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How to Apply to UK Universities as an International Student

You are hardly alone if you’ve been drawn toward the UK for the opportunity to study in an exciting and dynamic, international and diverse, rigorous and prestigious degree program. Hundreds of thousands of students from around the world flock here to fulfill this dream.

Here we’ll discuss the ins-and-outs of applying to one of these programs in the UK, for both undergraduates and post-graduates. Come along!

Why Study in the UK?

Universities in the UK (that is England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) are some of the oldest and most esteemed universities in the world. Their high-quality reputation makes them appealing to students from around the globe, and in fact the UK is the second largest nation to host international students (after the US); there are currently over 600,000 international students studying in these countries.

If you rely on global rankings to determine qualifying schools, dozens of the 160+ UK universities are reflected as some of the highest ranked on these lists. The UK is ranked second in the world for science and research, and 54 percent of the output is world-leading. That’s more than the US, Canada, Germany, Japan and Brazil. There are plentiful opportunities for work placements and internships offered in the UK, even for international students. And there is flexibility and customization with regard to shaping your own degree with the UK’s “modular” and “combined” programming.

At Beyond the States we suggest not putting all stock in global rankings since this doesn’t give you a comprehensive picture of what the experience will be like. Check out our methodology for determining ideal programs and universities in the UK and EU.

Importantly, the UK has notoriously high standards when it comes equality, diversity, and inclusivity, and this can be an important aspect for students to take into consideration. For instance, universities here are supported by a number of charters that support these standards. Some examples of these charters are the Advance HE Race Equality Charter and the Athena Swan Charter (transforming gender equality). Institutions that have met the requirements of these charters are recognized with awards, and these can often be found on their websites. You can also check out the Advance HE website to learn about each UK institution’s award level.

As well, most UK universities have dedicated support teams for those with various disabilities, which may be an important factor for you. Check out the UCAS website to learn more about what resources are available for international students in this respect, and guidance for students with disabilities.

Overall, the UK is currently welcoming more international students than ever before and is offering an attractive work visa opportunity after graduation (graduate route visa) – another benefit of studying, and then staying in the UK to work after you’ve graduated.

If you haven’t already decided on a program or school in the UK, head over to the Beyond the States database of accredited UK programs, where you can sift through and understand the distinctive qualities, take advantage of a team of experts to guide you, and find your ideal fit.

Applying for an Undergraduate Degree

Students applying for undergraduate programs in the UK have a few options for application systems. The primary route is to go through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service); it is the UK’s centralized application system where you can register and apply to all UK universities and colleges. But you may also have the option to apply through CommonApp, and although this is the US’s centralized application platform; there are UK options included as well. Finally, applying directly to the university’s online system is another possibility, but you’ll have to check with the university’s site first to see any rules or guidance around this option.

Applying through UCAS

You’ll begin by registering your details in their application system. For certain courses, the application procedure will be its own, such as with Medicine, Veterinary Science, Teacher Training, Performing Arts (conservatory), and for Oxford and Cambridge. First, you’ll enter your email address and details any types of support you may need while at university. You’ll include an academic or professional reference (not from a family member or friend), a personal statement, and any employment history. Of course, you’ll provide your education history beginning from secondary education, and if you’re still studying add your “predicted grades”. You’ll also be able to apply for your student visa here as well (but more on that below).

What is expected in the personal statement?

A personal statement in the UK entails a few aspects. It wants to see your skills, hobbies, and interests reflected, beyond your choice of course, why you want to study in the UK, and why you think you’ll be a successful student. For undergraduate statements, the word count is typically around 500 words, but for post-graduate statements, you should head directly to the university page first to see if there are specific guidelines on length etc. You can certainly find personal statement templates online for reference – check out this page on how to write your personal statement, and to see examples.

Of course, an AI tool, like ChatGPT, is also an option you can choose to help with your personal statement. It’s a delicate balance on how best to use it, and you should understand the potential issues around its use in this case. Before utilizing ChatGPT or other AI, read the UCAS Guide to Using AI and ChatGPT with Your Personal Statement.

What are the application deadlines?

Most UK schools have rolling admissions. For international students applying for undergraduate courses, the current deadline for most courses is January 31 (subject to change each year), and it gives a student the best chance of acceptance. That is considered their “equal consideration” deadline, which entails that institutions of learning must consider all applications equally received by this date. Applications received after this date aren’t required consideration, but if there are still spaces available once the on-time applications have been considered, schools may still take these applications into consideration into June. The exception to these rules is for Cambridge and Oxford, since their undergraduate application deadline is October 15.

For post-graduate applications, students should go directly to the university page, since they can vary. Typically June or July is the deadline for courses that begin in the fall of that year.

Of course, we always urge students to apply as early as possible in order to get the best chance of acceptance into the program, but also to allow time to apply for a visa, scholarships or other funding, and to secure housing.


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Applying for a Post-Graduate Degree

There are slightly different rules around applying to post-graduate vs undergraduate programs in the UK. These courses typically have their own entry requirements and application steps, and a student should check the university course websites for guidance on how to apply. Generally, you’ll include your personal details in the application, including any qualifications. A reference or contact will be required, as well as a personal statement. Many post-graduate courses have an open deadline, but you should always attempt to apply as early as you’re able.

Some areas of study at the post-graduate level, like business or MBA or Medical, may have application deadlines, and so you should always get clarity on the university’s program site around these details. And although most programs do not require a graduate admissions test, some specific degrees may require a GMAT or MCAT score. Again, looking carefully at the university program’s requirement details is important.

Finally, Accepting Your Offer

You’ll learn, either via the UCAS site or directly (by email), if you’ve received a conditional, unconditional, or unaccepted offer from the university program. If you receive a conditional offer, this means that the spot is yours upon the condition that you fulfill their entry requirements as planned. In some cases you may be asked to do an interview ahead of receiving an offer, either via phone or in-person.


Is it harder for international students to get into UK universities?

Not necessarily, but you will have more initial steps to take. Beginning a program search early, and deciding on a program (or programs) to apply to is the first step. Making sure that your credentials and qualifications meet the UK standards is important, and then checking that you meet the program’s specific entry requirements. Native English speakers shouldn’t have to show language proficiency, but if you’re a non-native speaker you will have specific requirements around this. From here you’ll need to make sure you have plenty of time (ideally after you’ve received and accepted an offer) to apply for your student visa, and secure housing for yourself. 

Do UK universities accept a US high school diploma?

Yes, the US high school diploma is typically recognized for admission, but there are other aspects to consider when applying for UK university programs. For instance, your GPA and transcripts may be considered, and there may be specific requirements here depending on the program and area of study. Standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT may also be a requirement, and certain scores. College Board APs are also recognized in the UK and these may be part of admissions requirements, depending on the program you’re applying to. UK universities traditionally admit students based on their A-Level results (a UK qualification), and they typically consider APs to equate to these A-Levels.

Can you transfer from a US university to a UK university?

Possibly, but there are many things to consider. The higher education system in the UK (as well as the EU) varies from the US system, particularly when it comes to how university programs are structured and also their duration. Undergraduate programs in both the UK and the EU are typically more specialized and concentrated, and their durations are often shorter than those in the US. This can make transferring credits, especially US general education credits, challenging. Whether or not you will be able to transfer college credits, or even a certain amount of those credits, will depend on the university’s rules related to transferring; you’ll have to visit the school/program’s online page, and most-likely the school’s international admissions office, to get clarity. 

Where can I get further help and support on applying to schools in the UK?

We got you! To learn even more about this process, but also how to explore the different options in the UK, head to Beyond the States, where you’ll get access to our rich, updated database of accredited programs in the UK and the EU. Sit down (virtually) with one of our experts and get personalized support that will help you find your Best-Fit program.

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