The US and the UK are pegged as the world’s choice destinations for pursuing higher education.
However, their frameworks when it comes to the university application process are totally different.
Today we talk about one core example: the importance of extracurricular activities (ECA) to each respective process.
Defined most broadly as anything you do that falls outside your normal school curriculum, ECAs have always been touted as essential even though they are almost never mandatory.
For one, participating in ECAs allows students to calibrate their own version of a “work-life balance” by allowing them the freedom to identify and hone their academic and non-academic interests as they so please.
Secondly, ECAs often foster a spirit of collaboration unlike anything achieved in a classroom setting, as students are often expected to organize amongst themselves to pull off extracurricular endeavors, providing a sense of agency and ownership that can be hard to come by at such a young age.
The last and most tangible benefit of ECAs, of course, is that they can oftentimes be your ticket to a solid set of university acceptances.
This is true for both the US and the UK: after all, most students who end up applying to university attend school throughout their primary and secondary years by way of societal norms, and not necessarily by their own volition.
Thus, in order for universities to discern what makes you truly unique as an individual beyond the classroom setting, they will often take a deep dive into your ECAs.
However, the lenses with which US and UK universities view a student’s ECAs are very different.
For starters, take a look at the diagram below:
You’ll notice two circles – a smaller one situated within a larger one.
The larger circle represents all of your ECAs – so, anything may do outside the classroom.
As US university admissions officers care about you as a holistic individual – your quirks and idiosyncrasies included – they care about pretty much everything, from the podcasts you listen to on the bus on the way to school to the clubs you lead after hours and the places at which you volunteer over the weekends.
Many live with the misconception that only certain “types” of ECAs are valid, such as the ones illustrated below:
However, as the US university application is really about telling a story and narrativizing the aspects of your life that make you exactly who you are, your smallest of extracurricular commitments – including reading a book or doing the daily crossword – can oftentimes be as valuable as your all-time biggest accomplishments.
On the flipside, you definitely still want to have ECAs that are notable enough to signal to universities that you are a natural achiever, and will thus likely serve as a valuable contributor to campus life.
But it’s probably more important to admissions officers that these “major” ECAs are unique to you rather than flashy and conventionally impressive.
When it comes to UK admissions, however, the criteria looks slightly different, falling under the more niche label of “supercurricular activities” (SCAs) – the subset of your extracurricular activities that has more to do with your academic focus.
Read Oxford’s own description of SCAs right here:
SCAs are important to UK universities because unlike studying in the US, you’ll have to commit to a certain academic course from the get-go when applying to the UK.
In writing the UK application, therefore, you’ll have to illustrate why you’re academically suited for a particular course rather than a particular school.
Another key difference between the US and the UK is in how the activities are presented.
In a US application, ECAs can be featured everywhere – most concretely, they will all appear in the Honors & Activities list that you’ll have to submit through your application portal, but they can also most effectively be used as narrative tidbits in your application essays.
In a UK application, there is no one place to consolidate your SCAs in a list format, like you would do with the US Honors & Activities list.
Rather, you will have to integrate explanations of your SCAs into your one-page Personal Statement, illustrating why these activities have led you toward your desired course of study.
While this doesn’t seem like a lot, the way you present your SCAs and your learnings from them is probably the most important factor to your ultimate admissions outcome (aside from your grades, of course).
In short, your activities will be game-changing in both a US and UK landscape, but the focal point these two different systems employ can look entirely different.
To learn more about the strength of your current ECAs and how to communicate them on a university application, you can book a complimentary consultation with us at your nearest convenience.