Applying to a university abroad can be very different to applying to a British university. While we have tried to give an overview of national differences on the country pages of the website, here are a few general issues you should bear in mind:
1. When to apply?
Most countries have different application windows to here in the UK. The UCAS system requires students to apply before 15th October (medicine, law, Oxbridge etc) or 15th January in order for you application to be considered. You can apply after this date but there is no guarantee that a university will look at your application if they have already made all of their offers. The only other country where we would recommend that you apply as early as you do in the UK would be the United States, and even here there are exceptions.
Most European countries open their applications in January for entry in September/October. Some countries such as Denmark and Sweden have a relatively short entry period (typically six weeks). Other countries such as The Netherlands have variable application windows depending on the subject you wish to study. However, the typical Dutch deadline would be 1st June for Research Universities and even later for Universities of Applied Sciences. Australian universities can sometimes make a decision and/or conditional offer within two weeks of your application although as the academic year starts in February most students can actually wait until they have their A’ level grades before applying.
2. How to apply?
This is the hardest part of the application process on which to offer any general advice – every country, and in some countries every university, is different. We would always advise you to contact your intended university directly, even if there is a way to apply without speaking to them. We advise this for a variety of reasons but the main ones are:
- It may stop you from making simple mistakes in the application process;
- It may give you an idea as to your likely chances of success;
- It will give you immediate feedback about how well the university is likely to look after you once you arrive and study there. You may choose not to apply to a particularly unresponsive university.
Many countries have systems that are similar to UCAS but none is the same. For example, the Irish system CAO allows you to make up to ten applications to Irish universities at any one time. The Dutch system, Studielink, allows you to apply to four courses at any time (except courses subject to Numerus Fixus) and you can change your mind throughout the application process. In the USA many universities now use the Common Application form which means that the forms you use are the same but you must apply individually to each university.
For some universities, including most private universities in Europe, you will apply directly to the university and they will handle all aspects of the application process themselves.
3. What information do you need to supply?
The general content of a university application does not vary much from one university to the next. Most university applications require you to submit a full transcript of your school grades, certainly starting at GCSEs. Some application systems, most notably Studielink in the Netherlands, don’t allow you to submit all of your A’ level grades – you can only enter the fact that you have, or will have, A’ levels, BTECs etc. This is a quirk of the system that reflects the fact that Dutch students take a single diploma at the end of school.
You will usually have to submit a personal statement/motivation letter. Your UCAS personal statement may not be a perfect template for your motivation letter, so do check with your chosen university to find out what they want to see. You will also need to supply references from teachers and you may also need to supply an additional, non-academic reference.
For some universities you will need to take an entrance exam or submit additional exam results, for example the SATs or ACTs for most American universities.
For some subjects you will also need to submit a portfolio of your work or attend an audition. You may be required to attend an interview but in many cases this can now be done remotely, often via Skype.
4. How do universities select students?
The emphasis and importance that universities place on different parts of your application can vary greatly. While British universities typically use predicted A’ level grades as the most important filter of applicants, universities elsewhere may not. For example, American universities tend to look at an entire application and place great emphasis on evidence of extracurricular activity, community involvement etc. However, most US universities will also rank your application according to SAT/ACT score that you submit and it is likely that this will be more important than your A’ level results.
Many public universities in Europe only require you to have a school leaving certificate equivalent to the local school leaving certificate. In reality this can mean that EEE at A’ level is technically sufficient to gain you access to some of the very best universities in Europe (this is beginning to change at some universities). Where selection is more intensive (for example, courses subject to Numerus Fixus in the Netherlands or Numerus Clausus in Germany and elsewhere), universities will often emphasise that they are more interested in recruiting well-rounded students who will benefit from an internationally-focussed education. This may be demonstrated through your personal statement more than through your academic record.
It is also worth pointing out that your choice of subjects at A level could automatically rule you out of getting a place at a European university – you will almost certainly not be admitted to a German university without maths A level or AS level; in Switzerland you will need maths and a science regardless of the subject you wish to study at university.
Additionally, some universities will not accept the results of resits or A levels that were not all taken at the same time; if you have taken one of your A’ levels a year early you might find yourself unfairly penalised. This does not apply to resitting modules within an A’ level which is not a problem.
5. When do universities make offers?
Again, this varies tremendously from country to country. In some places such as Ireland, conditional offers do not exist; you will not receive an offer until you have your A’ level grades. This means that you will only find out if you have been successful approximately six weeks before you are due to start university.
Students receive ‘conditional’ offers from most European universities although often the condition is simply that the student achieves EEE or above at A’ level.
Many universities will make offers throughout the year so there is no particular time of year when you can expect to hear. However, if universities select their students more actively you may find that there are specific decision-making windows. The US system is probably the best example of this although any university that has a fixed selection procedure will also only make offers at certain times of year.
6. Late applications?
If you wish to apply for international universities later than the standard application windows, for example if you are applying during clearing, there may still be possibilities of gaining a place at an international university. There is a slight drawback for British students in the sense that A’ level results are announced very late by international standards (no such problem with the International Baccalaureate).
Just as you might expect in the United Kingdom, the most popular courses at the best universities are the ones that are most likely to be full already. However, in recent years we have witnessed students in law, medicine, dentistry and many other subjects get places at leading universities in the week after A’ level results are announced.
Please be aware that the later you apply the more likely you will have difficulty in obtaining your visa (not applicable for EU countries) and finding accommodation.