Applying to UK Universities from the USA [Guest Post by Jelle van der Hilst]

Today’s post is by my friend Jelle, who’s going to school in the UK. I hope this helps anyone interested in schools over there.

Applying to UK Universities from the USA

A Practical Guide by Jelle van der Hilst


There and Back Again: A (Very Tall) Hobbit’s Tale


1) First off, know your deadlines

The deadlines for the UK are as follows:

  • Courses at Oxford and Cambridge (Henceforth ‘Oxbridge’): October 15th.
  • Everything else, save some medicine courses: January 15th

2) Make a UCAS account

Head over to and go Apply–>Register and Apply–>Apply for 2014 Courses. Then click ‘register’ and make your account. You are applying as an individual, for future reference.

3) Fill out the application

It will ask you a lot of information, but luckily the whole system is very streamlined and coherent. Go through each section carefully; the ‘?’ buttons can be very useful if you aren’t used to the terminology or categories. You can choose up to five courses to apply to; in case of Oxbridge, you’ll also get to choose your college right on that section under ‘campus’.

4) Write your essay

Be careful- this is NOTHING like the American college essay!  It should actually contain information relevant to you as a student, to your interest in the chosen subject, and to yourself as a person. Revolutionary. The format is very strict and generally it’s a lot easier as a result. You get up to 4000 characters, which is about 400-500 words, but it can vary based on how lengthy the contents of your lexicon are. In the first two thirds/three quarters of it, you should write about your chosen subject. Think about the following: How did you start to develop an interest in your chosen subject? What classes did you take during high school to support this interest/ how did you shape your exploration of this subject? What clubs did you do outside of your school time to explore this interest? Did you do any internships or work placements or (a-hem) summer camps in this subject? If you did, I’d talk about that for at least a quarter to a third of your essay. The last third/fourth should be about you as a person, but I’d still shape this with regard to you as a student. What clubs do you do, languages do you speak, world experiences that touched you, sports you do, things you want to get out of college, etc, etc. Don’t make it too slimy but don’t be afraid to brag–but don’t make it obvious. Also, last warning–if you get an interview anywhere, there’s a serious chance they’ll nitpick from your essay, so I wouldn’t casually mention things to inflate your essay. I mentioned a teeny little biochemical protocol I handled for like an hour in my month-long internship, but Cambridge grilled me on it for a good third of my interview, to my complete embarrassment.

4.5) Predicted grades

Every UK applicant coming from “sixth form” (their high school) is applying with a set of “predicted grades”; these are calculated for them based on their past and current performance on key exams. You, as a US applicant not from this system, will get to supply your own “predicted grades”. What they want here is standardized test scores: AP, the ones you’ll be taking at the end of the year (scores you’ve already taken should go in the other qualifications section); SAT, both subject and reasoning (you most probably already have these scores and won’t be taking them again–if so, they should go in the previous qualifications section too); and any other standardized things you may have taken a swing at, if they’re available from the drop-down menu.

5) Secure your reference

In order for your application to be valid, you need one ‘referee’ who can write you a letter of recommendation for the course you’re applying to. I believe the uni might contact them if they want more information about you, too, so make sure you give valid information (phone, email, address). Equally important is choosing the right person; obviously you want someone who’ll have nice things to say about you, but the massively relevant thing here is to select someone who teaches in the subject you’re applying for, or as close to it as possible. I applied for biochemistry and asked a science teacher; for engineering, I’d ask a physics/math teacher, for medicine a biology teacher, for English a humanities teacher, etc. This letter needs to be sent by the referee BEFORE the due date, if I remember correctly, because you can’t apply without that. It’s sent independently by the referee, and once it’s submitted, it’ll show on your application at UCAS (not the text, but that it’s been done).

6) Pay and submit!

Well, you’ll obviously need to pay for the applications, but it’s ridiculously cheap compared to the US, so A+ there. £23 for up to five applications and £11 for just the one (if you do just do one, or actually anything under five, you can always apply later and fill up the rest of the applications if your first one doesn’t work out, as long as this is before the deadline.) I applied for Cambridge for the October deadline, didn’t get in, added four universities to the application the week before January 15th, and heard from King’s College London in 36 hours with their offer. Ended up getting into all of the rest, so never panic! And then just submit your app.

7)Supplement (?)

If you’re applying Oxbridge, you’ll probably have to do a supplement, but the college will walk you through it and there’s a different due date, I recall. It can have some more serious writing bits, so put thought into it! Also, have fun re-entering all your qualifications.


If you get to the interview phase, be very proud! That’s the first selection at Oxbridge. They will give you about two weeks’ notice to get to your interview date at the university; if you want, they’ll house you, but they definitely won’t fund your plane ticket and other expenses. You will most likely miss a considerable bit of school (just under a week; I got it down to just three days because I was really lucky with the date) and, again, you’ll have very little warning, so keep that in mind. I’ll just speak for Oxbridge for now, since I didn’t need an interview anywhere else, but you’ll have one to two interviews depending on your college. Actually, most everything will depend on your college. Two things will be invariable: you will be out-of-your-skin nervous (I missed a guy’s hand when he extended it to shake mine) and they will try their hardest to put you out of your comfort zone. Again, not at all like the American counterpart. I’ll talk a bit about my Natural Sciences application, and you can extrapolate from that for whatever major. My first interview was with two people, a biochemist and a biophysicist. They started off with questions drawn from my essay (‘FISH protocols’ still make me shiver with nerves) and then slowly transitioned to other biochemistry things; one gave me a model of a chain of amino acids and grilled me about that (“Which way would this fold in an acidic solution? And in human cystosis? How many amino acids do you have in front of you? Which atoms are the most important here?”) Then the other gave me a chart, one I’d never seen before (he expected that), and asked me to interpret it with his help. Lastly, he asked me about biological elements, ranging from the classic “point out the six most common on a periodic table” to “calculate the mass of all the protein in a human body”. The important thing, really, is to relax, and definitely try to enjoy the problems–the last one, for example, was actually really interesting and conceptual; I was really proud when I’d worked my way through it. I won’t talk about the second interview since it was mostly the same.  And then they’re done,  you go home, and you don’t hear anything for a few weeks.

9) Results

I’ve not much to say about this; everyone’s path is different, and there’s a fair dose of luck. Colleges can all have different results– winter pool, conditional offer, unconditional offer, straight-out rejection (‘your application was unsuccessful’). The one you’ll most likely get, when all’s said and done, is either a conditional offer or a rejection. The former just means that you must get the scores they stipulate in the offer; once achieved, these scores insure your place at a college. So, again, don’t lie and predict yourself three fives when in fact you think you might very well get two threes and a four– the university will still want to see these.


Okay, that ended up being longer than I anticipated or wanted.  If you want to know more about any particular thing, definitely let me know! Good luck!”


If you have any questions or comments, leave them below and I’ll pass them along to Jelle.

Jack Struck

Student in our nation's capital, studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. Web designer, runner, reader, and leader.

2 thoughts to “Applying to UK Universities from the USA [Guest Post by Jelle van der Hilst]”

    1. “Unfortunately, they don’t. At least at Cambridge they don’t. Every international student comes in unless you have a pressing financial matter, in which case they *might* skype with you. But generally, no.” – Jelle

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