If this past admissions cycle has taught us anything, it’s that the college admissions process is brutal. Students applying to more than a dozen schools has become commonplace, and the colleges are having to reject a lot more people; the 2020-2021 acceptance rate for Harvard was 3.47%.
That means that there are a lot of people looking for a better way. One route that has gotten a lot more popular over the past few years is going abroad. To that end, I wanted to provide a brief overview of how the admissions process works in the UK, which is where many of these students are going.
First, there are some differences worth pointing out. The most obvious is that undergraduate studies in the UK, and most places outside the US, happen at a university, never a college. That is crucial to make sure that you look like you know what you’re talking about.
Second, degrees are often more specialized, with most of your coursework taking place in your degree field. This means that in England and much of the rest of the world, they are completed in 3 years. Germany, Scotland, and Ireland (with a few other countries) still have options for 4 year degrees, but there is often more flexibility to study beyond your degree field there.
One area where the rest of the world does a lot better than the US is the admissions process. Overseas, academics matter above everything else. Extracurriculars are only important if they relate to what you want to study.
Moreover, not all academics are created equally. You’ll likely be assessed on the basis of AP scores, and only AP scores that are relevant to what you want to study are important. Got a 2 in AP Chemistry, but you really want to be an econ major? In that case, as long as you’ve got good scores elsewhere, no one cares about your chemistry score.
It’s not just numbers. You’ll also have to do a personal statement, but you only have to write one of them for every program you apply to. Also, you can only apply to five programs total (and only one at either Oxford or Cambridge), so it’s a bit easier to remain focused.
This trips people up - you only apply to specific programs, and never more than five of them. This means that the people reading your application can be relatively assured that if you are offered a spot that you’ll at least consider it, so they are likely to take you seriously.
Additionally, depending on your field of study, you’ll also take a test or an interview, and you are almost always required to submit a letter of recommendation.
But that’s it. You’re assessed on academic performance and your passion for the field, as evidenced from your personal statement and singular letter of recommendation. No extracurriculars. No supplements that are longer than the actual application. No cajoling by coaches to place you on a rowing team that you have no intention of ever practicing with.
Paying for It
For some of you, this may sound too good to be true, but then there’s the matter of money. Everyone has heard that ‘college is free in Europe,’ but you get what you pay for. That said, it is almost always cheaper than in the US.
At the low end, there are programs you can go to for 500 euro, but you still have to pay living expenses. These places tend not to accept US Federal Student Loans. At the other extreme, Oxford and Cambridge can cost nearly $190,000 over the course of the three year degree. That makes them more expensive than any public in-state school in the US, but a bargain if you’re looking at paying full price for private or out-of-state tuition.
Most places in the UK and Ireland do accept student loans from the US, as well as 529 college plans. Note these can’t be used on transportation, so you’ll still have to pay your way home when you want to come back to the US.
If you’re looking at paying full price for college and know what you want to study, then going abroad can save you serious aggravation during the application process, as well as money while paying tuition. In fact, you might even end up getting into a more highly-ranked program abroad than you would have in the US, due to the fact that the applications per spot ratio is so much lower.