Applying to top UK universities: tips for a successful application

Your first steps to studying at UK’s best universities

Studying abroad is a great adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will widen your horizons and grant you thousands of new possibilities. Here, we will outline the very basics of applying to study in the United Kingdom, in particular its top universities, so you can learn what the overall process looks like.

What universities are out there?

You must have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, the most renowned universities in the UK and Europe. While they may sound mythical at first, they are actually in your reach and would always devote a lot of time to assess your application, no matter what your background is. They view each candidate as a separate case and care a lot about your academic potential, far more than about other things such as grades or qualifications. If you are a naturally curious person with a lively interest in your subject, then you have a very good shot!

Oxford and Cambridge share a lot of similarities. They use the famous tutorial system so that each student is assigned a tutor that guides and mentors him on a very individual basis. They are both stunningly beautiful and permeated with bizarre traditions. They use the college system so that each student is assigned to their ‘house’, just like in Harry Potter, in which they live, eat and sleep, becoming a part of a family-like community. They are both crazy about their sports, most notably rowing, and would meet each year to compete in countless disciplines. And, most importantly, they are both amazing places to spend your initial years of adolescence while having great fun, meeting inspirational people and developing yourself academically, all at once.


If you prefer the atmosphere of a great, vibrant metropolis, studying in London may be your thing. Here, you may be considering London School of Economics or University College London, depending on the course you are interested in. The experience will be much different, less mythical and more urban than in Oxford or Cambridge – but it doesn’t mean it will be less exciting!

How the application system works

The whole application process is centralized and officially hosted by UCAS platform. You need to register by filling in a couple of forms and then you are good to go!. Everything you do regarding your application will be processed by UCAS. After you have registered, you can start selecting universities and courses. Up to five can be chosen, but Oxford and Cambridge cannot be picked at the same time – so you’ll have to make up your mind! It is generally a good idea to apply to more than one university, as they all receive the same application pack – it is a very small fuss for a higher chance of success.

Then, you will have to write a personal statement, which is a 4.000 characters long letter describing your motivations and key achievements. The purpose of the personal statement is to articulate to your university that you are the perfect candidate with lots of academic potential and to assure them that you will not squander the chance if you are successful. . You will also need to ask your teacher for your predicted grades and for a reference letter.

Once your PS is written, referee contacted and grades’ predictions uploaded around early October, it is the time to wait. For some universities (like LSE or UCL) that would be the end of the journey – for Oxford and Cambridge, however, this is just the beginning, so you will have many more opportunities to prove your academic potential in the subsequent steps of the process.

Next in line would be the aptitude tests, for Oxford usually written in November. Their purpose is to check your ability to think on your feet and solve problems you have not encountered before – but with proper preparation they should not be a problem. Many social sciences subjects would take the famous TSA test, but each course may have its own exam. The test result has a considerable impact regarding getting to further stages, but is not that important later on.

After the test comes the invitation to the interview – so that means you are flying to the UK! This is easily the most exciting part of the recruitment process and usually happens in early December. You will get to meet your tutors and show them in person that they would actually enjoy teaching you for the upcoming three years. You will get to see your dream university over a few days of fully funded accommodation, meet like-minded peers and dine in straight-from-Harry-Potter dining hall for free! Interviews are a great experience, but can seem stressful beforehand – make sure you come prepared! Most candidates have one to three 30-minute interviews and spend about 3-5 days enjoying their future colleges.

You will get your offers from Oxford or Cambridge around early January. The system here may be different than in your home country: Once you get an offer, you are not automatically a student. The offer will give you certain conditions that you have to meet to be enrolled – usually sitting a language certificate and achieving a proper A-Levels/IB/national exam score, based on what they think you are capable of achieving. The point of this is not to keep you idle and complacent once you have secured a place at a world best university, so make sure that you do not fail the final sprint – the vast majority of people don’t, so no need to worry.

The journey is long but exciting and rewarding! For your convenience, this is the timeline of all the important deadlines

Jakub Labun, 18 May 2016