Applying to Colleges in the UK and the U.S: Know the Differences

Picture of Cambridge
Here’s everything you need to know about applying to both UK and U.S. colleges.

Applying to Colleges in the UK and the U.S: Know the Differences

Published June 21, 2023

Here’s everything you need to know about applying to both UK and U.S. colleges.
Picture of Cambridge

This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) group. It’s been edited for clarity and flow. The name of the member has been omitted to protect their privacy.

Now that it is basically over, I thought I would share our experience about my student applying to schools overseas. I loved reading these last year, so here we go.

A Little Background 

My senior is a high stats kid at a competitive prep school with a 4.9/5.0 unweighted GPA and 1560 SAT; he is also a nationally-ranked policy debater. He has worked since sixth grade as a soccer referee on weekends. He won a national award for his art, is a National Merit Finalist, and was inducted into the school honor fraternity.

We went into this process knowing we weren’t going to qualify for financial aid, so we were looking for the best deal by chasing merit. Some of the best money I spent was offering him $500 if he scored high enough on his PSAT to become a National Merit Scholar Finalist. (He was close after his sophomore year.) We used a college counselor who really broke the process up into easy-to-digest bites.

Once he got the mailer from Oklahoma about its National Merit Finalist scholarship, we decided to take a look. The honors program was fantastic, and the campus was beautiful. He knew he had a financial and academic safety school after that tour, and from there, most of his list was going to be both target and reach schools.

Applying to Colleges in the UK

He also applied to schools in the United Kingdom (UK). The UK process is more test-score driven. They make offers of admission contingent upon AP scores in May of senior year (and previous AP scores). In the UK, you can only apply to five schools, and once you have your offers, you choose your “firm” (the offer you like the best) and your “insurance.” The insurance choice should be a school whose contingencies aren’t as hard to meet as the firm offer. 

The benefit of the UK schools is that most degrees are only three years, and depending on the exchange rate, the cost of attending is $45,000 to 60,000 in United States Dollars (USD). For a family that doesn’t qualify for financial aid in the United States, saving one year of tuition is huge. 

The downside to UK schools is that students have to know what they want to study, and they can’t change majors. They will study their subject and only that subject for three years. My son applied to study law in the UK which also required him to take an additional test called the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT). It’s very similar to the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in the United States. 

United Kingdom Results

  • Bristol: Accepted, contingent on two more AP scores of a 5 in any subject and graduating with at least a 3.4 GPA
  • Cambridge: Accepted, contingent on five more AP scores of 5
  • Durham: Accepted, contingent on one more AP score of a 5 in any subject
  • Edinburgh:  Accepted, contingent on getting 5 on AP Language & Literature
  • University College London: Still waiting

United States Results

He had all his applications in to U.S. schools by November 1 and applied early acceptance (EA) wherever he could.

  • American University: Waitlisted
  • George Washington University: Accepted, $19,000 merit scholarship
  • Holy Cross University: Waitlisted
  • Northwestern University: Rejected
  • Trinity College Dublin/Columbia: Rejected
  • University of Florida: $2,000 scholarship
  • University of Oklahoma: National Merit Finalist Scholarship, basically full ride
  • University of South Carolina: In-state tuition, plus $2,000 off a year
  • University of Southern California: Accepted early acceptance, National Merit Finalist, 1/2 tuition scholarship
  • University of Tennessee: (in-state) Provost Scholarship ($9,000) + Hope Scholarship ($4,500 scholarship)
  • University of Texas at Austin: Accepted Plan II, will qualify for in-state after freshman year.
  • Vanderbilt University: Rejected

Decision Time

While we were still waiting on University College London to decide his insurance offer at the time I originally wrote this, my son put Cambridge as his firm offer in the United Kingdom. He also put a deposit down at the University of Texas at Austin which has always been his first choice in the United States, as the AP scores won’t be released until July. (Cambridge is my husband’s alma mater, and Texas is mine.)

In the end, my son decided to go with Cambridge! 


Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

My Daughter Chose to Study Overseas–and We Couldn’t Be Happier

12 Assumptions to Avoid When Choosing a College

Update on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test




In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

What Is a College Major? All About Your Options and How to Select One


What Is a College Major? All About Your Options and How to Select One

In your journey to a college degree, selecting a major is a pivotal step. It not only shapes your academic...

Why Is My EFC so High and What Does it Mean?


Why Is My EFC so High and What Does it Mean?

You’ve filled out the FAFSA and received your EFC or tried an EFC calculator. Now you’re asking, Why is my...

What Does an EFC of 00000 Mean?


What Does an EFC of 00000 Mean?

If you’ve filled out the FAFSA and come back with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of 00000, you might think...

Tools & Services Recommended for You

There may come a time when you realize you can’t do it all alone. Use any of the many tools in our toolbox to assist you on the road to college.

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore College Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.