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UK Universities

Studying in the UK: A Step-by-Step Guide

Dream about studying at a UK university? At the British International School Ho Chi Minh City we've guided hundreds of students through the UK university application process resulting in offers from some of the world's leading institutions such as the University of Oxford and Cambridge, University College London (UCL) and Imperial College. In this article, University Guidance Counsellor Paul Rispin provides an insight into what it takes to make a successful application to a UK university.

Why choose the UK?

Ever since the founding of the University of Oxford in the 12th century and the University of Cambridge in the 13th century, the UK has led the world in the provision of high quality Higher Education. This long history of providing world class education continues to attract the best students from around the world to this day.

The global outlook of the university system and the breadth of possibilities available within the UK, along with the outstanding reputation of the universities makes it an exciting destination for international students to consider. The UK is truly diverse in terms of the backgrounds of students and all universities in the UK have large numbers of international students in attendance from all corners of the world. 

Although at BIS HCMC we believe that the reputation of the university is less important than the ‘fit’ for the individual student, we do recognise that a place to study at one of the world’s top ranked universities can open many doors in terms of future career prospects. The UK has many of the world’s top ranked universities with an impressive 18 UK universities in the Global Top 100 according to the 2020 QS world rankings. For this reason alone, it attracts many of the world’s best students.

So once you’ve decided that the United Kingdom is the right destination for your further studies – what’s next? Time for some research into the different types of universities on offer in the UK…

What is the collegiate system?

This is a system where students are members of an individual college, giving a sense of community and belonging. Some examples of universities in the UK which operate a collegiate system are the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham.

Students live at the college along with students in other year groups, and often studying other majors, but they normally attend daytime lectures at a central university building along with students from other colleges who are studying the same course as them. Students will also normally have one-to-one or small group tutorials from a professor or other academic who also lives in their college. Formal dinners are sometimes arranged within the colleges and they will compete against each other in sports and other pursuits.

Colleges vary from the ‘ancient’ ones which are often architecturally stunning, to more recently built modern colleges. Students can select which college they wish to apply for at the application stage. If they are narrowly unsuccessful they may be ‘pooled’ which means that other colleges can consider their application.

What are red-brick universities?

Following the industrial revolution there was a large growth in the number of British universities. This growth started in the large cities and these universities were thus known as ‘civic’ universities more commonly known as ‘red-brick’ universities due to their Victorian brick architecture. Some examples of red-brick universities are Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol.

Nearly all of the red-brick universities are part of the Russell Group. This is a prestigious group of 24 self-selected research universities which attract academic leaders from all over the world. In 2017, it was found that graduates from Russell Group universities held 61% of all jobs in the UK that required a university degree, a clear illustration of their reputation with employers.

Red brick university

What is a campus university?

The term ‘campus university’ in the UK normally refers to a newer university, often built on the edge of a city, which is generally purpose built with everything on one site. Some examples of these are the universities of Warwick, Reading, Bath, York, Sussex and Loughborough.

Some universities have of course expanded and no longer situate themselves on only one site so it can be debated whether they are truly any longer ‘campus’ universities - the University of Nottingham is a good example of this.

It's important to understand that these different types of universities can provide very different study experiences. A student at Sheffield for example is unlikely to live on the same site as the faculty where they study. A student at Warwick will find that everything is within a short walk. Research is therefore key to any UK application. The University Guidance team at BIS guide students through this research phase with a comprehensive list of visits from UK university representatives throughout the academic year. Many of the staff of BIS will have been educated in a British university themselves (whether red-brick, campus or other) so we do encourage our students to speak to their teachers and indeed to BIS alumni to learn from the experiences of as many people as they can.

Year 13 student Kimberley who has recently made successful applications to UK universities advises: “Research thoroughly into the different modules universities have to offer and their student experiences to ensure that you choose the university that is right for you. Research the type of university - if you are going to spend 3 years of your life there you need to be sure that it is the right place for you to continue your studies.”

So how do you go about applying to the UK?

The UK uses one common application system known as UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service). You can select up to 5 different universities on one form which is submitted electronically. The UCAS website has many useful videos and other resources which will help to make the process run more smoothly.

The following are application deadlines for UK courses beginning in September 2021:

  • October 15th 2020 - If the choices include any of the following: Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science
  • January 15th 2021 – For all other universities or courses – does not strictly apply to international students but for competitive universities and courses it is wise to apply before this date.

Your Personal Statement

While it may be true that US applications often involve writing multiple essays as opposed to the one statement for the UK, this does not mean it lacks importance. The strength of the Personal Statement can certainly be the deciding factor for students who otherwise have similar grades. The Personal Statement should give a clear indication of why you want to study the particular major you are applying for, and why you think you would be a successful student in this field. The statement cannot mention universities by name as it will be read by all 5 institutions. Other interests should also be mentioned in the statement, but 70-80% of the statement should be focused on your subject major.

In the CUG team at BIS we will provide comprehensive advice on Personal Statements but students are also at liberty to seek advice from the many subject experts within the wider teaching community at the school.

Kimberley discusses her personal experience of the UCAS application process:

University application to the UK is fairly straightforward. There is the research aspect: getting to know the different universities and the modules they offer, and writing the Personal Statement. Since there is only one Personal Statement sent to five universities, you have to make sure that it eloquently showcases the best of your abilities. Academically rigorous UK universities prefer students to show interest in their chosen discipline beyond the classroom. I therefore tailored my Personal Statement to a more academic nature. The University Guidance team also provided us with sample Personal Statements for the UK, which helped us to find the right balance for our specific chosen universities.”

A top tip when writing your UCAS Personal Statement is that UK admissions officers do not like statements which overuse clichéd language - the document is more formal than a US application essay. 

What are ‘conditional’ offers?

Once you have submitted your UCAS application you will eagerly await your university offers. A conditional offer is an offer which is subject to your final IB Diploma result. It may contain a ‘sub-offer’ E.g. 36 points with at least 665 from the three Higher Level subjects. Conditional offers can also include English language requirements, such as IELTs, although IBDP students are often exempt if they achieve the required level or hold an IGCSE of a certain grade.

What are ‘Firm’ and ‘Insurance’ choices?

Once you have had replies from all 5 universities you need to select a 1st and 2nd choice university from your conditional offers. These are known as your ‘Firm’ and ‘Insurance’ offers. Normally you would choose a university as ‘Insurance’ which has a slightly lower conditional offer than the ‘Firm’ university. If you meet the condition of the ‘Firm’ choice then you are guaranteed a place. If you do not meet the ‘Firm’ conditions but you do meet the ‘Insurance’ conditions, then you are guaranteed a place at your ‘Insurance’ university.

Applying to Oxbridge Universities

Applying to the University of Oxford or Cambridge, collectively known as ‘Oxbridge’ should not be taken lightly as the process is extremely rigorous with an early application deadline of October 15th.

Studying in the UK | College and University Guidance

Due to the large number of high quality applicants, it is not enough to ‘only’ have high grades (though, in a majority of cases, students will require a minimum of 40 IBDP predicted points). Oxbridge admissions staff are looking for more than grades. They are looking for students who have extended their understanding of subjects well beyond the confines of the syllabus. They are also looking for engagement in the subject matter for example as evidenced by outside reading. The Personal Statement should also have mainly academic content. Students are expected to have strong critical thinking skills and to be able to demonstrate a clear intellectual curiosity. The CUG Team will offer an Oxbridge preparation course for students who express an interest in applying, with the sessions beginning in the June of Year 12.

Most Oxbridge courses now require a pre-interview assessment which consists of a written test which takes place at the end of October. Information about which courses require a test can be found on the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge websites or on the admissions testing website. BIS is a registered test centre so students can sit the test without leaving HCMC.

For many of these tests we will also try to arrange support sessions with subject specialists who can assist students in preparation for the exam. Depending on how highly you score you may be invited for interview in December for which BIS provides mock interview practice in preparation. The interview process normally involves flying to the UK with some options for interviews within Asia.

Kimberley, who applied to the University of Oxford comments on the process, “The University Guidance team at BIS helped us prepare for the entrance exam in school with weekly sessions in the lead up to the test. I also did extra preparation by writing past exams available on the exam website and got feedback from the University Guidance team on my responses.”

From researching the right courses and universities to assisting you with your Personal Statement, providing exam and mock interview preparation to guiding you on which offers to accept – you can be sure that the College and University Guidance Team at the British International School Ho Chi Minh City will be on hand to guide you through your entire UCAS application from start to finish.

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