The following is a guest post by Kevin Newton who specializes in helping students apply to college in Europe.
While there are a number of advantages to pursuing a degree abroad, “because it is no extra effort to apply” is definitely not one of them. Although there is a small list of universities, mainly those in Scotland, that do accept the Common Application, for most applicants to European universities, applying will mean an entirely different process. Luckily, it is a bit less convoluted than many applications in the United States.
First and foremost, it is crucial to understand the differences in university admissions between the United States and Europe. Most colleges in the United States evaluate applicants on a variety of criteria ranging from academic performance to athletic prowess to social involvement. For some elite schools, what one does outside the classroom is often just as important as what is done for grades. In Europe, things are very different.
It’s all about the academics
Instead, European universities place overwhelming emphasis on academic performance. This doesn’t mean that B students cannot find places at European schools. However, just as they probably would not attend Harvard or Stanford, they are unlikely to find themselves at Cambridge or Oxford.
Furthermore, it is not just academic performance across the board – specialization is rewarded, and to some degree, expected. For example, if you are a high achiever in science but hate literature, then performance on tests that show off your scientific knowledge, such as AP, IB, or SAT Subject Exams, is far better than similar results on an English exam.
As you can probably gather, standardized tests are important. The reason for this is understandable, since universities abroad have to have a way to understand how applicants measure up when compared to those from different high schools.
Depending on the degree program, different tests are required. Elite programs typically require AP or IB tests, while students can get into less well-known degree programs based on just their SAT or ACT performance.
You apply for a specific major
Yes, I said degree program, not university. When someone applies to a university in Europe, they are being admitted to study a specific major, such as history or chemistry. After all, without general education classes and only a few electives, the department is what is ultimately important. As a result, they get to dictate the entrance requirements.
Most history departments in Europe really do not care how an applicant did on the math portion of a standardized test. An economics department, however, would be very interested in an applicant’s math scores.
That is not to say that things like letters of recommendation or extracurriculars are not important, as they very much are. However, everything is from the perspective of putting academics first. Letters of recommendation should highlight the applicant’s passion for a field, while extracurriculars should show a level of intellectual curiosity.
Of course, sports are beloved in Europe, so while achievement (or even participation) is unlikely to guarantee acceptance, it may be enough to tip an admission officer’s hand.
One last important difference worth mentioning is the method of application. In the UK, applicants almost always apply through UCAS, a central clearinghouse for university applications. Only a handful of programs may be applied to each year, but the good news is that the total application fee is under $50 for all programs.
Typically, UCAS applications are due in January; however, for those wishing to study medicine, or for those interested in studying at Oxford or Cambridge, applications should be submitted by October 15. Other countries have different requirements, with many simply encouraging application directly to the university in question. Some programs, especially those in Germany, often do not even open applications until late spring.