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Are you considering applying to universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, but not sure what the differences are? This post is for you!


I was in this situation myself a couple of years ago. I applied to both British and American universities, as well as Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. The application systems are very different, and it can be hard to understand them. 

Here is a list of the key application sections and how they are in each country. 


In the UK, you apply through a system called UCAS. There, you can choose up to five schools to which you apply that year. Therefore, you must carefully think about applying to at least one school that you surely will get in, as there won’t be that many options. Another restriction is that you can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, not both. As they are the two most famous and selective universities in the UK, applying to only one also helps you to choose enough safety schools. I personally applied to Oxford, King’s College London, Warwick, Manchester, and Glasgow, knowing that I’d get into at least three schools quite surely. 

In the US, you apply through a system called Common App. There you can apply to as many schools as you want. For example, a few years ago, a student applied to 115 colleges. I don’t think you should do that though! Unless you want to be in the news. Then apply to a few more to break the record, lol. 

There is no magic number to how many schools you should apply to in the US. It depends on your application profile, timeline, and such. If you are very busy during the application cycle, probably apply to fewer schools so that you have enough time to master each application. Personally, I only applied to three schools in the US, but that was because I only wanted to go to one of those three, and otherwise, I would have gone to study in another country, like the UK or Ireland. But if you’re set on going to college in the US, 5-10 schools should be enough, as long as you have at least a couple of safety schools there and your application is strong. 


In the UK, there are two major deadlines:

Applications for Oxford, Cambridge, and most courses in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary are due October 15th the year before the starting date. For example, if you want to start at Oxford in 2023, the deadline is October 15th, 2022. So if you want to study there next year, now is your final call to start preparing your application!

Other programs are due later in January, in 2023 it will be January 25th. 

The US system also has multiple deadlines. You may have come across the terms Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, and Early Decision. So what’s the difference between these?

Early Action is a non-binding early-round application. This means that you are not obligated to attend if accepted Early Action. 

Restrictive Early Action is another non-binding option. You aren’t obligated to attend if accepted. However, if you apply for Restrictive Early Action, you can not apply to any other schools in the early rounds. 

Early Decision, however, is a binding early round application. This means you apply early to a school and, if accepted, you must enroll.

The early deadlines are usually November 1st, but you need to double-check with the school you want to apply to. 

The Regular Decision deadline is usually the last day of December or January 1st. Again, in the US the individual schools have more say about their deadlines, so always check directly from the school. 


In the UK’s UCAS system, you only need to write one personal statement, and there are no supplements for each university. In the US, you have one personal statement going to all the schools you apply to, and any additional materials each individual school requires you to submit. For example, Harvard requires you to write another essay and a couple of short answers. 

In that sense, the UK is easier as it’s shorter. However, it’s not the only difference. In addition, the style of the essay is vastly different between the two countries.

In the UK, the personal statement is very academically focused. You must write a clear statement explaining your motives and interests to study your chosen subject. Then you proceed to describe your experience in the subject, such as courses you have taken, books you have read, etc. 

Here is the first paragraph from my own personal statement to the UK:

The law should serve its people. I believe justice should be delivered within a legal framework that is relevant to salient contemporary norms and values. My academic background in history and religious studies has allowed a deep interest in human rights and international law to develop, particularly in the cross-cultural challenges that both fields confront. Besides, my enthusiasm for philosophical thinking will support my law studies, as I will not only learn to give prudent legal advice, but to profoundly evaluate it.

It’s less a matter of your personality, but more about your competency. It also doesn’t have to be extremely creative, unless you want to study a creative subject, such as the arts. 

In the US, you don’t even have to indicate what you want to study in the essay. It’s all about your personal background written in a compelling manner, almost like a short story. You don’t need to convince anyone of your academic talent per se, but rather your interesting life story and background. You are encouraged to be creative and stand out with that creativity. As a friend of mine likes to say, you can write your US personal essay about blue cheese. That’s how creative it can be.

Here is the first paragraph from my personal essay to the US:

Behind the neat row of books on my shelf lies a shrouded artifact. A chunky, rose-colored scrapbook, the cover decorated with letters cut from floral paper to compose “NEW YORK.” The asymmetrical letters, glue stains, and half-fallen letter e reveal my embarrassingly poor handcraft skills; floor plans, receipts, and boarding passes stick out the pages. Hesitantly, I grab the book written shortly after arriving home from my school’s American Studies trip in October 2017. The content between the unartistic covers is so beautiful that I have not been bold enough to read it until now.

Understand the difference now? In the UK essay, I start by stating a legal opinion and then introducing myself and my academic background. In the US essay, I’m looking at a scrapbook on my bookshelf and telling about a trip to New York a couple of years prior. 

I will be delving much deeper into how to write an effective essay for both countries, so stay tuned!


In the US they are really important, in the UK, not so much. The application is much more rigorous in the US, where you don’t only list your academic achievements, but what you do outside of school as well. 

However, it’s not like it doesn’t matter at all in the UK what you do outside of school. The personal statement is your time to shine and showcase your interest in your chosen subject. This often happens by describing not only what you have learned at school, but how you have cultivated your skills outside of school as well. Here are some snippets from my UK essay where I describe my extracurricular activities and what skills I have gained through them:

I have seen how de jure equality does not assure an equal position in society. During two years with ShedHelsinki, a theatre group promoting equal opportunity, I saw the lack of opportunities for disabled people.

I have been following the debate on the common values of the EU and how infringing on them ought to be punished. Having done close research on the relationship between Hungary and Finland, it intrigues me how much nations vary from each other from a juridical perspective, despite belonging to a comprehensive economic, political, and legal union. 

In the US, there is a whole section about extracurricular activities, and they matter quite a lot in the application. In the section, you can list up to 10 different activities, and how much time you spend on each. We’re going to delve deeper into extracurriculars in a future post, so stay tuned! Overall though, the US admissions officers want to understand you as a person and your values, so understanding how you spend your free time is an essential part of that. 


For the UK application, you only need one letter, yay! This is what is said on the UCAS site about who can write the letter:

Most people ask one of their high school teachers. If it has been a while since you graduated though, you can ask your employer, supervisor, or whoever is close to you at this point of your life. My letter was written by my English teacher. 

In the US, it depends on the school you apply to. For most selective schools like Harvard, three are required: one from your school counselor and two from teachers. I again had my English teacher, my world religions teacher, and my school counselor. I also had an extra one written by my dance teacher, but that was in no way necessary. Many schools actually don’t accept any extra letters of recommendation. 

I believe that the style of these letters is rather similar, and often you can’t even influence much what your teacher will write. However, the UK admissions officers are more interested in hearing about your academic abilities, whereas the US admission officers will also look into your personality traits and the way you interact with your peers based on your teachers’ descriptions. 

Do you need to ask for a letter of recommendation soon? Check my other post: How to Get the Perfect Letter of Recommendation. To provide your teacher with some helpful resources for writing a letter, check out my post How to Write a Perfect Letter of Recommendation. 


In general, there are no standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT required for UK universities. This is simply because, well, those tests are American. Also, in the UK students complete final exams called A-levels, which are standardized. In a lot of other countries, there are also similar nationwide final exams. 

However, in certain programs in some schools, you need to take an aptitude test. This is true for at least most, if not all, programs at Oxford or Cambridge. Also, the more selective the school is, the more likely there is an aptitude test you have to take. An example of an aptitude test is the LNAT, the Law National Aptitude Test. I had to take it myself when I applied to study Law at Oxford, Glasgow, and King’s College London. The test is somewhat similar to the language part of the SAT and especially similar to the LSAT. The key difference is that it is a computer-based test rather than pen and paper, but it’s still completed at a test center. 

In the US, there is the SAT or ACT when you apply to college, and similar aptitude tests when you apply to graduate schools. However, SAT is currently optional for many colleges due to the pandemic, and it will be interesting to see what its future is going to look like. 


In the UK, only Oxford and Cambridge offer interviews. Some schools may invite a candidate for an interview if they are on the fence about admitting them, but that happens rarely. 

The Oxford and Cambridge interviews are rigorous, multi-round interviews that rely heavily on the subject that you are applying for. You are invited to an interview only if you pass the first screening. That means that your grades and scores met the cut-off and your personal statement was strong enough. The interview is the next important step in the application process because the interview performance determines your admission to the school. 

The US interviews are more personal “chitchats” with a local volunteer graduate of the school. It’s a somewhat minor part of the application process, as some people may not be able to have an interview (e.g. international students who don’t have anyone available to interview them). However, especially competitive schools usually try to interview everyone, and being invited is not an indication of the strength of your application. You should definitely accept the invitation, though, because declining gives a bad impression. Out of the three schools I applied to, only Harvard offered me an interview because there wasn’t anyone from my country available to interview for the other two schools. 

And there we have it! You should now be confident starting your application to all your dream schools, be they in the UK, in the US, or elsewhere 🙂 I didn’t include much information about my experiences with other countries, as in a lot of places it’s much more straightforward. For example, if you want to apply to Ireland, you won’t need to write any essays, only send your school transcripts. 


Article originally posted here.


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