You say tomAto, I say tomaaato – the differences between UK and US applications

Education, Specialist Applications

7th August 2018

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The majority of people who engage the services of Oxbridge Personal Statements are applying to UK universities, and particularly Oxford and Cambridge. However, the appeal of studying abroad – and particularly in the States – is gaining traction amongst students, particularly as UK fees continue to rise. Oxbridge Personal statements has therefore also been extending its consultant base to include US applications experts. Here, one of our experts discusses the key differences between UK and US personal statements and university applications.

The personal and the academic

A lot of focus is given by schools on the importance of showing yourself off as a ‘holistic’ and balanced person – someone who volunteers to save small puppies, plays piano to a Grade Eight standard, speaks 27 languages and lives only to complete their Duke of Edinburgh award.

Undoubtedly, the ability to combine these things with your studies are beneficial elements to bring to your statement; they mark you as diligent, committed, dynamic and driven. But in UK statements they should really only be considered as ‘added extras’ – a little bonus to sweeten your appeal. In terms of focus, they should not really constitute more than 10% – 15% of your statements focus (or length) – and mere ‘hobbies’ (I like long country walks, wine appreciation and 90s Ibiza trance hits…) are of no value at all. Instead, the majority of the focus of a UK statement should be on communicating your understanding and drive for the subject you are applying for, and demonstrating how your academic achievements mean you would benefit from further study.

In the US, these extracurricular elements are far more important. US admissions officers place a focus on applicants communicating their ‘real selves’; they value colourful and creative narrative accounts that take unusual stances, and display individual ‘quirkiness’. To the British eye, they can often seem somewhat touchy-feely, and even gimmicky. Certainly, such a personal approach would be frowned upon by UK applications assessors – though similarly, the ‘cold’ academic approach of the UK would fall flat in the States.

Recognising the stylistic and content differences between the two applications processes is vital to success – American applications may use bolder, more self-confident language, focus on feelings and emotions, use humour and anecdotes, and focus on the person and the institution rather than the subject and the course. Conversely, UK applications will seek to highlight achievements whilst maintaining a perversely British sense of modesty, seek to communicate the significance of the course to the individual, their interests and their long-term goals, and remain largely academic in its focus.

Ultimately, the difference comes down to audience. In the UK, you are essentially writing to your tutors, and what they want to know is whether you will be a person that they can enjoy working with over the course of three years. They want to know if you’ll be committed, if you’ll be stimulating and engaged, and if you’ll reward their efforts with progression and passion. In the US, you are talking to the institution as a whole. Will you be an asset to the campus? Will you go on to do big and bold things with your life and maintain your loyalty and pride to your alma mater?

Focus on course or campus

A point that largely follows on from the one above is the difference in who you are applying to. In the UK, you apply using one generic statement to five universities – the assumption is that the course you are applying to will be largely the same across all of those choices. As such, the focus of the statement is on the course – mention of any specific institution is largely precluded for fear of alienating the others.

In the US, you apply to each university individually. Moreover, at US universities you will tend to take multiple units from diverse areas before finally focusing on a major, so the need to focus on a specific subject domain (in terms of either ‘passion’ or existing knowledge’) is lessened. Instead, the focus for US applications is on the institute, the characteristics it holds and how they match the character of the applicant. Flattery tends to go a long way: the line ‘As a prestigious and respected institution, university X appeals to me because…’ falls flat in UK applications, but is standard fare for US ones.

These are only two of many significant differences in the applications procedures for both UK and US universities. If you would like to delve further into both the procedural and substantive differences, why not get in contact with Oxbridge Personal Statements to engage the services of one of our specialists, and talk through which is the best approach for you to take?