Offering advice on UK applications

Hi everyone! I’m a citizen of both the UK and the US, went to high school in the UK and applied to colleges in both countries this year. I had to really figure out both systems, and will be attending Cambridge this coming fall. I’ve noticed on CC that a lot of applicants interested in UK schools – or even international schools in general – find it hard to find a place to start. It can seem overwhelming to find the right resources and opinions, and it can be tough to do the right kind of research. So I just wanted to put this thread out there for any juniors (or younger students) who are interested in pursuing UK/international applications. I would be more than happy to offer my experiences and advice.

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Thanks for the thread. My son is interested in possibly applying to UK schools. Can you tell me what you plan on studying and if you applied to both Cambridge and Oxford? I don’t think US students can apply to both?

Hey there. Nobody is allowed to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge - not U.K. students, nor internationals. You have to pick one. It counts as one of the 5 universities you can apply to through UCAS.

I applied to Cambridge to study English Literature. However, I know people who applied (and got in) for languages, natural sciences, politics and a range of other subjects. I can advise more specifically based on your son’s current thoughts :slight_smile:

Just as a follow up, feel free to PM if you would prefer not share specifics on a public thread.

I am a third semester college student here in India. I am also interested in applying for a computer Science degree at Cambridge. How will the process be for me?

Thanks Cosmo! I appreciate it. We are in California and he attends a very competitive HS (pretty cutthroat actually). His stats are good- 35 ACT, AP classes, etc with a 3.97 UW GPA. He is very science/math oriented but he is still undecided if it’s Physics, Chemistry, or some applied math degree. Being still undecided makes this whole process more complicated. For an undecided- which school is better, if any? Maybe he needs to stay in the States if he doesn’t quite know what he wants?

As I’m sure you know, his stats and grades are really impressive! Congrats :slight_smile:

I think Cambridge might be better for him, and I’ll tell you why. At Oxford, all the STEM/science subjects are offered as separate courses, e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry, etc. He would therefore need to commit to one of those and apply for that directly. At Cambridge, on the other hand, most science subjects are offered under the banner “Natural Sciences”, which is basically a really wide-ranging course that encompasses everything from biology to physics. I believe that when applying, students specify either Physical NatSci or Biological NatSci, depending on specific interest – sounds like Physical NatSci could be perfect for your son. If you’re still considering this down the line, I would be happy to refer you/your son to friends of mine who study NatSci so they can share more relevant insight. Overall Cambridge is considered a bit more “sciency” than Oxford, and NatSci is kind of the holy grail of STEM at Oxbridge.

Outside of the NatSci framework, Cambridge offers Computer Science, Mathematics, & Engineering, all of which are notoriously competitive. Oxford has some slighter quirkier options, e.g. Materials Science, as well as some joint degrees: Physics & Philosophy, Mathematics & Computer Science, to name a few.

Thanks so much for this insight. I had read about these differences and you’ve confirmed it for me. I think he should try and apply to Cambridge. Now we have to figure out all the testing requirements. Thanks again- I will likely be back after I do some more research!

glad i could help, and yes, reach out whenever!

Not just complicated but likely impossible as far as Oxbridge goes. You are competing with UK students who pretty much decided on their area of study two years ago when selecting their A levels. You need to be really focused with a lot of background preparation to be taken seriously at interview. Look up the reading list for entering first years which many colleges publish. And despite being a Cambridge grad myself, I’d pick Oxford every time as an American - when I went to my college reunion they said they didn’t want more Americans to apply for undergrad because they tended to turn down their offers. American qualifications, especially in sciences, just aren’t viewed that positively compared to A levels (compare Calc BC to a Further Maths A level syllabus), so it’s pretty important to have decent AIME scores or some similar achievement.

But as a benchmark we are from CA, S applied to Oxford for PPE in 2018, with 4.0UW/1540 SAT, five 5s at AP and predicted 4 more 5s for senior year. He got an interview but not an offer, in part because he wasn’t prepared enough with background reading for interview. He got into both Berkeley and UCLA, and is currently a junior with a 4.0.

I didn’t decide what course I was applying for until July. It’s still March, so there’s more than enough time to make one’s mind up.

The interview is obviously the most important part of the application process. Grades, stats etc. are reflections of intelligence and aptitude but are ultimately obsolete in the face of interview performance.

I applied for English Literature. Between July and December (the month of my interview) I read more than 25 books and made certain to carve out areas of expertise alongside a general sweep of literary history. It’s a different kettle of fish to US applications altogether - subject knowledge is paramount. I had straight A*s in all GCSEs and A Levels and scored a 34 on the ACT but all of that was secondary to my interview.

However, the asker’s son still has plenty of time. By all indications he is a very strong student who is more than capable of using the next months productively, if he decides to pursue this goal. I can’t speak for the specifics of STEM preparation but I imagine maintaining a solid general base while delving into niche areas remains a go-to.

Settling on a specific course and making a gameplan by summer will make everything feasible. It will be difficult, but definitely enriching :slight_smile:

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Yes I agree. My point was you can’t go into this without being very specific about your love for the particular subject you want to study, which should be so great that you want to spend your vacation time learning more about it. Your example of spending the summer on reading 25 key books is a very good one, as that’s a foreign concept to most American students.

Saying you might be interested in math or physics or CS is something of a red flag in an American student, due to the breadth of the US curriculum, even if a British student might be somewhat undecided between maths and NatSci in lower sixth (I was actually admitted for NatSci but changed to maths during my gap year because it was more fun and less work).

I wish we had known about the expected level of preparation nowadays before S applied because he would have been happy to go through the PPE reading list. Unfortunately I wasn’t much help, because 30 years ago you could just show up cold for interview if you were a well taught British student with a great rec from a known school.

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Yeah, but to be clear science applicants have to read far less than humanities applicants. I had also been slacking at school and had a lot of ground to cover.
For Natural Sciences the focus should be doing as many NatScat past papers as possible and becoming really confident at problem solving. As far as I know in the interview they give you questions to solve and they just want to see your thought process, as well as asking about specific interests.

Summary, a lot less reading, a lot more question practice.

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Look at the Oxford Mathematical Institute website for some color. There is no “applied math” course per se at Oxford. Straight Math, Math & CS, Math & Stats, Math & Philosophy. All students take the same math classes in first year, then you can specialize more. My son is reading Math & CS and has tended towards a lot of probability/game theory/financial derivatives classes which is likely as close as you can come to a DIY applied math program at Oxford.

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Different people seem to mean different things by “applied math”. We always used “applied” for fluid mechanics, quantum mechanics, cosmology and theoretical physics while probability, statistics, optimization etc was called “applicable”. But some of that may reflect the departmental structure at Cambridge, where there’s a Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) and a Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics (DPMMS).

As you say, there’s a common core for year 1, then you can specialize partially in year 2 and as much as you want in year 3. Cambridge does have a Maths with Physics course (https://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/undergrad/files/maths_with_physics.pdf) which is more mathematical than the NatSci tripos (and avoids being forced to study another experimental science - usually chemistry since you are either a physical scientist or a biological scientist).

Either maths option at Cambridge will require STEP maths and if you are serious about this it would be a very good idea to take STEP this June, because otherwise you don’t get a result until mid August when you would already be starting at a US college that is on the semester system. This generally deters a lot of Americans from applying to Cambridge for maths.

@Twoin18 Agree 100%. My perspective was a traditional US undergraduate Applied Math program like at say Brown.

Brilliant insight!

Yep, part of the reason I suggested Physical NatSci over Cambridge Maths is STEP. A strong STEP result is a necessary component of an application, and it’s definitely a lot of work.

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