22 December 2022 14:46:02 IST

Vivek Bhandari is the Founder and CEO of edtech company Scholarly. An IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta alumnus, Vivek is passionate about higher education. A former banker and mortgage expert, he mentors students and professionals for admissions to the Ivy Leagues and top universities globally. Over a two-decade career, Vivek has led large global organisations providing banking products, IT-enabled services, technology services, loan servicing, property management, and other real estate services. He has extensive experience of working in India, the US, and Europe, and a strong understanding of these markets. Based in Luxembourg, Vivek regularly travels to North America and India for work.

Study abroad: How to make it to a UK university

The UK continues to be a popular destination for international college students. The primary reasons being the high academic standards of UK universities and opportunities to live and work upon completion of studies. While Oxford and Cambridge (jointly referred to as Oxbridge) stand at the pinnacle of research institutions, the UK is also home to the highly respected Russell Group of Universities.

These are twenty-four prestigious institutions including Imperial College London, University College London, University of Manchester, and University of Edinburgh located in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  Interestingly, in contrast to other popular English-speaking countries like the US or Canada where undergraduate studies are for four years, the UK offers courses for three or four years.

Some of the universities also offer partial scholarships, bursaries, and financial support to deserving international students. All these factors make the UK an attractive destination for international students.

Although there is a streamlined application process for UK universities through UCAS, the admissions are quite competitive with many applicants for each available seat. Additionally, since students can only apply to five universities, they need strategically choose the universities they are applying to. It is important for students to understand what the universities look for in their applications and how to best position themselves in front of their dream university.  

Early preparation

How early should one apply? The sooner, the better. Leading universities around the world assess student grades and activities from grades 9 to 12. Especially, for admissions to UK universities, academic performance is very important. As such, it is advisable that students focus on their studies from grade 9.

For some courses, there might be unique subject prerequisites. Many aspiring medicine students are surprised to learn that chemistry and math are key subjects for admission to medical programmes instead of biology. Similarly, for studying economics or business, students should have studied math throughout high school.

Additionally, high school is the right time for students to develop their extracurricular interests and identify opportunities for future projects and subject-related activities. Also, since the student will need to make critical choices regarding the subject, board, stream, or school selection in grade 11, it is important to have an idea of what they plan to study in college. 

When to apply?

For most UK universities, the applications are submitted 8-12 months in advance. So, for the session starting in September 2023, the students will submit their applications between October 2022 and February 2023. The deadlines are different for different programmes such as medicine, economics, computer science, engineering or architecture.

Please research the exact deadlines for your specific programme carefully. Universities do not have to consider applications received after the deadline, although they can if they have spaces available once the on-time applications have been considered. 

Taking tests

In general, Oxford and Cambridge have their own entrance tests for specific fields/areas of study to assess the applicant’s candidature. For example, if a student wants to pursue Engineering at Cambridge, they will be required to appear for their Engineering Admissions Assessment (EAA).

Similarly, for admissions to Oxford for medicine, students need to appear for the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT). Similarly, students planning to study architecture, business, or economics will need to appear for the relevant tests. Additionally, Oxbridge may conduct admission interviews after the test.

Other than Oxbridge, other UK universities do not require standardised tests for most streams. The exception is medicine, where several universities require standardised tests like BMAT or UCAT. We usually advise students to draw up a long list of ten target universities while entering grade 11 and prepare diligently. Based on their performance in grade 11 (and applicable tests) they can shortlist the final five universities.

Evaluation criteria

Regardless of which curriculum you are in, IGCSE, IB, CBSE, and ISCE academic scores are a high priority. The other aspects of your application, such as research papers, activities, and community service are secondary. So, it is crucial for students to have stellar grades, especially in their core subjects. For certain courses, universities may also require students to provide a sample of their written work or art portfolio.

In addition to the grades and test performance and interview, UK universities also require the student’s personal statement or Statement of Purpose (SOP) and two reference letters. The SOP should cover; the students’ career aspirations, how they developed an interest in their subject, any relevant work or research experience related to their subject, and their plans. The reference letters are usually provided by the teachers that have observed the student closely.

Studying at a top UK university can be a rewarding experience and can facilitate long-term opportunities for students. With timely planning and preparation, students can gain admission to their dream university.