An Overview of Applying to Top UK Universities

Jakub Labun

Imperial’s South Kensington Campus

Imperial’s South Kensington Campus

Your first steps to studying at UK’s best universities

Studying abroad is a great adventure that will widen your horizons and grant you thousands of new possibilities. Here, I will outline the very basics of applying to study in the United Kingdom, in particular its top universities, so you can learn what the overall process looks like.

What universities are out there?

You must have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, the most renowned universities in the UK. While they may sound mythical at first, they are actually in your reach and would always devote time to assess your application, no matter your background. They view each candidate as a separate case and care a lot about your academic potential - far more than other things such as extracurriculars. If you are a naturally curious person with a lively interest in your subject, then you have a good chance!

Oxford and Cambridge share a lot of similarities. Both use the famous tutorial system, where students are taught in small groups of 1-4 usually, in addition to lectures. Both are stunningly beautiful and permeated with bizarre traditions. And both use the college system so that each student is assigned to their ‘house’ (read: college, though you choose the college you apply to, as opposed to being assigned one by a sorting hat), just like in Harry Potter, in which students live, eat and sleep, becoming part of a family-like community. They are both crazy about their sports, most notably rowing, and would meet each year to compete in countless disciplines (also known as Varsity matches). And, most importantly, they are both amazing places to spend your initial years of adolescence while having great fun, meeting inspirational people and developing yourself academically, all at once.

If you prefer the atmosphere of a great, vibrant metropolis, studying in London may be your thing. Here, you may be considering London School of Economics, Imperial College London or University College London, depending on the course you are interested in. The experience will be much different, less mythical, and more urban than in Oxford or Cambridge – but this does not mean it will be any less exciting!

How the application system works

The whole application process is centralised and officially hosted on the UCAS platform. You need to register by filling in a couple of forms and then you are good to go!. Everything you do regarding your application will be processed by UCAS. After you have registered, you can start selecting universities and courses. Up to five can be chosen (of which a maximum of 4 can be Medicine/Dentistry/Vet), and Oxford and Cambridge cannot be picked at the same time – so you’ll have to make up your mind! It is generally a good idea to apply to more than one university, as they all receive the same application pack – it is a very small fuss for a higher chance of success.

Then, you will have to write a personal statement (PS), which is a 4000 characters long essay describing your motivations and key achievements. The purpose of the personal statement is to articulate to your university that you are the perfect candidate with lots of academic potential and to assure them that you will not squander the chance if you are successful. You will also need to ask your teacher for your predicted grades and for a reference letter. Start early to allow for time for many edits!

Once you have your PS written, referee contacted and grades’ predictions uploaded around early October, it is time to wait. For some universities (like LSE or UCL) that will be the end of the journey, for Oxford and Cambridge, however, this is just the beginning, so you will have many more opportunities to prove your academic potential in the subsequent steps of the process.

Next in line would be the aptitude tests, usually in November, which you will need to register for separately via a link that they will email you closer to the date. Their purpose is to check your ability to think on your feet and solve problems you have not encountered before. With proper preparation they should not be a problem. Many social sciences subjects would take the famous TSA test, but each course may have its own exam. The test result has a considerable impact regarding getting to further stages, but is not that important later on. More information on these can be found on the official websites of either universities.

After the test comes the invitation to the interview – so that means you are flying to the UK! This is easily the most exciting part of the recruitment process and usually happens in early December. You will get to meet your tutors/supervisors and show them in person that they would actually enjoy teaching you for the upcoming three years. You will get to see your dream university over a day or two of fully funded accommodation, meet like-minded peers and dine in straight-from-Harry-Potter dining hall for free! Interviews are a great experience, but can seem stressful beforehand – make sure you come prepared! Most candidates have one to three 30-minute interviews and spend a few days enjoying their future potential colleges.

For those interviewing outside of the UK, do take note of the earlier deadline for your UCAS submission and interview (which will likely happen before the aptitude test)!

You will get your offers from Oxford or Cambridge around January. The British system may be different than that in your home country: once you get an offer, you are not automatically a student. The offer will usually give you certain conditions that you have to meet to be enrolled – typically sitting a language certificate and achieving a proper A-Levels/IB/national exam score, based on what they think you are capable of achieving. The point of this is to not keep you idle and complacent once you have secured a place at a top university, so make sure you do not fail the final sprint – the vast majority of people don’t, so no need to worry!

The journey is long but also exciting and rewarding! For your convenience, this is the timeline of all the important deadlines (though note that it might be different for some countries and subjects e.g. Medicine).