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US, UK college application processes go head-to-head

Students debate the merits of the application processes in both countries

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According to the 2019 U.S. News Global Rankings, 23 of the top 25 schools internationally are located in either the United States or the United Kingdom. Both countries are considered beacons of higher learning, each of its universities equipped with renowned research facilities, vibrant intellectual vitality and cultures that promote academic and personal growth. 

But each country is distinctive in its education structure, application processes and student diversity. The Daily sat down with five Stanford students who applied to both American and British universities to get their perspectives on the differences in admissions processes between the two systems. 

The U.K. system: Academic and numerical merit

The university system in the U.K. is designed for students to specialize in a specific subject that they choose at the age of 16, according to students interviewed by The Daily. 

“You apply for the program — you’re applying for a major, you don’t apply to the school,” explained Carl Schoeller ’23, a German international student who received acceptances from U.K. schools, including University College London, as well as U.S. schools.  

As a result of this specialization, “numerical performance on tests and International Baccalaureate exams are highly emphasized,” Schoeller said. 

Asked about emphasis on intellectual over personal achievement, Carson Conrad ’21, an American student offered admission to both Oxford and Stanford, said that Oxford “knew me as a person in terms of my academic interest.”

Most interviewees agreed there was little flexibility in the U.K. model to explore multiple interests, with students proceeding down predetermined academic tracks. This specialization is “designed to fully optimize professional training and preparation,” added Pedro Carvalho ’23, an international student who was accepted to University College London. 

The U.K. university application system relies heavily on statistics, especially test scores and marked academic achievement within a specialized field of study. As a result, the majority of the application is geared toward showcasing one’s specific academic goals. 

An additional difference between the U.K. and the U.S. is the personal response essay and the interview process.  

“The U.K. system, which allows students to apply to up to five schools, requires a single 500-word personal essay,” said Rayouf Alhumedhi ’23, a Daily staffer and a Saudi Arabian student who attended an international high school in Vienna and applied to multiple U.K. schools. However, even this essay typically focuses on one’s scholastic accolades concerning a specialized subject, she said.

The focused, more academic nature of the U.K. personal response essay stands in sharp contrast with the U.S. Common Application essay, where students are encouraged to showcase their personalities and personal narratives.

Some students interviewed by The Daily added that they preferred the U.K. process, since it included a one-on-one interview with a faculty member.

“The interview was very subject-based,” Schoeller said. “I found it enjoyable just ‘cause you kind of got to get a feel for the academic sense of the university.” 

On the other hand, Carvalho argued that the U.K. system places great stress on a person’s academic prowess with less emphasis on their story or circumstances. 

The U.S. system

In the U.S., high test scores on the ACT and SAT, as well one’s GPA, play a critical role in signaling the strength of an applicant to a college. However, getting the right numbers is only half the battle.

In contrast to the U.K. process, the U.S. Common application “evaluates applicants more holistically,” Conrad said.

Some American colleges also require personal statements, college-specific essay supplements and activities lists, wherein students may emphasize community service, extracurricular activities and athletics. 

For the U.S. essays, “You have to think creatively,” Alhumedhi said. “How can I take this event that maybe a few people have experienced and really make it my own?” 

The purpose of these essays is to “separate oneself from the crowd and highlight one’s creativity and individuality,” he added. 

According to Conrad, this creativity comes through in the “fun and quirky” questions common on many U.S. college’s supplemental questions. Conrad said the U.S. system “takes into account diversity [since] your extracurriculars can convey your academic interest in important ways that get missed in the U.K.” 

Several students interviewed by The Daily expressed feeling conflicted over the holistic nature of the U.S. system. Though the number of essays American colleges request may allow them to look at a student more holistically, the U.S. application process may also “deter prospective students from applying because of the amount of essays you have to write,” Conrad said. 

Some students interviewed by the Daily said the perception of the U.S. application as more subjective makes it more stressful than the U.K. system: “Because it’s so holistic and so uncertain, you don’t know exactly where you sit chance-wise,” Alhumedhi said.

Others found benefits in the approach. Carvalho said that that process was “personally enriching” when it came to writing the essays for the U.S. applications.

So, which one is more fair?

Conrad thinks the U.K. system is more fair than its American counterpart in one respect: “It is easier for you to buy yourself a successful college application in the U.S. in terms of buying yourself successful extracurriculars,” he said.  

“The U.K. meritocracy is fair in the sense that premier candidates are rewarded for receiving the highest marks in their respective fields of study,” Carvalho added. 

Ravi Veriah Jacques ’20, an international student from the U.K. who only applied to American universities, contended that both systems cater largely to applicants from higher socioeconomic classes, as the U.K. “disproportionately draws on the upper classes” and American draws “on the upper class” to an unfortunately large extent as well.  

The American system of affirmative action, which is absent from the U.K. admissions process, has been the focus of controversy, most recently in a lawsuit where plaintiffs alleged that Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants in their admissions process. Stanford has filed an amicus brief in support of Harvard, and U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs ultimately ruled in favor of the Boston Ivy League

Jacques praised attempts to attract applicants of different backgrounds, but said admissions processes need to do a better job of “looking beyond just race or place race in a class context.” 

Carvalho said that the U.S. system is more fair because it claims to evaluate the “whole context of a person,” although he conceded that the U.K. is a “effective meritocracy because you are rewarded for doing well in school.” 

Others, even if unsure about which application process is more fair, praised the U.S. system for fostering diversity on campuses. 

“The U.S. system accounts for a lot of things about you, your story, your background,” Conrad said when asked about how the American system brings people of different backgrounds together. 

Schoeller added that he believes that the holistic nature of many U.S. schools underscores overcoming adversity and upbringing, which opens the door for a broader spectrum of people. 

“Because of the different ways that the admissions process structured, I think the system ensures a more diverse university cohort,” he said.

This article has been corrected to reflect Ravi Veriah Jacques’ full name as well as the fact that he only applied to American universities. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Austin Ota at aota2023 ‘at’ stanford.edu.