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Applying to university in the UK, a guide from personal experiences

One of the amazing things about doing the IB is that it is an internationally recognized curriculum with benefits. One of which is being able to clinch foreign university admissions. A common one of these foreign university destinations for IB students is the United Kingdom. In this article, I shall guide you through the application process as well as tips I had to learn the hard way. 
For context, I applied to and received conditional offers from the University of Birmingham, University of Manchester, University of Kent, University of Leicester, and University of Sussex as an international student from Lesotho to study Economics and Politics.

Benefits of studying in the UK 

On one hand, the UK is home to some of the top-ranked universities in the world. Institutions such as the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, and Imperial College London consistently rank among the best globally. On the other hand, the IB curriculum is highly regarded worldwide for its rigorous academic standards. Such as emphasis on critical thinking, research skills, and independent study. UK universities value the IB Diploma and often have specific entry requirements tailored to IB students, offering a clear pathway for admission. As an IB student, you can take advantage of the academic excellence and reputation of the program. By applying to these institutions, which can greatly enhance your future prospects. 

Studying in the UK not only increases your future professional success but also provides an immersive cultural experience. The country’s diverse communities, and vibrant arts scene create an environment that fosters personal growth and global understanding. As an international student, you will have the opportunity to interact with individuals from different backgrounds, broaden your perspectives, and develop a global network of contacts. Another significant advantage of studying in the UK is the wide range of academic disciplines and programs available. Whether you are interested in humanities, sciences, engineering, business, or the arts, UK universities offer a comprehensive selection of courses to suit your interests and career aspirations. Additionally, many institutions provide access to state-of-the-art facilities, cutting-edge research opportunities, and renowned faculty members who are experts in their respective fields.

Deadlines and Sites

It is important to note that the application process for UK universities generally starts a year in advance. The application timeline may vary depending on the specifics of the university’s term schedules. But, to apply for studies starting in September, most will start accepting applications by mid to late January. It is still advisable to research and find the exact deadline though as to start early to allow ample time for research and preparation. For example, I started my application process for the Fall Term (September 2023) in October 2022 which allowed me enough time to explore my options and prepare a good application. 

A great benefit of applying to UK universities is all the applications can be done through one place, UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). UCAS is the central organisation wherein all prospective undergraduate students submit their university applications. From there, each application will then be sent off to the universities designated by the applicant. As an international IB student, you will need to create a UCAS account, and submit your application through their online platform.

The UCAS application typically consists of several components including: personal details, academic qualifications, a personal statement, and a reference from one of your teachers. It is important to carefully complete each section and provide accurate information to ensure a smooth application process. Additionally, international students are often required to provide proof of English language proficiency, usually through submitting scores from the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams.

Finding the right schools

On the UCAS platform, you can only apply to a maximum of five universities. With so many qualified universities to decide among, it is important to consider various factors that align with your academic goals, interests, and personal preferences.

First, consider the reputation and ranking of the universities. UK universities are globally renowned for their high-quality education and research facilities which is evident in their world rankings given by organisations like QS World University Rankings or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Checking these out can be a good basis for your decision but keep in mind all rankings are different and let them not control your decision making rather guide the process.

Second, consider the specific courses and programs offered by each university. Some universities may specialise in certain fields over others. Thus, look for schools that not only offer a wide range of courses in your desired field of study, but also the ability to support quality education in that field. Explore and take notes on the course modules, teaching methods, and any additional opportunities, such as internships or study abroad programs, that may enhance your learning experience.

Lastly, don’t forget to consider the university’s support services for international students. Look for universities that offer dedicated support for international students which may include assistance with visa applications, orientation programs, language support, and cultural integration initiatives. These resources can greatly enhance your university experience and ease the transition into a new country.

Entry requirements

Each university has its own specific requirements, so it is essential to thoroughly research and familiarise yourself with the entry criteria of your chosen institutions.
The first step is to check if the universities you are interested in accept the IB diploma as a qualification for admission. Fortunately, this will not be too big of an issue as most UK universities recognize the IB diploma and consider it equivalent to A-levels or other national qualifications. However, it is important to note that some universities may have specific subject requirements or minimum score expectations for IB students.

When it comes to subject requirements, universities typically specify the subjects they prefer or require students to have taken for certain courses. It is advisable to carefully review the subject requirements for your desired course and ensure that your subject choices align with the university’s expectations. For example, if a certain course at a specific university has an entry requirement of Math AA SL with a grade of 5, but you are taking Math AI SL with a predicted grade of 4, it is not advised to apply for admission into this specific course or university.

  • Personal statement 

The personal statement is your opportunity to showcase your strengths, experiences, and passion for your chosen field of study. Take your time to craft a well-written and compelling personal statement that highlights why you are a suitable candidate for the program. Tailor your statement to each university to demonstrate your specific interest in their institution. As you delve into the body of your personal statement, be sure to provide specific examples and evidence to support your claims. Avoid making generic statements and instead, focus on sharing concrete experiences that demonstrate not only your skills and attributes, but your passion as well. Make sure to be genuine, and clearly show how you developed an interest in that field and how you show it as an IB student. 

Additionally, it is also essential to convey your future goals and aspirations in the statement. Discuss how your chosen field of study aligns with your long-term career objectives and how the university you are applying to can help you achieve them. Admissions officers want to see that you have a clear vision for your future and that you have carefully considered how their institution fits into your academic and professional journey.
Exemplars for personal statements can be found on These examples were  submitted by different prospective undergraduates from all over the world who were applying to university in the UK. 

  • References

Typically, universities in the UK require at least one academic reference from a teacher who has taught you in a core subject, such as Mathematics, English, or a science. Additionally, this teacher must know you well and can speak to your academic strengths, work ethic, and intellectual curiosity. It’s important to approach your teachers early in the process to give them enough time to craft a thoughtful and detailed reference letter.

In addition to academic references, some universities may also ask for a personal reference. This could be from a mentor, counsellor, or any other non-academic individual who can provide insights into your character, leadership qualities, extracurricular involvement, or any other relevant experiences. It is important to choose someone who has had extensive experience working with you, and can provide an honest and positive assessment of your non-academic attributes.

When requesting references, it is essential to provide your referees with all the necessary information they will need to write a strong recommendation letter. This includes details about the universities you are applying to, the specific courses or programs you are interested in, and any specific qualities or experiences you would like them to highlight. Providing your referees with a copy of your personal statement or resume can also be helpful in guiding them on what to include in their reference.

Although doing the IB Diploma Program can be daunting I hope this article was able to shed a light on one of the many benefits of doing it. By following these steps and tips, submitting a well-prepared application will be easy, and you will be one step closer to pursuing your higher education goals in the UK. For all prospective UK undergraduates, good luck!

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