“You know, it’s crazy how many times Harry Potter saved the world by the age of 17,” I said to a friend.
“Yeah, it would just about get him accepted to an American uni,” she replied.
‘About as hard as saving the world’ is not a bad description of the American university admissions process. Volunteer work, extracurricular leadership roles, New Yorker-esque writing ability, and some ‘hook’ that differentiates you from the tens of thousands of others applying are not just welcome additions to a strong application, but expectations. It’s a process that’s deeply flawed – results seem almost random and it’s overwhelmingly stressful, without corresponding increases in efficacy.
Of course, there are some good reasons for it to be the way it is: the number of students applying to United States colleges far exceeds the number applying to British institutions. Yet this in itself has a number of drawbacks. It precludes the possibility, for example, that the top US colleges could implement an interviewing process in the same way that Oxford and Cambridge have done.
In Britain, there exists a national, standardised way to evaluate students in their last years of school: GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels. The equivalent for Americans would be their SAT or ACT score, both of which are notoriously flawed metrics, or Advanced Placement (AP) – a program designed to mimic university level classes – which is not universally taken in the same way.
While American and British philosophies on higher education are similar in intent, they are vastly different in method. Whereas British universities teach specialised subjects in great depth and place preeminence on academics, American ones allow for, to varying degrees, a liberal arts education and place their premium on class composition. Accordingly, Oxbridge has to look for cleverness; the Ivy League has more leeway with whom it lets in.
Ideally, this wiggle room would mean that American colleges ended up with more balanced racial and socioeconomic demographics than Oxbridge. Yet this fails to be the case; both the Ivy League and Oxbridge have a serious over-representation of upper-class students.
Despite structural differences between the US and the UK, there are still simple changes to the US admissions process that should be made, such as limiting the number of universities a student can apply to, like UCAS does. This would benefit both student and institution by reducing the number of applications the student has to write and the number the university has to read.
Requiring a minimum transcript average and SAT or ACT score would have a similar effect in ensuring that applicants are academically up to par. Introducing a UCAS-style personal statement would also be an improvement – allowing students to explain their qualifications directly and in a way that does not require literary flourish evens the playing field. The focus is on the applicant’s strengths, not their ability to tug at the Admissions Officer’s heartstrings.
Right now, friends of mine back home are suffering a hellish first term. But their stress isn’t from trying to write a 3,000-word essay the night before it’s due, it’s from just trying to apply to university. The US could do much better. Taking inspiration from the British university admissions system would be a good start.