Monday, April 24, 2006

United Kingdom vs United States

Congratulations to Kylie Anne Francis who received her offers of acceptance from both Harvard and Cambridge University. She has opted to accept the offer from Harvard University, a decision I would hazard a guess, was helped by financial aid from the university of up to US$44,000 a year, inclusive of housing and tuition fees.

Twins, Arun and Ashok Thillaisundaram, however, have no qualms selecting Cambridge as their university of choice to pursue their degrees in Physics and Mathematics, with the latter having already secured a scholarship from Jardine Foundation.

Putting the availability of financial aid or scholarship aside, how would you choose between Harvard (US) or Cambridge (UK) University?

This thought about comparing a degree from United Kingdom (UK) and that from the United States (US) has been playing in my head for a fairly long time. I'm certain that everyone will have their prejudices :) as well. After all, Kian Ming has insinuated once that I should get acquainted to an American education, instead of being too "outdated" and UK-centric. :)

So here you go. Here are some of my thoughts on the comparisons which are likely to be accrued generalisations over the years. They are by no means facts which are cast in stone. The reason why I'm putting them down is so that this "impression" may get corrected, qualified or even possibly justified by you guys out there, for the benefit of the young readers here who might be interested, but are uncertain as to where they should pursue their education overseas.

There's an additional assumption I'd like to state - that is in all likelihood, I'm comparing only the top universities of both countries and not all universities as a whole. This is because when attempting to generalise too wide a pool of schools, the generalisation will no longer have any practical or meaningful value.

Regular readers will know that I'm a product of a British-centric education having undergone the 'O', 'A' Levels as well as a degree from the UK. I've barely stepped foot in the US (for a 3-week training stint at St Charles, Chicago) and have no experience whatsoever with schools in that country. During my 'A' Levels, I was faced with an choice of taking the SAT examination in order to apply for the universities in the United States. I never took SAT because I thought I'd prefer a UK-based education, after receiving some word-of-mouth information and advice from friends and seniors.

The information I had, and the impression that I still have today, is that a UK-based degree will be more disciplined and specialised, while a US-based one will be more generalised and be of less depth. I have also understood from the various posts I've read online that, very often, one doesn't have to even decide which specialisation (e.g., economics or political science or history etc.) until the 2nd or 3rd year of studies.

Hence in terms of subject-matter knowledge, one will actually get more out of the UK degree rather than the US degree. This is not to say that the US degree is worth less, because it'll be equally good in terms of cultivating critical thinking. And therefore, as I was pretty certain of what I wanted to read for my degree as well as the "slight" hassle and cost of having to sit for the SAT (not a very good excuse, this one), I opted for a degree in the UK.

However, for postgraduate studies, I understand that the US-based qualifications will have the slight edge over the UK ones. This is probably due to the fact that US based universities have much larger research funding as well as ability to attract the best academics in the world to provide a more rewarding postgraduate and research experience.

For MBAs in particularly, none of the UK or European schools appear to be able to compare themselves against the top schools in the US like Harvard, Wharton, Chicago or Kellogs. This is probably due to the fact that the world's largest and most profitable corporations are US-based companies and the experience one will be able to gather from these schools as a result of the network (as well as the top notch lecturers) will be tremendous.

So, the way I look at it, Kian Ming has done it "right". He pursued his first degree in London School of Economics, did a Masters in Cambridge and is now pursuing his Doctorate at Duke University, United States. The only thing is maybe he needn't have done is Masters for he had "complained" on the time needed to complete his PhD in the US. But having a "Cambridge" in the resume never hurts. :)

Now, would I have approached my applications differently today? Yes, only on the basis that many of the top universities in the US such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and possibly Princeton offers full financial aid to students from families with income of less than US$60,000 per annum, as long as they are accepted by the admissions office. That will really save one the hassle of hunting high and low for scholarships or financial assistance - which I did.

Note also that while the topic makes for a interesting discussion, I believe the actual decision of whether one should opt for a UK or US-based top university is moot, and is really dependent on individual preference. Whether Kylie graduates from Harvard or Cambridge will make absolutely no difference to her future employment prospects, and she will receive quality education both ways.

So, for you guys out there pursuing your degree (or have recently completed them) in the UK and the US - what do you think? :)


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

either way, it really makes no difference as gaining entry to such presitigious schools is in itself a great achievement. however, what it does boils down to is personal preference. i believe us and uk education systems offer different environments socially and academically. uk, in my opinion, is more traditional and steep in history and traditions. us universities tend to adapt to world changes and requirements from academia and thus may give the student a better edge in terms of professional employment.

Anonymous said...

Both countries need foreign students and require the publicity from providing scholarships to students. As such being published in the media gives them free advertising which goes a long way. Universities in the US tend to be richer and rely less on handouts from the state. However, Western universities are increasingly relying on foreign students for revenue generation.

Anonymous said...

Cambridge and Oxford is getting increasingly easier to get in compared to the top universities in US. So prestige wise, I would say that spaces in UK universities are not as coverted as before. Also, UK universities (with the exception of Oxbridge) tends to be larger, more impersonal. There tend to be less faculty-student interaction. Furthermore, I find London people to be particularly rude when you put them side-by-side with let's say New Yorkers. UK universities = you can enter if you are rich. US universities tend to promote equity in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

That's not entirely true. American universities will refuse you if they can't pay for your education.

"Cambridge and Oxford is getting increasingly easier to get in compared to the top universities in US. So prestige wise, I would say that spaces in UK universities are not as coverted as before. Also, UK universities (with the exception of Oxbridge) tends to be larger, more impersonal. There tend to be less faculty-student interaction. Furthermore, I find London people to be particularly rude when you put them side-by-side with let's say New Yorkers. UK universities = you can enter if you are rich. US universities tend to promote equity in my opinion." by anon Mon Apr 24, 09:22:18 PM

well, in case you don't know, there are also large american universities(population wise), typically public ones. Besides, you won't generally be taught by professors if you're an undergrad. Teaching Assistance or postgrad students usually do the job.

It would be quite wrong to say that faculty-student interaction is mininal in British unviversities. The tutorial system which was once a trademark of Oxbridge is currenly practised in many universities in the UK. Oxbridge 1:2 or 3, Imperial 1:4, others are slightly more.

I do agree on the difficulty of getting into Oxbridge though. But then again, one should look at the admission process. For the US, admission officers are the ones who would review your application, not the tutors of a faculty ie just say you want to do maths, the admissions tutor of maths won't be reading your application, they have no say in it. Whereas for the UK, the tutors who would be coaching you in the future will be the ones who review your application, they are the ones who make the decision. That is why you'll get interviews with faculty members and tutors of your subject if you do your A-levels in the UK.

Another point to note is that British universities review your application by looking at your passion in your indicated course and your academic results. It is very much restricted and focused. Over the Atlantic, American universities tend to consider your entire self, they don't care much on what your intended major/majors is/are,that is why you get all those essay questions simply because they want to know you better. They select applicants who fit into their list. It is like shopping. Every year, they go around searching for 'products' which suit their taste,somewhat like replenishing the out going stock.

Londoners rude? I was blardy repremanded by a ticket officer for not saying please at the end of my request......

Regarding the the last sentence, it is only true to a certain extend. How often can you get a kampung boy getting into Stanford, Princeton or Harvard? Remember Timothy? He got offers from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. Parents are doctors, went to Kenya to climb Kalimanjaro, went to Cambodia to teach English, Who wouldn't want to do such things if finance is not a factor? Elitism has always existed in education and it will always be. No matter what Harvard and others say that it is opened to all, not many people from 'common' backgrounds would be able to get in. The bulk will always be people from well-to-do families.

Anonymous said...

Wow.. she can ponder about Cambridge, New England or Cambridge, England... lol

Anonymous said...

Another thing,

One can afford to be fickle minded and 'greedy' in the US, one can't in the UK.

Chen Chow said...

Great that this discussion between US and UK education is being made. I would say that most importantly, it is about making full use of one's education. It is not so much of where we study, but rather whether we make full use of the opportunities to learn as much as we could, not only within the textbooks and courses learning, but well beyond it.

I had a great time in my undergraduate learning, especially in terms of attending public lectures. I attended not less than 200 those lectures, given by many prominent figures, from Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jeff Immelt, Lionel Jospin, Kenneth Chenault, Sanford I Weill, Arun Gandhi, Janet Reno etc. Those are chances of a lifetime.

And I would like to encourage those students, especially those still in secondary schools to explore the opportunities. Try to find out early about various opportunities and work hard. To those who are interested to further education in US, you should definitely check out , Experiences 2006 Kuala Lumpur, an American University Education Fair. It is initiated by a bunch of alumni and current students of US universities, and many prominent alumni have stepped forward to support this event, including Tony Pua, who would be a speaker in Experiences 2006 Kuala Lumpur. It would be held on 16th July at Sunway Pyramid Convention Center. To sign up as exhibitor/attendee, do go to

Anonymous said...

"In 1932, a team of physicists led by Ernest Rutherford split the atom at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratories"

Not sure about this.

If I am not mistaken, the first successful 'spliting of the atom'(nuclear fission) was conducted in 1938 in Berlin by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman.

Rutherford is famous for his Alpha scattering experiment(done by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden actually), which I believe is confused by being an experiment which splits the atom. 'Probing' would be more appropriate as oppose to 'spliting'

Chenchow, you're real lucky. The public pays USD 1000 to listen to a speech by Bill Clinton, but you got it for free.

Anonymous said...

Harvard is ranked above Cambridge. Also, the flexibility of the American system is more appealing. American universities, being wealthier, is able to attract brighter minds and afford to fund cutting edge research. I'd also like to disagree that only those from 'well-to-do' families gain admittance. After all, if they are so well-to-do, they wouldn't need financial assistance. Anyone can apply to Harvard or Cambridge, only the best get in.

Kian Ming said...

I would choose Harvard, in a heart beat. For the following reasons:

1) It's much harder to get into compared to Oxbridge. You probably have 30 to 50 Malaysians getting into Oxbridge every year but only 1 to 5 getting into Harvard.

2) Better resources. With an endowment of 20 billion, it affords many luxuries including world class libraries, labs, lecturers. Cambridge has been trying to get more private money into its coffers but because of its antiquated collegiate system, this is far from easy.

3) Boston-Cambridge (US) has an energy that comes from having MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Fletcher, within a small area. You have exposure to a stream of world class speakers (like Chen Chow alluded to) from a variety of fields coming through the halls of Harvard and the city of Boston. Cambridge is pretty and quaint but you have to travel all the way to London (about an hour away) to get a more diverse 'exposure'.

I have no regrets going to the UK for my undergrad since I'm now in the US doing my postgrad but if I could choose all over again, I'd probably opt for the US option first.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with Kian Ming.

1) Harvard is much more selective.

2) Larger endowments: Compare Harvard's $25 billion, Yale's $15, Stanford's $12(?) with Cambridge's $5 billion. Better resources, better facilities, better student life.

3) A liberal arts education, which imho is the best thing about the US system.

4) The President of China visits your campus (Ref: Hu Jintao's visit to Yale last Friday)

Anonymous said...

Yes, the US universities are highly selective. Disciplines such as the sciences and technology are second to none. Practically all major breakthroughs in the world was founded on US soil.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, the US universities are highly selective. Disciplines such as the sciences and technology are second to none. Practically all major breakthroughs in the world was founded on US soil."

Actually not all US universities are very selective, and "practically all major breakthroughs" is a huge exaggeration.
Cambridge has more Nobel prizes (81) (70 for for science and 70 won by former students) than any other university in the world.

The big advantage of the Oxbridge system is the tutorial system - which you typically get 2 students to 1 tutor supervisions (and you can even get 1 to 1 for some or even most of your supervisions - this is not possible in the US system.
The endowment figures leave out government funding for Oxbridge that the US leaders don't get.
Oxford or Cambridge's annual operating budget is roughly equivalent to Stanford or Princeton.
Whether the liberal arts system is better than Oxbridge style specialization (though there are Oxbridge degrees which are quite flexible) is highly arguable. The main element of the liberal arts system is the first year curriculum (after which one specializes). Harvard has not undertaken significant reforms of this first year curriculum since the 1970s (and a recent initiative to do so has failed). Also the UK A-levels system tends to be ahead of US high school e.g. 3rd year MIT engineers on exchange to Cambridge take 2nd year Cambridge engineering courses and find them challenging.
Note also I have read that Ivy League universities including Harvard set quotas on applicants from other countries - only a certain number can come from the UK, Malaysia, China etc.

Anonymous said...

also the President of China (And India too) has visited Cambridge UK

Anonymous said...

According to this blog:

she also got a full scholarship offer from Cambridge too.
As she wants to do economics/business, Harvard is the better choice.
If she wanted to be a scientist, Cambridge is the better choice

Anonymous said...

arun n ashok was applied to harvard, mit, yale, princeton, cornell. they were rejected to every university except cornell. so how can they choose between america and uk?

Anonymous said...

Jin Yong(Louis Cha) the famous writer is studying for a phd in history at cambridge

Anonymous said...

Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT,and Yale outshines Cambridge by a clear margin.

1) Undergraduate population: Harvard, MIT etc- 5000, Cambridge 10000.

2) Nobel prize winners: Harvard, Stanford outshines Cambridge (eg Amartya Sen at Harvard)

3) Business schools: Kellog, JFK, Wharton etc with luminaries like Friedman, Krugman, Stiglitz etc

4) Graduate students: Comparable srengths, really the backbone of the universities

5) Undergraduate students: You get a class with two thirds aiming to be a U.S. president

6) Alumni: In U.S., you meet peole like Buffett and Gates

Anonymous said...

Amartya Sen did his undergraduate and Phd at Cambridge. He was later Master of Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1990s

Cambridge alumni have won more Nobel Prizes than any other university.

Why do you think having a smaller student population is better than a larger population. Even with larger student population Cambridge and oxford study group ratio is 2 students to 1 teacher.
Harvard class is 10-20 to 1 teacher and more than 20 for most popular subjects

The idea of that 2/3rds of a undergrad population in the US want to be US president is very strange idea - what are you talking about?

Anonymous said...

I am aware of Sen's academic background, but just as most distinguished of these notable luminaries hop around schools, Sen has been at Harvard for a couple of years now :)

"Cambridge alumni have won more Nobel Prizes than any other university."
I do not believe this statement is true. Where did you get it from?

The selectiveness of an incoming class reflects the strength and caliber of that class. It's not surprising to discover that almost everyone who get into HYPSM schools are gifted; the same cannot be said about Oxbridge. Because of the relatively large size of Oxbridge population, there is bound to be average performers.

The last statement was referring to a class at Harvard :)

Anonymous said...

Cambridge's Nobel Prizes:,0,5871100,full.story?coll=la-home-nation
(Note that while the LA Times article talks about universities trying to claim as many Nobels as possible, Cambridge has 70 out of 81 Nobels which were won by former students, rather than just "affliates".)
(Nobel prizes officially claimed by Harvard as reported in LA Times = 42 (i.e. former students only). If you add affliates, then Harvard Nobel count is about 75 so 42/75 for Harvard and 30/78 for Chicago (no.2 on LA Times list) compared with 70/81 for Cambridge (and there are a few more which Cambridge could claim as affiliate but does not officially e.g. Kim Dae Jung, President of South Korea and Milton Friedman, the economist)

Universities select differently. Someone who gets rejected by Oxford and Cambridge can get an offer from Harvard. Someone who gets rejected by Harvard can get an offer from MIT (which is regarded as the most selective university in the US) or Princeton (which has a undergrad population about 2/3rds the size of Harvard. does this mean that it is 1/3 better than harvard?). Oxford and Cambridge are not especially large universities and are highly selective - define "average".

You're still not being realistic saying that 2/3rds of a Harvard class want to be President - that's a idea based on nothing.

Anonymous said...

You must stretch your window very wide to get the full la times link

Anonymous said...

It's my oversight then. I was not aware of the distinction between affliates and former students.

As far as I'm concerned, I do not believe that statistics support the theory that MIT is the most selective university in the U.S. The statistics clearly has regarded Harvard as the most selective in the past few years, interchangable between Princeton and Yale. But I'm pretty sure that Harvard tops the list this year.

By smaller undergrad population, it really correlates to the general maxim that the selectivity propels the ranking of a university; compared to Harvard or Princeton, Oxbridge are much more lenient in their admissions. That, is of course open to interpretation.

You have to experience Harvard first my friend :)

Anonymous said...

"Cambridge alumni have won more Nobel Prizes than any other university."

That's true. But do note that most of the Nobel Prize Winners from Cambridge come from the 19th century. Whereas nowadays, Cambridge no longer produce that many nobel prize winners compared to HYPMS.

"It's not surprising to discover that almost everyone who get into HYPSM schools are gifted; the same cannot be said about Oxbridge."

Wow, I have issues with this statement. Sounds elitist isnt it? But do note that I have come across people who got into HYPSM who are just average and who got in through the "back doors". How about George Bush for example? Yale accepted Bush proved that admissions to these so-called "very selective" schools may not be that meritocratic afterall. And indeed it isn't that meritocratic. I think a connection with the alumni interviewer might help push you into the ivy-league schools. Whereas for UK universities admissions, they are more meritocratic given that they place emphasis on academic more so than the other factors (which is what a university should be). Interviews are solely based on academic knowledge. If you don't seem to be able to answer hard-core physics for example, you shouldn't be in this university afterall.

Anonymous said...

According to the article in LA Times, 8 of the top 10 universities claiming the largest number of Nobel Prizes are in US. Also, one can see from the list on Wiki that US have significantly more institutions affliated with Nodel laureates than any country.

Anonymous said...

admission statistics:

Yale: - 1823 out of 21,099 (8.64%) [Down 1.1% from last year]
Harvard:- 2109 out of 22,753 (9.27%) [ Up 0.2% from last year]
Columbia:- 1653 out of 17,148 (9.64%) [Down 0.8% from last year]
Stanford:- 2430 out of 22,332 (10.88%) [Down 1% from last year]
MIT:- 1474 out of 11,373 (12.96%) [Down ~1% from last year]

Anonymous said...

Cambridge: - 3989 out of 14338 (27.82%)

less than 1 in 10 students get into yale or harvard, 1 in 3.5 students get into cambridge.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Yeah I totally agree.. Even Cornell's acceptance rate of 24.65% is lower than Cambridge's acceptance rate.

Cornell is waaaayyy better than Cambridge in this sense.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Oxbridge interviews are much tougher than Ivy League interviews, and they are much more focussed on your academic potential than your extra-curricular activity.

about Nobels:
My point was that Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes both with affliates AND with counting just former students - read my post.

There are NO (ZERO) Nobel prizes anywhere from the 19th century. The first Nobel prize ever was awarded in 1901. Cambridge has maintained a steady or even increased its pace over the years 35 winners in the period 1970 to 2005 46 winners the period 1901 to 1969

About MIT selectivity
in 2003 (there is no update, I believe) the influential US magazine The Atlantic Monthly carried out a ranking of universities in the US based only on undergrad selectivity. here is the Harvard Crimson newspaper article about the relative ranking of Harvard selectivity:
(you may need to open your window wide)
2003: Harvard rank = 5th MIT=1st

Anyway, India has arguably the most selective universities in the world - its just that they are not open to outsiders.

btw, I HAVE experienced Harvard - Harvard Business School. I did my masters at MIT and took a course at HBS at the same time.. To be frank, I was not impressed by the HBS course. But of course they have bad and good courses like any school. and well, George W. Bush got accepted and graduated from there too....

Anonymous said...

Obviously it isnt. So as you can see. Selectivity/admissions rate only say so much about a school. There are many other factors in making a university great.

Anonymous said...

Actually Harvard's undergraduate education is just simply over-rated.

Anonymous said...

You can't compare Oxbridge admissions statistics directly with Ivy League. They're measuring different things because:
ANYONE can apply to Ivy League or MIT or Stanford. Even if you have little chance at all. Many US students do this, "just in case". In US slang, this is known as a "reach" application.
For applicants in the UK, if you are not predicted at least 3 As for A-levels, you are NOT ALLOWED to apply to Oxbridge (so there are no reaches). And even if you are allowed to apply, you can ONLY apply for Oxford OR Cambridge and NOT both. If people could apply for both, (and presumably most would be accepted by both), than the admittance rate would be half what it is when you can apply to only one or the other (Since you would be admitted to one but not to the other).

ALso the OFFER (almost all offers are conditional - you must get certain grades) rate for cambridge is 27.7% but the admissions rate is 23.1%
So half of 23.1%, not half of 27.7%.

Factor in the fact that there are no "reach" applications, then the admittance rate drops even further. So a better comparative figure for comparing Cambridge with Ivies would be somewhere around 10-11% - pretty good for an undergrad population twice the size of harvard

Anonymous said...
By Ross Douthat | Mar 1, 2005
(The Atlantic Monthly Magazine)

It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report

At the beginning of every term Harvard students enjoy a one-week "shopping period," during which they can sample as many courses as they like and thus—or so the theory goes—concoct the most appropriate schedule for their semesters. There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes.

The enthusiasm evaporates quickly once the shopping period ends. Empty seats in the various halls and auditoriums multiply as the semester rattles along, until rooms that were full for the opening lecture resemble the stadium of a losing baseball team during a meaningless late-August game. There are pockets of diehards in the front rows, avidly taking notes, and scattered observers elsewhere—students who overcame the urge to hit the snooze button and hauled themselves to class, only to realize that they've missed so many lectures and fallen so far behind that taking notes is a futile exercise. Better to wait for the semester's end, when they can take exhaustive notes at the review sessions that are always helpfully provided—or simply go to the course's Web site, where the professor has uploaded his lecture notes, understanding all too well the character and study habits of his seldom-glimpsed students.

But during the shopping period the campus bubbles with academic energy. And so Harvard Hall 101 was packed on the February day in 2001, midway through my junior year, when Harvey Mansfield gave the semester's first lecture in "The History of Modern Political Philosophy." Every seat was filled; the overflow jammed the aisles and windowsills and spilled out the door.

It was a good setting for an act of political theater.

Mansfield cuts a distinctive figure on campus, both physically and intellectually. Short and trim, tanned and handsome, with an angular face, bright eyes, and a wide, sharklike grin, he is dapper in an age of professorial slovenliness, favoring fedoras, pastel shirts, and unusual ties. He is famously conservative, well known for his opposition to affirmative action and gay rights and for his (sometimes cryptic) critiques of feminism and political correctness.

"Before I begin the lecture, I have a brief announcement concerning the class's grading policy," he said that day. "As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. Some say that this climb—in which what were once Cs have become Bs, and those Bs are now fast becoming As—is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it."

He paused, flashed his grin, and went on. "Nevertheless, I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve—a C for mediocre work, a B for good work, and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester's end, will be your, ah, ironic grade—'ironic' in this case being a word used to mean lying —and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar's office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me." Another shark's grin. "And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it."

Mansfield had been fighting this battle for years, long enough to have earned the sobriquet "C-minus" from his students, and long enough that his frequent complaints about waning academic standards were routinely dismissed by Harvard's higher-ups as the out-of-touch crankiness of a conservative fogey. But the ironic-grade announcement changed all that. Soon afterward his photo appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe , alongside a story about the decline of academic standards. Suddenly Harvard found itself mocked as the academic equivalent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

This was somewhat unfair—if only because, as the article made clear, Harvard was hardly alone. Still, its numbers were particularly staggering. More than 90 percent of the class of 2001 had earned grade-point averages of B-minus or higher. Half of all the grades given the year before were As or A-minuses; only six percent were C-pluses or lower. By way of comparison, in 1940 C-minus was the most common GPA at Harvard, and in 1955 just 15 percent of undergraduates had a GPA of B-plus or higher.

What lay behind this trend? Writing in the college newspaper, the Crimson , Mansfield posited some historical factors. "Grade inflation got started … when professors raised the grades of students protesting the war in Vietnam," he argued. "At that time, too, white professors, imbibing the spirit of the new policies of affirmative action, stopped giving low grades to black students, and to justify or conceal this, also stopped giving low grades to white students." (As you might imagine, this theory was hotly contested.) But the main culprit now was simply this: "The prevalence in American education of the notion of self-esteem." Mansfield wrote, "According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and 'empowered,' and professors should hesitate to pass judgment on what students have learned."

This may be partly true, but I think that the roots of grade inflation—and, by extension, the overall ease and lack of seriousness in Harvard's undergraduate academic culture—run deeper. Understanding grade inflation requires understanding the nature of modern Harvard and of elite education in general—particularly the ambitions of its students and professors.

The students' ambitions are those of a well-trained meritocratic elite. In the semi-aristocracy that Harvard once was, students could accept Cs, because they knew their prospects in life had more to do with family fortunes and connections than with GPAs. In today's meritocracy this situation no longer obtains. Even if you could live off your parents' wealth, the ethos of the meritocracy holds that you shouldn't, because your worth as a person is determined not by clan or class but by what you do and whether you succeed at it. What you do, in turn, hinges in no small part on what is on your résumé, including your GPA.

Thus the professor is not just a disinterested pedagogue. As a dispenser of grades he is a gatekeeper to worldly success. And in that capacity professors face upward pressure from students ("I can't afford a B if I want to get into law school"); horizontal pressure from their colleagues, to which even Mansfield gave way; downward pressure from the administration ("If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons," one professor told the Crimson ); and perhaps pressure from within, from the part of them that sympathizes with students' careerism. (Academics, after all, have ambitions of their own, and are well aware of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.)
Copyright © 2004-2006 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - the above post is only the first part. There is more

part 2
It doesn't help that Harvard students are creatively lazy, gifted at working smarter rather than harder. Most of my classmates were studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another résumé-padding opportunity, a place to collect the grade (and recommendation) necessary to get to the next station in life. If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better.

Sometimes you didn't have to do even that much. One of the last papers I wrote in college was assigned in "The American West, 1780—1930." The professor handed out two journal articles on the theory and practice of "material history"—essentially, historical research based on the careful analysis of objects. We were told to go to the Peabody, Harvard's museum of archaeology and ethnology, where the professor had set out three pairs of objects from the frontier era. One object in each pair had been made by Indians, one by Europeans, and we were to write a ten-page paper that compared the objects in a given pair. Aside from the articles on material history and a general text, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, we were to use no sources.

I picked a Sioux war club and an American revolver with its carrying case. As I stood in the museum taking notes, the assignment seemed impossible. How could I eke out ten pages when I knew nothing about the provenance of the weapons or the significance of their markings?

Sitting at my desk two weeks later, I realized I had been wrong. The paper was pathetically easy to write—not despite the dearth of information but because of it. Knowing nothing meant I could write anything. I didn't need to do any reading, absorb any history, or learn anything at all.

Some excerpts give the flavor of what I came up with.

Chief Running Antelope's war club is less a weapon than a talisman of supernatural power … The club's red paint and eagle feather link the weapon and its holder to sacred, invisible worlds; the "H. A. Brigham" inscription, a 19th century version of the modern logo, reinforces the revolver's connection to a capitalist order in which weapons are mass-produced, rather than individually crafted … The case is clearly an impractical method of carrying the gun … it is, rather, an eminently practical method of displaying a gun, with the paradoxical corollary that the gun is displayed by not being displayed … The book-like case, with its gold leaf and intricate images, transforms the gun by containing its potential for violence …

By the time I had finished, I almost believed it. My professor must have too: the paper got an A.

N ot every class was so easy. Those that were tended to be in history and English, classics and foreign languages, art and philosophy—in other words, in those departments that provide what used to be considered the meat of a liberal arts education. Humanities students generally did the least work, got the highest grades, and cruised academically, letting their studies slide in favor of time-sucking extracurriculars, while their science- and math-minded classmates sometimes had to struggle to reach the B-plus plateau.

The theory is often advanced that grade inflation is worst in the humanities because grading English essays and history papers is more subjective than marking problem sets and lab reports, and thus more vulnerable to student pressure and professorial weakness. There is a teaspoon of truth to that claim, I suppose. But I think the problem in the humanities, as with grade inflation in general, can be traced to the roots of elite America—and specifically to the influence of the free market.

Attempting to explain the left-wing biases of his Harvard colleagues, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once hypothesized that most professors oppose capitalism because they consider themselves far smarter than boobish businessmen, and therefore resent the economic system that rewards practical intelligence over their own gifts. I'm inclined to think that such resentment—at least in money-drunk America—increasingly coexists with a deep inferiority complex regarding modern capitalism, and a need, however unconscious, to justify academic life in the face of the fantastic accumulation of wealth that takes place outside the ivory tower.

If I am right, some areas of academic life aren't vulnerable to this crisis of confidence in the importance of one's work. Scientists can rest secure in the knowledge that their labors will help shove along the modern project of advancing health—and wealth. Abstruse genomic work could one day yield in utero engineering; mucking around with chemicals could produce a cure for AIDS, or the next Viagra.

Then there is economics, the new queen of the sciences—a discipline perfectly tailored to the modern market-driven university, and not coincidentally the most popular concentration during my four years of college. It's also no coincidence that economics was the only department at Harvard in which the faculty tilted to the right, at least on issues of regulation and taxation. (Martin Feldstein, who taught Economics 10, Harvard's most popular class, was an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan.) To tilt to the right is in some sense to assert a belief in absolute truth; and the only absolute truth that the upper class accepts these days is the truth of the market.

The humanities have no such reservoirs of confidence. And attempts by humanities professors to ape the rigor of their scientific colleagues have led to a decades-long wade in the marshes of postmodern academic theory, where canons are scorned, books exist only as texts to be deconstructed, and willfully obscure writing is championed over accessible prose. All this has merely reinforced capitalism's insistence that the sciences are the only important academic pursuits, because only they provide tangible, quantifiable (and potentially profitable) results. Far from making the humanities scientific, postmodernism has made them irrelevant.

The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum. Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and micro-history. In the field of English there is little pretense that literature is valuable in itself and should be part of every educated person's life, rather than serving as grist for endless academic debates in which every mention of truth is placed in sneering quotation marks.

Sure, historians believe in their primary sources, English scholars in their textual debates, philosophers in their logic games. But many of them seem to believe that they have nothing to offer students who don't plan to be historians, or literary theorists, or philosophers. They make no effort to apply their work to what should be the most pressing task of undergraduate education: to provide a general education, a liberal arts education, to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats.

In this environment who can blame professors if, when it comes time to grade their students, they sometimes take the path of least resistance—the path of the gentleman's B-plus?

O ne might expect Harvard's Core Curriculum to step into the breach. But the Core is a late-1970s version of a traditional liberal arts curriculum, and it's even worse than that description makes it sound. It has long been an object of derision among students (during my junior year the Crimson called it a "stifling and stagnant attempt" at a liberal arts education), and a curricular-review committee recently joined the chorus, observing dryly that the Core "may serve to constrain intellectual development" and recommending that it be replaced with "a new system of general education." (Harvard's faculty will begin voting on the committee's recommendations this spring.) At its inception, in 1978, the Core was seen as a less elitist alternative to the Great Books programs offered at Columbia and other universities. It has no universally required courses, mandating instead that students take, at some point before graduation, at least one class in seven of eleven areas—areas whose titles and subject matter sound suitably comprehensive. They include Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Science, Foreign Cultures, Quantitative Reasoning, Moral Reasoning, and Social Analysis.

But although these subject areas are theoretically general, the dozen or so classes offered annually in each of them (nearly all Core courses are designed for the Core) tend to be maddeningly specific and often defiantly obscure. The Core makes no attempt to distinguish between "Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies" and "Tel Aviv: Urban Culture in Another Zion" in terms of importance; either will satisfy the Foreign Cultures requirement. For Science a student might choose "Human Evolution"—or he might choose "The Biology of Trees and Forests" or "Dinosaurs and Their Relatives." For his Social Analysis requirement he might decide to study basic economic principles in Martin Feldstein's Ec 10—or he might take "Food and Culture" or "Psychological Trauma" or "Urban Revolutions: Archaeology and the Investigation of Early States." And for Literature and Arts he might decide to take Helen Vendler's wide-ranging course "Poems, Poets, Poetry"—but then again, he might be drawn to "Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape From the Feminine Voice."

This is not to denigrate the more whimsical and esoteric choices that fill out a course catalogue. A computer-science major, his head spinning with lines of code, might be well served by dipping into "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." But under Harvard's system that might easily turn out to be the only history class he takes. It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America. (During my four years at Harvard the history department didn't offer a single course focusing on the American Revolution.)

As if in reply to this complaint, the Core's mission statement asserts, with a touch of smugness, that "the Core differs from other programs of general education. It does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information … rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education."

These words, which appear in the course catalogue each year, are the closest that Harvard comes to articulating an undergraduate educational philosophy. They suggest that the difference in importance between, say, "Democracy, Development, and Equality in Mexico" and "Reason and Faith in the West" (both offerings in Historical Study) does not matter. As the introduction to the history courses puts it, both courses offer a "historical" approach to knowledge that is presumably more valuable than mere "facts" about the past. Comprehending history "as a form of inquiry and understanding" trumps learning about actual events. The catalogue contains similarly pat introductions to the other disciplines. In each case the emphasis is squarely on methodology, not material.

My experience of the Core was probably typical. I set out with the intention of picking a comprehensive roster of classes that would lead me in directions at once interesting and essential, providing perspectives that were unavailable in my concentration: American history and literature. The first Core course I wandered into—"Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization"—proved to be spectacular, notwithstanding its nickname, "Heroes for Zeroes." It was a survey course with a twist, in which an enthusiastic professor took an initially reluctant crowd of students on a whirlwind tour of the classics, with assists from contemporary films such as Blade Runner and When We Were Kings.

During the next three years I sought other courses that offered what this one had: Great Books and great teaching. What I found were unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants who seemed to be marking time until they could return to the parochial safety of their departmental classes. Indeed, parochialism often overtook even the broadest-sounding Core classes. "Understanding Islam" involved only cursory analysis of the Koran, the history of Islamic civilization, and the rise of radical Islam, but devoted weeks to Muslim diaspora communities in London and Muslim-animistic syncretism in Africa. I chose another class, "The Portrait," because it seemed likely to offer something of a crash course in art history. And for the first few weeks it did, focusing on E. H. Gombrich's comprehensive The Story of Art. The rest of the time, however, was devoted to police photography in nineteenth-century France, sexual fetishism in Victorian daguerreotypes, aboriginal head-shrinking … The list goes on, but I didn't: by the middle of the semester I had stopped going to the lectures.

The few Core classes that are well taught are swamped each year, no matter how obscure the subject matter. The closest thing to a Harvard education—that is, to an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates have in common—is probably obtained in such oversubscribed courses as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres," and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood."

A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany" or "Constructing the Samurai" and his eyes will light up with fond memories.

A s in a great library ravaged by a hurricane, the essential elements of a liberal arts education lie scattered everywhere at Harvard, waiting to be picked up. But little guidance is given on how to proceed with that task.

I remember vividly the moment late in my high school senior year when Harvard's course catalogue arrived in the mail. It was a doorstop of a book, filled with descriptions of hundreds, maybe thousands, of classes. I pored over it, asking myself how I could choose just thirty-two classes, four years' worth, from the sea of fascinating choices.

Harvard never attempted to answer that question—perhaps the most important question facing any incoming freshman. I chose my classes as much by accident as by design. There were times when some of them mattered to me, and even moments when I was intoxicated. But achieving those moments required pulling myself away from Harvard's other demands, whether social, extracurricular, or pre-professional, which took far more discipline than I was usually able to exert.

Mostly I logged the necessary hours in the library and exam rooms, earned my solid (if inflated) GPA and my diploma, and used the rest of the time to keep up with my classmates in our ongoing race to the top of America (and the world). It was only afterward, when the perpetual motion of undergraduate life was behind me, that I looked back and felt cheated.

Afterward, too, I began chuckling inwardly when some older person, upon discovering my Harvard affiliation, would nod gravely and ask, But wasn't it such hard work?

It was—but not in the way the questioner meant. It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close … yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story.

Whatever nostalgists think, there was never a golden age when students did all their work and attended every lecture. When Aquinas held forth in Paris, and Heidegger in Freiburg, lazy undergraduates were doubtless squirreled away in their rooms, frantically skimming other people's notes to prep for the final exam. What makes our age different is the moment that happened over and over again at Harvard, when we said This is going to be hard and then realized No, this is easy. Maybe it came when we boiled down a three-page syllabus to a hundred pages of exam-time reading, or saw that a paper could be turned in late without the frazzled teaching fellow's docking us, or handed in C-quality work and got a gleaming B-plus. Whenever the moment came, we learned that it wasn't our sloth alone, or our constant pushing for higher grades, that made Harvard easy.

No, Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.

Anonymous said...

Indian Institutes of Technology selectivity:
1 admission out of 60 applicants

Anonymous said...

Why are you guys bickering on which university is the most selective? Didn't you guys read Anon's Mon Apr 24, 11:20:47 PM post?

The admission processes of British and American universities are worlds apart. British interviews are very academic in nature, you'll be asked to solve problems and all. Whereas American interviews tend to be more personal, more casual, like a normal conversation.

I don't think Cambridge(the university) offers full scholarships. The colleges do but it is usually for postgrad. The Commonweath Trust Fund also do give out aid but it would most definitely won't be full

Golf Afflicted said...

I am gobsmacked by the passionate response I've been getting from this post! :)

As I started getting resigned to the fact that graduating with a first degree from Oxbridge was significantly inferior, then comes those armed with the relevant interpretation of the statistics to make a case for Oxbridge. And then those who took the trouble to dig up solid articles to demonstrate that the armour at Harvard ain't all that shiny :)

From reading all the response so far, I can only venture to tentatively conclude that my "impressions" weren't too much off the mark. The only difference being that I'm now equipped with a fair bit of facts and figures to substantiate my case :)

And, in the article posted by Anon 01:09:03 PM, citing "Chief Running Antelope's" case really had me cracking up! :)

Tony P

Anonymous said...

congrats for making the cover of starbiz btw tony. :p

Anonymous said...

WOW... can you imagine what will be Oxbridge's acceptance rate if any one can apply? I bet it will rival that of HYPMS.

And actually... I can only say that Harvard's undergraduate education is inferior. I can't say about the rest of the US universities like Stanford and MIT.

Anonymous said...

compare: 48 malaysians got into cambridge, and 2 malaysians got into harvard this year.

compare: of that 48 malaysians getting into cambridge, about 15 of them applied to harvard, and all getting rejected except one.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elizabeth said...

I think that most of you here are speaking from your perceptions about Harvard, and not your personal experiences.

"Harvard undergraduate education is inferior". On what basis do you have to judge that upon? The few articles you read about Harvard, sensationalized to generate interest?
That goes for the rest of the other commentators too. Do you have an undergraduate education at Harvard - or even, have you even been accepted to Harvard in the first place? Can you? I detect a lot of sour grapes here.

I also can't speak for Harvard, but being at Yale, I would like to give my personal opinion and experience about this. Judging from my experiences here at Yale, I can say that being an undergraduate here is unparalleled. Undergraduate experiences are really stressed on. In my freshman (first) year, I was able to work as a research project at a laboratory here during the summer and the academic year, paid for research grants and stipends.

Funding is pretty easy to get - students are encouraged to broaden their horizons by pursuing their own personal interests. Yale believes that academics aren't the only thing that could make a person, so they sponsor a wide range of extracurricular opportunities: eg among my group of friends, one has gone to Thailand to study the silk-making industry, one had gone to China one year, and Japan the other year to study Chinese and Japanese respectively. One will going to Poland and Istanbul on a volunteer trip, one will be going to Africa to volunteer in .. something, one will going to Costa Rica study field biology and ecology, one will be going to Italy for two months to research Italian life and culture, and another will be pursuing her own biology research project in a laboratory here.

As for myself, I'll be going to UK to do a course in fiction writing and Jane Austen. We are second-year students. And all these are sponsored by Yale. I doubt Oxbridge has similar opportunities.

You may think this is all "wasting money", which is the typical Malaysian response, but really, if you had the chance, would you want to do it?

Classes are similarly wonderful. All professors, Nobel-lauraete or not, are required to teach an undergraduate class. So I could take any class in any department taught by any one. Sometimes an application is required, or there are pre-requisites to fulfill, but basically, all classes are open to all undergrads.

Yale, or Harvard, may not have similar one-to-one tutorials, but they have the liberal arts education. Yes, though the liberal arts education is less focused in one field, but I get a wider exposure to subjects out there - and hopefully, that makes me a better person. I believe that specialized education early in life makes one merely a trained monkey. And there's always graduate school, which is encouraged in US education.

Admission statistics are misleading - but from my experience, Oxbridge is *relatively* easier to get admitted to than Harvard. Or Yale. Yale had 6o+ Malaysians applying, and only one person got in this year. Mainly because Oxbridge focuses only on academics, US colleges in general emphasize the well-rounded individual, interested in life and everything around them.

As a final note, I think it's stupid to compare two very different universities - both of which are incredibly selective and hard to get into for undergraduates. I mean, you guys are speaking as if everyone can choose between the two.

To prospective applicants, apply to both - and if you get into one, great!!; if you get into both - fabulous!!!!!

P.S. to anon: George Bush did not go to Harvard for business school.

Kian Ming said...

Dear Elizabeth,

According to the white house website (, George W Bush did get his MBA from HBS in 1975. And he went to Yale for his undergraduate.

Elizabeth said...

whooops, my mistake then.

Anonymous said...

"George W Bush did get his MBA from HBS in 1975. And he went to Yale for his undergraduate."

15 years of alcohol hazing too.


Anonymous said...

'And actually... I can only say that Harvard's undergraduate education is inferior. I can't say about the rest of the US universities like Stanford and MIT."

What the hell are you talking about? Do you actually know how the environment of the uni and how things are conducted there? If the education is what you call inferior then could please explain to me why people from all over the freaking wide world want to have a taste of their education? It is because their education is top notch and one of the best. Their alums and sponsors have been dumping tonnes of money into that school to provide the best for people who study there.

I will just take this statement as probably of your ignorance. Do some research first before saying some crazy stuff like this.


Anonymous said...

anon 12:43pm: what's the population of uk? what's the population of america?

to apply to uk, need only one form for six unis and one application fee. to apply to america, every univ has their own separate requirements, with their application fee (rm 200 - rm 400 per uni). most people won't apply for just for sake of applying.

Anonymous said...

Dear elizabeth,

Good write-up, you have summarise the difference between the two systems in just one sentence. That was what Anon Mon Apr 24, 11:20:47 PM was trying to say.

However I have to comment on this.

"I believe that specialized education early in life makes one merely a trained monkey. And there's always graduate school, which is encouraged in US education."

Like it or not, Oxbridge has been doing it for the past 800+ years and the 'trained monkeys' these two institutions produced did great jobs. Heard of Thomas More? Bertrand Russel? Charles Darwin? Roger Penrose? Issac Newton? John Locke? Jawaharlal Nehru? Harry Lee? Adam Smith? Indira Ghandhi? CS Lewis? Aung San Suu Kyi? Heck even John harvard was a 'trained monkey' of Cambridge.........At least Blair is more sensible than Bush................

Anonymous said...

p.s. an article from atlantic monthly is not a "solid article".

the atlantic monthly is like the new yorker - all personal journalism only.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been reading the entries with great interest. Here’s my humble contribution to the discussion (kindly pardon me if I’ve committed any mistakes):

>How often can you get a kampung boy getting into Stanford, Princeton or Harvard?
Granted that there’s a small sample size, more than half the Malaysians I personally know at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford come from very humble backgrounds. They rely on substantial/full financial aid or government scholarships.

>Remember Timothy? … Who wouldn't want to do such things if finance is not a factor?
Honestly, I doubt that most rich kids in Malaysia would bother volunteering in Cambodia or Kenya. So, cut him some slack and give him credit for making the effort (regardless of intention) to go to those places.

>No matter what Harvard and others say that it is opened to all, not many people from 'common' backgrounds would be able to get in.
Do you really think there’s a conspiracy preventing less well-off students from gaining acceptance to elite schools? Though I acknowledge structural flaws in the system, I think it is this attitude of wallowing in self pity that prevents students from ‘common’ backgrounds from realizing their educational aspirations.

>I have read that Ivy League universities including Harvard set quotas on applicants from other countries - only a certain number can come from the UK, Malaysia, China etc.
I don’t think there’s an explicit quota for each country, but I agree that international applicants generally make up less than 20% of the entering class at Ivy League schools.

>As she wants to do economics/business, Harvard is the better choice.
Every year, I cringe whenever the Malaysian student bound for Harvard mentions his/her interest in pursuing business/business studies at Harvard during the Star interview, for it is common knowledge that business courses are NOT offered at the undergraduate level at Harvard. I just wonder whether it’s the journalist who mistakenly considers economics to be business studies.

Regarding the heated debate over Nobel Prize winners, do you all really think that this factor affects the selectivity of a college or the quality of education? And that obsession with whether Amartya Sen contributes to the bragging rights of Harvard or Cambridge? I don’t get it… how is this relevant to our discussion? :p

>How about George Bush for example? Yale accepted Bush proved that admissions to these so-called "very selective" schools may not be that meritocratic afterall. And indeed it isn't that meritocratic.
This point is often raised during arguments over meritocracy in US colleges, so I thought I’d address it. It’s not fair to compare admissions to Ivy League schools in the 1960s with those in the present time. Back then, connections and wealth had a significant influence on one’s chances of gaining an offer, but the system eventually became meritocratic over time; in fact, two of Bush’s younger siblings failed to get accepted to Yale due to these changes. Current admissions practices do not discriminate against lower income students – admissions officers make decisions on the applicants without access to the students’ financial situation, and it is only AFTER the offers are accepted that the financial aid office (independent of the admissions office) evaluates the students’ ability to pay.

>I think a connection with the alumni interviewer might help push you into the ivy-league schools.
Alumni interviewers have very little say in the admissions process – most don’t even have access to the applicants’ folders. There’s a misperception in Malaysia that they have a huge influence, thanks to Goh Cheng Teik’s well-reported press conference every year in which he introduces the Harvard bound students. (Btw, right at the end of the interview with Kylie, did you all notice this line: “Two other applicants from Malaysia are on the waiting list…. According to Dr Goh, their admission should be confirmed by next month.” I think he’s very optimistic – waitlist candidates have a very low chance of gaining admission!)

>For applicants in the UK, if you are not predicted at least 3 As for A-levels, you are NOT ALLOWED to apply to Oxbridge
I might be wrong but I think this is absurd. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule for all pre-university institutions (definitely NOT for at least 2 boarding schools that I know of in the UK).

>ALso the OFFER (almost all offers are conditional - you must get certain grades) rate for cambridge is 27.7% but the admissions rate is 23.1%
In that case, according to your definition, the admissions statistics for the Ivies (8.64%, 9.27% etc) are OFFER rates. And I don’t think the “reach” factor is substantial – as someone mentioned earlier, completing each application for an Ivy League school is an arduous and costly process. Many students who are not ranked in the top 5% in their schools do not bother applying.

>I believe that specialized education early in life makes one merely a trained monkey
I wouldn’t agree, for there are certainly merits in opting for a specialized education, beyond preparing oneself to be a "trained monkey”.

Elizabeth said...

">For applicants in the UK, if you are not predicted at least 3 As for A-levels, you are NOT ALLOWED to apply to Oxbridge
I might be wrong but I think this is absurd. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule for all pre-university institutions (definitely NOT for at least 2 boarding schools that I know of in the UK). "

I agree with brian for this. As far as I know, two years ago, Taylor's and Help didn't limit applications to Cambridge.

And yes, I don't think the "reach" factor is substanstial either - it's extremely costly and tiring to apply to US colleges. Not only do you have to send in an application fee ($50 - $70 per school), you also have to complete at least one application essay for EACH school, probably more if the college is sadistic. And then there are teacher evaluations and school reports to. If you have applied to a US undergrad school in the last five years, you will know what I mean.

In fact, it is relatively easier to apply to Cambridge or Oxford. When a student is filling out their UCAS form, it would be so easy just to list Cambridge as one of the six choices, and fill up one more application form (very short, if compared to an application to a US college).

I mentioned "trained monkey" based on my experience taking the 'A' Levels offered by University of Cambridge. I was very good at spotting exam questions, memorizing key definitions word for word and preparing for exams by mugging. Of course, my knowledge of sciences are much more advanced then my American counterparts. That is definitely a merit. But I certainly felt nothing more than a trained monkey, as compared to the work I'm doing here.

And yes, of course, Harvard, just like Yale, Cambridge, just like the real world, it's easier to get admitted if you have the financial resources. But at least Harvard and Yale and other US colleges are trying to eliminate some of these differences by giving out full scholarships: if your parents earn less than $45 000 per year (or $60 000 in the case of Harvard), ceterus paribus, you will automatically get financial aid that covers 100% of your expenses (tuition, room, board, plane tickets).

Having said this, again, I don't see why we are comparing Cambridge and Harvard/ Yale/ other US colleges. They are both the top of their system, and they both have their merits, and they are selective. Most people don't have an extreme preference for one or the other - I think the point of studying abroad is to gain exposure to a foreign culture. So apply to both, see where you get in, and then decide.

Anonymous said...

And yes, I don't think the "reach" factor is substanstial either - it's extremely costly and tiring to apply to US colleges. Not only do you have to send in an application fee ($50 - $70 per school), you also have to complete at least one application essay for EACH school, probably more if the college is sadistic. And then there are teacher evaluations and school reports to. If you have applied to a US undergrad school in the last five years, you will know what I mean.

But with the common application, it's possible to apply to 15, 16 or 17 schools. In fact, it was published in New York Times a few months ago that the a High school student apply to on average 15 colleges. So I wonder if all these schools are "match" schools.

Anonymous said...

In fact, it is relatively easier to apply to Cambridge or Oxford

And oh I have heard that write. One can only apply to either Cambridge OR Oxford. Whereas one can apply to both Princeton AND Harvard. So obviously half of the applications are gone which means lower selectivity.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, schools do use the common application. But it doesn't stop there - most, if not all selective schools want a supplement with the each common application. Each supplement usually requires a essays of their own. When I applied to US schools, I had to write a total of 8 separate essays just to apply to eight schools. lol. 15 colleges? I think that's an exaggeration. Even 8 was too much for me. 16 teacher evaluations. 8 school reports. 8 supplements to fill. 8 applications sent to 8 different places. 8 SAT I reports, 8 SAT II reports. 8 different essays. 4 or 5 different deadlines. It's also very expensive to apply to 15 or 16 schools. RM 200-400 to apply to just ONE school in US. And if you apply for fee waivers, 8 fee waivers to write.

RM 180 (?) to apply to six schools in UK, including Oxbridge. 2 essays, 1 recommendation, 1 A Level result.

Again, as I said, if you aren't in this college application process in the last five years, you wouldn't understand the incredible amount of hassle in the college application process. Why do you think so many Malaysians apply to UK colleges? Partly because of the UK tradition, and partly because the application process is not as bewildering.

Anonymous said...

To sidestep a little.. on why GWB got into Yale..

its largely due to him attending a top prep school called Deerfield Academy.

In USA, there is something like an Ivy league for prep schools, called Group of 10. Members include Lawrenceville, Phillips Exeter, Deerfield, Choate ROsemary, Anderson.. etc.

These schools are commonly called Ivy feeders, because as it is, about 70% of the students here enter ivys or equivalent.

Top universities even have specialised admission officers to check applications from these prep schools.

How do I know ?

When I asked the International Admission officer of UPenn about the chances of getting into Penn via a top Prep School like Exeter, she told me that it is significantly higher, and they do have specialised officers handling Exeter applicants.

Of course, all these comes with a price. These prep schools charge the same fees as Ivys already. Yes, they cost around $45k/year. Financial Aid is somewhat limited. However, for the rich, it surely isnt a problem.

Its not to say these people are less intelligent or anything though. Application is also required to these prep schools, and the process is very much like applying to universities.

Academics are also very good at these prep schools, as most of their staffs have PhD and all.. they also have large endownments - Deerfield had $230 million last year. Hence, facilities are top notched.

So, if you have the cash and want to boost your chances of attending an ivy- this is definitely a good route. I have a female friend at Lawrenceville at the moment with her brother, and the other Malaysian there now is Robert Kuok's granddaughter. :p Definitely for the rich.

Also, I would like to point out that for I read a few years back on the Yale newsletter about how there is a "price" one can pay to get in - about $1.7 m or something. Can Elizabeth confirm this?

Anonymous said...

I have heard of this rumor before by someone who had attended an Ivy League university. Apparently, it does occur, and it is reaffirmed with your confirmation- so, the status of class, caste, and elitism was never abandoned or abolished.

Anonymous said...

And for the uninitiated, the TOP U.S. universities (Ivies including Stanford, MIT etc) require quite a lot of paperwork for admission. As Elizabeth stated, the time consumed and energy invested in the preparation of the materials is exhaustive. Moreover, getting the recommendations from teachers could prove quite troubling at times. The common app is really more geared towards the middle- and lower- tier universities; when it comes to top-tier colleges, the amount of material required for evaluation is enormous.

Having said that, I am sure that essays were 'recycled' for many applications. Words and paragraphs could be omitted or included at certain segments depending on the questions and requirements of the university, and possibly it is what most of the majority did.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian,

">For applicants in the UK, if you are not predicted at least 3 As for A-levels, you are NOT ALLOWED to apply to Oxbridge
I might be wrong but I think this is absurd. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule for all pre-university institutions (definitely NOT for at least 2 boarding schools that I know of in the UK)."

This is not absurd.....Anyone can apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but whether you're shortlisted for the interview is another thing. If you don't have a predicted result of at least 3 As, you won't be called for an interview. It is as simple as that. HELP and Taylor's do not limit applications to the two institutions because all of the applications have at least predicted grades of 3As.

Put it this way, if you're not financially sound, you'll will have lots of troubles gaining admission into elite American schools.

Anonymous said...

Here's a great article I read several months ago which addresses some "legacy" issues (I'm so glad I managed to dig it out!). If you don't have time to read the whole article, here's an interesting excerpt:

The former admissions officer was careful to note, however, that he thinks "99.9 percent of an entering class at Yale deserves to be there" and that development kids comprise just four or five members of each class.

Published Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Legacies still maintain edge in admissions

When Seth Berliner applied early action to Yale in the fall of 2003, he thought he had a pretty good chance of being accepted. Though neither of his parents attended Yale College or Yale Graduate School -- his pedigree is more crimson than blue -- his aunt and cousin both attended Yale College; his aunt is currently a researcher at Yale, and his grandfather, Robert Berliner, was a dean of the Yale Medical School from 1973 to 1984 and has a lecture series and a position at the medical school named after him.

"I figured that my grandfather's tenure would be a big help, especially because my grandmother is still involved with Yale," Berliner said. "I had no idea but I figured, 'Hey, he was the dean of the Medical School, and he has a lecture named after him.' And I thought my cousin and my aunt would be the icing on the cake."

Even the college counselor at Berliner's private high school in Chicago seemed to think that his chances of a Yale acceptance were greatly improved due to his family connections.

But, alas, Berliner is now a freshman at Columbia University.

While many applicants and students believe that legacy status guarantees a student admission to Yale, only about 30 percent of legacy applicants are accepted, according to a recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Still, compared with the general Yale College acceptance rate of 9.9 percent for the class of 2008, it seems that legacies do have a significant advantage over their peers, a fact that has garnered national attention recently, especially after prominent politicians like George W. Bush '68 -- a legacy himself -- denounced the practice. Admissions officers give legacies more attention during the admission process, especially if the legacy comes from a donating family. Legacies comprise 14.8 percent of the class of 2008, and though the percentage of legacies in a class has fallen dramatically since the early 1960s, when it reached its peak of 27.4 percent, legacies still make up a sizable portion of the class.

The hook

Like many athletes, minority students, finalists in the Intel Science Program and other highly desirable categories of applicants, legacies -- students with one or both parents who attended Yale College, graduate or professional schools -- have a "hook" in the admissions game.

A former Yale admissions officer, who declined to be named, said these traits can "hook" a student into a class. An applicant with a hook frequently receives more attention from an admissions officer than a hook-less applicant.

"In that sense, those students [with hooks] get a very close read, and they get extra consideration in the process," the former admissions officer said.

The process, the former admissions officer said, typically begins with a student's admissions folder. The officer assigned to that student's geographical area will read the folder and make comments on a card, and then he or she will often pass the folder on to an "outside," or second, reader. The admissions process culminates with a folder's trip to the admissions committee. Sitting around a table in the admissions office, three or four admissions officers make or break the futures of applicants.

"You go through ... and you call out each name and you vote thumbs up or thumbs down," the former admissions officer said, noting that most applicants who are vetoed by the geographical admissions officer do not even get discussed.

"Only the kids that you want to talk about actually get talked about and have their application discussed," the officer said.

Except for legacies.

"The list [that gets discussed] always includes every single legacy," the officer said. "To that extent, [legacies] get a bonus in the process. It doesn't mean the conversation will be long, but they will be talked about for sure."

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw said legacy applicants have a better chance of being admitted than non-legacy students.

"All other things being equal, [legacy] gives a slight edge, and we have no qualms about that," Shaw said.

Yale President Richard Levin also said legacies may have an advantage in the application process. But he noted that the average grades and test scores of admitted legacies are higher than the average grades and test scores of the rest of the class. And once they get to Yale, Levin said, legacies also tend to get higher grades than non-legacy students with comparable high school GPAs and test scores.

The former admission officer agreed with Levin that the pool of legacy applicants is stronger than the pool of non-legacy applicants.

"To a certain extent, legacies obviously have an advantage in the process, but they also happen to be the best applicants because one or more of their parents went to Yale," the officer said. "They've had the advantages of that background … But the applications are better than the rest of the pool. They have a hook into the class, so sure, that helps them, but at the same time you have a higher expectation for them because they are Yale kids. You expect the applications to be stronger."

Giving green to bleed blue

But while the pool of legacy applicants is stronger, there are other reasons -- including monetary factors -- for favoring legacies.

Jeff Brenzel, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, acknowledged the power of money in the admissions process. After graduation, legacies tend to become more generous donors, Levin said.

While donation rates vary from class to class, in most classes close to 50 percent of legacy alumni choose to donate and usually donate more than their classmates.

"Not every legacy feels close to Yale, but I think for a lot of legacies the family relationship acts in a way to reinforce the Yale relationships," Brenzel said. "There's no question that legacy parents and legacy alumni have higher rates of engagement and tend to be more supportive of the University on average."

And in some cases, money can be even more of a factor than legacy status.

A family can significantly increase its child's chances of getting into Yale by giving a large sum of donation money, the former admissions officer said. Yale's development office has an official list of students whose parents or families make substantial donations. "Development kids," as the admissions officer called them, are almost guaranteed admissions if their families are big enough donors.

"The development office has an A-list, a B-list and a C-list," the officer said. "The A-list has kids whose parents, for example, are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The B-list has kids whose families are second-rate compared to the A-list, and the C-list is basically friends of really important and wealthy people."

Sometimes, the former admissions officer said, he was not even required to read the development kids' folders because there was no way to reject them.

"Year after year, there are kids who get into Yale and take the spots of more deserving students because of money," the former officer said.

Mostly, development kids are legacies, but very rarely, families with no Yale association other than a child applying to the College will make big donations, he said.

The officer spoke of one development student from a prominent East Coast boarding school who was rejected because he did not deserve to get in, but later was accepted as a transfer student.

"I said I would walk if they let him in," the officer said. "We ended up rejecting him, but then he got in later."

The former admissions officer was careful to note, however, that he thinks "99.9 percent of an entering class at Yale deserves to be there" and that development kids comprise just four or five members of each class. But Yale relies on donations, the former officer said, and admitting students who are more likely to contribute or have their families contribute is essential to the University's livelihood.

"To a certain extent, I understand the need to maintain a healthy relationship with big donors -- we need to do that," the former officer said.

A national debate

No matter how dependant a university may be on financial contributions from legacies, the practice of legacy admissions is still a topic of contention across the nation.

In August 2004, Bush publicly denounced the policy of favoring legacies in the admissions process. Speaking to a group of journalists at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in New Hampshire, he instead advocated a system that admits students based solely on their achievements. Bush, himself a third generation Yalie, admitted that his legacy status probably contributed to his admission to Yale.

Bush's remarks were preceded by a 2003 Senate proposal, introduced by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, to require colleges and universities to publicize whether they use legacy status in determining admissions. The proposal also said that universities would have to disclose how many students were admitted partly due to an alumnus in the family. Two weeks after Kennedy's proposal, Senate Democrats introduced a bill based on Kennedy's proposal.

But whether the federal government should have a say in the admissions process is a concern to some of the leading academic institutions in the country.

Although the Association of American Universities has not taken an official stance on legacy admissions, director of communications and public affairs Barry Toiv said the issue is a serious one.

"We are very concerned about any efforts by the federal government to dictate policy in this area, and to tell the universities what they can and cannot do with respect to admissions," Toiv said.

Some universities have already stopped using legacy as a factor in the admissions process. In a Jan. 9, 2004, statement, the president of Texas A&M University, Dr. Robert M. Gates, officially stated that legacies would no longer be awarded points in the admissions process for being a legacy.

Eli by right, not just birth

Although legacies may have a statistically better chance of getting into Yale, other challenges await them after they are admitted. Many legacies say that proving they deserve to be here is half the battle.

"As a legacy student, you have to be confident enough to feel that you belong at Yale," said Max Engel '06, whose father graduated from Yale College.

Shaw said there may be added pressures on a legacy student to perform well because some members of the Yale community may feel that legacies do not deserve to be an Eli.

"There are many misconceptions about legacy admissions," he said. "One of the most common misconceptions is legacy applicants are unqualified. Sons and daughters of Yale college graduates are very qualified."

Legacies often know how to play the admissions game well, though, and many, like Ryan Sahn '08, use their legacy status as a strategic advantage over competition. Sahn, whose mother and grandfather are Yale alumni, applied early to Yale. Sahn said he would not have applied early decision to Yale were it not for his legacy status.

After being deferred, Sahn was admitted regular decision and ended up choosing between Yale and Harvard. Yale won out in the end, in part because of a tremendous push on the part of his family.

"I almost always say that I decided between the two schools so I don't come across like someone who didn't deserve to get in [to Yale]," Sahn said. "When people think of a legacy who was deferred, they think I must be really dumb."

Unlike Sahn, Engel said he felt no pressure from his family to carry on the Yale tradition. But now that he is here, his father's love for Yale has been rekindled.

"I definitely think it's brought back a lot of nostalgia," he said. "I certainly think that's something that's very special for both of us -- a shared experience. It's rare to cross generations."

Brenzel agreed that having a child at Yale often brings back fond memories for alumni.

"There's no question that from the parent's point of view, if you have a son or daughter come to Yale, it certainly increases your own personal connection and personal ties," he said. "You end up coming back to campus a lot, and you get a second go-around at Yale."

But Sahn pointed to a different motivation for staying involved as an alum.

"I probably would continue to [be involved in Yale after I graduate] if only because I'd probably want my kids to go," Sahn said. "Even if I don't like it, I'll probably be like well, my kids have a good shot, so why not."

Anonymous said...

>>Every year, I cringe whenever the Malaysian student bound for Harvard mentions his/her interest in pursuing business/business studies at Harvard during the Star interview, for it is common knowledge that business courses are NOT offered at the undergraduate level at Harvard. I just wonder whether it’s the journalist who mistakenly considers economics to be business studies.

I am sure that to have gotten in, she must have been well researched on Harvard and known that undergrad business courses are not offered. She probably expressed an interest in attending the business school for post-grad and they took it to mean that she wanted to do business undergrad.

>>Cambridge and Oxford is getting increasingly easier to get in compared to the top universities in US.

Nikki, the girl mentioned to be waitlisted by Harvard at the end of the article, was rejected by Cambridge but admitted to Princeton. So both sides really look for different things in a candidate and statistics don't really say anything.

I don't know about the full scholarship from Cambridge but Kylie was also one of the two in Southeast Asia awarded the Freeman Asian Scholarship to Wesleyan University.

The whole process of applying to an Ivy League (getting the teacher evaluations, school reports, academic reports for the past 4 years, taking the SATs and writing the notorious essays) tests your motivation and strength of character. It also allows the admissions committee to thoroughly evaluate you and that's how they select the best candidates.

Cambridge admissions are more academically inclined. It all comes down to the interview and admissions exam. In interviews, it's basically about why you want to do the subject, why at oxbridge and then derivation of some formulas (for engineering and even economics) and some discussions on current issues. From there they spot intellectual talent and passion.

If you noticed, the other person on the waiting list scored 14A1s and the twins who got rejected were 11A1 students, international debate and math champions, etc. Kylie had 8As and got in to Harvard AND Cambridge! What does that say?

Anonymous said...

Nikki applied for Medicine.........

Anonymous said...

Medicine... even harder, no? Wonder if she has any political connections.

Anonymous said...

Yes medicine is competitive but just as competitive as getting into Harvard. Why would she have any political connections? My friend met her at the Wesleyan Freeman Asian Scholarship interview, said she hung out with Kylie a lot.

Anonymous said...

the thing with harvard is that even though you enter as an undergraduate, or, you can cross register at ANY one of harvard's schools -- that's right, an undergraduate is free to take classes from the kennedy school, law school, divinity school, design school, medical school..... and, you guessed it, even the business school. it depends on the level of preparation of the student, and obviously more advanced classes at graduate level have pre-requisites. but, depending on the level of preparation a student has achieved as well as the "professor's discretion" a student can pretty much take any class at harvard.

thus, it is possible for any undergraduate to pursue a very business-like program of study at harvard.

the cambridge vs. harvard debate is basically a question of "do i prefer the british system or the american one?" this varies from person to person, obviously malaysians are more "tailored" for the british system, but there is much to gain from the american one. it boils down to what one is looking for in one's undergraduate experience -- the specialization that one achieves with the british system, or the more broad based approach of the american one.

i am sure that each prepares a student to face the real world, although in different ways. it's up to the student to decide -- there is no "better" choice. and in education, the word "inferior" does not exist. what you get out of your studies is what you make of it.

Anonymous said...

can i also say, that if one were to say that students in the US who attend top prep schools like Phillips Exeter or Milton Academy or Andover or other such places have an easier time getting into Ivy Leagues, please look across the pond.

Oxbridge has constantly been criticized for the high proportion of private school students they take (although they call it "public".. real public schools are called "state schools") as compared to state school students. the class system is britain is SO much more pronounced than it is in the US. a student who attends a school like Eton or Wycombe Abbey or Harrow, Westminster or Chelthenham (where our very own Miss SPM, Amalina, is currently being educated) have a better chance of getting into Oxbridge than someone who attends East London State School, for example.

You may say "wow, but 20+ kids from Milton Academy enter Harvard each year" to which reply: "many more Etonians get into Oxbridge each year"

there is an argument to be made that these prep/private schools prepare students better for university admissions, which is true, as a large number of British private school students cross over to schools like Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford each year (and the number is increasing).

don't know if anyone was aware of this, but the British government (Chancellor Gordon Brown, to be exact) made a big fuss when Magdalen College Oxford refused admission to a state school girl for Medicine -- she subsequently took up a spot at Harvard and apparently is now on a post-undergraduate medical course at Cambridge.

and i must reply to this point that someone made:
>Kylie had 8As and got in to Harvard AND Cambridge! What does that say?

it says that SPM results is not an accurate measure of intelligence or aptitude or ability or potential. while smart students typically do well in SPM, that doesn't mean not-so-smart ones don't. (and sometimes, really smart kids who are unlucky don't do well)

and 8As is NOT a bad result.

Anonymous said...

"Back then, connections and wealth had a significant influence on one’s chances of gaining an offer, but the system eventually became meritocratic over time"

Erm, actually, even now it's not entirely meritocratic. Top universities in the US still favour applicants who have a legacy (i.e. father/mother went to Yale, so son/daughter stand a better chance).

"And I don’t think the “reach” factor is substantial – as someone mentioned earlier, completing each application for an Ivy League school is an arduous and costly process."

Ever heard of the common application?

Anyway, I think it's foolish to argue whether Oxbridge is better than HYPSM or not on the basis that Cambridge produced more Nobel Laureattes, HYPSM produced more world leaders, which university has a lower admission rate, blablabla. It really depends on whether you prefer depth (UK) or breadth (US), the culture you would like to experience while studying, the university environment, the societies and clubs you're interested in, etc. etc.

So as a final note, I think this argument is ridiculous. Studying in Harvard doesn't make you superior compared to Cambridge students and neither does studying in UWarwick mean that you're going to be kissing Yalies' feet.

Anonymous said...

common application is not as easy as some people think. why don't you try applying to five schools tat needs common application? there are multiple supplements and multiple fees for application. imagine $50 x 5! almost RM 1000!