The Ultimate Guide to Studying at University in the UK

Career readiness. Campus options. Entry requirements. Student finance. BridgeU's ultimate guide gives you everything you need to know to prepare students for their application to a UK university degree.

Oxford. Cambridge. UCL. Durham. Edinburgh. These are just some of the prestigious names that might spring to mind when contemplating a degree at a UK university.

A recent BridgeU survey confirmed that the UK is still one of the five most popular  destinations for international students, and with good reason. The UK’s global reputation for higher education continues to be outstanding and this is reflected in its university rankings. For example, the UK currently has 3 universities in the global top 10, as well as over 30 universities in the top 200.

A degree from a UK university is recognised by employers globally, and is one of the reasons why it continues to be a highly sought after destination for international students. The UK also boasts a diverse range of universities, offering both quiet campuses and bustling cities.

In addition, the majority of UK universities report student satisfaction rates of 80% and higher in annual surveys

But researching the UK university system can be a daunting process. For such a small country, the United Kingdom has a remarkably diverse range of university options, and choosing the right one isn’t an easy task. Also, as we’ve already discussed, these institutions are renowned globally, so it’s understandable for some students to feel intimidated.

So how should they begin the process of researching, and applying to, a UK university?

In this guide, we’ll discuss what career pathways a UK degree could unlock, explore the different types of university campus, help you to understand university entry requirements and give you the lowdown on student finance for a UK degree. 

Part 1: UK university degrees – what career paths are possible?

What are the Common App Essay Prompts 2019-20?

Let’s begin with the most important consideration when choosing a university degree.

Career prospects. 

Teachers, students and parents will understandably be thinking about which undergraduate courses are the most likely to strengthen employability after graduation, whilst also providing a valuable and memorable university experience. When researching potential UK universities, it’s natural to ask the following questions:

  • Will this degree be relevant to the world of work?
  • Is this a degree which looks good on a CV?
  • Is this degree likely to provide a good starting salary as a graduate?
  • Will this career equip students for new and emerging job markets?

We’ve broken down UK university degree paths into four groups, in terms of the courses they offer, and the general career paths a student can expect.

Training Degrees

What are they? – These are arguably the degrees that could make a UK university graduate the most job-ready. UK training degrees include courses such as Medicine, Law, Engineering and Education.

Employment prospects –  Training-based degree graduates report the highest overall rate of employment. This makes sense when you consider that they are designed to prepare a student for everything they will need to qualify in a particular career path (e.g. solicitor, doctor, teacher)

Before applying –  An applicant to a UK training degree would need to think about whether this career path is right for them, as many UK training degrees are rigorous, and often last longer than other courses (e.g. Architecture and Medicine courses will last anywhere between six and eight years).

Science Degrees

What are they? – Science-based degrees can cover a whole range of science and engineering courses, and there are over 10,000 to choose from in the UK system. Some UK science degrees offer students a Masters qualification, pending the completion of a four year degree course.

Employment prospects – The specialised skills and competencies which students gain from a science-based degree are in high demand from employers, and a science degree from an institution such as Imperial College London or the University of Manchester will look very impressive on a CV.

Before applying – A UK-based science degree can be a good grounding for a range of different post-university career paths, so it’s okay if an applicant to a UK science course doesn’t know exactly what they want to do after they’ve graduated.

However, those who do have an idea of what they want to do after university should think about which science degree might be a good pathway into their desired career.

For example, a physics degree can lead to any number of career paths, in business, finance, IT or teaching, for those students still considering their options. However, if a student decides they want to be a sound engineer, then a physics degree would be a smart choice. 

Humanities, Social Science & Arts Degrees

What are they? – UK humanities and arts based degrees cover subjects such as English Literature, History, Politics, Psychology, Philosophy. Humanities and Arts based degrees at a UK university are often more research-focused and tend to offer fewer contact hours than science-based subjects.

Employment prospects – When choosing an arts or humanities based degree in the UK, it’s important to consider the transferable skills a degree could offer future employers.

Whilst humanities and arts degrees don’t automatically lead to a set career path, they help to foster valuable skills and competencies such as research, critical thinking, debating, writing and copyediting.  Arts and humanities degrees can lead to careers in law, marketing, business, politics and media, to name a few.

Before applying – Students applying to a humanities or social science based degree in the UK are more likely to do so because they have a personal passion for that subject – and that’s the most important reason to apply to any university degree!

However, an applicant to a humanities/arts degree may want to think about any relevant work experience or internships between semesters which could boost their employability after university.

Vocational degrees

What are they? – Vocational degrees can be similar to training degrees, in that they are a useful means of preparing for a certain type of work – however, they don’t constitute the only route into that career. UK vocational degrees can include Business Studies, Graphic Design and Law.

For example, a vocational graphic design course could prepare a student for a career in this area. However, other art and design based degrees such as a Fine Art degree, or Industrial Design, are an equally valid pathway for someone wanting to be a graphic designer.

This is a wonderfully open Common App essay prompt. 

What’s it asking? In short, it’s inviting students to talk about any aspect of their culture, experiences or education that they feel is deeply meaningful to them. 

Specifically, college admissions committees want to know how a student’s experiences have shaped them and defined them. Let’s break up each component part of this essay prompt, and look at how students could approach them. 

Background

In short, this is anything about a student’s background that they feel has shaped them. It could be something about their family history, background or lineage. It might be a sport, interest or talent they had when they were younger that has informed them as a teenager. 

Identity 

This could be racial identity, sexual orientation, or even a religious belief. But students shouldn’t be afraid to expand their definition. Being a member of a sports team, a band, or even an online gamer could constitute an ‘identity’ for some of your students. 

Interests 

Again, a student’s interests can cover all manner of things. What’s most important when writing about interests is that it has to be something without which their application would be incomplete

To use an example, you may have a student who is an avid bookworm. This is quite general interests, so it would be necessary for students to talk about something very specific. What have they learned from their favourite books? How has reading shaped their worldview, or their sense of themselves? 

Employment prospects – Employment prospects for vocational courses can vary depending on the course, subject area and university. However, since vocational courses are highly relevant to a particular career pathway, they are often a valuable route into a job after graduation.

Before applying – Students need to think about whether their chosen vocational course is the best route into their preferred career path. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are several different types of vocational degree on offer in the UK, so in-depth research is a must!

Bonus Resource – Download your free e-book, featuring your own copy of this ultimate guide, along with 7 free lesson plans to help prepare your students for UK university application. Click here to download

Part 2: The different types of UK degree explained

That’s degree pathways covered. But what about the different types of UK degree? What degree qualifications do university offer, and how can they inform a student’s life after graduation? 

There are, broadly speaking, three main types of university degree on offer. 

Honours degrees

This is the type of academic degree offered by most major universities in the academic system. Students will be awarded a bachelor’s degree with Honours, upon the completion of a three or four year course (although this will differ depending on the subject studied). Some common examples of Honours degree include a BA (Bachelor of Arts), a BSc (Bachelor of Science), a BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), and a LLB (Bachelor of Law).

UK honours degrees can take a number of forms. These include the following:

Single HonoursCourses wherein students study the same subject within the same faculty for the entirety of their course. Course lengths will vary, from two years anywhere up to six years for professional training degrees such as Architecture or Medicine.

Joint Honours: A joint honours degree will allow a student to study two subjects, similar to the major/minor degree system at a US university. A joint honours degree would be something like “French with Business”, and a student may study both subjects 50/50, or place more emphasis on one subject over another.

Foundation degrees

These degrees are typically training degrees of a less academic nature. They will often be a stepping stone to preparing for an honours degree.

Diplomas

Again, these courses are at a lower level than honours degrees, but their successful completion will often lead to acceptance on a subsequent degree course.

How is the Scottish university system different?

If applying to a Scottish university (e.g. The University of Edinburgh, The University of Glasgow, The University of St Andrews), it’s important for students to remember that the Scottish system is slightly different to the rest of the UK.

Scottish university degrees are four years in length, and offer undergraduates the chance to study a broader range of subjects before eventually specialising. The breadth of subject knowledge offered by Scottish universities is often highly prized by employers.

Part 3: Exploring the different types of university campus

University institutions in the UK differ widely in terms of their age, size and structure. For example, older collegiate universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are as much as 800 years old; meanwhile newer, former polytechnic universities were founded as recently as the mid-20th century.

Different UK universities have distinct ‘personalities’ and this means that any given institution will suit some students more than others.

Ancient/collegiate universities

The collegiate universities in the UK include Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. They are in the prestigious Russell Group of universities, and have strong academic reputations across all faculties and departments. They are mainly situated in towns and smaller cities, and the universities are often an intrinsic part of city/town life.

The term ‘collegiate’ refers to the fact that these universities are broken up into smaller colleges, in which students live and socialise. Different colleges have their own traditions and reputations, as well as their own distinct extra-curricular activities.

Note: Students applying to Oxford or Cambridge may be asked to submit applications to, and be interviewed by, individual colleges at these universities. 

Red Brick Universities

The term ‘red brick’ refers to a family of historic universities that are typically located in the major cities of the UK. These include Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester and Southampton. Again, these universities are mostly in the Russell Group, which means that they have a prestigious reputation across all faculties and courses.

For students applying to Red Brick universities, it’s worth deciding if city life is a good fit.

Plate Glass/Campus Universities

These are more modern universities such as York, Warwick and Sussex. Many were only granted university status as recently as the 1960s, but several are now highly ranked within the Russell Group of universities. The term ‘plate-glass’ was given to these universities due to their more modern architectural design.

Many of these universities are located on self-contained campuses outside of major towns and cities. This remote setting may be ideal for some students – however it could be isolating for those craving a busy, bustling city environment.

New Universities

New universities are typically institutions which were once classed as polytechnics (institutions focused mainly on vocational study). They are often located in the same city as older, more established universities (for example, Manchester Metropolitan neighbours the University of Manchester; Oxford Brookes neighbours Oxford University).

These universities can be attractive destinations for students looking to really specialise in a particular degree discipline, and can be strong options to consider for vocational study.

Bonus Resource – Download your free e-book, featuring your own copy this ultimate guide, along with 7 free lesson plans to help prepare your students for UK university application. Click here to download

Part 4: Understanding UK university rankings

It’s natural to look at a university’s ranking as a measure of its suitability, and its overall quality of education. UK universities are ranked according to a number of different criteria, including:

  • Quality of teaching.
  • Research rating.
  • Degree classification – the percentage of 1st and 2:1s as a percentage of all degrees awarded.
  • Student satisfaction
  • The percentage of graduates entering full time employment.
  • Drop out rates

League table rankings are not limited to these factors. However, these are arguably the most significant criteria that most students will look at when beginning the university application process.

Some universities, especially those within the prestigious Russell Group, offer an excellent quality of education all across the board. League tables are a useful way of identifying and researching these universities. 

But remember – league tables aren’t everything.

It’s tempting to measure the quality of a university solely by its league table ranking.

But in an increasingly diverse and international higher education market, a student’s suitability for a particular course or university is much more complex, and choosing the right UK university destination is about so much more than league tables.

Here are a few reasons why league tables should be treated with caution.

Different league tables measure different criteria

Depending on the league table you choose to look at, emphasis is placed on different criteria. For example, Shanghai Ranking chooses to emphasise a university’s research score, whilst the Times Higher Education league table tends to place high value on quality of teaching.

League tables do not guarantee specific outcomes

University league tables are signposts, not road-maps. A university’s ranking is no guarantee of a positive university experience overall, or a lucrative career after graduation.

Remember – a person’s suitability for a university is ultimately a question of what they want to achieve from their chosen course, if it can help them reach their career aspirations, and if they enjoy the university’s campus and culture.

In short, the best university experience ultimately comes down to personal preference.

Part 5: UK university entry requirements

“What grades do I need to go to university?” 

The answer to this question will, understandably, inform the final year of a student’s time at secondary school, as their exam, coursework and essay grades will have a direct impact on any university application. Pressure is high. 

For students applying to the UK, most courses will specify minimum entry requirements – i.e.  the grades an applicant would have to achieve to gain entry to the course. Many UK students will apply to university with their predicted grades, which are a major influence on their chance of being accepted.

However, minimum entry requirements aren’t the whole story. Students assessing their suitability for a UK university degree course should also bear the following in mind:

  • The popularity of the course – this will influence the level of competition for places.  
  • What grades yours will be compared to – i.e. the overall academic ability of other applicants.
  • How flexible the university will be if you don’t achieve/possess the required grades.

Take a look at the infographic below. This highlights how entry requirements at multiple universities can be very different. This could be due to the ranking of the university, or it could be based on the overall demand for places/the popularity of the course. 

University entry requirements: understanding the different qualifications

A-levels

University offers for A-level students are normally expressed as three or four grades, and these are usually the minimum requirements. Some universities will ask that students achieve a particular grade in certain subjects – for example, “AAB with an A in Physics.”

UCAS Points

UCAS points are another common means which UK universities use when making offers to applicants. The UCAS points system can be used to convert A-level grades into an overall mark – for example, two A grades and a B grade add up to 136 UCAS points in the current system.

Note – for more information on the UCAS points system, and how they relate to UK university entry requirements, check out the UCAS tariff calculator.

The International Baccalaureate

For IB students, universities will generally ask for an overall IB score, but they might also have specific requirements for certain subjects taken at Higher Level, or the grades a student has achieved at Higher Level.

So a UK university might express IB entry requirements as something like “665 at Higher Level, with at least a 6 in English” or “Must have Maths and Physics at Higher Level”

BTECs

For students applying with BTECs, eligibility will depend on which diploma they are applying with (e.g. 90 Credit Diploma, Subsidiary Diploma, National Diploma or Extended Diploma). Some universities allow students to combine A-levels with BTECs, or may allow the two qualifications to be used interchangeably.

Universities will normally ask for BTEC qualifications at a certain level – e.g. DDD = Distinction, Distinction, Distinction;  DDM = Distinction, Distinction, Merit.

Students should check an individual university’s BTEC requirements if applying with this qualification.

Cambridge Pre-U

Again, universities might ask for a set of scores e.g, D1, D2, or may require a student to have attained a certain grade in a certain subject (e.g. D2 in French). Once again, it’s worth checking specific course entry requirements.

Bonus Resource – Download our free worksheet and template that will help your students plan and write a truly original and individual Common App essay. Click here to download

How to write a Common App essay

Whilst students have a range of essay topics to choose from, it’s also worth remembering that all the Common App essay prompts are designed to encourage respondents to cover several important themes.

So, as your students prepare to to write their Common App essay, it’s important that they ask the following questions.

  • Which personal experience from my life will make an interesting story?
  • How can my essay tell a story and keep a reader interested?
  • How can I best illustrate moments in my life which have changed/defined me?
  • Will this story show me in my best light? 

These questions should inform every section of the Common App essay, and will allow students’ responses to be that much more structured and coherent.

How to get the opening line right 

The importance of the opening line in the Common App essay can’t be understated. It’s a chance for applicants to demonstrate flair, originality and wit, and to really grab the reader’s attention. That’s why brainstorming the opening line is an important exercise in itself.

Check out these powerful Common App opening lines from students at some of our BridgeU partner schools. These openers also come highly rated from US admissions staff.

“I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001 – Stanford University

I have a secret. Every day, after school, I come home late.” – Harvard University

Both these opening lines have short, sharp sentences which instantly grab the reader’s attention and offer intrigue as to the potential topic the essay could be covering. Both immediately offer the promise of an essay which will be story-driven and dramatic. Both openings also suggest a story which will be about a life-changing event in the writer’s life.

In short, these opening lines make the reader want to know more.

How to tell a vivid story 

Vivid storytelling, and the ability to hone a narrative is vital when writing the Common App essay. Here are some essential components of a great essay which are worth considering and practicing.

Descriptive language and vivid imagery

“Swinging open the door of my sheltered dorm room, I dashed through the corridor, veering towards the lounge. My sister, intermittently coherent, was acquainting me with the morning’s events. It was the 7th of July, and four suicide bombs had detonated in London. The city itself, typically a bustling, urban jungle, had been paralysed; tourists, office-workers, and residents were trapped like foxes in their holes.”

This is a sample from an essay that discusses the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005. Not only does this essay tell a compelling story of the applicant’s experience of what was a traumatic and newsworthy event, but its use of vivid imagery and descriptive language is very powerful.

For example, consider the description that London “had been paralysed”; personifying the city of London in this way helps to demonstrate the writer’s empathy and awareness. It’s also a much more effective use of imagery than simply saying something like “London was at a standstill”.

Getting personal – sharing passions/things that are important to the writer

Each day, I was used to reading and talking about current events. Understanding world events is my passion. Evaluating their importance is my responsibility. Today, however, these same events were threatening to tear my life apart.

I tried to imagine how any religion could not only condone but encourage these actions. I thought about how our Western culture had become irredeemably intertwined with other cultures, all of which seemed mutually uncomprehending. Wasn’t achieving a greater level of cross-culturalism meant to be a good thing?

These are two further excerpts from the same essay. In this extract, we gain an insight into the writer’s personal passions. These two extracts tell us about a time where the writer realised that something they were normally passionate about could, in their own words, tear their life apart.

The writer prides themself on their ability to make sense of world events – this was an event they struggled to make sense of, a moment when their status quo was challenged.

Storytelling techniques

Collapsed on the sofa, I realised that the mission I had chosen, to convince my school community to connect with the rest of the world, to some extent was no longer necessary. July 7th, like September 11th, would do the job for me. I got through that day, as did my family, physically unscathed, but emotionally charged. We all have a choice: to connect with the rest of the world or to cut it off. The events of that morning reaffirmed my choice. Non-interventionism is no alternative. Hell is not other people.

The writer uses powerful storytelling techniques to end their essay, and shows that they end their account of the July 7 having gone on a journey. Having faced a moment where their life was thrown into chaos, the writer reaffirms their decision to connect with the rest of the world.

So why is this Common App essay so successful?

Put simply, it creates a compelling picture of both the writer’s worldview, and their aspirations for the future. It effectively demonstrates the writer’s core values by dramatising a moment when those values were called into question.

Did You Know? – BridgeU has integrated with the Common App for the 2019/20 application cycle

For the 2019/20 application season, Common App are launching a new integration platform, and BridgeU will be one of the partners. Integration between the two platforms allows for an easier transfer of data, enabling counselors to more easily send supporting documents, via BridgeU, to Common App institutions. This will help to smooth the application journey for students wishing to study at a Common App university. 

If you’d like to know more about how this new integration could help your school, contact us at hi@bridge-u.com.

Writing a Common App essay: final checklist

As your students prepare to submit their Common App essays, make sure that they are paying attention to the following checklist.

  • Is their Common App essay telling a compelling story about them?
  • Does their essay contain a powerful opening line?
  • Are they using descriptive language and vivid imagery?
  • Are they writing with passion?
  • Is the essay portraying them in the best possible light?

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