Guide to UK Applications • Guide to US Applications

US or UK: Which is Better for Undergraduate Studies?

POSTED ON 04/15/2023 BY The Red Pen

The US and the UK are both popular destinations of study for international students. According to a survey by the Mitchell Institute, even after the pandemic, the US, the UK, and Canada lead the way with the highest number of international student visas globally. In 2022, the UK issued student visas to 118,000 Indians, while the Open Doors Report 2022 states that in the last decade, the number of Indian students annually choosing higher education in the US has more than doubled.

However, the US and the UK offer contrasting undergraduate educational experiences. So, if you’re wondering whether you should study in the US or UK, we recommend that evaluate some key differences and then decide what’s for you.

Is the UK or US better for international students? 8 key differences at the undergraduate level

1) ) UK or US: Differences in application requirements for undergraduate studies

The UK has minimum entry requirements. Applicants must submit their grade 10 final results and grade 12 predicted grades. They must also submit one letter of recommendation and a personal statement that reflects their major or interest in an area of study. UK universities expect you to declare your major in your application. They aren’t too flexible about changing majors.

US universities, on the other hand, are more flexible when it comes to declaring a major. You aren’t expected to declare it until your second year. However, unlike the UK, the undergraduate application process and requirements are far more complex and extensive.

Applicants to US colleges typically submit all their high school transcripts from grades 9-12 and scores of standardised tests, like SAT/ACT. In 2021, The Princeton Review surveyed 300 colleges about their post-pandemic plans and reported that 87 percent of the schools were “test-optional” for Fall 2021. Standardised test scores are not compulsory in such cases, but they’re considered if submitted. When asked about their policies for Fall 2022, the numbers dropped to 78 percent. However, with the launch of DSAT (Digital SAT), there may be fewer test-optional colleges after March 2023. To keep up with these dynamically changing testing requirements, you should visit individual US university websites for application requirement updates.

Most US colleges require applicants to write a personal essay called the Common App essay, which is a reflective narrative. Here are a few Common App essay topics or prompts from past years:

  • Share your story
  • Learning from obstacles
  • Challenging a belief
  • Solving a problem
  • What captivates you?

Along with the Common App essay, most US colleges also require college-specific supplemental essays. For example, with an acceptance rate of four percent, applicants for Stanford University need to submit three 100-250-word supplemental essays, along with several short essay questions, which are a maximum of 50 words each. US applicants must also submit up to three recommendation letters highlighting their capabilities in specific academic subjects and showcasing involvement in extracurricular activities outside the classroom.

2) UK or US: Application processes

Applicants to the UK can seek admission to only five universities of their choice and must use a centralised online application platform called the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

The US allows applicants to seek admission to unlimited colleges and universities. However, we recommend a shortlist of 15 colleges. The US has two main centralised application platforms:

Additionally, several public university systems have their own application portals. These include the University of California, the University of Texas, the University of Illinois, the University of Washington and others.

In short, you may have to complete several application forms depending on where you apply in the US.

3) UK or US: Application deadlines

UK universities have rolling admissions, meaning they evaluate applications as they arrive versus waiting to assess them together after a deadline. There are two popular intakes for undergraduate admissions in the UK, the Fall intake (September/October) and the Winter intake (January/February). Some universities also offer summer intakes for selective courses. Note that application deadlines for admission to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge and medical, veterinary science and dentistry courses are mid-October.

UK universities make unconditional and conditional offers. In the latter case, a student’s matriculation is subject to meeting the required conditions in their grade 12 final exam.

The US has three broad application deadlines:

Early Decisions:

Early Decisions (ED) deadlines are based on a binding agreement that allows students to apply earlier in the year. There are two Early Decision deadlines—ED I and ED II. While ED I deadlines are in November, while ED II deadlines are in late December or early January.

For ED admission deadlines, applicants must choose only one college at the top of their wish list and submit an “Early Decision Agreement” signed by the applicant, parent and school counsellor. If accepted in ED, applicants agree to withdraw applications to all other universities worldwide and confirm their acceptance to their ED choice with an enrolment deposit. Exceptions and withdrawal from an ED agreement are made only in extenuating circumstances.

Early Action:

Similar to ED I and ED II, the Early Action (EA) deadline allows applicants to apply to colleges early. The difference is that EA is not a binding agreement, and applicants can safely decline admission offers. Note that some highly selective colleges only allow “single-choice early action”, meaning you may only apply to that single college early. However, you are not obligated to attend if admitted.

Since most submission deadlines are in November, you can expect to hear from colleges by mid-December about their decision.

Regular decision:

Regular Decisions (RD) is a non-binding deadline. Most RD deadlines are at the end of December or early January. RD is ideal if you require more time to refine your application or improve your scores.

4) UK or US: Curriculum and major

For the UK, applicants must declare their course of choice in their personal statement and stick to their decision. The UK offers students specific, subject-wise programmes for undergraduate study. You must complete specific subject prerequisites related to your major in high school. For example, most universities require students to study math in grade 12 if they want to pursue a course in economics. Also, UK universities do not allow students to pursue a minor or second major. However, a few universities allow you to pursue a combined degree, such as one in economics and management.

The US, on the other hand, has a multidisciplinary approach to education, integrating academic and experiential learning through a flexible credit system. For instance, you can study music and literature while pursuing a biology major. You must accrue a minimum number of credits to complete the degree. The US education system also allows students to change their major after the declaration. According to information from the US Department of Education, “one-third of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs changed majors”. US colleges offer two types of curricula:

Core Curriculum:

In this system, for the first two years at college, students must take a standard set of classes that are usually unrelated to their major. For example, even if you want to pursue an engineering degree, you must complete general requirements, such as writing, foreign languages, social studies and natural sciences. The interdisciplinary approach of this curriculum promotes critical thinking, effective communication, problem-solving and several soft skills desired by future employers. It is ideal for those who are unsure about their area of focus and want to cast a wider academic net before deciding on a major. Columbia University is an institution renowned for its core curriculum.

Open Curriculum:

Compared to the core curriculum, the general requirements of the open curriculum are more flexible. It enables students to personalise their study programme under the guidance of faculty advisers. Designed for self-motivated students who are sure about their major, the open curriculum allows them to choose their subjects while putting them in charge of their education. For example, Brown University has an open curriculum where most undergraduates sample courses in various subjects before diving into one of the 80-plus academic concentrations for in-depth, focused study.

5) UK or US: Duration of study

In the UK, most bachelor’s degree programmes in the UK are usually three years long, with the exception of a few. While the engineering programme takes four years to complete, medicine, veterinary science, and dentistry can take up to five or six years.

The UK also offers an optional placement year. For example, students pursuing a BSc in Computer Science at King’s College London undertake industry placements in their third year and return to the classroom in the fourth year to earn their degree. However, in Scotland, all undergraduate programmes take four years to complete.

Bachelor’s programmes in the US take four years to complete. The first two years include general requirement subjects across disciplines, and the last two years focus on the major.

6) UK or US: Cost of education and living

In the UK, international students can expect to pay between £15,000 and £65,000 annually for tuition fees, whereas the cost of living can vary approximately between £10,000 and £18,000.

In the US, depending on whether you choose a private or public college, the annual tuition fee can vary between 30,000 USD to 67,000 USD, while the living and miscellaneous costs can range between 13,500 USD and 24,000 USD.

While colleges in the US allow international students to apply for financial aid, their chances and options are limited in the UK. According to this study by U.S. News, one out of every three colleges in the US offers international students some kind of financial aid or merit-based scholarship.

7) UK or US: Stay and work options

According to this report by the Economic Times, the UK announced the Graduate Route policy in July 2021. This policy allows international graduates to extend their stay in the country for two more years and look for employment.

The US Citizenship And Immigration Services states that an F-1 visa student is entitled to one year of optional practical training (OPT), meaning international students can work for at least one year in the US after graduation. At the same time, international students who have graduated with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can extend their OPT by an additional 17 months.

8) UK or US: Law and medicine

Another stark difference between the two countries is that law and medicine (including veterinary sciences and dentistry) can be studied at the undergraduate level in the UK but not in the US.

Instead, US undergraduates must choose the pre-law or pre-med track. Here students will study related courses that prepare them for law or medical school later at the postgraduate level. Those wanting to pursue law or medicine in graduate school must apply during the fourth year of their undergraduate programme and give an entrance exam.

Application       requirements  Grade 10 exam scores, grade 12 predicted scores, a personal statement and one subject-specific recommendation. SAT results, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and numerous personal essays  
Application process  Can apply to only five colleges through UCAS  Can apply to unlimited colleges 
Major Must decide major during the application process and cannot change once declared Can declare/change major after the second year of college
Curriculum Student-specific, subject-wise programmes for their undergraduate study. 

UK universities do not allow students to pursue a minor or second major.

  • Core Curriculum
  • Open Curriculum 

Both offer a multidisciplinary approach. 

Professional Courses Can study law, medicine, veterinary science and dentistry at the undergraduate level  Law, medicine, veterinary science, and dentistry can only be studied at the postgraduate level
Duration of study Three to four years, depending on the course Four years 
Cost of stay and education Less expensive More expensive

Applicants’ decisions to study in the UK or US should be determined by which country’s educational system is best suited for their academic aptitude. Still not sure whether you should pursue your undergraduate degree in the UK or US? Here are nine compelling reasons to study in the UK and six things you should know about studying in the US. If you need more guidance on whether the UK or US is a better fit for pursuing your undergraduate degree, get in touch with us.