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The American higher education system is broken. As a high school student, I’ve heard this refrain constantly. But this year, as a senior experiencing the college hoopla firsthand, I discovered how right this sentiment is.
One of the biggest problems with the college admissions race is plummeting admittance rates — the result of dramatically increased numbers of applicants. Because more students apply to a school, they have a decreased chance of getting in, so they apply to more schools, which in turn have more applicants and lower acceptance rates.
It’s a vicious cycle, and one I was a part of. However, I took a step to remove myself from the system, and applied to schools in the U.K. The British university process, while not without its flaws (perhaps most notably, British schools are struggling to get boys to go to college — and their absence mirrors a growing imbalance in the U.S.), is wildly different from the American one, and I think we could stand to learn something from it.
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A basic breakdown of the British system: you can apply to Oxford or Cambridge (not both), and a total of five schools. As you apply to a specific subject, you write one single personal statement explaining why you are qualified for the course; you may have to complete a subsequent interview, again on academic merit.
There is a set of grade-based entry requirements you will have to make at the end of your senior year, but that’s it. There are no essays asking about “a journey” or what celebrity you’d like to have to lunch, no extracurricular jumping through hoops. Plain and simple, are you good at what you do?
The American education system encourages exploration rather than specialization, which I agree with, so the course-specific personal statements may not be so relevant.
Even so, I’d want to see the focus of the college admissions process brought back to school, if only a little bit.
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When I applied to U.S. schools, I wrote essays about my biggest fears and hopes and dreams, I was sold student centers and dorm rooms and meal plans.
Underneath all of the football games and paraphernalia, I was not being shown a school, I was being sold an experience. These colleges seemed to care less about me as a student than me as a well-rounded, “holistic” individual.
When I toured schools in England, I was shown classrooms and students studying in libraries rather than well-polished amenities (most students lived in private housing and cooked for themselves, anyway).
It was nice to see what I’d be paying huge amounts of money for — not a four-year party, but a school with actual classes and exams.
But the absolute number one thing to take away from the British system? Limiting the number of colleges one person can apply to. With the Common Application, it’s not hard to apply to enormous numbers of schools. I have classmates who applied to all eight Ivy Leagues (and Stanford and MIT), and I know people who got into all of them.
Realistically, though, you can only attend one school. Yes, deciding where to spend the next four years is hard, but what does a massive number of acceptances get you beyond bragging rights? For so many top schools, I saw the same students admitted over and over again.
I saw other students who were tremendously qualified not get into any of them. I saw some people not get into schools that would have been a terrific match, which they would have attended in a heartbeat, while others who were accepted saw them as safety nets and never really planned on attending.
So why do we let this happen? You could argue something about The American Way and “freedom” or “liberty,” but all it really is is a college admission “Hunger Games” — dangerously competitive and only the most prepared survive.
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There are nearly 3,000 four-year institutions* in America, as opposed to about 150 in the U.K. Capping the application number at five may be too limiting, and students with Ivy League dreams may want to apply to more than one. So why not, say, ten schools, including Ivy Leagues? Most of the major colleges and universities take the Common App these days; if the website itself instituted a limit, we could cut back on the swelling numbers of applications, of students applying “just to apply” without any real desire to attend a school.
Acceptance rates may level out before they hit zero, and maybe, just maybe, it would level the playing field just a little bit. Yes, the American school system emphasizes expression and free choice, so it’s fair to not know what school you want to attend, but narrowing it down from twenty to ten shouldn’t be impossible—you’ll have to choose just one in the end, after all.
I still stand behind the American liberal arts education. I don’t want to be limited to a single subject; college is supposed to be a time of exploration, and maybe I’d discover a secret affinity for astronomy or archeaology if I had the chance.
I don’t think students should know what they want to do at seventeen, but maybe we should have some idea of where we want to go.
Besides, it was nice to be judged on my academic capabilities rather than the length of my resume. It’s just school, after all, and I only plan on attending one.
Claire Schultz is a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey. She plans to attend University College London this fall.
*Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of four-year higher education institutions in the United States.
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