Applying to study at university can be daunting at the best of times, but perhaps even more so when outside the UK. For many decades the universities and colleges of the USA have exerted a global attraction on the most talented and ambitious students. However, this process can seem complex and bewildering, with its own rules, processes and vocabulary. On Saturday 2 June a group of 21 Lower Sixth students, led by Ruth Greenhalgh, Director of Higher Education, set out on a tour of some of the USA’s most famous universities and colleges to gain as much information as possible about the application process and the experience of studying there.
Our trip began in Boston, a city containing one of the highest concentrations of students and universities in the entire USA. Arriving in driving rain and unseasonably low temperatures, our first destination was Harvard, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from Boston. A feature common to the oldest and most distinguished private universities, such as Harvard, has been the remarkable record of patronage and donation from alumni and other well-wishers. Almost every major building we encountered was the result of a benefaction, and these often bear the names of America’s wealthiest families, such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Mellon. Small gifts of land and books in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, by men such as John Harvard, were soon followed by grander acts of patronage, continuing to this day, with the result that some American universities are endowed with an unparalleled blend of elegant historic courtyards and state-of-the-art teaching, research, residential and recreational buildings.
The immense wealth of these institutions has not, however, blinded them to social responsibility. Institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are needs-blind for their US applicants – meaning that, whenever necessary, they will fund the full-costs of study and residence for students who have been selected for entrance, but for whom the costs of attendance would otherwise be prohibitive. Generous support – albeit more closely rationed – is also available to non-US applicants on a needs-aware basis.
The most valuable section of any visit is the presentation from the admissions staff, and the opportunities afforded to or students to ask specific questions. It was especially pleasing to hear admissions staff repeatedly describe the IB as the most academically challenging post-16 course of study available, and the diploma as a qualification that they prize highly among applicants, sometimes in lieu of the SATs commonly demanded of applicants by most US institutions.
While each institution was keen to emphasise its own distinct qualities, certain common features emerged from the presentations that we heard. Boundaries between subjects – and entire disciplines – have dissolved at these institutions at the undergraduate level. Candidates wishing to study exceptionally diverse mixtures of subjects across faculties, such as humanities and robotics, are positively welcomed, while narrow subject specialism is discouraged. The student-constructed degree is the norm at many institutions, as is taking courses across two or three separate Schools, such as Arts, Science and Health Studies. Indeed Brown University – located in beautiful grounds in Providence, Rhode Island - allows almost limitless freedom to students in designing their own degree programme. In contrast to those in Britain, many US institutions do not require their applicants to declare their ‘major’ until the end of the second year of study, allowing a tremendous variety of ‘concentrations.’ Even once a ‘major’ has been selected, a student can still take ‘minor’ subjects in different faculties. Clearly, this has a bearing on the type of candidate sought. The message given was that an open-minded interest across the arts, humanities, mathematical and social sciences was a pre-requisite for admission to many institutions. Students admitted to Columbia – located in a stunning campus in Manhattan – are required to read classical philosophy in their first year even if they wish to ‘major’ in a scientific or numerical subject.
A second striking feature of Ivy League education is the expectation that students should conduct postgraduate-style research during their undergraduate degree. Each college earmarks millions of dollars, as well as appropriate facilities and staff time, to integrate research into undergraduate learning. This would include engineering and robotics equipment reserved for undergraduate use, or the opportunity to work alongside a professor in their consultancy roles in law, international relations or government. Having work published in an academic journal while still an undergraduate is far from unusual.
Thirdly, a strong emphasis is placed on community service. Many of these institutions, such as Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, are located in areas with real poverty and destitution a few yards away from their front doors. Students wishing to apply to such institutions are expected to show leadership not only in traditional areas, such as sport, but also to be service-minded. A particularly striking example of this is a buddy-scheme offered by one institution in which each student with a social disability has a partner who helps him or her to make friends and integrate into campus life.
A further feature that was emphasised was the opportunity for study abroad. This is evidently a strong expectation among US-based students, as all the institutions that we visits offered a remarkable range of integrated overseas programmes, often delivered by their own staff at their satellite campuses in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Unsurprisingly, given the potentially enormous investment needed to fund an American university education, access to internships and graduate employers was emphasised with recurring force in every presentation. At the ambitious and increasingly competitive North Eastern University, in Boston, the holding of multiple internships – sometimes in lieu of taught courses – is the norm rather than the exception.
As well as the educational and work-preparation features of US college-life, the social, sporting and recreational opportunities are abundant and varied. Each institution that we visited boasted hundreds of student societies, as well as sporting opportunities that ranged from hall of residence weekend teams up to Olympic-level representation. Perhaps the greatest variety and choice is that of ambience and lifestyle. At one end of the spectrum New York University and Columbia students live in Manhattan, while those at Haverford College inhabit a beautifully verdant campus that includes an arboretum of rare tree species. Students at Harvard, Yale, Brown and Pennsylvania live amidst Georgian redbrick courtyards, classical statuary and imposing libraries and chapels.
As a group we were immensely privileged to briefly sample American college life from Boston to Washington DC. In Boston and Baltimore we strolled the harbour quaysides at sunset; in Manhattan we craned our necks upwards to the skyscrapers such as the under-construction Freedom Tower; in Washington DC we walked among the national memorials to the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, and took in the imperial architecture of the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.
Any student applying to the USA is embarking on a challenging, exciting and fascinating journey. While it remains a complex and tough process, all who attended this trip gained invaluable expert advice and encouragement, and a flavour of the American college lifestyle. We wish all the best to those Sennockians beginning this process, and hope that those who do study in the USA will find success, happiness and fulfilment there.