I am a student from Cambridgeshire, UK. I applied to Harvard, Princeton, Amherst and Georgetown in the academic year 2016/17.
What was the initial reasoning behind applying?
From the age of 15, I had been a keen fundraiser and volunteer for several charities. In fifth form (year 11), my school counselor asked me if I had ever thought about applying to the US, since US universities generally give students’ extracurricular activities more weight than UK universities do.
Why did I choose to apply?
One huge perk about studying in America is that you can change your ‘major’ multiple times before finally settling on one. This was a key decision maker for me as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study.
Likewise, the courses are so different to UK courses. In the UK, courses are based on a depth of knowledge in one particular field of interest. Whereas, in the US, they are based on a breath of knowledge, for example, your major may be politics and journalism, but you might also take classes in theology, art, maths, photography, and French. I like this because it allows you to have a taste of lots of subjects, which should give you a better idea of where your true interests lie.
In America, university students are graded constantly. There are regular quizzes, ‘mid-terms’, ‘finals’, projects, and even ‘class participation’ scores. All these elements together compose a student's overall academic ranking. In the UK, the process looks different, often with all three years of your work graded on your performance at the end of the third year. If you're not one for exams, like me, then the US system offers you chances to show yourself off all year round.
In the US student life is often centred on the campus. Many students live in dorms for all four years, eating meals together, playing sports together in college facilities, and so forth. This idea really interested me because I was looking for this community life.
Furthermore, the £9,000 annual tuition fees in the UK are making people do the sums more than they used to, and with scholarships on offer the fees look more affordable. Some universities offer scholarships covering the entire cost. The Harvard Financial Aid initiative, for example, will provide full funding without loans to a student whose family income is below £37,000, though it is very competitive.
What did I learn?
Applying to the US is a lot of work. The process can comprise of: admissions tests like SATs, SAT subject tests, a Common App essay, multiple Letters of Recommendation from teachers and counselors, supplementary essays, and more. The process takes more than a year, so it is advisable to start applying as early as you can.
You need to think about the people you’re competing against - they’ve likely been planning a lot longer for their US application. In addition I had to do the US application in my own time, alongside my UCAS application and preparing for my A-levels exams.
When I began my application, I didn’t realise how much it would cost to apply. In the UK, the only cost involved is the admin fee of UCAS, which is around £23, but applying to the US, you will need to pay for any tests you take, any SAT courses you take part in and submitting your application to each university. It cost me around £900 just to apply. If you are from a low-income household, however, you may be able to get fee waivers.
If I were to do it again, what would I do differently?
If I were to apply again, I would avoid just applying to Ivy League universities and other prestigious universities that I had heard of. Rather than being wowed by ‘name brands’ when doing my searches, I would have thought more about what universities were a good fit for me. Let’s take Amherst for example - despite it being a prestigious university, it turned out it wasn't right for me as it is in a rural location and its closest airport is over 3 hours away and not accessible by public transport; this would have meant getting to and from the university when visiting home would have been a nightmare.
I would also do more research into scholarships that are available for international students. Not only do universities offer scholarships, but charities do too. For example, fellowships are offered by the American Association of University Women for female international students to study in the US. See this website for more examples of scholarships that are available: International student scholarships.
When I applied, I wasn’t aware of this and when I got an offer from Georgetown, I was thrilled, but I hadn’t received any financial help from the university, meaning I couldn’t afford to go.
My advice for you
The experience of living and studying abroad can be life-changing, and with so many of the world’s top universities located in the US – and no language barrier – it’s naturally an attractive place for the prospective undergraduate. But if you aren't 110% set on going there, don’t bother applying, it is costly and takes huge time commitment.