by their family or school to apply there.


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Balliol College, portraits of Prime Ministers who graduated.

  • “Feel” – as with universities in the US and elsewhere, each college has an intangible feel that students may or not resonate with.  In the words of several student ambassadors at different colleges during Open Visit Day, “I just felt so happy here when I visited!”

No matter what colleges you decide to apply to, whether they are in the UK, the US or anywhere else in the world, make sure that they offer you the features you need!  And if you need guidance, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!