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7 tips for applying to top universities in England and the United States

Admissions tutors at top universities in the US and the UK share insights with Anna Mountford-Zimdars about how to get into an elite institution

  • Admissions

Anna Mountford-Zimdars

June 3 2016
Yale graduation


Cambridge, Harvard, Imperial, Stanford, Durham, Williams – these are among the world’s top universities, and institutions that have great appeal and inspire awe in many students considering degree study. If you are thinking of applying to these or other highly selective US or English universities or liberal arts colleges, this article is written for you. What is it that these universities are looking for when they select new undergraduate students? What can you do to help your chances of getting a place?

The seven application tips here are based on conversations with those who admit students at highly selective universities in England and the US. They are derived from the recently published book (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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1. Apply

“You can’t be admitted if you don’t apply.”
- Selector (admissions tutor) at the US “Big Three” (Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities)

You may not get a place at your first choice institution or on your preferred course if you apply. You might be unsuccessful. But you certainly won’t be able to gain a place if you don’t apply. It sounds obvious – but every year, many potential applicants self-select themselves out of a chance of gaining a place by not applying in the first place. And some would have been admitted had they applied – so the first top tip is: apply! It might just work out, and if it does not, at least you do not have to wonder for years to come what would have happened.

2. You need good grades

“The first thing is the grades and test scores.” 
- US liberal arts college selector

You do need very good grades to be considered for a place at a highly selective university. This means good grades in school examinations and good scores in any additional tests. In the UK, you will usually apply with your achieved grades to date as well as your predicted grades for your school-leaving examinations (ie, A levels, International Baccalaureate, Scottish Highers or BTECs). In addition, you may need to submit additional work or take an additional test such as the medicine, law or critical thinking admissions tests. You also need good grades in these tests to gain a place at a top university. 

In the US you also apply with your school record to date. In addition, the top institutions as well as many others require you to undertake specific admissions tests. This is usually either the SAT or the ACT. Again, you need good scores to succeed.

Having said this, it still makes sense to apply to highly selective universities if you have very good, but not top, grades. Selectors read applications bearing in mind the personal context in which you have achieved the grades. So if there is a reason why your grades are slightly lower than they perhaps could have been, make sure you explain this on your application form – or get your referees to explain that you have lots more potential for achieving highly.

3. But you also need more than good grades for the US

“Being qualified academically at a really selective place is only half the battle. That only gets you halfway there because of the...students that we’re denying [admissions] a lot of them are academically qualified.” 
- US liberal arts college selector

Highly selective US universities are looking for more than just good grades. They are looking for well-rounded future students, and especially those who add something really special to the university experience. Maybe you’re outstanding at sports – the more prestigious your wins the better. Or maybe you have an unusual cultural or family context, an exceptional artistic talent or a really exceptional volunteering record, such as having set up your own charity. Because so many applicants to the most selective US universities have high enough grades to make them eligible for admission, the other things you can bring to student life will often be a decisive factor. At the same time, you should bear in mind that the most competitive universities reject as many as nine in ten applicants.

In the UK, you can also describe your extracurricular involvement on your application form. However, this is unlikely to sway admissions tutors to offer you a place; your academic record and potential are decisive. But if you apply for a course that uses interviews as part of the admissions process, be prepared to talk about any activities you have described in your application.

If you want to apply to a US university, think about what unique talent or accomplishments outside the classroom you have. For the UK, tell a strong story of academic achievements, potential, and interest in studying the subject you have applied to.

4. Show a genuine interest in the university and course

“It is really important to emphasize that certainly Oxford, and many other UK universities, are primarily selecting students on their academic suitability for a particular course.” 
- Mike Nicholson, former director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Oxford, Sutton Trust Summit 2013

In the UK, you choose the subject you want to study at university when you apply. So, your personal statement, your references – and if you have an interview, your interview responses – should highlight your passion for the subject. Convince the admissions tutors that you are genuinely excited and curious to study whatever you are applying to study at university. Perhaps you have undertaken a project outside the curriculum, or you have read books beyond what your school requires. Or perhaps you have helped other students become excited about the subject – talk about this in your application form and ask your referees to blow your trumpet. And if you are called for an interview at a specific institution, make sure you know what course you have applied for and be prepared to say what attracted you to apply for this particular course.

If you are applying to a US institution, you do not have to decide on the main subject you want to study straight away. However some, but not all, applicants say that they have already decided what they wish to major in and make a case for getting a place based on their interest in this subject. But most applicants in the US make a general case for admission. In any case, it is also important that you explain what attracted you to a particular university, why you would be excited to go there, and what you think you would be able to contribute to the student community.

Many of the top US universities offer interviews with alumni as part of the admissions process. Here it is particularly important to convincingly make the case that you are keen on the particular institution they represent, so make sure you have done your homework about what is on offer.

5. Be yourself

“Your background can make the difference between being admitted or not.” 
- US Big Three selector

This is a tricky bit. You do have to be impressive academically, and for the US you also have to be impressive as a person. This involves telling the selectors about all the great things you have done. This does not come naturally to everyone. But there is also the risk that you may overshoot and claim to be even more impressive and more accomplished than you are. Selectors can often see through that. If you have not won a national science competition or an Olympic gold medal, don’t claim to have done so. Many applicants still get places without this sort of accomplishment. So, sell yourself, but stay genuine and do not oversell yourself. The “true you” has to be at the heart of the application.

6. Be organised – and be sure to proofread

To apply, you need to be organised. The applications deadlines for Oxford and Cambridge, and also for medicine courses across the UK, are about one year before you want to start university. US applications often need to be in by the November before you want to start. You also need to organise sitting any additional tests, getting references, and proofreading and getting feedback on your application.

7. Maintain perspective

“You are really looking into a crystal ball whether these people are the best people.” 
- Oxbridge admissions tutor

Do give it a go; if you don’t apply, you certainly won’t get in. At the same time, most applicants who apply to the Harvards and Oxfords of this world will not get an offer from these places.

On the bright side, if you are roughly in the ballpark to have a chance of being admitted to an elite university, you will not go without any offer of a place anywhere – you certainly will be able to go to university. There is growing evidence that the skills you learn in term of mastering an academic subject and critical thinking are encouraged across higher education institutions.

Furthermore, you have just as much of a chance of making your life happy and meaningful, and enjoying your studies, when you attend a university that is not among the top international institutions. So if you don’t get an offer from your first choice university, chances are that your higher education experience is still most likely just about to start. Enjoy it!  

If you are interested in finding out more about university admission in England and the US, Meritocracy and the University: Selective Admission in England and the United States is available for purchase now. A more student-budget-friendly paperback edition will become available in future.

Anna Mountford-Zimdars is the author of Meritocracy and the University: Selective Admission in England and the United States and senior lecturer in higher education, King’s College London.

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