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Why are British pupils applying to American universities?

As 65% of schools have students who go to overseas universities, Hilary Moriarty discusses the American dream

Posted by Rianna Newman | July 06, 2017 | International

How can you make a judgement about how good a school is?  Let me count the ways...

Or, actually, no, let’s not do that – much too long a list. But I suspect there’s a newish measure by which we may suppose excellence. Of course, you want to know about university entrants – where, and to do what. And, of course, you want to know about Oxbridge applications and success percentages. We’ve been asking about all that for donkey’s years.

But the new kid on the block is surely, ‘How many sixth form leavers go to overseas universities?’ And we don’t mean Hong Kong, because independent boarding schools have a long history of preparing their Hong Kong students to return to their own alma mater.  Today we are far more interested in applications for American universities.  They may be few now, but they will surely increase dramatically in the near future, because that’s where the glamour currently is, so much so that an American university place comes pretty close to trumping (sorry) your bog-standard Oxbridge place. It suggests distance and (probably) sunshine, and courage and optimism and energy that you would go so far to get the degree you want and (probably) change your life.

I exaggerate, but I also think I catch a flavour of the zeitgeist, as the contemporary phrase goes. Partly, I think the glamour comes from our own internal pictures of America, influenced by film and possibly US holidays – California? New York? New England in the fall? – but also by the slight mystery about how you go about getting an offer to study in America. It sounds amazing – but how do you do that? 

Everyone knows about Oxbridge entry, not least because of the many articles in the heavy newspapers through the year: whether to apply at all, then when to apply, and how to apply, what to say in your personal statement, what to say when you get interviewed. There are books about the process, by those who have endured it and by those who have participated in its agonies. Apocryphal tales of test papers which ask, ‘Is this a question?’, to which the snappy response might be, ‘If it is, this is the answer.’  And we laugh, and shake our heads and think, ‘Really? Would you dare put that on the paper and leave the room because you have finished after five minutes – would you really risk it?’ And conclude that if you did, they couldn’t not give you a place, could they?

In independent schools, Oxbridge can be robbed of glamour by the simple presence on the staff of people who went to these prestigious universities.  ‘Oxbridge people’ are just people you know. Obviously, they can be a tremendous resource for advice and encouragement. But even so, one of your tribe, almost, and therefore not quite so sparkly and mysterious as ‘the Fulbright scholar’ or anyone who attended Harvard or Yale or MIT, who are all a bit ‘wow!’ 

I think the glamour comes from our own internal pictures of America, influenced by film and possibly US holidays

And the inclination to go west is clearly a growing trend. The Independent Schools Council annual census tells us that 65% of schools have students who go on to overseas universities. That’s a lot of schools, but the percentage of leavers going overseas is only 5%. Oxbridge is probably not going to worry, in its ivory towers, because 6% of ISC leavers in 2016 actually went to Oxford or Cambridge. But of those leavers seeking degrees overseas, 47% go to America.  

If you’re still with me, you may be thinking of expanding your careers provision to include specialist provision for those looking beyond our own shores. An American graduate assistant who really knows the ropes for US entry requirements could be worth his/her weight in gold, and what is education for, if not to expand our students’ horizons?

It is, of course, possible to go too far. Perhaps it was an arrogance of mine that as Head of Sixth Form in a city south of Birmingham I encouraged a sixth former when she decided to apply to Newcastle University, and cheered when she got in. When she went, she lasted a week. What happened?

“I couldn’t stand it!” she wailed. 

“I had no idea it was so far.” Geography obviously not her strong suit.

 I, who had sailed the Irish Sea to get a degree I could have got in Liverpool or Bangor, had no idea the distance would be a factor. Crippled by homesickness and distance, she quit, eventually going to the university down the road.

But I digress. For the moment, I think that providing the right advice and support for candidates who are looking beyond our usual range of destinations is still a bit mysterious. Meeting a sixth former recently, and hearing that she has a place to study Graphic Design in New York, I was intrigued.  

“How did you get your place?” I asked.

She grinned. “I phoned them up!”

Magical. How amazing to get a place, yet how prosaic the process appeared to be. She was so matter-of-fact, so unfazed by distance and difference and any kind of difficulty that might have stopped another student in her tracks before even beginning the process – you know, that, ‘Oh my God, I wouldn’t know how to begin!’ paralysis. Not for her. That was what she wanted. Then she just got on with it. 

Was it as simple as she suggested? Well, probably not. She admitted first to having researched universities offering graphics degrees, and choosing the one she thought would suit her, her work, her style, her interests. A lot of research on a lot of websites to find what she wanted. And then the personal touch: she called them.  Just, as they say, like that. I short circuit the story because, effectively, that’s what she did in our conversation. And was she helped by the fact that she was in a British independent school but had come from Hong Kong even to get her education, with all the appropriate qualifications to make her a plausible candidate, this far?  Again, probably. So when I say, “Why America?” she says, quite simply, “Why not?” She’s already come halfway round the world, going further was no problem.

Going west also appears to offer a wider range of opportunities for scholarships and other financial support or incentive than is available in Britain. I heard a heart-warming story last year of a student with average A-level grades, cheerfully departing for a prestigious US college thanks to a golf scholarship. Golf! 

Not exactly the leading sport in most schools, even independent ones. Let us hope he does as well as Danny Willett, who spent two years at Jacksonville State University in Alabama before winning the Augusta Masters’ green jacket in 2016. And while one might speculate gently about the number of mature students who row in the Oxbridge Boat Race, many of them having got their first degrees at American universities, it is good to hear of a young woman in the same class as my fledgling graphic artist winning a rowing scholarship to the University of Connecticut.  

Now, about recruiting that American graduate assistant for the Careers Department...

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of Boarding Schools Association. 

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