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University acceptance rates: How does the UK compare?

If you’re applying to study at a university anywhere in the world, you want to have an idea of what the university is like, but also what your chances are of receiving an offer to study there. 


University acceptance rates can be a good way to understand what your chances are prior to applying for admission. In the UK and Europe these are more commonly known as offer rates, but are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.


If you’re intending to study abroad then you have probably identified many universities and colleges around the world as potential places to apply to. But in terms of acceptance rates how does the UK compare to other countries? 


You’ll be interested to know that in the USA, the majority of Ivy League colleges have an acceptance rate below 10%, while the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford, the two best universities in the UK, have acceptance rates of 21% and 18% respectively. This indicates that when applying to the best universities in the UK, you have more than twice the chance of being accepted than when applying to leading universities in the USA.


This article will look at university acceptance rates, and what UK universities look for, to help you increase your chances of being accepted.


Understanding admission statistics


Identifying which universities are most likely to accept your application can be confusing. 


The acceptance rate is used across the world to indicate how difficult a university is to get into, but how is university acceptance rate calculated? 


It is a percentage which is calculated dividing the number of successful applicants, or offers, by the total number of applications. 


This may seem simple and on the face of it, it is, but this number can be skewed by various factors. Acceptance rates will be hugely affected by the popularity of a university. The more popular it is the more applications it will receive, placing more competition on places and resulting in lower acceptance rates. 


In the UK there is also a limit of how many universities you can apply to (five) whereas in the USA, for example, students can apply to as many colleges as they want. Once again, this can skew the rate of acceptance by increasing the number of applicants, so is something to bear in mind when comparing universities globally.


In some cases, acceptance rates may be low because universities have a limited number of places or in other cases it might be that they cater to a specialist subject area, such as being a dedicated medical school or liberal arts university. 


While a university’s acceptance rate is a good starting point in choosing where to apply, it is one input of a larger picture, and as such there are other statistics to consider. 


One is the percentage of students who ultimately enrol after being offered acceptance; this is sometimes referred to as ‘yield’ and can be a focus for the universities, as they want the students they offer acceptances to, to choose them to study with.


Some other meaningful statistics you may want to pay attention to are: 

  • the average grades of admitted students 

  • average class size, and 

  • the percentage of students that graduate within the set time of their course.


On its own, acceptance rate tells you little about the quality of education that you might receive, and it’s important to consider other more qualitative factors when deciding where to apply. 


Which universities are hardest to get into? 


Here we will look at the leading UK universities that are the most difficult to get accepted to, based on global acceptance rates:


  1. University College London (UCL) - 7%

  2. London School of Economics (LSE) - 9%

  3. University of Edinburgh - 10%

  4. University of Nottingham - 11%

  5. King's College London - 13%

  6. University of Liverpool - 14%

  7. Imperial College London - 14%

  8. University of Warwick - 14%

  9. University of Oxford - 18%

  10. University of Cambridge - 21%


It might be something of a surprise that out of the top ten UK universities, Oxford and Cambridge come in the bottom two, accepting more students than some of the others listed. But it is also worth noting that owing to higher entry requirements and overall standards, they are likely to receive fewer applications than some of the other universities listed, and this will affect the overall acceptance rate.


Now that we understand university acceptance rates in more detail, let’s take a look at what UK universities look for when assessing university applications.


What do UK universities look for? 


When applying to UK universities, everyone is in the same situation. Everyone applies through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, known as UCAS. Completing this application can be a big task, so it is worth understanding what universities look for in applicants and applications.


  1. Academic record

One of the first things universities will look for is evidence that you can handle the academic rigours of your chosen subject and will ultimately do well at university. This evidence is mostly commonly shown through exam results. 


  1. Personal statement

You also need to be able to write a compelling personal statement that demonstrates the enrichment activities you have taken part in outside of the curriculum. This shows your passion for your chosen subject. It is recommended that you write this as early as possible, write a number of drafts, and get feedback from teachers, family and friends. You might also want to consider seeking feedback and guidance here from specialist university application agencies.


  1. Academic references

Strong references from former and current teachers are also important for your academic application.


  1. Genuine enthusiasm 

It can be easy to fall into the trap of treating a university application as if it’s a tick box exercise. If you do this you will struggle to demonstrate genuine interest in your subject, and this a key trait that universities look for.


The main way you can show this is by reading. The syllabus alone isn’t enough, so you could start reading first-year degree books as a hobby to really show your interest. You can also consider completing a specialist pre-University course to help build your understanding as well as demonstrating your interest. 


  1. Interviews

Lastly, if interviews are required for your chosen UK university, it is important to make sure that you are prepared for it. Taking the time to reflect on your chosen subject, researching the university and the faculty that you are applying to, and preparing some of the softer skills such as body language and eye contact are all extremely important. 


University acceptance rates: Maximising your chances of getting in


Now that we understand what university acceptance rates are, as well as what UK universities look for when assessing applications, you are able to bolster your university applications and maximise your chances of getting into the UK’s leading universities. 


Please get in touch if you would like to learn more about our free university admissions talks, where you have the opportunity to ask representatives from the UK’s leading universities questions on how to maximise your chances of getting in.



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