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Applying to US and UK universities: what you need to know

Key differences in applying, culture, and curriculum

Applying to universities can be a daunting process for both students and parents – I’m sure that’s why you’re here! Deciding which country to apply to can be even more challenging, especially when it comes to the many incredible options in both United States and the United Kingdom. Both countries offer excellent higher education opportunities, but there are some key differences in the application process, curriculum, and culture.

Whether you are a parent or student considering studying abroad, this post will offer university application advice and key insights to help you make an informed decision.

First, let’s talk a little about the US: The US university system is known for its diversity and flexibility. Students can choose from a wide range of courses and majors and minors and can even create their own interdisciplinary programs. Most US colleges follow the liberal arts approach to education, which emphasises critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving - essential skills in today's rapidly changing job market.

While the US university system emphasises breadth and character, the UK university system is renowned for its academic rigor and specialisation. Students typically apply to a specific program, and the curriculum is focused on the chosen subject. The UK's traditional academic approach prioritises research and analysis, which provides students with a deep understanding of their field. Let’s look at a few key differences between both systems:

Application evaluation

When it comes to the how applicants are evaluated, there are some significant differences between the two systems. While both systems place academic performance at the heart of their evaluation, US universities take a more holistic, whole-person approach, with each school focusing on its individual institutional priorities to make up its incoming class. Students need to write a personal statement (very different in style to the UK) and shorter supplemental essays, submit a list of activities and their engagement within those activities, and provide letters of recommendation. Schools also often look at standardised tests – the SAT, ACT. All of that alongside your academic performance will be taken into consideration by admissions offices.

Although most US schools are “test optional” meaning a student can choose to submit scores or not, the data show that international students overwhelmingly submit scores with their applications. Some systems, including the University of California system, are completely “test-blind” which means they won’t consider standardised test scores at all.

In contrast, UK universities place more primary emphasis on academic performance and scholarship, and a much smaller emphasis on “supercurriculars” (those activities you take on that help you develop your subject knowledge and academic schools beyond your school studies), essays, and interviews. Many top programmes also require students to take one or more subject-specific tests, such as the UCAT (Medicine), LNAT (Law), or MAT (Mathematics). Interviews are also commonplace for competitive universities.

Application timelines

US universities offer three main application deadlines: Early Action/Decision, with most applications due in November of the year prior to entry, and 1 January for their regular decision applications. UK universities, on the other hand, have a later deadline, with most applications due in January.

Number of applications

The number of applications you can submit is also a key difference. In the US, you can apply for an unlimited number of colleges or universities (most applicants submit anywhere from 10-15), but in the UK, you are limited to 5 courses. These five courses are typically the same course but at five different universities, but they can vary slightly. If you’re specifically applying for medicine, you will be limited to 4 medicine courses, but you can choose a 5th, related course, to complete your 5.

Length & structure of undergraduate study

In the US, undergraduates typically spend four years completing their studies, where they spend the first two years studying a more broad, liberal arts curriculum, before specialising (or declaring a “Major”) in their final two years. In fact, many students enter US University “undeclared” (with no particular major), only “declaring” their official major in their second year, meaning you often apply to the university itself and not a particular course.

In the UK, without the requirements of a broad curriculum and a focus on depth of study, undergraduate programmes typically last for three years, with a focus on a specific area of study and the pursuit of your academic passions and their pursuits.


Culture is a significant difference between the two countries' university systems. The US has a vibrant campus life, with a wide range of extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs. Many students choose to live on campus for the first couple of years (with some universities requiring campus residence in the first year), which fosters a strong sense of community.

UK universities often have a more formal atmosphere, with less of an emphasis on campus life. Students typically live in shared housing or dorms in their first year, and then into shared flats or houses, which can provide a more independent living experience.

Here are some key differences between US and UK universities:

​US universities

UK universities


Liberal arts approach; students can choose from a wide range of courses and majors and minors.

​Specialised approach; students typically apply to a specific program.

​Application process

Emphasis on whole person - personal essays, test scores, and letters of recommendation all factor in.

​Emphasis on academic performance and potentially subject-specific tests (such as the MAT, LNAT, or UCAT).

Application timeline

Three main entry points: Early applications with most applications due in November of the year prior to entry, and Regular Decision with deadlines around 1 January.

Later application deadline, with most applications due in January.

​Number of applications

​Unlimited, but typically around 10-15.

Limited to 5 courses.

​Campus life and culture

Vibrant campus life with a wide range of extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs. Many students live on campus.

More formal atmosphere with less emphasis on campus life. Students typically live in in student housing for the first year and then shared flats or houses.

Academic rigor

Diverse range of courses and majors with an emphasis on critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving.

Deep understanding of the chosen subject with greater emphasis on independent study and research.

Considering a Dual Track Application? It's essential to understand the differences above in the application process and the curriculum and plan your timeline carefully, as the deadlines for each system may differ. You must consider the cost of studying in each country and the potential financial aid options available. It’s crucial to stay organized and keep track of all the necessary documentation and deadlines.

Overall, there are great benefits to studying in both the US and the UK. Both systems offer great potential future pathways, and the key is identifying which type of system would best benefit you or your student as they work towards their academic or professional futures.

Our university application advice

Need more university application advice on exploring your options and planning your upcoming applications? At TIEC, we have specialists who have helped students apply to both systems for over 20 years. Contact us, and we’ll schedule a complementary consultation to talk to you about your options and set out a plan for your courses ahead.

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