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Comparing the UK and US college application processes

Applying to colleges in the US is mind boggling. With no limit to the number of colleges one can apply to, students are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of applying to more schools. To analyze the application process, we first construct a model.

Modeling the problem of college application:

The student s has a preference profile, which we will assume is strict, yet not necessarily complete, over the set of colleges. In addition, we define a function p(s,c) to be payoff to student s if he ends up attending college c.

In addition, each college c has a cost of applying – c(c), and a likelihood of accepting student s – l(c,s).

Since the student can only attend one college, the payoff for the student is the maximum over all c that s is accepted to of p(s,c).

Clearly, s’s goal is to maximize this payoff. If s is risk neutral, then payoff is equal to:

E[C,s]=sum over all i (prob ci is best college s is accepted to)(s’s value of ci)-(cost of applying to ci)

Determining the set C that maximizes this quantity is nontrivial. (See latex)

UK college application:

In the UK, the college admissions process is much simpler due to it’s highly centralized nature. Students simply fill out one application, which is overseen by the non-profit organization UCAS. This and list on it the set of 5 colleges they wish to apply to. Thus, in the model above, n is fixed, and cost parameter is removed. A student still must consider his likelihood of admission, at each college relative to his value placed on attending that college, but overall, this system simplifies many aspects of the college admissions process.

The limited number of college a student applies to levels the playing field of students who are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money applying to colleges. In addition, it makes work easier on colleges by decreasing the total number of applications received. (One notable feature of the UCAS application is that it forbids application to both Cambridge and Oxford in a single year.)

Colleges in the US are receiving an increasing number of applications due to a growing trend of students applying to more and more universities(Hopkins). This trend shows no signs of stopping, thus, colleges may be forced to either stop it, via limiting the number of applications a student may submit, or prepare to spend less time reviewing each application.

The UCAS’s predecessor, the UCCA, was created in 1961 due to precisely the same concerns. (UCAS) The UCCA was used successfully with voluntary participation by universities.

But could the US implement such a centralized system? The US “Common App” is based on the same concept as the UCAS, but does not limit the number of colleges a student may apply to, nor do nearly as many universities participate in the “Common App” as in the UCAS system. These factors are unlikely to be independent. My guess would be that, if the Common App were to serve as a system for limiting the total number of colleges a student may apply to, then perhaps more colleges would use it, and the US could then develop a centralized college application system.

As is, the common app merely promises an easier time for students to apply to colleges, potentially encouraging them to apply to more colleges than they would otherwise. My theory is that colleges likely don’t want to be applied to as an afterthought, as could happen in the common app, which makes applying to additional schools much easier than in other cases. But if common app were to limit the number of applications a student may submit, then colleges may be more incentively to participate, as an application would be less of an “afterthought” and represent more of a commitment to the school.


Works cited:

Hopkins, Katy. “Study: More Students Apply to More Colleges.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 06 May 2013.

“UCAS – Admissions Process Review.” UCAS – Admissions Process Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2013.


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