Competition for places at world-leading universities in the UK and the US is fiercer than ever. At the same time, gaining access to the right university education, which will satisfy top global employers, is ever more crucial in today’s competitive jobs market.
Students seeking a place a top university in the UK or the US can no longer rely on good grades and superior academic performance. Evidence of sporting, musical and dramatic achievements, alongside community or charity work, is often also a requirement. Universities and global employers alike are demanding that prospective students and employees give evidence of commitment and show a passion for their studies.
Julie Gottlieb, a career coach at the law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), believes that it is never too early to start building a CV in preparation for leaving school or university, and that it is essential for students to start developing interests and working towards achievements outside the classroom.
"There has never been a time when it has been more important for students to understand that academic qualifications aren’t enough for getting into a university of their choice," she says. "I work in a law firm where, while we all have aspirations to succeed, it is still a continuum. It’s not good enough just to be a good lawyer: we have to stand out from the crowd."
As part of her coaching and mentoring work at BLP, Ms Gottlieb has learned that pursuing genuine passions allows students to present themselves as authentic, fully rounded young people ready to take on the challenges of university or work.
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"It’s not something you can force," she says. "At interview, whether it is in the US, at Oxbridge or for a future career, they [young people] have to have an impact, have presence, and demonstrate how they collaborate with other people. It is important to consider how their personality comes across. They have to go far beyond 'ballet Grade 8' in order to develop into the best authentic version of themselves."
This is particularly true of young people who have had advantages in life, says Daniel de Witt, who specialises in the admissions process for the US as part of his role as MD of education consultant Nemecek Bonas MacFarlane.
The university admissions process in both the UK and the US now takes contextualised information into account, Mr de Witt explains. Applications are subject to an in-depth analysis of the opportunities that have been available to prospective students during their schooling, such as the chance to learn a musical instrument, visit external lectures, or take part in a debating society.
"Students need to show that they have not only seized those opportunities but developed skills and qualities as a result of that exposure," he says. "And if the school has nothing to offer, then students need to step outside the school boundaries to show their own initiative; it can make a university application look very strong."
Evidence of commitment
Julie Gottlieb believes that the most important element of the application is a student’s ability to demonstrate their alignment with both the course and the institution. "It’s about fit," she says. "I have found that the most successful personal statements show clearly why the student wants to do a particular course, at a particular university, and why that university should pick them.
"Students need to demonstrate that they have thought about that, and that they have done something to prove it. For example, if the student is passionate about history, universities are looking to see that he or she has gone beyond the curriculum, that they have attended talks organised externally, and that they have made an effort to read around the subject."
"Students need to demonstrate their
passion for a subject without saying the
word 'passion'," laughs Daniel de Witt.
But he makes a serious point: students
must realise very early on that they need to show and not tell universities why they should be awarded a place on a course, based on solid evidence of a commitment to their subject.
The global appeal of a US college education
However, in the US, the university application need not be quite so specific or rigid, Mr de Witt says. While students in the UK are required to have developed a subject specialism, often at A Level, higher-education institutions in the US understand that someone aged 17 or 18 has not necessarily decided what they want to do.
"In US higher education, they focus their core curriculum around the liberal arts approach," he explains. "Even ifa student has decided that they would like to study engineering, they will still be required to study a broad curriculum which will involve for example, a little bit ofmaths, philosophy, French and science. It is through the discovery of those classes that they start to find out for themselves their major area of interest.
"So being undecided as a teenager in the US – applying undeclared – does not pose the same problems as it can in the UK. It’s a different mindset in the US."
The global appeal of studying in the US is growing by the day, and there are now more international students studying in US colleges than ever before – almost one million at the last count, according to US organisation the Institute of International Education. And with more than 4000 universities and colleges in the US, compared with just over 150 in the UK, there is an enormous variety of institutions and courses to choose from.
Paired with the ability to study a broad curriculum for the first two years and to defer the choice of a major area of study until much later than in the UK, studying stateside can be an enticing prospect for many prospective undergraduates.
Studying as an overseas student in the US has also been shown to enhance a student’s CV when it comes to applying for a job. According to a Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) survey, one in three employers values international study experience when reviewing job applications, and 65 per cent of employers prefer applicants with overseas work experience.
Differences between UK and US college application
But, says Daniel de Witt, students need to make a very clear distinction between the different elements of applying to a UK and a US university. "There are very different sets of expectations in the US," he says.
"In the UK, it is very black and white: students receive a conditional offer based on a set of predicted grades accompanied by brief biographical information and a short personal statement not exceeding 4,000 characters. There’s not much to it, and it can be relatively formulaic. If the student gets the grades, they go to that university.
"Because the ethos behind a US undergraduate degree is still based on the liberal arts, and due to its multifaceted, multidisciplinary education, there is a lot more data that students can include in their applications."
While he agrees that academic performance will always be at the core of any decision, Mr de Witt explains that there is space to bring in a large amount of the student’s character on a US university application.
In the UK, students apply for up to five different university courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), an online system with a database of courses and entry requirements that processes UK university applications. In comparison with this process, applying to US colleges can be a lengthy and strenuous process, he says, with much more direct communication and collaboration with the colleges themselves.
As US colleges are private institutions,
the rules and requirements for each are
different, so it is essential that the priorities of each individual institution are understood and carefully considered in order to align a student’s application successfully.
Although entry requirements differ wildly from college to college, it is fairly standard that students will be required to complete an academic essay as part of their application. This, says Mr de Witt, should be a reflective piece of writing that will be very different from any academic argument that UK students will have learned through a GCSE or A Level curriculum.
"It’s far more of a revelation of one’s character, and it should go into some serious depth," he says. "A strong application in the US demands that a student is a highly proficient writer."
In the UK, students’ academic achievements are typically measured by their performance at GCSE, A Level, Pre-U or the International Baccalaureate, and they will, more often than not, form a part of a conditional offer from their chosen university or college.
In the US, there is no national set of examinations taken at the age of 16 and 18, as is the case in the UK, so some element of standardised testing is required for university entry. These standardised tests, known as the SAT and the ACT, include multiple-choice assessment in maths and English. Both have equal weight in a college application.
Timing of the application process
With so much involved in the application process, it is advisable for students to start thinking about their options long before applications are due.
TASIS England, an international school based in Surrey, offers a four-year college counselling curriculum that is unique to most international schools. Students are advised to start exploring their higher-education options at the age of 14, when they begin in the Upper School.
"We are here to help our students identify and then develop their personal, academic, artistic, leadership and athletic qualities," explains Anna Wright, director of college counselling. "They explore a wide array of choices, and we make sure they have the guidance to make their plans possible.
"We take them through a process of setting personal goals and investigating different post-secondary institutions to help them discover what options would be best for them. In their final two years, we work closely with them on each application.
"We have an extensive network of university contacts, many of whom visit TASIS England every year, and we advocate for our students throughout the process."
Wherever a student decides to apply, most college counsellors and education consultants would agree that matching the student’s abilities, passions and interests to the course that will help them to continue along that path will maximise their chances of standing out in a crowded and highly competitive field.
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