By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, April 11, 2003

When I was asked to do a tour of secondary schools in England and talk about the process of applying for admission to American colleges and universities, I got a chance to observe a world not usually available to visiting Americans. I was allowed a glimpse behind the gated walls of secondary schools older than my own country, where poets and politicians, kings and prime ministers, and legions of lords had boyishly carved their names into wooden desks.

Like the fancy private schools here in the United States, some of those “public” schools seemed like small colleges, set on lush and gorgeous grounds, with buildings that actually were as ancient as ours try to look. There were country schools and city schools; most were still single-sex. Like American secondary schools, the ethos of each place came across, to some extent, in the dress of the students. At some, peasant shirts and hip-hugging dark denim; at others, the lads wore jackets and ties.

As I did when I had gone on recruiting trips for Duke University, I marched into classrooms where groups of students sat behind desks and politely listened to me. I perched in the cramped offices of guidance counselors with a handful of interested kids and had more in-depth conversations. I met with college advisers and teachers.

The teenagers were teenagers. They were interested, smart, engaged. Questions ran the gamut from sweetly naive (“Is it hard to get into Harvard?”) to surprisingly specific (“What do you know about Northern Arizona University?”). The students were unfailingly polite, but also genuinely enthusiastic. They were eager to learn, quick to appreciate some straightforward answers about a system that baffles even Americans and was nearly incomprehensible to them.

It’s not that the actual application processes are that different. Students applying to British universities fill out a UCAS form (made available by the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) that is like an Überversion of our Common Application. It is, in fact, more like our AMCAS (put out by the American Medical College Application Service): Students fill out one form and then decide where it gets sent. Some universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, require additional forms. But generally, the applications look a lot like ours, with places for secondary-school academic records, listings of extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and a “personal statement.”

Those superficial similarities, however, mask gaping cultural differences. The first, and most obvious, is that we have entirely different educational systems. Though many Brits were quick to point out that the (class-biased) tracking mechanisms of their system are less rigid now, it is still the case that little kids must do well on tests in order to get into the “right” schools at an early age, and to join the “right” programs to get them into the “best” universities. With American nuttiness about getting tots into the “best” New York City nursery schools at an all-time high, and with the movement toward standardized state testing, we may yet become more like the Brits were. Still, the British secondary system narrows much more quickly than our own and ends with another battery of tests, the “A” levels. Students choose to test in three or four (and in rare cases, more) academic areas of study; by the time they apply to university, they often know precisely not only what they want to study, but also which profession they want to pursue. And then they hit the ground running. In form, if not in content, the A-level results tell British admissions tutors what the high-school transcripts and the SAT’s tell American admissions officers: something, not everything, about the applicant’s secondary-school academic preparation. Where it gets murkier is in the rest of the application.

How different could teacher recommendations be? Vastly. We Yanks like to think of ourselves as a forthright, honest, frank kind of folk. However, while reading through thousands of teacher recommendations, American admissions officers at the most selective schools expect those superlatives — “the best student I’ve had in 30 years of teaching.” Americans don’t want to talk, or read, about weaknesses. That is not the British way. Listen to the way they go at each other in parliamentary debates. They don’t mince words. When I worked for the American branch of a British publisher, Oxford University Press, I learned that Brits are able to say the most God-awful things but sound ever so lovely while saying them. Same thing with the way they write their recommendations. Those British teachers are not about to describe their students as a combination of Richard Feynman, Mahatma Gandhi, and Johann Sebastian Bach, as one teacher described a (successful) applicant to Duke.

The British system also seems to nurture more serious, more focused children. When asked to write a personal essay, they concoct academic mission statements. “I am keen to study physics because I want to understand the nature of reality.” When I read successful American application essays aloud to British students, their jaws dropped. They could no more imagine revealing themselves so personally than they could showing up naked at school.

American admissions committees want to know about students’ families, their hopes, their dreams. Admissions officers at selective colleges and universities throughout the United States expect applicants to pour out their little hearts and minds. They — we Americans, in general — are enchanted with dichotomous qualities: We can’t get enough of math genius/cheerleaders, we love those opera-singing engineers. We pride ourselves on being a nation of individuals, larger-than-life breakers of molds held together by the duct tape of good old American ingenuity. We want to be surprised, amazed, wowed. We want bragging. The British favor a charming — sometimes frustrating — humility.

But only on paper. Most of the highly selective American universities offer interviews. Those are mainly a public-relations tool, offered, but not required. They are rarely evaluative, done either by admissions officers (who may or may not end up reading that interviewee’s application), by enthusiastic undergraduates, or by gung-ho alumni (the group that often takes the kids most seriously). They are supposed to make the applicant feel warm and fuzzy about the college so that, if admitted, he or she will come (and boost the yield rate). In the British system, interviewees are expected to be able to talk, and to talk well — to articulate what their intended field of study is, and why they want to pursue it. They are likely to be interviewed by the very people who will be teaching them in that field of study. What a concept.

The British students I met who were interested in applying to American colleges and universities were mostly focused on a handful of schools — the usual suspects, the name brands. It’s a select group that wants, and can afford, to go abroad. Some opt to study in the United States because they are attracted to our culture. Others find appealing the flexibility of the American university curriculum, and want to be less specialized in their studies. There are, of course, those who believe that though they have no chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard and Yale will welcome them with open arms.

But how hard or easy it is to get into, say, Harvard or Yale, versus Oxford or Cambridge, depends a lot on knowing the different rules of the game. I heard from a counselor at an excellent British school that their top candidate, who breezed into Oxbridge, was rejected by every American university to which he applied. “Our students are too academic,” she said, shaking her head. We Americans look for shiny packages. Well-roundedness, call it dilettantism, is nurtured. Our children are coddled, allowed to grow up much more slowly. They spend more time playing; they have to, if they want to get into a “good” college.

Neither system is perfect, nor does one seem, to me at least, to be better. Looking at the process merely holds a mirror to the larger culture. American students applying to British universities must know how to write and speak English. And Brits who want to come here to study, well, they’d best make sure they know how to communicate in American.