UCAS vs. Common App: What International Students Should Know

As an American high school student in Colorado, Zachary Fornelius says his school held projects to help students prepare for applying to college; however, those did not help when it came to applying to universities in the United Kingdom, he says. Fornelius says he applied to five U.K. universities and a few safety schools in the U.S.

“Applying to the U.K. was foreign to me; however, the application process was really straightforward. The most difficult part was making sure you had all of the equivalent test scores and grades because they do grades very differently here and it was hard to understand at first,” says Fornelius, who is now pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fashion design at Arts University Bournemouth in England.

Prospective international students planning to apply to U.S. universities for undergraduate admission can typically apply through one streamlined portal, The Common Application, while those applying to U.K. universities for undergraduate admission and some graduate programs can do so via Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS.

[Read: The Common App: Everything You Need to Know.]

While both portals offer the convenience of applying to universities, here are three key differences between UCAS and the Common App that prospective international students should know about:

— Purpose

— Fees and deadlines

— Personal statement/essay


One major difference between UCAS and the Common App is what each portal is used for; while students use UCAS to apply for admission to U.K. universities, they use the Common App for U.S. college admissions, though some universities outside of the U.S. are also included. While the Common App is a popular platform, not all U.S. colleges use it.

“What sets UCAS apart from other admissions organizations across the world is that all universities in the U.K., around 350, accept undergraduate applications through us,” says Courteney Sheppard, senior customer experience manager for UCAS.

Sheppard says students can use the online application to apply to up to five U.K. universities at the same time. Applicants are required to choose five specific programs of study at those selected universities when applying, according to UCAS.

“International students need to submit similar details as U.K. applicants; however one key difference is the personal statement section,” Sheppard says. “As well as explaining why you want to study a particular course or subject, it’s also a good idea to write about why you want to study in the U.K. instead of any other country, and why you’re interested in becoming an international student rather than study in your home country.”

[Read: How Bachelor’s Degrees in the U.S. and Europe Differ.]

The Common App is used annually by students from more than 200 countries, says Scott Anderson, the organization’s senior director of solutions strategy and student success. He says the Common App has more than 900 member colleges and universities worldwide, including 61 schools outside of the U.S. Students can apply to up to 20 colleges, per the website.

Gambian national Sainabou Jallow, a junior at Ithaca College in New York majoring in math and biology, says she remembers feeling overwhelmed when she started to fill out the Common App.

“I felt that there were so many questions and I did not know where to start from,” Jallow says. “It was my first experience with an extensive application, but once I started filling it out, it was very straightforward and easy to complete.”

Anderson says the Common App is essentially the same for both domestic and international students, “with small differences, such as the questions about citizenship and residency, application fees and payment.”

He says schools may also add additional questions required of international applicants on the Common App’s My Colleges tab, which is where students can complete the applications for the colleges they add to their list. Students can also learn more about each school in the college information section and find deadlines, requirements for testing and more.

New this year, the Common App added an optional question for all students to respond to, in 250 words, about the impact of community disruptions such as the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters.

Scott Alexander, senior associate dean of admission and director of international enrollment at Bates College in Maine, says international students “can provide context on how COVID-19 continues to affect them, their families, their schools, their communities and their regions,” and adds that having this extra information can provide “invaluable insight as part of our application review.”

Fees and Deadlines

Prospective international students should know that fees and deadlines also differ between UCAS and the Common App.

“The UCAS application is inexpensive, approximately $36 collectively for five universities. Since the application is rather inexpensive, I encourage students to apply for the U.K. limit of five schools,” says Sandy Furth, founder and certified educational planner at World Student Support in Colorado.

Sheppard says the deadline to apply for most undergraduate programs in the U.K. is Jan. 15 each year. “However, many universities are flexible and will accept applications after this, in the months leading up to the course starting,” he says.

As for the Common App, Anderson says individual colleges may charge application fees but that the Common App is a completely free service.

“Schools decide if international applicants pay the same fee as domestic applicants, or if they must pay a different fee amount,” Anderson says.

He says 448 colleges have no application fee for international students, such as Ithaca College, Wright State University in Ohio, Duquesne University in Pennsylvania and Saint Martin’s University in Washington.

Anderson says international students may be eligible for a Common App fee waiver, based on financial need. “It’s important to check each university’s fee waiver policy for international applicants,” he adds.

Regarding Common App deadlines, he says each college can choose their own application options and deadlines. Options include early action, early decision, regular decision and rolling admission.

“Keep in mind that to meet an application deadline, they must submit their application materials by 11:59 p.m. in their local time zone, not the college’s time zone or any other time zone,” Anderson says.

Personal Statement/Essay

When comparing UCAS with the Common App, it’s also important for international applicants to be aware of differences in application requirements, particularly with the essay. UCAS refers to it as a personal statement, which is limited to 4,000 characters, while the Common App requires an essay of 650 words.

“UCAS personal statement is all about ‘why this course.’ Students are not only applying to a university they want to attend, but a major of study,” Furth says.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Entry Into U.K. Universities.]

Fornelius says he worked with Furth on a few drafts before submitting his personal statement.

“I talked about the hardships I’ve been through and how I developed and became a better person. I also talked about what I’m good at and what my goals and aspirations are,” Fornelius says.

Craig Meister, who runs CollegeMeister, a college consulting firm in Maryland, says while the UCAS has “one relatively workman-like essay about why a student wants to study a particular course, the Common App gets all touchy-feely with applicants.” He says the biggest issue for international students is the amount of writing that they need to do in English, using the style of personal persuasive writing.

“The Common App asks questions that are more personal in nature and many international students are not used to such personal questions being asked in formal applications in their cultures,” Meister says. “I advise students to let their heart show.”

He says the Common App essay asks students to share how they have grown or changed, which they can only do effectively by offering personal details that they may not have shared in writing before.

Whether applying to universities through the Common App or UCAS, prospective international students should start early and avoid working on the application the night before or pulling an all-nighter, Furth recommends.

“They take thought, drafting, revision, reflection — and it is a process,” Furth says. “In order to make it as less stressful as possible, the best practice is devise a reasonable timeline so there is room for reflection and thoughtful revision.”

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UCAS vs. Common App: What International Students Should Know originally appeared on usnews.com

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