IB Educator Alethea Bleyberg is here to explain everything you need to know about applying for university in the UK
Our resident education expert Alethea Bleyberg has already tackled topics such as choosing IB Diploma subjects and how to study for exams, but here she’s sharing info on one of the most popular topics for students: what to know about applying for university in the UK. Now, go forth and get educated!
12 things to know about applying for university in the UK
As the summer draws nearer, the university application season is beckoning for the Class of 2021. For Hong Kong students, the United Kingdom is a perennially attractive destination for higher education. With more than 150 universities and hundreds of other higher education institutions such as dance, film and business schools, studying in the UK has never been more popular. 2019 saw 5,100 applications from Hong Kong students to the UK, a surge on the previous year, and Hong Kong is the UK’s second largest international applicant pool after mainland China. So what do you need to know before you get started on the application?
1. MA vs BA
When students start their university research they may be puzzled to find that degree programmes at Scottish universities result in a MA rather than a BA (or MSc rather than BSc) and take four years, compared to three years at other institutions. Students applying to MA programmes in Scotland should be aware that these degrees are bachelor level, not master level degrees; the naming convention is historic. Scottish degrees are more aligned to American style four-year programmes which allow students flexibility in the first two years to take courses outside of their specialisation (which might suit some teens better!). Some Scottish universities do also provide the option to finish the degree in three years with a BA qualification.
2. BA vs BSc
Most arts and humanities degrees will result in the award of a BA (Bachelor of Arts) and science degrees in the awards of a BSc (Bachelor of Sciences). However, sometimes the degree award is also institution specific, with Oxford University only offering BAs and London School of Economics offering mostly BScs including in subjects usually considered to be arts disciplines. Some universities offer some subjects, such as Economics, Psychology or Geography as both BAs and BScs. In this case the course content will be different on each course (a BSc in Economics would be more quants heavy, a BA more theory and policy-focussed), so students should understand which course best suits their interests and strengths.
3. Sandwich courses, foundation programmes, and gap years (We Brits love a good visual metaphor!)
Some courses give students the option to undertake a year of work experience, usually in the form of paid or unpaid internships. These are called sandwich courses and are common in subjects with a professional focus such as engineering. Other courses may offer the option to study abroad for a year which is common for language degrees. Students may also choose to take a gap year between finishing school and starting university, in which case they should make sure they apply for the correct year of entry through UCAS. Lastly, for students who do not yet meet the entry requirements for a degree programme, many universities now offer ‘year zero’ foundation courses which are designed to bridge the gap between the knowledge and skills students have and what is required to be successful in the degree programme.
4. Professional accreditation
If you want to study a subject with a professional qualification component, such as Psychology, Medicine or Law, you should make sure that the courses you apply for is recognised – especially if you intend to return to Hong Kong to practice.
5. Types of institution
British universities are typically classified by their age. Ancient universities are those established before 1800 with the oldest being the University of Oxford founded in 1096. The next group are the red brick universities founded between 1800 and 1960. They are named after the Victorian era red brick buildings that are common in some of the cities where those universities are located such as Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Sheffield. Plate-glass universities were founded between1960 and 1992 and are named after their often-striking modernist architecture and include universities such as the University of Warwick, the University of Bath and the University of Sussex. The last group are former polytechnics which were granted university status relatively recently such as Oxford Brookes University.
Ancient and red brick universities often have buildings dotted around the cities they are located in whereas plate-glass and newer universities are often campus universities which may also be located slightly outside city centres with on-site student accommodation available. Students may have a strong preference to be located in a city centre or on a campus, so knowing these distinctions can help in narrowing down choices.
Another famous group of British universities is called the Russell Group, which is a catch-all term for a group of 24 universities with a shared focus on research and a reputation for academic excellence. The group includes the original six red brick universities, Oxbridge, and other highly ranked universities such as Imperial, UCL and Queen Mary, and its universities are considered to be especially prestigious. If ranking is important to you, you could start your research here.
Applications to British and Northern Irish universities are made through a centralised application system called UCAS. UCAS allows students to make a maximum of five applications and students can apply to either Oxford University or Cambridge University, but not both. The same application, including the personal statement, is sent to all five universities and they cannot see which other institutions the applicant has applied to. In the UK, students apply to study a specified subject so applicants must know what they want to study before they apply, and unlike the US, medicine, architecture and law are undergraduate level degrees. Students must articulate their interest in their chosen subject in their personal statement. They can do this by referencing which subjects they have chosen to study at school, their work experience and their personal reading. The same personal statement is sent to all five choices, so students are encouraged to apply to all universities for similar degree programmes so that the personal statement is applicable to each university and course applied to.
7. Entry Requirements
Universities will have different entry requirements for each course and entry requirements for the same subjects will vary from institution to institution. Luckily, the UCAS website makes it very simple for students to access the most up-to-date information on entry requirements specific to each curriculum such as IB, A-levels or HKDSE. Students should be aware that universities do specify which subjects, and at which level, students need to have studied to be eligible for admission on a particular course. For example, to study medicine you will need to have at least Chemistry and two other sciences and/or one other science and Maths at higher level in the IB diploma. International students can also use the tariff point system, a system that benchmarks different curricula and qualifications, to calculate if their qualifications and grade levels meet typical entry requirements.
8. Oxbridge, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine/Science, and Dentistry
For most subjects and universities the UCAS application deadline is January 15. However, for all applications to Oxford and Cambridge, and applications at any university for Medicine, Vet Science or Dentistry the application deadline is October 15. This is because these courses and institutions are highly competitive and require an added interview component to the application process. Students applying for Medicine, Vet Science or Dentistry can only apply to four universities for their first choice subject and must therefore choose a related subject such as Biomedical Sciences for their fifth choice.
9. Tests, writing samples, and interviews
A number of courses and universities require students to take an aptitude test as part of the application process. For law some universities (but not all) require the LNAT; for Medicine students may be required to take either the UCAT or the BMAT. Additionally, students applying to Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of other highly selective universities may need to take pre-interview or at-interview tests such as the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) or other course specific tests. Students must register for the appropriate test before submitting their UCAS. Oxbridge might also require students to submit marked or unmarked writing samples as part of their application. Early deadline students will also likely need to interview for their places, either in person or through video call.
10. Conditional offers
Applications are evaluated based on the strength of the student’s academic record to date (including GCSE or MYP results if available), their predicted grades, and the strength of their personal statement and school reference. If the applicant is successful, they will be made a conditional offer which means they need to meet certain grades in their final exams in order to be accepted. Students are notified of their offers through the UCAS website. It is rare for students to be made unconditional acceptances but some universities are starting to do this, but it is controversial because it has a demotivating effect on students preparing for final exams.
11. Firm and insurance offers
Once students have received decisions from all their universities, they need to choose one as their first choice university and another as a back up or insurance university. Usually, the conditional requirements for the insurance offer should be lower than for the first choice so that if the student does not meet the conditions of their first choice, they do meet the requirements for the second choice. The deadline for confirming the firm and insurance offers is between May and July depending on when the student received their final response from the last university.
If a student performs poorly in their final exams for some reason and the applicant does not meet either their firm or insurance offer, there is a system that allows students to reapply to courses that still have places. Similarly, if a student far exceeds their predicted grades, they can also reapply through clearing. In 2019, 80,000 students secured their university places through clearing, so this is very common.
The summer is a time that many students would use to visit university campuses in person to finalise their shortlist of reach, target, and safety schools. While this is probably not going to be possible this year, most universities have produced engaging virtual Open Days which I strongly recommend prospective students check out to get a better idea of what’s on offer! For more information, visit the UCAS website.