Following the rise of UK university tuition fees, many bright students are beginning to consider colleges in the US as a viable option for their university education. When you’re faced with the daunting process of applying to university, how do you decide between two global giants: the Ivy League and Oxbridge? With institutions from both groups jostling for the top places in world university rankings, it can be hard to know whether you’d flourish state-side or in the UK. What are the differences between the two prestigious groups, and how do you decide where to apply?
The Ivy League is America’s Oxbridge, comprising eight prestigious, high-ranking ‘schools’ or universities: Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Harvard and Yale. They are linked by their academic excellence as much as by the high-level sporting competition which first brought them together. While Ivy League schools are much younger than most Oxbridge colleges, they rival Oxbridge’s influence in the global job market, as well as its academic. Though they vary hugely in size (from a mere 4,000 undergraduates at Dartmouth to over 24,000 at Columbia), they tend to be more consistent in character throughout the university as a whole, whereas the varied collection of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge gives these universities a more diverse and complex feel.
The admissions process for each varies greatly, with most American universities requiring you to sit the SATs (standardised tests assessing your reading, writing and mathematical skills), as well as two SAT subject-specific exams based on your academic studies, or an ACT essay-writing test. At Oxbridge, about 70% of colleges require some form of entrance exam, but the admissions process begins with your academic record to date – Oxford and Cambridge accept school leaving qualifications from many international exam systems – and, sometimes, academic work that you submit. If the college likes what it sees, you will be invited to interview in the December before you are due to start the course.
The reason that US institutions set such generalised admissions tests is that many American schools offer a ‘liberal’ program, where you apply either for a general arts or sciences degree, and your final subject decisions do not have to be made before you apply. In some cases you can ‘shop around’ in your first week, attending a mixture of taster lectures and seminars, before you sign up to particular courses.
Compare this with Oxbridge, where you must apply for a specific course, usually at a specific college, and can target your application to the college best fitting your interests within that subject. So, if you like the arts but can’t settle on one degree course, US universities might offer you the extra time you need to decide; but if you love French literature and want to study with a world expert on Baudelaire, Oxbridge can offer you the chance to be taught by this expert.
What about the success rates? Well, at Oxbridge an applicant has roughly a 20% chance of getting a place; at the Ivy League, success rates are much lower, generally around 10%, and as low as 6% and 7% at Harvard and Columbia respectively.
Something else to consider with the American applications process is the Early Admissions scheme, which allows successful applicants to guarantee a place at the institution before their final year of school; but often these early applications can be binding, meaning that you’re tied to your place at that university with little chance to change your mind. There are some benefits to the Early Admissions scheme: the success rate is up to twice that of regular applications.
An international student applying to study at an American university can expect to pay between $25,000 to $45,000 (about £15,700 to £28,300) a year in tuition fees alone – and this is before you count the cost of housing, food and books. By comparison, Oxbridge tuition fees tend to range between £13,000 and £18,000 a year for international (non-EU) students, with some courses costing as much as £31,000 a year for Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. At Oxbridge you might also incur college-specific fees, which are between £4,000 and £5,000 a year depending on the college. UK and EU students will have to pay up to £9,000 per year as of 2011.
Both Oxbridge and Ivy League are well-known for the financial support they have available, with Harvard investing $172 million in undergraduate financial aid in 2012-13 and Oxbridge introducing generous bursary schemes in the light of the admissions fee rise. It’s worth noting that for UK students applying to universities in the UK, you will be able to take out a student loan: this is not a real loan in that your interest is only to keep up with inflation, you only need to start paying back when you are earning over £21,000 per year, it won’t affect your ability to get another loan, such as a mortgage, and if you haven’t paid it off after 30 years, it will be written off – just as the next generation is off to university and starts looking to the bank of mum and dad! UK students applying state-side will have to stump up the cash before they start – possibly by taking out a loan with the bank (and incurring interest).
The biggest differences you’re likely to find between Oxbridge and Ivy League lie in their study programmes. As mentioned above, American courses offer a great deal more flexibility, operating a ‘majoring’ and ‘minoring’ system, where you pick one main subject area (your ‘major’) and combine it with other subjects, or ‘minors’, which do not have to be in the same subject. While some universities are stricter than others on the combination of choices, the benefit of this system is its ability to offer diverse courses to students with wide-ranging interests. Thanks to this flexibility, some American universities say they can offer up to 3,500 different courses.
At Oxbridge, you’ll have to apply for one specific, named course, and the two universities differ slightly in their course structure: Cambridge opts for a broader curriculum in the first part of the course, after which students can pick modules – sometimes from the papers offered by other degree programmes – and specialise, whereas Oxford students go into more depth in each module from the outset.
Both Oxbridge and the Ivy League universities consistently rank highly in world university tables like the THES (Times Higher Education Supplement) table, and the #1 spot switches frequently as universities jostle to be the best – the top five in the world almost always feature Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge with the other Ivy League colleges following closely behind. However, the worldwide prestige attached to these institutions doesn’t change, and a degree from any one of them is a sure-fire way to enhance your job prospects and impress potential employers. You’ll be in good company, as Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates appear in important positions all over the world – heading businesses, pioneering new inventions and even leading countries! So if you’re a high achiever with a passion for learning, and you want to continue your studies in the world’s best higher education institutions – both Oxbridge and the Ivy League will give you the platform you need to succeed!