It’s that time of year again, the time for every year 13 or grade 12 student to start the customary sleepless nights, hours into the wee morning spent Googling university websites, daily breakdowns, and melodramatic musings on the meaning of life that accompany the ever approaching university application deadlines.
It’s stressful. You think your life will be over if you choose the wrong university or major, and you know your life will be over if they reject you. Writing 600 words about yourself feels like you’re writing a dissertation supporting Donald Trump for president, and your transcript blinds you every time you look at your grades.
Luckily for students applying to universities in the UK, the job is made a lot simpler compared to the convoluted Common Application that our friends have to deal with across the pond. A prospective student in the UK only has to fill in one form on the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Application Service) website, versus all the individual essays and forms that are required for applying to different colleges in the US. There’s no need to take the SAT, and no need to be a master of an obscure sport to catch the interest of an Ivy League school. And for international families on a tight budget, there’s simply no comparison. Four years of tutorage in the US at some of the top schools can set a family back as high as RMB 2,000,000 ($300,000), along with additional costs to take the SAT, further costs to send the results to all universities the student applies to, individual costs to apply to said universities in the first place, as well as the high accommodation and living costs. The UK, on the other hand, will probably cost an international student around RMB 400,000 (GBP 42,000) – I would say only, but it’s still not a light sum.
That’s not to say that the UCAS process is easy, by any means. The UCAS form is printed out and given to university admissions staff where you choose to apply; this form is all the staff will ever see and will be the sole basis for their decision as to whether to accept or reject you. It’s absolutely critical that it is done right.
The first step is to choose which subject you would like to major in. It is based on this choice that you should choose your universities, and not the other way around – it is your field of study that you are dedicating your life to, after all, and the university is just a vessel for three years. This is the opposite of the American mentality of choosing your major two years after choosing your college.
It’s wise to pick just one subject for which to apply to all universities, as every university will receive a copy of the same UCAS form (which you should personalize to your subject choice). One of the most important parts of this form is the personal statement, a 600 word declaration as to why you want to study this subject, and providing proof of your proficiency in that arena. It would probably not be bright to write your personal statement about mathematics and then go on to apply for fine arts at one university with the same application. However, some universities, like Oxbridge, are accepting separate personal statements if students wish to study a different subject there.
In total, UCAS allows you to apply to five universities. This is inflexible. In contrast, the US lets you apply to as many or as few colleges as you want – which is both a blessing and a curse, as it heightens chances of acceptance but, equally, raises time consumed, fees paid, and essays written.
The UCAS form comprises three major parts: a transcript of predicted grades, personal statement, and a teacher recommendation. The latter is also 600 words, and only one recommendation is allowed to be submitted in the form, unlike the Common Application which accepts as many as your teachers are willing to provide.
An admissions director at Nottingham University – a Russell Group institution, which is the UK’s equivalent of the American Ivy League – says on an official video that the personal statement is what admissions consider the most important. Predicted grades are fallible, and all teachers wanting their students to do well use the same repetitive superlatives in their recommendations.
And the personal statement is also the hardest to nail. The goal is to: communicate your passion for the subject (while avoiding cliché phrases like “ever since I came out of my mother’s womb, I have been obsessed with medicine”); list extracurricular work or achievements you have under your belt to demonstrate this passion and your aptitude; explain why the universities would benefit from having you in their student body; show that you can write well in a formal, grammatically immaculate structure; all the while letting through a clear and unique writing voice shine through in your rhetoric. Before long, 600 words will seem far too little to communicate all you have to say.
Watch out not to mention extracurricular activities or sports completely unconnected to your degree; e.g. “I played recreational squash” – they don’t want to hear it. American college admissions officers might cheer wildly at the sound of recreational squash, but not in the UK. The Brits appreciate academic performance and enthusiasm, pretty much exclusively.
I recently spoke with Sally Bayley, a lecturer in English at Oxford University, about writing personal statements. She advised: “Write. Write, write, write, every single day. Write blogs, write in journals, write nonsense on napkins, just practice writing every single day until you find your voice. That’s what I look for: a voice, and someone who can write. I don’t expect you to write well, not yet, but if you do, I will be like, ‘core, I want this one!’”
That might sound like a lot of bother, but it will probably consume less time cumulatively than US applicants spend studying for their SATs.
All in all, getting into university in the land of the free is very different to in the land of tea, but applying to British universities does come with the added benefit of leaving a smaller dent in your wallet.
Still, it’s not cheap. And if you’re willing to shell out 400,000 RMB for this education, make sure your application is good. Double-check it, triple-check it; do what is necessary to ensure that it’s the best, most inflated representation of you that the world will ever see.
Photos: Courtesy of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.