The American Common App essay (better known as the Common App) and the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) personal statement used in UK university admissions may seem similar at first glance. They’re both essays students write as part of their college package that serve to tell admissions committees who they are and why they should be accepted into their school. However, while both essays are written to showcase a student’s achievements, academic abilities, and aspirations, there are fundamental differences in the structure, content, and evaluation criteria of these essays. And these differences in style and approach reflect larger differences in the way American and British universities go about educating their students. For students wishing to attend a college or university on either side of the Atlantic, understanding these differences is essential to a successful application.
The most obvious and superficial differences between the two essays are the number of schools who accept them, their length, and their due dates. The Common App essay used to apply to American colleges and universities is typically 500-650 words long, though many state colleges and universities do not require it. However, most selective American colleges and universities further require supplemental essays on top of the Common App essay. These supplements can range in length from short answer questions to full-length reflections for schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.
In contrast, the UCAS essay has a strict 4,000 character limit and is due in late January–and is the only piece of writing students will need to complete to apply to elite UK schools like Cambridge or Oxford. Meanwhile, the Common App will be due whenever students begin applying to college, which could be as early as November 1 if they wish to apply Early Decision. The takeaway: The Common App is bigger and broader in every way, requiring students to tick more boxes, and the application cycle can stretch much longer than the UCAS.
Common App essays need narrative
On a more fundamental level, the two essays are asking students to do two different things. The Common App gives students one of six essay prompts to choose from along with the option of creating their own prompt or turning in a piece of writing they’ve already completed. These prompts focus on issues students have overcome, and experiences that show students’ unique personality, character, and values. American admissions committees want to know what makes the student different from others and why they would be a good fit for their institution. As a consequence, the Common App essay often follows a narrative structure, with students crafting a story about a particular experience that shaped them. Along with advancing an argument, these personal essays are expected to use literary devices like dialogue and description to show the reader something about the student rather than just telling them. Ideally this planning and development starts during the spring of 11th grade.
UCAS personal statements are driven by argument and evidence
In contrast with the Common App essay, the UCAS essay isn’t even an essay (technically). It’s actually a personal statement. UK universities focus less on character and more on the student’s academic background and achievements, as well as their ability to meet the demands of the course. This discrepancy is a result of larger differences in the two countries’ attitudes towards higher education and their expectations for applicants.
To write a successful UCAS personal statement students need to prove to the admissions committee in concrete terms how their course of study has prepared them to excel at the university level, what they have already achieved, and the types of research they plan to engage in once they are admitted. Extra-curricular activities, awards, and relevant work experience should also be included. For this reason, the UCAS personal statement requires a more structured, cover letter-style approach that tells more than shows. Students should focus less on literary flair and more on nuts and bolts, using their resume or CV as a checklist to make sure they’ve hit all of their key points. When it comes to the UCAS personal statement, personality matters, but achievements matter more.
The big picture
While the American Common App essay and the UCAS personal statement share some similarities, such as the need to showcase a student’s accomplishments, academic abilities, and ambitions, there are significant differences in their structure, content, and evaluation criteria. Understanding these differences is crucial for students applying to universities in either country, as it will help them to tailor their writing to meet the specific requirements and cultures of the admissions committees.