Winston Churchill famously said that the United States and the United Kingdom are two nations “separated by a common language,” and in the world of university admissions this is definitely true.

The UK and US educational systems, from compulsory education through to the tertiary sector, are founded on two very different principles, and though much of the terminology we use is the same, the cultural understanding underpinning these is very different. Much like American football and what we (on this side of the Atlantic) would call “real” football, we use the same words to describe two different systems. Students, families, and IECA members advising them need to act in the same way as a wide receiver would if suddenly asked to play left-back: learn a new language, new rules, new strategies, and an entirely new way of approaching things.

I find this analogy useful in helping students and families navigate going from one system to another. Rather than assume that coming to university in the UK is the same as in the US, but perhaps with a different accent and much older buildings, those exploring study in the UK need to approach the system in a completely different way. To do so effectively, you need to understand the wider context of UK education.

UK Secondary Education

In the UK, the secondary education system has two distinctly different approaches to high school education. Rather than retaining academic breadth at high school, as they go through the last seven years of their education, students become increasingly specialized. As they enter eighth grade, most student will choose their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) subjects, typically involving two different English classes, one math(s) class, various options leading to one, two, or three GCSEs in science, and three or four other options which may include a foreign language. These courses are studied for two years, with exams happening in the May and June of Grade 10. A student may choose to drop languages at age 14, or the creative arts, or indeed all humanities. It would not be unusual for an arts-focused student to be taking GCSEs in English literature, English language, maths, double award science, French, music, drama, and fine art exclusively while a more STEM-oriented student could switch out some of these for design technology, computer science and further mathematics. At A Level or BTEC, the specialism comes further, with students pursuing an even narrower curriculum, choosing to focus on typically three or fewer classes that they will take through Grades 11 and 12. In my own personal example, I have no classes in maths, any science, or English after the age of 16, yet my four A Levels in history, German, drama, and music gained me admission to the University of Oxford.

Assessment works on a very different way too. There are no report cards in the UK, no GPA, and no focus on grading in an official way that takes account of class participation, pop quizzes, termly projects, or anything that is at a teacher’s discretion. All that counts is performance in the elements that make up the GCSE and A Level exams: most of the weight falling across three to five formal public examinations that happen at the end of the GCSEs and A Levels in a way that will be familiar to those working with IB Diploma students. A bright but lazy student can get away with it; a diligent student who struggles in exams may find that their diligence counts for little.

This inherent specialism is why the UK university entrance procedure works the way it does: with clear entry requirements, subject prerequisites, and a streamlined process.

How UK Students Approach a University Search

Students entering their last two years of high school will already be thinking about what they want to study at university. Note the focus on what, not “where.” Here lies the big difference between the UK and the US advising. The need to specialize in the last two years of high school means that students need to be taking the right subjects, and so need to have identified the subject, or related subjects, they wish to pursue at university. Students have to be counselled on finding the right academic fit. Though students may have an idea that they’d perhaps like to target “Oxbridge” or a “red brick” university, the subject choice will come first. Rarely will a student have identified a particular university that appeals to them in the same way as US students may be considering.

Fit, in the UK context, is therefore purely academic. I decided I wanted to study history first, and then thought about where I might study it. The latter point was determined by the grades I was likely to achieve, which brought the most competitive universities in play. I then looked at how history was taught at a range of universities and found myself attracted to the tutorial style at Oxford, as well as at departments with strengths in imperial history such as Durham, Lampeter (now Trinity St. David), King’s College London, and Nottingham. The idea of choosing a university based on size, culture, extracurricular opportunities, or even where my family attended did not come into play at all.

The Challenge from the US Perspective

This focus on what to study rather than where poses a challenge for a family raised in a very different culture, who may approach the UK with an idea of their child wanting to study at Oxford, or Edinburgh, or somewhere in London. They are focusing on the university rather than the academic subject. The US families we deal with are often surprised when we explain that it doesn’t work that way, and that most UK students don’t feel any real loyalty to the university they attended after they leave. We don’t choose a university to be our alma mater, we choose somewhere that’s good for the subject we want to explore further. 

To those advising these families, the challenge is therefore to get your head around this completely different way of doing things. The idea of how to visit a UK university falls down on the basis of that not being something that we do here. Why would you need to understand the culture of a university when it’s the subject that matters? UK universities don’t offer daily info session and tours, they don’t have Welcome Centres, and indeed many students will apply to universities without ever setting foot on campus.

For IECA members, this massively different cultural shift becomes important when considering how to work with a family. The “I” specialty designation can be helpful here. If you encounter a process built on a completely different cultural ground, like the UK process (or those in Europe, Ireland, and beyond), having colleagues who are embedded in the very different underpinning assumptions involved in a different country’s system can be hugely helpful. On the IECA Global Committee, we are working hard to prepare resources on where to go to find help with international applications. Being based here in the UK, I’d always love to meet any IECA members coming through the country to find out more about the wonderful opportunities of UK higher education. 

 By David Hawkins, MA, PGCE, IECA (UK)

David Hawkins, the University Guys, can be reached at [email protected]