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Applying to UK universities


General Information and Applying to Oxford and Cambridge

When I was going to college, it seemed like you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to go to Oxford as an American. Now you can apply out of high school, and this guide explains how.

  • Summary of what you need to apply to Oxbridge from a US high school
    • You obviously need to be a top student, probably applying to top US schools.
    • You need lots of AP exams and perhaps SAT IIs with top scores, as well as meeting minimum SAT I requirements
    • You need to know exactly what you want to study. You need to have strong qualifications for that subject area, and you need to convince them you will learn using the tutorial system
    • Grades don't matter, nor do ECs not directly related to what you are applying to study.
      • ECs do matter when applying to Scottish universities, but not English.
    • For example, athletics doesn't matter. Playing on a varsity team helps a lot applying to Ivies and is pretty much required for West Point. You also won't get in because the coach wants you for a team.
    • Obviously, if you have relatively poor grades or ECs or are not considered well-rounded academically by US schools, Oxbridge or other British universities may be right for you.
    • You need to have or be able to obtain funds for tuition.
  • When you apply to UK universities, you submit a common application. You can apply to at most 5 schools, and you cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge.
    • You need one faculty reference. In England, this is usually from the equivalent of a guidence counselor, combining comments bt different teachers.
    • This is much easier than in the US, where you need to send separate applications to every school, and people often apply to 10 or more schools.
  • British students spend there last 2 years in high school studying 3 or 4 subjects
    • Usually, they are related subjects, such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, or English, history, and French, or mathematics, economics, and geography. 
      • It is considered a disadvantage in applying to university if you take a mix of humanities and science for example: it does not help to be well-rounded. 
      • There was a famous case where a girl with 4 A*s was rejected by Oxford for medicine. The tabloids implied it was because of her lower class background. However, in addition to it being harder to get in in medicine, her A-levels were in biology, chemistry, French, and English. They probably preferred biology, chemistry, math, and physics. In the US it would be an advantage showing she was well-rounded.
    • They take exams called A-levels: graded A-E; the highest grade is A*. These exams are advanced, covering what is considered college material in the US
    • The A-level exams are all the traditional approach, essay or problems, no multiple choice. AP exams are mixed essay and multiple choice and SAT I and II are all multiple choice.
    • You cannot take A-levels in the US. In fact, British universities will often ask for AP exams for students from countries where you can't take A-levels and there aren't national exams the British have confidence in.
    • Universities do not look at grades from their teachers
  • If you apply to British universities from the US, they are not interested in GPA or ECs. They are mostly interested in test scores. It is the opposite of the US in that AP exams are generally most important, then SAT IIs, and then SAT Is or ACTs.
  • When you apply to a British university, you apply to a specific department. At least at Oxford and Cambridge, it is the the department that makes the decision. You will study only within that department and it is close to impossible to change. 
  • For a US student, it is probably better to apply for a combined program. For example, you can study politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE) at Oxford. You may be able to study biochemistry, math and finance, or math and physics. Of course, it is fine to study one subject, if that is what you really want to do.
  • Programs at Scottish universities allow you to make a decision about field of study later and are not as structured as in England, but more structured than in the US.
  • About 30 US students from US high schools are admitted into Oxford or Cambridge every year. By contrast, there are about 5000 freshmen at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. It is easier than it used to be, but difficult because it is hard to meet their requirements with the more general US system. The British system probably gives a somewhat better high school education and is more rigorous, but the main problem is that it is more specialized.
  • Oxbridge is not really as competitive to get into than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton
  • For example, it is generally easier for students in other countries to get into Oxbridge than absolutely top US schools.
    • Oxbridge are big schools for a country with 1/5 of the population of the US.
  • In the US most college bound students study more or less the same thing, math, science, English, foreign language, and history/government. They also play sports and do other less academic things. There are obviously advantages to the more general approach, even if it doesn't prepare you as well for Oxford or for a specific career.
  • Cambridge says they want 5 AP exams with a score of 5. You also need 2100 combined SATs. It is best if you can provide AP and SAT II exam results in areas related to the course you are applying to. AP exams cover smaller subject areas than British A-levels. Most successful US applicants provide many AP exams.
  • Generally, it is a stronger application if you have a lot of AP exams with 5s and high scores on SAT IIs in areas related to what you want to study. A single AP exam does not cover as much material or as advanced material as an A-level. Showing them a bunch of scores can make it clear that you have the equivalent of 3+ A-levels.
  • A-levels cover a lot of material. 
    • For example the Maths A-level covers the equivalent Calculus BC, AP Statistics, and AP Physics / Mechanics, as well as precalculus. So the equivalent of 4 college courses
    • Similarly, the Physics A-level overs the material in 4 or 5 Physics AP exams
    • This is why it is better to have a lot of AP Exams and SAT IIs to simulate 3 or 4 A-levels.
    • 3 A-levels with A's or B's are maybe the equivalent of 10 or more AP exams, and thuse traditionally more than a year of US college.
  • They will also accept the International Bachlaureate
    • You need a minimum of 38 for Oxbridge. With 40 you have a good chance.
    • The IB is more general, similar to US high school education, whereas if you submit AP exams, you can simulate the more specialized British A-levels.
  • Some departments have their own exams which you will have to take.
    • Oxford does this more than Cambridge.
    • There are very difficult exams required by Cambridge applicants in mathematics.
  • When you apply to Oxbridge, you need to pick a college.
    • Your chances of admission may be greater if you pick a less prestigious college. Rankings of Oxford colleges, rankings of Cambridge colleges 
    • They will sometimes move you to a less prestigious college, but this happens more often for Oxford than Cambridge.
    • I would recommend that most American applicants not apply to the more prestigious colleges.
  • The personal statement should be formulistic.
    • You don't need to be unique like in the US
    • You want to stress why you want to study whatever you are applying for.
    • You want to indicate lots of reading you have done in the field you are applying for.
  • If you meet the minimum requirements for Oxbridge and they like your application, you will be invited for an interview. It is preferred that it be in person, but you can do it over skype
    • The interview is not at all like a US interview. It is with the faculty of the department you are applying to. You will be given something to read, something to translate, or some problems, depending on the field, and will be asked questions on it. They want to see how you learn with their tutorial approach. 
    • There are British firms that will do practice interviews for a fee and it is recommended that you use their services.
  • International tuition is something like $32K/year, which is much more than for UK students, but less than most top US private colleges. The universities do not provide financial aid, but you may be able to get financial aid or loans from other sources.
  • The UK system is does not require UK students have a lot of money for tuition. You cannot buy your way in, and there are less hooks, but there may be some advantage to going to elite private schools and having high-class connections. It is based on knowledge of very advanced material, which gives an advantage to English private "public" school students and those from upper middle class state schools.
  • British students usually receive conditional offers. 
    • Their faculty reference predicts their scores on A-levels taken the senior year. The offers or based on those predictions and preliminary versions of A-levels taken their junior year. Offers are conditional on achieving certain scores. 
    • If you are taking APs  your senior year, the person writing your recommendation will need to predict the scores on them, and you are in trouble if the predicted scores are not all 5s.
    • You could receive an offer conditional on AP exam scores from your senior year, but if you have enough AP exams and SAT IIs it is possible for an American to receive an unconditional offer.
  • If you are applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, a lot of it is the opposite.
    • This is usually after college. However, most still study for a second bachelors degree.
    • You would need top grades, athletics, leadership, and other intangibles.


Applying to British Universities other than Oxbridge


  • You get to apply to 5 schools. This will give you an idea of where they stand. British university rankings. If you are applying from the US, you may not need the safes that a British student does as you have other alternatives.
  • London School of Economics is almost as hard to get into as Oxbridge.
  • Less competitive schools are more concerned that you simulate 3 A-levels, preferably in fields related to what you are applying to study. You can do this with AP exams or SAT IIs. There is only one A-level in fields like physics and history, but many AP exams and SAT IIs. You can only count one exam in those areas. However, submitting a whole bunch of AP exams and SAT IIs in those fields if you are applying to something related at Oxbridge should help your application.
  • Lesser schools tend to want to take Americans, as they do better with students paying full fees.
  • For schools besides Oxford, and particularly for those not at the top level, if you meet the qualifications, you generally get accepted. They do not do holistic evaluations as in the US.
  • St. Andrews has about 10% students from the US. They have been aggressive about marketing. 
    • Advantages are a prince went there and the campus with old stone buildings. 
    • Many highly ranked British universities are 100 or less years old, newer than comparable US universities, and have "red brick" or even "plate glass" architecture. 
    • So you can get some of the Oxbridge experience, old campus and traditions, adventure, and some of students from British upper crust, without being one of the few people who can get into Oxbridge.
    • Also, the Scottish educational system is closer to the US system than the British system is.
  • Oxbridge is about the level of a top Ivy League school, although you could argue it offers a better education. The top "red brick" universities are probably a little below the level of the Ivy League.

Studying in Ireland

  • The top school are Trinity College Dublin and Univerisity College Dublin
  • TCD is Church of Ireland and UCD is Roman Catholic, but those distinctions are not that important any more
  • TCD has an old campus and lots of history associated with it.
  • UCD is almost at the level of TCD
    • It has very practical programs, particularly in STEM subjects. 
    • It has various programs in Irish subjects, such as literature in Irish and Irish folklore.
  • These schools are easier for an American to get into than top 30 US schools. They are excellent schools, but the competition of local students wanting to get in is not that great, and they want money from foreign students. Again you need to be able to pay.
  • Their requirements for Americans are more GPA and SAT Is, rather than AP exams.
  • They have structured programs as in the UK, but have more combined degrees in subjects. At both schools you can pick two subjects sort of related and study both.

Studying in Germany

  • It is sort of what you would expect, very rigorous.
  • Need perfect German, close to a year of study after German AP exam.
  • It is similar to the UK in that they want AP exams.
  • A lot of people fail, and there are no support services.

Studying law or medicine in the UK

  • To summarize, this is generally not a good idea
  • British students apply to law or medicine out of high school.
  • Obviously, it is generally harder for a British student to get into medicine or law at a particular university than humanities.
  • Medicine is a 6-year program. In the US, there are some 6 or 7 year BS-MD programs, but that is not the norm.
  • Cambridge does have a 4-year graduate medicine program, with almost all international students.
  • The 6-year programs have tight quotas for international students and are almost impossible to get into/
    • If you have extremely strong credentials in terms of AP exams and SAT IIs in amth and science, particularly biology and chemistry, it might be worth a try applying to  British medical programs out of high school.
    • Advantages are you are in, no premed
    • Also, 2 fewer years to MD.
    • Would get foreign med school degree, which could be associated with what students do who cannot get into a US medical school.
      • Only half of US citizens studying abroad get internships in the US, and they generally don't get "good" ones. You might have a better chance from a British school than an obvious school for US students, but it isn't an ideal situation if you want to practice in the US.
  • Going to a British university as premed has some problems
  • This really doesn't work, as US medical schools will not accept you without 3 years undergraduate at a US or Canadian college.
  • So you could really only go to some med school in the Carribean or something geared to US students.
  • You would pretty much have to study biochemistry to have the courses medical schools want and be prepared for MCATs. Biology would not work well.
  • On the plus side, you would probably get better preparation from a top British school.
  • You would avoid crazy US premed environments, studying with almost no premeds.
  • In Britain, you study law for 3 years after high school and get an LLB
  • That used to be the system in the US, but more and more people graduated college or had some college first.
  • You can be accepted at a British law program out of a US high school, but there are problems with this.
    • Most states will not allow you to practice without an undergraduate degree or without a US law school degree
    • British law is different, so it would require a lot of study to pass the bar exam.
    • It does require 4 years less study, but there are advantages to getting an undergraduate education.
    • If you do this, it would probably be best to follow it with an LLM from a US law school

Studying humanties at British universities

  • In my opinion good humanities, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge
  • English at Oxbridge involves studying large amounts of medieval literature
    • This is different from the US, where English majors often study mostly 19th and 20th century novels.
    • There is less difference in say classics, where US programs are more solid
  • There are some cool programs not available in the US, such as Cambridge University's Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic
    • Involves studying various medieval British languages, literature, and history.
  • Humanities degrees, particularly from Oxbridge and other top schools, are more "marketable" and respected in Britain than the US
  • As a US student, there is a disadvantage that you don't study anything "practicle" outside your major.
  • Advantage for career is in the US, you can apply to professional school in law, business, journalism or other fields.
  • A UK degree, particularly from Oxbridge, probably provides you better preparation for graduate school in whatever you want to study.




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