How to Get into College in the US or the UK: Secrets for Success

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If you’re looking around the world and considering where you want to attend college, then you’ve already set your sights high. It’s no secret that the United States and Great Britain offer the very best in higher education. Beyond the monumental names – Harvard, Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge – there are many other excellent colleges and universities in the US and UK that far exceed what’s available beyond the Anglo-American world.

As you start to plan your applications, you’ll probably find that the basics won’t differ much. For any application you’ll need to provide information about your high school performance, your English skills (TOEFL), standardized test scores (SAT, ACT), visas and so on. Look a little closer though and you’ll find that the two systems are not so similar. At Ivy Summit we have the experience and resources to guide you through any application process. In the US and the UK, you’ll need to use different strategies to present yourself and ensure your success. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

US Universities Want to Know You! 

The United States is known for its independent streak. American colleges and universities are no different. When approaching the admissions process, most schools have their own online application system and each has its own little quirks.

Especially at the most elite schools, perfect grades and excellent test scores do not guarantee entry. Lots of students do well on their SATs! To stand out, you need to show the school who you are, how you’re different from other applicants, and why you belong at that particular school. That’s where some measure of personal branding comes in. You’ll need to highlight what aspects of your character represent who you are.


“With the top schools, it’s not just about showing your potential, applicants need to be clear about who they are right now.” – Brian Giroux, Ivy Summit Founder, and President

In the US there is a uniform application that is accepted at many universities called the Common App. However, this does not preclude schools from adding supplementary short answer or essay questions. These written responses provide admissions officers with more information in order to make their decisions. They want to know what passion projects you pursued, what event changed your life, and whatever else has shaped who you are.

American colleges and universities aren’t solely interested in attracting the “smartest” or most “well rounded” students. Arguably admissions officers are looking for applicants who seem to be the right fit for their institution. Like so many puzzle pieces, applicants need to be properly placed into a certain culture, tradition or strength of each college. In essence, you need to tell them why you should be accepted to that particular school. What is it about you that makes you right for MIT or Michigan or Claremont McKenna? Every school has a profile, and while you can expect a high-quality education at each of them, the experience is worlds apart.

All in all, American schools give you the opportunity to spell out in words who you are. In some ways, this is a serious advantage since you can explain what it is that makes you special. At the same time, this format requires that you have the ability to communicate clearly in writing, and that can often be a challenge for high school students. Every student needs help to put their best foot forward.

UK Admissions: Strategize your Tests and Hope for the Best! 

By contrast, the UK system is completely uniform and it does not allow the same opportunities to make a case for yourself. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have the chance to show a school what your abilities and strengths are.

If you’re applying to any school in the UK, you’ll start with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Aside from the usual information, you’ll also need a reference letter from a teacher or adviser and a personal statement. This piece of writing is extremely short though, only 4000 characters (not words!). So that’s only a single page to talk about your greatest accomplishments and make an argument for why you should be accepted.

The UK system does, however, offer another road toward personalization: the A-Levels. The GCE Advanced Level exams (often called A-Levels for short) are British standardized tests for higher education. Much like the SAT or ACT in the United States, all university applicants in the UK have to take these exams to gain entry. The big difference though between the British and American tests is choice.

While all Americans basically take the same tests, British high school students have the ability to choose which A-Level subject exams they want to take. The choice of subject is another opportunity to speak to admissions officers when applying to colleges and universities. Along with all the usual suspects in foreign languages, hard sciences, and humanities, there are also specialized tests for example in accounting, criminology, food technology, and fashion.

With so many choices, how can you strategize? Let’s say you want to apply to Cambridge to study biology. Of course, you’ll want to do well on your biology and other science exams, but so will many other applicants. You might consider then adding in Art History or Philosophy to show that you have range and interests beyond biology alone. Fair warning though, the A-Levels are not easy and many of the subjects require an excellent command of English to do well.

In comparison to the United States, the British application process does not require nearly as much personalization from applicants. There won’t be a different set of essay questions for every school. At the same time though, if you’re applying in the UK, you’re better off knowing what you’d like to study and that’s where the A-Levels come in. You can apply to pursue certain subjects, but you’ll need to demonstrate your mastery of those topics with your exam scores.


Making Your Choice

Both the UK and the US have plenty of amazing institutions of higher learning. If you’re having trouble deciding where you’d like to end up or how to navigate the process, contact us at Ivy Summit. We’ll see you through from beginning to end.

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