Studying at a US university: the benefits

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(Published Telegraph 1/12/14)

With record numbers of UK students crossing the Atlantic to pursue higher education, Gabriel Samuels finds out why three current expats made the leap themselves.

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‘Narrow, uninspiring, excessively costly’: just a handful of the adjectives currently being used by critics to describe degrees offered by British universities.

Meanwhile, this year saw the largest increase in British students heading to America to pursue a degree in a decade, with a 21 per cent upsurge over the past 10 years.

With record numbers of UK students crossing the Atlantic, it is clear that many young people believe that the US offers a college experience that is a little more stimulating than anything back home.

Luke Barnes, a Londoner in his senior year at Columbia University, resolved to make the switch while in his final year at Kings College School, Wimbledon.

“I remember people at school deciding early exactly what they wanted to read – the medical students getting on one track, the history and arts people on another. I felt really constrained having to make that big decision at 17.

“It didn’t feel right, I wanted to experiment with different classes and subjects first – going to the States presented a much wider range of academic options.”

Columbia, as with many US institutions, offers a broad liberal arts programme that allowed Luke to test out these other options: “The application process makes you be a bit more creative; they don’t want a bunch of people who are all smart in the same way. You get a chance to express yourself.”

With a career in journalism in mind, Luke accepted an internship in California in his second year, which Columbia funded: “If you have something extra-curricular you want to pursue over the summer, the college is always willing to listen and potentially fund you.

“UK universities just aren’t so willing to invest in students’ interests like that.”

Around 50 per cent of Columbia students are on a form of financial aid to reduce their fees, from a full scholarship to some form of work-study – making the UK’s elevated fees seem even less viable.

“The thought of paying £9,000 a year really put me off the UK.” says Kirsten Tingle, who left the suburbs of Glasgow this summer to become a freshman at Pomona College in sunny California.

“Even with free tuition in Scotland, attending uni across the pond is actually cheaper for me thanks to the incredible living package I’m on at Pomona.

“I turned down St Andrews and Edinburgh to come here – and I couldn’t imagine studying in the UK now. Being an international student drastically changed my world view, almost from day one.

“It’s been amazing, everything’s tailored to my interests and academic strengths – things like easily being able to take a foreign language class along with my other subjects.”

Kirsten found out about Pomona through the Sutton Trust US programme, set up in 2011 through the Fulbright Commission, to give state school pupils a taste of student life in the States and help them along every step of the process.

Francesca Edwards grew up in Rotherham and was all set to study law in the UK before the Sutton Trust offered her another option late last year: “The programme pointed me to the Field Work term at Bennington College in Vermont, which I loved the sound of.”

Now a freshman at Bennington, Francesca admits that she “struggled with homesickness” but that she has “settled in extremely quickly”.

“I just felt there were so many more opportunities on offer in the US” she argues. “What average student at a UK university can say they have had a minimum of four internships before they have even graduated?

“Right from the start, US colleges encourage you to get out there and prove yourself. Being immersed in a culture that’s not your own gives you a wonderful sense of independence and adventure.

“I feel like I truly have the power to make change happen here.”

Last year the Sutton Trust US programme received 2,200 applications for just 175 places, and their students attend 42 different colleges across the United States.

“When we started our US programme three years ago we knew that American universities could offer students great opportunities” says James Turner, the programme’s director.

“We’ve been astonished at the success of the programme and our places are in high demand. It seems people’s perceptions of study in the US are changing for the better.”

Would Francesca, Luke or Kirsten choose a UK university instead, if they had their time again? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.

“I wouldn’t consider UK universities for a minute” says Luke, ”I feel so challenged here in so many different ways.”

“The teaching feels so much more proactive than in the UK. It’s simply the best place to study.”

Tips for applying to US universities (from students)

Don’t just think of US universities in the Ivy League. There’s a huge range of options, from tiny, personable liberal arts colleges – like Kenyon – to big, research-centric state schools – like UNC – so do your research.

During application you will have to submit an essay and that should be thought of as the most important part of the application. SAT scores and predictions are important but you need to be able to stand out as an individual, and the essays give you that chance.

The US application process follows a similar timeline to the UCAS system. However, it will seem a bit longer as you need to apply separately to each individual university.

Apply as early as you can. This will usually mean you are competing with a smaller applicant pool and are generally more likely to be accepted if you have the proper credentials.

Many colleges require interviews and admissions tests to be completed, so make sure you know when these will take place.

Applications for the 2015 Sutton Trust US Programme are now open

Gabriel Samuels is a newspaper MA student at City University

Twitter: @gabs_samuels

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