How to Apply to a UK University as an International Student

The UK is home to many world-renowned universities and, as a result, attracts thousands of international students every year. Degrees from UK universities are highly respected and can unlock many opportunities for future study as well as your future career.

If you’ve never applied to university (especially a UK university) before, the stages of the application process can be a little unfamiliar. However, with the right guidance, applying to study in the UK should be a straightforward path to an excellent degree-level education.

This guide walks you through the process of applying to a UK university as an international student, including researching available courses, ensuring you meet the entry requirements, completing your UCAS application, and applying for a student visa. The Profs’ Head of Admissions, Joseph Robbins, also shares his top tips for international students throughout.

How to apply to university in the UK

Step 1. Research available courses

Before you begin any application, it’s important to do your research into what is available. The UK has more than 160 universities and higher education institutions (Statista) to choose from and each offers a different set of courses and specialisms. You can only apply to five UK universities in one year at undergraduate-level, so you’ll need to make sure you’re well-informed and able to choose wisely. Here are some factors to consider when researching available university courses in the UK:

  • Location – the UK has universities in locations ranging from the bustling centre of London to the small countryside towns of Scotland. It’s important to take this into account during your research, as the location of a university will have a significant impact on the type of experience you have, your cost of living, and more.
  • Entry requirements – top-ranking universities tend to have much higher entry requirements for courses than lower-ranking universities. It’s important to be ambitious and aim for the best university possible, but still ensure that all of your options are attainable. See step 2 below for more information.
  • Admissions tests and interviews – some universities require applicants to take additional admissions tests and attend interviews as part of the application process. It’s important that you know which test you may be required to take, how you should register for the test, and if you are required to attend an interview, to ensure that you are eligible for consideration. Many admissions tests can now be taken online, but some need to be sat at an authorised test centre. There are test centres all over the world. Since Covid, more university interviews are conducted online, but some courses/colleges/universities still require face-to-face interviews. International students may be required to travel to the UK or there are some international interview locations.
  • Student satisfaction – one of the best ways to gauge what a university is like is to hear what previous and current students think about it. Most rankings take student satisfaction ratings into account and sites like the Complete University Guide allow you to sort by student satisfaction from highest to lowest.
  • Job prospects – another factor to consider is how likely you are to get a job after graduation and what links universities have to different industries. For example, Cambridge is the fourth best university in the world for job prospects, while Imperial College London is known for having strong links with a range of STEM industries. It is also important to consider the notoriety and international acclaim of the UK university if you’ll be pursuing job prospects in your home country or internationally.
  • Deadlines – there are several deadlines to consider when applying for UK universities and they are typically inflexible, so you need to ensure you meet each to have your application considered. The deadline for most university courses is the general UCAS deadline on 25th January. However, if you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge, or a medical degree course, the deadline for applications is 15th October. There may also be additional deadlines for extra stages of the admissions process, such as registering for admissions tests.
  • Structure/methods of teaching – at UK universities you normally study single or joint honours i.e one or two subjects. This should be considered if you are applying to UK universities from the states where you study multiple disciplines which you major or minor in. Scottish universities allow you to study multiple subjects before picking a ‘major’/ ‘honours subject’. Degrees in some countries are longer than in others i.e. US degrees are longer than UK degrees – three years (other than those in Scotland – four years). You should also consider the amount of contact time (lectures and tutorials) you’ll receive versus independent study.
  • Grade translation – the UK uses a different grading system to other countries, so you should consider how your grades will translate to, say, a GPA for America or the 0-20 French system.

Researching universities is an important part of the preparation process and will likely increase your chances of receiving an offer. The Profs’ admissions consultants can help with the entire process of applying to university in the UK, including helping you to research universities and choose the most suitable options for you. To maximise your chance of an offer, speak to one of our advisors today.

What are the best UK universities?

The top UK universities are among the best universities in the world. According to the QS World University Rankings, the best universities in the UK are:

UK rankingWorld rankingUniversity
12University of Oxford
23University of Cambridge
37Imperial College London
48University College London (UCL)
516University of Edinburgh
627University of Manchester
735King’s College London (KCL)
849London School of Economics (LSE)
961University of Warwick
1062University of Bristol

Note that each university is ranked differently depending on the subject you’re applying for. For example, Queen Mary University of London is the lowest ranking Russell Group university however it is ranked in the top 10 in the UK for both Medicine and Dentistry thanks to its world-renowned medical school, Barts.

Step 2. Ensure you meet all of the requirements for entry

University courses in the UK are typically very competitive and you’ll need to make sure you’re meeting all of the entry requirements. This includes your qualifications and what grades you achieve in them, but also the logistical requirements to study in the UK as an international student, such as ensuring you have a right to study there and proving how you will fund your studies. See each section below for more information:

Qualifications

Most UK universities accept a wide range of international qualifications, including A levels, International Baccalaureate, European Baccalaureate, and more. You will be able to check if your qualifications are accepted and, if so, what grades you will need to achieve, on each university’s website. If you need help reaching these entry requirements, The Profs can provide tuition to improve your grades and expand your university options.

Read our guides to getting into the following popular UK universities for more information on their international entry requirements:

Many universities will also require students whose first language is not English, or who have not studied in the UK previously, to take an English language proficiency test. The most common test used by UK universities is the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), but there are other language proficiency tests such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Find out more about the IELTS and how to prepare in The Profs’ IELTS guides.

Travel and right to study

If you’re applying to study in the UK, you will need to ensure that you have a right to travel and study there. You will need an up-to-date passport and be required to apply for a student visa. Skip to step 6 below for more information on applying for a visa.

Funding

To apply for a UK university, you will need to specify how you intend to fund your studies. Unlike UK students, who pay lower fees and are entitled to a loan from the UK government, international students will typically be required to pay higher fees and specify how they will cover them. Most fees for international students studying undergraduate degrees in the UK range from between £11,400 to £32,000 per year.

Generally, the more competitive a course or the better the university, the more expensive your fees will be. For example, most undergraduate degrees at Cambridge start from £23,340 per year, with Medicine being the most expensive course for international students at £60,942 per year.

You can either pay the fees yourself or apply for scholarships, grants and bursaries, which are available at many universities. You will also need to consider your living costs in the UK. Depending on where you go to university, the cost of student accommodation, transport and other living costs such as food and leisure activities will vary. London and the surrounding areas in the south of England, as well as bigger cities, tend to be more expensive, while rural parts of the country and areas in the north of the UK tend to be cheaper.

If you are planning on working to fund your studies or living costs, you will need to double check the conditions of your visa, as there are usually work permit restrictions on a student visa to the UK.

Step 3. Register with UCAS

All undergraduate applications to UK universities must be submitted via UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). The UCAS website is designed to be simple to navigate for UK and international students alike. You will need to provide your basic information as well as details about your academic qualifications and work experience. For more information on completing and submitting your UCAS application, read our helpful guide below:

How to complete a UCAS application

Step 4. Write your personal statement

Your personal statement is a key part of the UCAS application process. It is a 4,000-character piece of text about yourself, your experience, and your skillset that gets sent to all five of your university choices.

Your personal statement essentially your sales pitch to your chosen universities and is used to set you apart from all other applicants, many of whom will have a similar academic track record to you. For more information and tips on how to write a stand-out personal statement, read the guide below:

How to write a UCAS personal statement

Unlike US applications, which are tailored to each specific university you apply to, your UCAS application is sent to all five universities. Many European universities also do not require a personal statement and the UK style of statement is very different to that of the US Statement of Purpose in that it is more focussed on academics than individual passions. You should bear this in mind when writing your personal statement and throughout the admissions process. Avoid referencing specific modules or course names in your personal statement so as to make sure you’re appealing to all of your universities.

Joe’s tip: We recommend that you write your personal statement on a separate document rather than directly on the UCAS website. Not only does this ensure that you always have access to your latest draft, which you can continuously work on, but it also minimises the chance of mistakes.

Using a document with a grammar checker built in, or running your statement through software such as Grammarly, ensures that your statement is free of grammatical errors. You should also get a family member, friend, teacher, or tutor to proofread your personal statement drafts as well to ensure that they are written in clear, good English and that there are no mistakes.

Important changes to the UCAS personal statement: Note that all students applying to university for 2023, 2024 or 2025 will still be required to submit a UCAS personal statement as normal. However, from January 2025 onwards (October 2024, for Oxbridge applicants), there will be changes to the UCAS application process and students will no longer be required to write a personal statement. Instead, all applicants will answer a series of shorter, more tailored questions provided by UCAS.

Step 5. Complete and submit your UCAS application

Once you’ve registered with UCAS, written your personal statement, and completed all of the steps to your UCAS application, you’ll be ready to submit your application. Make sure you check over your whole application carefully before submitting it, as you cannot go back and change anything once it has been sent to your chosen universities.

You should also make sure that you know what you need to do after submitting your application (see the steps below) so that you are prepared ahead of time.
The deadline for UCAS applications depends on the university and course you are applying for. The main deadlines you will need to know are:

  • UCAS application deadline: 25th January – this applies to the majority of university courses.
  • Oxbridge application deadline: 15th October – this applies to all courses at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Medical application deadline: 15th October – this applies to Medicine courses at all universities.

Joe’s tip: While the 15th October deadline is usually inflexible, many universities will continue to accept applications from international students until later in the year, nearer to the beginning of the course start date. If you’d like to apply to Oxbridge or medical school in the UK but need some extra time, it’s therefore worth checking with the individual universities you’re applying to and seeing if there is some flexibility.

When will you find out if you have received an offer?

If you are applying to Oxbridge or medical school, you will receive an offer by the 10th January (Oxford), 25th January (Cambridge) or the end of March (medical schools).

If you are applying to another university course (by the January UCAS deadline), you can expect to receive offers from your chosen universities before the 19th May.
If you successfully receive an offer, you will be sent a CAS form (Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies) by the university that has accepted you. This is a virtual document with a unique reference number you need to apply for a student visa (see the step below). Your CAS will also contain all of the important information you need to know about your university course, including your course start date and tuition costs.

If you want to improve your chances of an offer from Oxbridge, a UK medical school, or another top UK university, our tutors can help. Applicants applying to Oxford or Cambridge who work with The Profs’ admissions experts are three times more likely to receive an offer from their chosen university than without our help. In addition, more than 90% of all of our students receive offers from their first or second choice universities. To start your journey to a successful university application in the UK, reach out to our team today.

What happens if you don’t receive an offer?

If you don’t receive an offer from any of your five choices, you have the option to use UCAS Extra. This gives you another chance to gain a place at university by adding an extra course to your choices. You can use UCAS Extra between 25th February and 4th July by logging into your UCAS account.

If you have been declined from your five university choices, we recommend that you use UCAS Extra to choose a course with lower entry requirements. Go back to your course research and find an option that covers the content you are interested in and offers similar modules, but that you have a higher chance of getting an offer from.

The Profs’ admissions experts can help you choose the best-suited university courses based on your grades, skills and experience. Get in touch with our team for personalised guidance and one-to-one support.

Step 6. Apply for your visa

Once you have received your CAS, it is time to think about applying for a student visa. From the date of receiving your CAS, you will have 6 months during which to apply for your visa. You should make sure to check the deadlines and important dates in advance to ensure that you have everything you need by your course start date.

If you are applying to study a full-time degree in the UK (whether you are already in the UK or applying from abroad), you will need a student visa. You can obtain your visa through an online application with the UK government. You will be eligible to study in the UK if you’re 16 or over and meet the following criteria:

  • Have been offered a place on a course by a licensed student sponsor (university)
  • Have enough money to support yourself and pay for your course (the amount will vary depending on your circumstances)
  • Can speak, read, write and understand English (which can be assessed by your university, which may require you to take an English speaking qualification such as IELTS)
  • Have consent from your parents if you’re 16 or 17 (you’ll need evidence of this when you apply)

If you’re applying from outside the UK, the earliest you can apply for a visa is 6 months before you start your course. You’ll usually get a decision on your visa within 3 weeks.

If you’re already in the UK and extending or switching to a student visa to stay in the UK for university, the earliest you can apply is 3 months before your course starts. You must apply before your current visa expires and your new course must begin within 28 days of your current visa expiring. For these applications, you’ll usually get a decision within 8 weeks.

How much does a student visa cost?

It costs £363 to apply for a student visa from outside the UK and £490 to extend or switch to a student visa from inside the UK.

How can we help?

The Profs’ undergraduate admissions team have many years of experience advising students, both from within and outside the UK, on how to get into some of the most competitive UK universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE, St Andrews, and more. Around 49% of international students applying to study in the UK in 2021 were successfully accepted by a university. With the help of The Profs’ admissions experts, more than 90% of our students get into their first or second choice university! Plus, our students are more than three times more likely to be accepted into Oxbridge with the help of our tuition.

Our team specialises in whole-package support and can help you from the early stages of finding which universities would be best suited to you, all the way through to preparing for admissions tests and interviews. We can also line up tuition for when you get to university to ensure you’re not slipping behind in your first-year studies. Get in touch with our team today for more information and support.

FAQs

What is UCAS?

UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) is the UK’s main university admissions platform. All undergraduate students applying to UK universities, including international and mature students, must go through UCAS in order to submit their applications. UCAS also facilitates applications for some taught postgraduate courses in the UK, however most applications are made directly to universities at postgraduate-level.

When is the UCAS application deadline?

There are two main deadlines for UCAS applications. The first deadline is on the 15th October 2022 and applies to students applying to Oxford or Cambridge or to medical school. This date does not change from year to year. Both Oxbridge and Medicine courses require you to sit admissions tests as part of the entry requirements, and you usually need to register for these before the 15th October deadline.

The second deadline, which applies to all other undergraduate applications, is on 25th January 2023. This deadline changes very slightly from year to year so make sure you check the specific dates for your entry cycle. Some courses with the 25th January deadline still require admissions tests, such as Law and Mathematics, so make sure you check which test is required and register before submitting your application.

Do international students have to go through UCAS?

In most cases, all international students applying to study an undergraduate course in the UK must go through UCAS. If you’re applying to study at postgraduate level, then the process differs depending on the course and university you’re applying for.

You can apply to some courses through the UCAS postgraduate service. However, most universities accept postgraduate applications directly from students, so there is no need to go through UCAS. Make sure you check what the application process is on the university website before applying.

What is the difference between a UCAS application and a Common App application?

The Common Application (Common App) is an undergraduate college admissions service that students use to apply for colleges across the USA. It also includes colleges and universities in Canada, China, Japan, and many European countries.

Common App is essentially the USA’s version of UCAS. However, it is a lot more involved than the UCAS process. The US admissions system puts much more emphasis on extracurricular hobbies and interests than the UK system. On Common App, there is an ‘activities’ section which plays a significant role in the admissions decision process.
Though there are currently 23 UK universities that are listed on Common App, it is still recommended that applicants who want to study at UK universities apply through UCAS.

Can EU students study in Scotland for free?

Students from the European Union (EU) used to be able to study in Scotland for free. However, from 2021, they can no longer study for free and must pay the fees specified for Scottish universities as well as other universities across the UK.