Looking beyond the horizon

Even before she started her common application, Carla Sneider ’13 had already finished applying to three universities. Sneider is part of an increasing trend of Harvard-Westlake students who are applying to schools in the United Kingdom, according to Upper School Dean James Patterson. Patterson is in charge of UK applications.

“If you have the opportunity to be competitive for what’s considered top schools in the UK, I think that the interest of being able to potentially have that as an option is something that entices a lot of kids to explore,” Patterson said.

Location is not the only difference between UK universities and American colleges. The sheer philosophy is incredibly different. The schools are very test driven as opposed to the holistic approach of United States colleges. There are qualifications to go to UK universities and “either you meet them or you don’t.” Schools will give a minimum test score requirement that students must meet.

In England, one must also apply to a specific course as opposed to merely a particular college. Students do not enter “undecided.” Degrees are focused—there are not as many general educational requirements, and one receives a bachelor’s degree in three years.

Scotland schools are slightly different and do not require students to choose a major their first year. Students also receive their bachelor’s degree in four years but there is a lesser breadth of majors offered than  in schools in America. For Sneider, who knows the path she wants to take in life, International Relations, UK schools are especially appealing.

“I aspire to be a member of the foreign service in the future, and, if I can get a world class education abroad, I believe I would in a way be preparing myself more for my career since I would be forced to adapt to another country and immerse myself in a foreign experience,” she said.

Like the Common Application, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, known as the UCAS, simplify the application process. This application “has a lot of what you’d expect, asking for your name and address, and what school you came from. There is also one essay that goes to all schools and one letter of recommendation,” said Patterson.

While most schools do accept the UCAS application, there are a few that do not, and others who accept the common application as well.

One also has to put in test scores including SAT or ACT scores, subject tests, AP scores or a combination therof. Many schools do not even request transcripts but use exclusively these scores. For example, for students applying to Oxford University from the United States, they must “have SAT Reasoning Test scores of at least 700 in Critical Reading, Mathematics and the Writing Paper, or ACT with a score of at least 32 out of 36. We would also expect Grade 5 in three or more Advanced Placement tests in appropriate subjects or SAT Subject Tests in three appropriate subjects at 700 or better.”

Very selective schools such as Oxford and Cambridge also have other tests that they require applicants to take. If one applies to Oxford, there are course specific tests one must take as part of the applications. Based on those tests, a student might be awarded an interview. This interview along with the tests is used to make a decision on acceptance.

If one hasn’t met the required test scores for a given reason such as the student didn’t receive enough fives to qualify, but is a strong candidate who did very well through the other processes, he or she could be conditionally accepted. With the conditional acceptance, a student is given a list of everything required of him or her in order to be able to attend the school. If at the end of the year, they still fail meet these requirements, they cannot attend the university.

Students can also be denied or also can be unconditionally accepted.

The complicated process and differences of philosophy from United States schools were enough to deter some students from applying such as Maddie Lear ‘13 who attend the UK process information session in September.

“The main reason [I didn’t apply] is that I realized that for all of the schools in the UK that I could apply to, I would have to decide what I wanted to study and basically only study that. I want to be able to study a bunch of different things and have options as an undergraduate. The process is also pretty extensive unless you are seriously considering attending,” Lear said.

Other reasons more students do not apply seem to be that these universities are just not on students radars according to Patterson. Distance is also a big factor, he said.

“A lot of kids in the northeast will look at UK schools. For a student going to high school in Boston, it is about as far to travel to Scotland as it is to California. It’s not that much farther to travel to St Andrews as it is to get to Cal or Stanford. It’s a little bit easier for students in the North East and for families to get their heads wrapped around going to UK for college,” Patterson  said.

Another issue for some is that the American and UK systems are completely different leading to a very difference college experience. “If what you want when you go to college is to have an experience like what you’d imagine at USC or University of Michigan where there is this whole social life surrounding what it means to go to USC in terms of being part of the Trojan family and going to football games in the Coliseum, you’re not going to get that at Oxford. They don’t have these strong sports teams that are part of the school life. It’s just a completely different experience.”

These factors have not bothered some students such as Jonathan Loewenberg ’13 who is applying to Oxford University and possibly universities in Scotland. Not only is the distance aspect of UK schools not a deterrent, it’s a positive.

“The idea of being somewhere other than the U.S. for three years is appealing,” Loewenberg said. “I would get the opportunity to experience a different culture and political environment.”

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