Parents need to look beyond the UK’s top universities when seeking a world-class education for their children, suggests Chloe Godsell, head of UK partnerships at Crimson Education.
From the hallowed lecture halls of Ivy League institutions to the tech incubator labs of MIT and creative hubs of the liberal arts colleges, the top universities in the United States are looking for students who go well beyond academic strength alone.
But can they rival an Oxbridge education as the perceived golden ticket to opportunity and success for your child?
Understanding the very different learning environments offered by UK and US institutions through these formative years, could help your family make the right decision to see your child flourish. Whichever side of the Atlantic that may be on.
Keeping your options open
For school-leavers who have relished the final years of school, studying several subjects and honing their extracurricular skills, US options for higher education may play to their strengths. Universities in the States allow students to keep their options open in terms of choosing their Major, with opportunities to try out, or switch courses through the first two years.
So, a student might choose to study international relations, sociology and a foreign language in their first two years, even though they have applied to study English literature. This gives students huge flexibility to pursue their academic interests, however diverse they may be, and means the decisions they make when leaving school aren’t set in stone for the duration of their university life.
In contrast, Oxford and Cambridge offer students a deep dive into their chosen subject from day one. With the opportunity to be taught by world experts in your chosen field just weeks after leaving school, there is generally little room for changing courses once you’ve been offered a place. While this may be less appealing to school graduates who are still exploring where their strengths lie, for those with a particular passion, this full immersion into your subject from the beginning can be fascinating and fulfilling.
Time for study and travel
In the UK most courses take three years to complete, with exceptions in some subjects such as languages. Many students choose to take a gap year either before or after university. Alternatively, they might stay on to do a masters, or dive straight into work.
In the US however, a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete. There are also often options for study abroad programmes within this.
Both options have their advantages for those wanting to take their time to study and explore, or for those desperate to get started with their career, but it’s definitely worth discussing with your child what their hopes and expectations are for time spent in higher education.
A broader application
Ben Schwartz, former Ivy League admissions officer and dean of leadership development at Sage Experience, advises students to start planning a US application much earlier than they would in the UK. Even three or four years beforehand. That’s because US admissions teams evaluate students on much broader criteria than is typical in the UK.
An Oxbridge application focuses heavily on academic ability. In the US, while the first half of an application must show academic strengths, universities are also looking for extracurricular impact and personal qualities alongside intellectual abilities. Unlike interviews for Oxford or Cambridge, there are non-academic as well as subject-based questions. Throughout the university experience too, sports and extracurricular life are a much stronger theme for the US student population as a whole. You only have to watch a televised US college football game to understand the huge role it plays in university life!
A numbers game
Students in the UK are permitted to apply to a maximum of five universities. Furthermore, they can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, not both.
The US system is less limiting in that students can apply to 10, 20 or more US universities. So, applicants can split their choices into three categories. The first is aspirational universities, where there’s a high level of competition to get in. Then there are choices which they have a good chance of getting into. Then, finally, safety options, where admission is virtually guaranteed.
For the top universities however, competition for places is tough. For Oxford and Cambridge, approximately 25% of all applicants can expect to land a place. However, in the American Ivy League, just 7.25% were accepted in fall 2018.
While teaching at Oxford and Cambridge requires regular submission of work, with some students handing in one or two essays per week, these do not count towards your final grade and are generally considered to be a learning tool rather than a means of assessment. Exams at the end of the final year then decide what degree you will be awarded. Some subjects assess students in earlier years too, or require a dissertation to contribute to their grade, but in general, the pressure is loaded into the final weeks of university.
In contrast, many US universities use a system of regular assessment throughout the course. They then award a degree grade based on performance throughout the student’s time at university.
Therefore, it’s worth considering how they will learn and be assessed through their years at university.
Shaping the future
University days are some of the most formative of our lives. With only a few years to savour the unique opportunities for learning and discovery which shape us for years to come, it’s no wonder that school-leavers and their families feel pressure in deciding where to apply. But whether your child is set on studying medicine, wavering between humanities subjects, or passionate about travel or sport, there are fantastic options at prestigious institutions both in the US and the UK. It’s also worth remembering that this decision is the beginning of your child setting their own course for the future, so trust in their ability to make the best of their time, wherever they choose to go.
Wavering on going Stateside? Here are two students who made the leap:
Boris initially had his sights set on staying in the UK and studying maths at Cambridge. It wasn’t until Boris heard about the US system that he realised he was more suited to US study:
“I realised in the US you can do a bit of everything. You can double major.”
He adds: “My first choice was Cambridge to study maths. At some point I realised I liked maths and I worked hard at it. I did well in the Olympiad and basically enjoyed being part of that team. But while maths is my favourite subject, I like other things too. I then realised I wanted to explore as many subjects as possible.”
He recently left London for New York City. He has joined the very deserving 5.1% of applicants who were accepted to Columbia University last autumn.
Another student, Bluebelle, was accepted by both Oxford and Yale universities. She chose Yale for the following reasons:
“I love maths,” she explains. “But then I also love English because part of me wants to be an author. Also, there’s an amazing physics department at my school so I am also in love with physics. As for my major then, I am just not sure.
“I’m doing English, maths, philosophy and physics for my A Levels. After that, I am thinking about majoring in philosophy at Yale. It covers so many different areas of my interests but to be honest, I have no idea.
“Luckily I have a couple of years before I have to declare,” she sums up.
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