1 Dec 2013

Applying to university in the UK: the FAQ

Over the past two years I've had this blog (crazy ey!), I've had quite a few requests for help regarding applying to university in the UK. (Don't want to brag, but several made it to British uni... I'm sure my advice made all the difference.) I'm always happy to help and feel helpful so I replied with great enthusiasm and a profusion of details... but my answers turned out to be pretty much the same every time.

So here it is, readers! I'm giving you what I hope to be an extensive FAQ on how to apply to university in the UK from the perspective of a foreign student. For context, I applied to university in January 2011 at the age of 16 and started university in October 2011 at the age of 17 at Goldsmiths, University of London — yes, back when the fees were the glorious price of £3,300/year.

First, I'd recommend picking what you want to study and/or where, otherwise the search is going to be very vast. And then, Google! The Internet is going to be your best friend during the process.

How early should I start looking at universities?
The earliest the better! The deadline to apply is usually in mid January of the year you'll want to start university. If you want a chance to attend open days, I'd recommend looking into universities as early as a year before that so you can attend open days during the summer or autumn before you apply.

I'm not sure my English is good enough, sad face.
Well there's only one way to find out, innit? More seriously, if you're able to watch a movie in English, read a book and hold a conversation, you'll probably survive in England. I have met plenty of people whose English isn't perfect (me included, I don't go a day without people laughing at my accent.) If you're worried, ask your English teachers at school, they'll be the best judge of your abilities.

Should I do a gap year to improve my language first?
I've been asked this question often and that's one I don't have an answer for. Gap years aren't common at all in France so they still feel like a strange idea to me. The first year of university doesn't account for much in term of grades, so I'm pretty sure the immersion of the first year would suffice for most to get a good grasp on the language. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to some, but that's more a 'self-building' matter.

How do I pick what universities to apply to?
Start by looking up the universities ranking which are established by (mostly) trustworthy organisations and can help you find out which universities are the best for what/where you want to study, like the Times Higher Education or The Complete University Guide. You can also use the UCAS website, which is where the whole application process happens, as it lists all universities and courses available in England, Wales and Scotland. Then, look at the universities' websites, order prospectuses, attend open days if you can afford it, throw a coin in the air; the choice is all yours! Just keep in mind you're allowed five choices max.

Ugh, fees are so expensive. 
They sure are. However, if you're lucky enough to be a EU national, you are eligible for student finance: the UK government loans you money to pay your undergraduate student fees. The money is then automatically taken out of your wages once you start earning a certain amount of money. If you happen to leave the UK after your undergrad, you're legally obliged to tell them of your whereabouts so they can get their money back. If you don't, I assume bad things ensue.

How do I apply?
So you've picked your universities, well done! Here comes the fun part. Everything happens on UCAS (which, if you're French, is ten times what PostBac will ever be.)
1. First sign up and fill in your personal information. Easy.
2. Fill in your choices. You can list one to five choices and you have to order them according to your preference.
3. Write a personal statement. This is a text explaining your motivations for applying to university. You can write only one to use for all your choices, so I recommend being coherent in the choice of courses you're applying for. Write a single personal statement for a science course and a fine arts course might prove a bit tricky. There's a lot of helpful documents on UCAS to help you understand what the personal statement is supposed to include and how you should write it. I found that it was quite different from the traditional French "lettres de motivation", so I'd recommend having a look if you don't know where to start. Also, ask everyone for help! Your teachers, your family, they know you and have probably applied to stuff before. They know things. Steal their knowledge.
4. Now you'll need to find a referee. It's a person who'll vouch for you and will have to write a reference letter supporting your application. It's commonly a teacher, so I'd recommend asking a professor of yours who speaks English. You'll need to write their contact details in the website, and UCAS will then contact them directly asking for the reference. Once they've sent it, you'll receive a notification.
5. Somewhere along the lines you'll be asked to say the grade you expect to get in your exams. Ask your teachers what they think you'll get instead of guessing yourself, and trust them!
6. Pay. Sadly applying isn't free but you only have to pay £23 once, even if you decide to add more choices later on.
7. Send it!

When do I apply?
Most applications need to be in for January 2014 for a start in September 2014. In general, the application deadline is mid-Jan.

Is there anything/anyone to help me with my application?
UCAS, your teachers, your family, alumni from your school you have applied abroad (ask your teachers), students from the institutions you're applying to (look on their website for student blogs or scour Tumblr/Twitter/UCAS forums)… The list goes on.

I sent my application! Woo! What happens now?
First you wait. Then certain universities might ask you for additional information. You might be asked to provide a portfolio of work (e.g. artwork for an arts programme, an essay for an English lit programme, etc) or attend an interview.
Then after you've waited anything between a month to four in my case, you'll receive answers. They might be a rejection, sad face, or you'll get offers! Most of the time, offers received are conditional, meaning the university will ask you for a certain grade to be obtained in your exams, and a certain mark in an English language test (TOEFL, IELTS etc.) If the offer is unconditional, bravo, you're a champ. You'll also need to select your 'firm acceptance' and your 'insurance acceptance' so that places become available on courses for others, etc.
Then once you've had your exams, received your results and successfully passed your English test, send it all to the universities who made offers. If you're successful, the status of the offer will change to unconditional and, congrats, you're in!

What do you mean an interview?!
Universities might invite you for an interview. It depends on the university and the course. I didn't have one, but some of my friends did. I'll have to refer you to the ever-helpful UCAS website.

I got in! Should I live in halls or go for privately rented accommodation?
Congrats! In your fresher year, I'd recommend living in halls since it allows you to meet lots of people and make friends, be really close to campus (= you get to sleep more) and be involved in more activities within uni and with friends. My best friend lived at home in her first year and I know she sometimes felt like she wasn't living the true uni experience.

I found your blog on the Goldsmiths website, do you like it there?
I love it. It took me a while to get used to it, but as soon as I did, everything became beautiful and shiny and covered in glitter. Goldsmiths has it flaws like any institution, and the Media department of which I'm part has many, but the course, university, neighbourhood and people are all brilliant and I strongly recommend them.

Here we go! I hope this can be helpful to some of you... If you have any additional questions, please leave a comment and I'll answer, and will add it to the list if it's a big thing I forgot. Hoping you all get into uni... x


  1. Bravo !!!!! Good work. Hope it'll be helpfull.

  2. Would you happen to know which halls to recommend in terms of price and quality?