The World’s Top Universities Ranking
As the world stage shrinks and the English language dominates business, highly qualified students seek international experience. What are the strengths and weaknesses, the similarities and the differences among them, say, Harvard and Cambridge? Stanford and Oxford? MIT and Imperial College London? U.S. News & World Report and the QS World University Rankings are widely regarded as the top sources for ranking the best universities, colleges and graduate schools in America and throughout the world. It comes as no surprise that for the past several years, the top 15 are all located in two countries: the United States and the United Kingdom. What does this mean for students who are considering both countries for a university career?
Specialization is the main difference
In the U.K. most students specialize in just two or three subjects in the final two years of their secondary education. While American colleges and universities embrace undergraduate generalists, Great Britain’s universities pride themselves on producing experts in any given field. Although long popular in the U.S., Liberal Arts does not exist as a university choice in Great Britain. In American universities one is exposed to a range of subjects outside one’s major, while the undergraduate major in the U.K. must be declared before even applying. Therefore, early specialization in the U.K. affects high school applicants and it is something for American students to consider. English students must narrow down their subject choices at age 14 and then further narrow that down at 16. By age 17, they are expected to choose their major, which is a mandatory part of the university application process. When U.K. students take final exams for university admission, known as A-levels, in the Sixth Form (the equivalent of junior and senior year combined), they have already narrowed down their courses of study. A budding history major might supplement that subject with English Literature, Religious Studies, Economics and a foreign language, for example. A future doctor may choose Chemistry, Biology and Further Maths, perhaps. It is well-known that History, English, Economics, Medicine and Law are the most competitive undergraduate courses in the U.K., especially at the top universities, so students must take this into consideration when applying. The U.K. produces specialists; even engineering, law, architecture and medicine are taken up at undergraduate level. However, one is not as readily exposed to the range of subjects that are available to American students.
Age Matters and Teaching Styles Differ
Young people are legally adults at age 18 in the U.K. As a “fresher” (freshman) students can legally drink, drive, vote, pay bills, work, travel, study and live independently in a cosmopolitan city. This is exceedingly clear as reflected in limited face-to-face classroom time with faculty members. Roughly eight hours per week of class time is common. Much more time is spent on independent study and producing work at one’s own pace. Self-motivation is critical. As a result, many students do work part-time or become involved in campus activities. At American universities, the class time is far more intensive and students develop stronger bonds with professors. With 30 hours of class per week, finding time for activities, sports and clubs is more of a challenge. British universities may not be ideal for those who find it difficult to self-motivate or who lack discipline when faced with the challenges of settling in on one’s own without falling behind on coursework.
Many top British universities are located is in the heart of a dynamic, multicultural city, such as London, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, Oxford or Cambridge, to name a few. At Oxbridge (as Oxford and Cambridge are jointly called) the individual colleges do have quads of their own within the university and some universities do have campuses. However, in the capital city a student is just another young Londoner riding the tube and struggling to pay rent for a tiny apartment in a vast, expensive city. At many American university campuses there is more of a bubble effect, a distinction between town and gown, as it were. In England, students are street-smart and independent, but on the flipside, they have less pride, a looser attachment, to their school. The Stanford culture, for example, is hard to ignore on campus or in downtown Palo Alto. You can detect a Stanford student anywhere by the trademark cardinal red college T-shirt, bicycle…and willingness to talk to anyone who’ll listen to their latest startup idea.
Recommend the UK to a US student?
Absolutely. My niece, a native New Yorker is having the time of her life at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland including a year spent studying Italian at the University of Bologna. Students often romanticize about wonderful experiences in Europe and the broadened horizons – and Facebook friends – they acquire. If you are not sure that the other side of the pond is your cup of tea, consider the universities in America with semesters or year-abroad programs for later on in your college career. Attending NYU, for example, meant a great year in Paris for my son’s friend, William.
Europe is a Backyard Bonus
For American students who enroll in a U.K. university, long weekends in Dublin or popping down on a cheap flight to Barcelona on a whim are a bonus. One is exposed to history, art and culture like never before. On the flipside, one might feel some regret to have missed out on the traditional American college experience. Forget about the Greek system, homecoming weekends and college football. On the other hand, beer is legal.
Money Matters: Tuition
Known as fees in the U.K., tuition is far more reasonably priced than in America and the added costs of books you’re saddled with here are not required in the U.K. English parents don’t feel that they need to start saving for college the minute a child is born. While fees are about to rise in the U.K. and American students are not entitled to the fees that students from within the EU are allowed, I doubt the latest hike in fees will do much to change this; universities are still far more reasonable than in the US at a top charge of about $15,000 to 20,000 per year. Furthermore, most undergraduate degrees in the U.K. are three years in duration, not four. It’s a little known fact that Americans are more likely to be admitted to a U.K. university than their British counterparts. Firstly, the fees are higher for those from outside the European Union and so you make a lucrative catch and secondly, U.K. universities place a high premium on diversity.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
As a graduate, there is less of a connection as an alumnus; college pride in stronger in the U.S. than in the U.K and one is certainly not as encouraged to “give back” to one’s alma mater. Endowments are tiny compared to the U.S. ivy league schools and other top institutions, and this is also reflected in generally less impressive facilities and housing.
The goal posts are shifting in the middle of the game on an uneven playing field. It is not surprising that in 2011 the top universities are in the English-speaking world and that they are attracting increasing numbers of international students. Keeping one’s options open is always sound. Planning ahead is absolutely essential when considering the differences in culture and style, in subject depth and breadth as offered by top America’s and Great Britain’s top academic institutions. An emotionally mature American student with a GPA 4.0+ does have a shot at winning a place at Oxford, Cambridge, University College London (UCL), London School of Economics (LSE) or Imperial College in London, known as the Golden Five. It is terribly important to be prepared to speak passionately at interview about one’s subject, which must be declared prior to the autumn application deadlines. English students must have their ducks in a row by age 16, so it is wise for able and ambitious American students to plan early if interested in attending one of the top 20 British universities, which are known as the Russell Group. Furthermore, all applications in the U.K. are done through UCAS, a centralized clearinghouse and each student is allowed only a handful of applications.
Can I apply to the U.K. with my SAT scores?
Yes. You do not have to take the A-levels that U.K. students need for admission but you will need to apply via UCAS. The British universities will understand your SAT scores, AP courses and your personal statement, which counts heavily. Personal statements are different than in the USA; they are about your reasons to pursue a field of study rather than about your own experiences. In addition, some courses have their own examinations, for example the History Aptitude Test. Interviews are important and may be offered to you in the U.S. or abroad. The deadline for Oxbridge applications is October 15, a couple of months earlier than for the other U.K. universities and for Oxbridge you must select the college within the university you are applying to, alternatively go for open admission to any college. Each college has its own culture, location and strengths, so there is a lot to know prior to applying. Results are typically mailed out earlier than in the U.S., Oxford replies in December, Cambridge in January and others even earlier, depending on how soon you submit your application. Check out thestudentroom.co.uk to join active forums and get advice from other students about the whole process. It is an excellent resource.
Most of all, the best of luck to you!
University College London
Stanford University Graduate School of Journalism