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Applying to university overseas: what to consider

Applying to university overseas can be exciting, but it is important to know the different application systems in your country of choice

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Ryan Hinchey's avatar

Ryan Hinchey

July 24 2017
International travel, countries connected


The option to apply and study at a university anywhere in the world is an exciting one. The problem for most students is knowing where to start when choosing a university outside their home country. The US alone has more than 4,000 universities, so it’s essential to understand the different systems and what these overseas universities require from applicants. 

Different systems

Applications for university can be either centralised, with one governing body controlling how students apply, or decentralised. In the UK, this centralised process is operated by Ucas (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), which requires students to meet minimum entrance requirements as well as submitting a personal statement and academic references. Ucas allows students to apply for up to five courses, but other centralised systems can differ. For example in Australia, you can apply for up to nine courses.

In Australia, the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) covers most universities in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The state of California in the US has a centralised system, as do some European countries. These systems generally assess students on the basis of academic results, although some institutions set their own admission requirements and most offer alternative pathways to applicants who don't meet these too. Some courses select applicants on the basis of additional criteria such as a personal statement, questionnaire, portfolio of work, audition, interview or test. Other courses may use a combination of both academic qualifications and additional selection criteria.

Most centralised systems open for applications at the beginning of the academic year for those hoping to begin studying the following academic year, but for certain courses and universities it can be earlier. The processing time varies depending on the type of application and how accurate and complete your application is. With Ucas, for example, students can receive offers from universities any time after submitting their applications. These timings, after submitting through the centralised system, are dependent on each university.

In Australia, Japan, South Korea and other countries where the new academic year starts in January, the application cycle is shifted around to work with this date. So for example the earliest date for submitting an application to an Australian university is in August, with later application dates following on in "rounds" from this date.

In the US, as well as in France, Germany and Spain, there is a decentralised system. Each university is applied to individually and can establish their own set of values and requirements. These can vary; US universities for example are known for reviewing an applicant on a holistic basis encompassing grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation and essays. Most universities require at least a personal statement and certain grades depending on the course and with the decentralised system, you can usually apply to as many universities as you like. Just be aware that in some countries, like the US, you have to pay for each application.

In the US, because applications are decentralised, most schools advise their students to submit their applications by November, and regular offers are made in January or February. 

Students applying to university in the Netherlands can do so through Studielink, which requires you to make one application at a time through a centrally managed process. Studielink allows you to apply for up to four courses at a time, with the possibility to change the courses you wish to apply for at any time before the enrolment deadline. If you are rejected by one university, you can then apply to another one. However, students can also apply directly to the university in a way that would not be possible in other countries such as the UK.

Applying to university? More resources here

How to apply to university: essential guide to university applications
How to write a US college admissions essay
7 tips for applying to top universities in England and the United States
A guide to university rankings for international students
A guide to UK tuition fees and student visas: Preparing for university as an international student
Applying through Ucas as an international student
How to prepare for the Academic IELTS

University values

Most universities have a mission statement that students can find on the internet, helping to identify what higher education institutions value and look for in applications. This can vary from emphasising academic excellence, to global citizenship or experimental learning. Students can use these to tailor their applications and highlight how they fit the institution.

In the States and some European countries, there is no expectation to have a special focus, and students are encouraged to try different subjects before narrowing down their interests. So, if you have a clear subject passion, or a distinct career path, then a British university may be a better option.


Of course, if a university has minimum entrance requirements, then students must meet these before they will be considered. But simply meeting the entrance requirements does not equate to admission. It’s equally important to diversify yourself with extracurricular activities and work experience, as well as showing passion for your subject/s.

There are some distinct variations in what universities in different countries are looking for in student applications. US universities, for example, really value an entrepreneurial mindset, and an ability to work well in groups is favoured.

The most vital thing for students considering universities in the UK and abroad is to understand the differences between each system. If a student ends up applying to multiple countries, they should utilise the different application methods to highlight the traits they think will best fit the university.

Studying abroad - the student experience

University of Geneva

The right fit

With so many very different courses, universities and requirements, it has to be about you first of all, finding the right fit to live and study. For example, most universities in the US will guarantee you accommodation on campus for every year of your study. You are expected to be much more involved in college life, playing an active part in clubs, societies and campus-based activities.

The UK and many universities in European cities such as Paris or Berlin have a more "open", less intense campus experience where you are expected to be more independent. This is fine if you are self-contained, but some students might find it easier to thrive in a closer knit community.

Research is key here as there are many systems with different requirements and values; you can find these on the internet and it’s important to fully understand the quirks and details of each system or university before beginning the application process.

Ryan Hinchey is the international university and college counsellor at ACS Cobham International School 

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