Across the United States, I hear choirs of juniors and seniors (maybe even a few anxious sophomores) groaning in union about the dreaded college process. Between SATs that seem to determine the future, college essays that seem to make no sense, and trauamtic stories about perfect 4.0, 1600 students getting rejected by Harvard or Stanford, the country seems united under their preparatory grief. How did I avoid the anxiety? I turned on my laptop and hopped across the pond.
Granted, this is an over simplified explanation of what actually happened when I decided to apply to university (Brits don't say college to speak about undergraduate years) in the UK. Any process includes a certain amount of stress and applying to Oxbridge (the term used to designate Oxford and Cambridge) brings with it an added layer of stress. But, having applied to schools both in the US and the UK, I feel as if I have a pretty solid understanding of the differences between the two, and possibly which one is better (read until the end to find out).
1. Everything's a lot more transparent.
In the US, it has become pretty commonplace to hear of a student with extremely high grades and SAT scores to get rejected from an elite school or for a mediocre student with insignificant grades to get wholeheartedly accepted. This is because of the focus most schools have on a so-called "wholistic application." In theory, this means admissions officers consider not only your grades, but also all of the context surrounding them, including your family background, extra-curriculars, common app essay, supplemental essays, and more. This sounds great! Even if you don't have the best grades, it is possible that the rest of your application could make up for that!
In practice, however, I believe it causes a lot of unnecessary stress for students. In the UK (and most of Europe, I believe), universities publish the scores a student must get in order to be considered for their program. Students are encouraged to only apply to universities within the range of the grades they accept and the grades (or predicted scores) they have received. (I should note that there is still a way for students from underprivileged schools to be viewed in the context of their school, just like in America). When I applied to 5 British universities, I had strong confidence I would get accepted into 4 out of 5 of them because my scores were at the level or greater than the ones called for in that particular university (the 5th was Oxford, which has a more complicated process). When looking at my American list, I could only say with confidence that I would make two of the schools, even though the range of my scores fit into the 'averages' of many of the other schools as well.
Furthermore, I believe the wholistic process leaves opportunity for more individual prejudice in the application process. A friend told me a story of how a Stanford student found out they only got accepted because they mentioned a book that was a favorite of the particular admissions officer that read their college essay. That's terrific for that student, but I think of how the wholistic process can easily become an excuse in the opposite direction to accept a student based on their beliefs, convictions, or trivial interests on the premise that they did not have a good 'wholistic' application.
2. You have to know what you want.
On the UCAS application form, you can only apply to 5 schools in the UK. You also have to apply for a certain degree (such as "Asian Studies" or "Mathematics") and have some level of interest and experience demonstrated in that particular field. This is in stark contrast to the American process which doesn't require you to pick a major until often your second year of school unless attempting to be in specialized departments like engineering. Some schools ask for your intended majors, but you are not accepted based on your fulfillment of experience for those majors.
This is a controversial point of divide. For students like me, who have known for a long time what they wanted to study, the British system is favorable, since I can be awarded for my focused time reading and creating with respect to that particular course. Most American students, however, have not been trained to choose an area of study in their high school careers and thus would not be ready to switch to a system where they could only study one subject. British students have an advantage here, since they have selected only three or four subjects to study during 6th form (the last two years of high school).
3. You may not have to decide now.
From my experience in the US, the term 'gap year' is usually saved for the children of wealthy parents who choose to defer their enrollment and travel the world and find themselves. In the UK, gap years are much more common. Although university enrollment is looked favorably upon, many students know ahead of time they are going to take a year for a particular program or internship or even to work in order to pay for university tuition. Many students even take a few extra years to retake A Level exams until they receive the scores they need to attend a particular university. I haven't seen much of this in America. Even though tuition is extraordinarily higher in the US, most students are encouraged to enter right into college and use a combination of working during the four years and private loans to make up the difference. I'm not sure which system is better since I have only experienced one, but I do think this is something worth considering.
So, which system is better? Should you drop your star-spangled flags now, exit chrome without saving your Common App, and book the next flight to Great Britain? Or should you keep chanting, buy more SAT prep books, and find the best moment to define your life for your college essay?
I would perhaps suggest neither. Both systems have their pros and cons, and much of it depends entirely on the student. However, I do highly recommend Americans (and Brits for that matter) take some time to look at the other system and see if it might be the right fit. Applying to 5 schools on the UCAS form only costs about $30 after all, which is less than half of the cost to apply to just Harvard. After all, this is a big life decision, and you might as well have some extra biscuits on the platter to choose from. (That was my attempt at a metaphor).
If you like this kind of blog post, let me know! I'm extremely interested in comparing different cultures and systems and may soon have the opportunity to do more of it. :)