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The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

7 top tips when applying for top universities in the US and UK

Want to apply to the top universities in the US and UK? We’ve got some tips for you here..

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Harvard, Cambridge, Imperial, Stanford, Williams and Durham- these are among the world’s top universities. These well-known names don’t just inspire awe in students, but they also help boost a candidate’s resume which is why there are extremely popular among students planning on taking their degrees. Want to apply to any of these universities or any other highly selective university for that matter? We tell you what they’re looking for when selecting students and how you can increase your chances of getting a place.


Apply, apply, apply

This is might silly and simple common sense, but you’d be surprised how many students assume they won’t get in due to the stiff competition and place themselves out of the race. So be sure to apply, you may not get a place at your first choice institution or your preferred course, but you most definitely would not have a place if you don’t even apply to begin with. You never know, you might actually succeed! Then you won’t be left wondering for years about the “what ifs” had you not applied.


Good grades are essential

Good grades are very important in most universities, more so in a highly selective university. You should have good grades for your school examinations and good scores in any additional tests. In the UK, students apply to universities using their achieved grades to date as well as their predicted grades for school-leaving examinations like the A levels, International Baccalaureate etc. You may also be required to submit additional work or take a special test (you will need to do well for these tests).


In the US, you will also apply with your school record to date and need to undertake specific admissions test such as the SAT or ACT and you will need good scores for these as well. 


If you have very good grades, but not top grades, don’t hesitate to apply and state in your application form why you grades are slightly lower than others or better yet get your referees to explain that you have a lot more potential to be a high achiever.


Not JUST good grades, in the US

Highly selective universities in the US look for well-rounded students, and not just someone with exceptional grades. If you’re great at sports, the impressive your awards are, the better. Maybe you have an unusual family context or extremely talented in creating wonderful works of art or have a strong, outstanding volunteering history- maybe leading various public awareness campaigns and successfully raising enough funds for your chosen charity to move to a better facility.


The reason that these universities are looking beyond the grades is simply because they receive so many applicants each year and most of them have high enough grades to make them eligible for admission. Bear in mind that most competitive universities can reject as many as nine in ten applicants.


In the UK, while you can describe your extracurricular involvement in your application form, this is unlikely to sway the admissions panel to voting in your favour. A stellar academic record is the most important. However, if you apply for a course that conducts interviews as part of their selection process, then be prepared to talk about any of the activities that you have mentioned in your application.


For those applying to universities in the US, write down your unique talent and other accomplishments outside the classroom that you have. For universities in the UK, weave a compelling story of your academic achievements, your potential and interest in studying the subject that you have applied to.


Demonstrate genuine interest in the university and course

If you’re applying for a university in the UK, you will need to choose the subject that you want when you apply. Thus, everything in your application should point to that subject and why you’re keen to pursue it. This includes your personal statement, your references and even during the interview process (if there is one). Ensure that you convince the admissions panel that you are genuinely excited and interested to study that particular subject at the university. For instance, maybe you’ve taken up a specific project related to it outside of your curriculum or you’ve read books beyond what your school requires. If you get called for an interview, you will need to remember what you have applied for and be prepared in making your case and why you want to attend this particular course with the university and of course why you chose to apply to that university in the first place.


Choosing a subject when you apply to a university is not generally the case in the US. You don’t have to decide which main subject you would like to study at the point of application. However, having said that, there are some applicants that have already decided and make a case for getting a place based on their interest in the subject. More often than not, most applicants just make a general case for admission. It is essential that you include an explanation of why you chose that university, why you want to go there and what you can contribute to the student community.


Many top universities in the US hold interviews with alumni as part of their admissions process. This is where it is very important for you to make a convincing case for yourself, why you are interested in the institution that they represent and do your homework about what is on offer.


Be yourself

You need to stay true to who you are, but don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Include all of your achievements, but remember not to embellish them, most selectors can see through that. If you only won the bronze medal for your high school science competition, don’t claim that it’s for a national science competition or that you were awarded gold. There are plenty of applicants that still get placed without these achievements. Sell yourself, but don’t oversell or fake it.


Stay organised AND proofread

This tip applies to ANY university application, not just for the highly competitive universities. Each university will have a different application deadline. For instance, deadlines for Oxford, Cambridge and medicine courses in UK are about one year before you start your first semester at the university. In the US, some universities hold two rounds of applications where they take in two batches of students and they each start at a different time. You will need sufficient time to gather the relevant documents required, obtain references, proofreading your application and getting feedback on your application.


Maintain perspective

Competition for a place in the world’s top institutions will definitely be stiff and there is a chance that you might not get it. Don’t despair. These institutions aren’t the ONLY universities out there worth attending. There are dozens of prestigious universities that you can go to. Heading off to a university is an experience of a lifetime, where you get to stay away from your family and learn to be independent. The competition between universities have been increasing, so a lot of time and resources are dedicated in improving a university’s course and providing the best education to their students.



Interested in studying abroad? Check out the courses available here.

Want to know more about a certain university? Download university prospectuses now!


Useful links

Five ways to make the most of your study abroad

Eight mistakes to avoid when packing for your study abroad

Four things that you bring home from your study abroad

Five kinds of cameras that you should take during your study abroad

Choosing a course to study

How to save travel money guide for students


Photo credit: Leeroy

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