Should You Just Go Abroad?

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.

The Basics

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.

Admissions Process

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.


We have some experience with this. Our experience involves study abroad in Canada but a lot of what you said rings true. I thought I would just comment on a few points.

I agree about US admissions being “brutal”. The lack of predictability adds a great deal of stress. It is not just getting admitted however. Being able to pay for it can also be brutal depending upon your circumstances. There are a number of circumstances where need based financial aid does not cover actual need. There are also quite a few schools that do not claim to cover full need.

One thing that adds to the stress in the US is that just being academically excellent does not make admissions easy. If you are the #1 or #2 student in your high school with high test scores and you get good letters of reference then admissions at least in Canada is very easy. In the US this is not enough.

“undergraduate studies … happen at a university, never a college.”

This is largely terminology, but getting terminology right can make the whole process easier. Canada has small primarily undergraduate universities that mostly give bachelor’s degrees. In the US these would be called “colleges”. In Canada they are “universities”.

“degrees are often more specialized,”

This is our experience also. With a honours bachelor’s degree in Canada you get a LOT of coursework and research in your major, plus a thesis. There seems to be less general coursework required and more major related coursework.

Canada seems to be more like the US in terms of allowing students to change their major.

“You’re assessed on academic performance … No extracurriculars.”

One daughter applied to two universities in Canada, our other daughter applied to five. Neither of them even listed any ECs on any of the application forms. Admissions was based on grades (and in some cases to a lesser extent test scores). If you have nearly all A’s, you get accepted. My understanding is that there are plenty of good options if you have half A’s and half B’s.

“Paying for It”

We could have bought our daughter a house and a car and paid for four years in Canada, and it still would have cost less than four years in the US. As our daughter said “it would have been a small house”.

The 529 situation was the same for us. We could use 529 to pay expenses except NOT for travel (and not for the car or the house either).

One downside of studying abroad: You graduate, and then you are abroad. Your friends are abroad. Your connections are abroad. A desire to return home is not guaranteed.

Another downside: When you get that summer research position where you do research, write or contribute to a paper, get paid, and get academic credit, you have to file US taxes which are very complicated. Your income will likely be low enough to avoid paying US taxes, but the paperwork is ugly.