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The Difference Between Applying At SA Universities And Abroad

  • 4 min read

An estimated 12 000 South African students are studying abroad – a number that is steadily increasing, despite the complexity of applying overseas. One of the main barriers to entry for local students looking to study at top universities abroad is meeting the application criteria, which differs from South African universities in many ways. Understanding the differences between applying at home and overseas, can give those with big dreams an opportunity to turn them into a reality.

“While there are a number of reasons why students choose to apply abroad, from the prestige of well-ranked historic universities, to being in the proximity of technology and business hubs, it’s critical that they take the time to select universities that are the best fit for them and their goals – regardless of whether it’s in South Africa, or overseas,” says Rebecca Pretorius, Country Manager at global mentorship company Crimson Education.

Both locally and in the United Kingdom (UK), certain degrees have specific school subject requirements as a prerequisite to entry. However, universities in the United States (US), UK. and other parts of the world, such as Canada and Europe, also have more holistic admission requirements.

“While high school results and standardised test scores, such as the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, are weighted, they are not the only component of a student’s application that is considered for US universities. For example, a large part of an application to an American university is based on extracurricular activities, especially those that have depth, show passion, and demonstrate leadership,” says Pretorius.

Top international universities also require applicants to submit a personal statement that details their interests, passions, experiences and even habits. Universities in the UK, Europe and other regions require students to cover their academic activities, and achievements within their chosen field of study. At local universities, application essays and personal statements are not typically required, but they are a critical component for international applicants.

In the US, in addition to a core personal statement, specific universities require supplemental essays. “Top US universities look for students who demonstrate academic potential, and are intellectually curious, passionate, and enthusiastic. They want to see initiative and potential – and the supplemental essays give students an opportunity to go into more detail about their goals and interest in a chosen university,” says Pretorius.

Admission to South African universities is based on school academic results, National Benchmark Test (NBT) results, and in some cases, a minimum language proficiency. Certain degrees also place a bigger emphasis on community service while at school.

Another key difference is cost and funding. While opportunities for bursaries, scholarships, and grants are more accessible at local universities, funding for overseas study is limited. In general, South Africans will need to self-fund study abroad. “While there are some financial aid opportunities, as well as scholarship awards for outstanding academic students, this isn’t guaranteed and may not cover full tuition, and boarding costs – except in rare cases,” says Pretorius.

Application timelines vary between local and international universities. In addition to the extra time needed for preparing essays and extracurricular profiles, academic terms in the Northern Hemisphere start in September, while Southern Hemisphere universities kick off in February. “Students heading North need to keep a close eye on application deadlines – particularly for early application – in order to be considered for an offer to study. Applying early can have an impact on admission chances,” says Pretorius.

Students also need to factor in student visas, which can be applied for once an offer has come in. Some universities in the EU offer a pre-admissions process, allowing prospective students to apply for entry visas beforehand. “Universities abroad are also substantially more expensive than local ones. For students with European passports, parts of Europe may be a more affordable option as students can access local fees at select universities,” adds Pretorius.

Crimson Education is a global EdTech company which focuses on building the candidacy of high school students wanting to study at top-ranked universities in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand (for medicine). Crimson offers regular online workshops and webinars to provide local students with information on how to apply internationally. For more information, visit