The Problem of the “Underqualified” American

Oxford and Cambridge both provide amazing breakdowns of their admissions numbers. However, there’s one thing that sticks out - Americans get accepted at a considerably lower rate than the global average. While the numbers are still quite good (around 12% for Oxford, 15% for Cambridge), something is amiss; those are about two-thirds of global numbers. After all, Australians get accepted above the rates of 17.5% for Oxford and 22% for Cambridge, so I knew there was hope.

I’ve been in international admissions for more than a decade, so I decided to make some calls. My friends and colleagues on the other side of the pond were more than happy to spill the T. Here’s what you need to know in order to make sure that your Oxbridge (or any other UK application) gets a fair shake. In fact, with a few changes, chances are that any American who is competitive at a T20 could get into Oxbridge.

First, Americans tend not to apply with the UK mindset. Their personal statements focus on things like extracurriculars, rather than stating why they want to learn about what they are applying to study. While this is starting to shift, there are still plenty of people who think that they can use their Common App essay to go abroad. It never ends well for them.

Second, and quite similar, few Oxbridge applicants for the US really make the case in their personal statements that they would fit in at Oxford or Cambridge; after all, there’s a reason that you can apply to only one. There are ways to do this without offending other universities that you’re applying to (remember, there’s only one personal statement, and since you have to apply by October 15, everyone knows you’re applying to Oxbridge [or med/dental school]), but remember, Cambridge doesn’t just want smart people, it wants smart people who want to be at Cambridge.

Third, minimums are not enough. An ACT of 32 or 33 does not guarantee your application’s success. You don’t have to be perfect, and you can get in with a 32 or a 33, but you’ve got to back it up across the board. Speaking of tests, taking a bunch of UCAS Group B subjects isn’t going to come off as impressive.

Finally, they bomb the admissions test (required for most subjects) or the interview. Again, like the personal statement, no one cares about your extracurriculars in the interview; they want to see how your brain works on the field in question. This could mean walking through some problem sets or discussing the big ideas of the field. If you go into a political science interview with a “‘murica” understanding of Karl Marx, it won’t end well for you. You have to nail the interview; in competitive courses, there will be three applicant interviews for each spot, and you’ve got to outshine them.

Does doing this guarantee you a spot at Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, or Imperial? Of course not, and especially not in competitive courses like Computer Science (Cambridge acceptance rate: 8.1%) or PPE (Oxford acceptance rate: ~9%). However, it does make sure you’ve got the best shot possible.

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It would be interesting to know how the challenging entrance exams align with typical US curriculum.

I suspect a sample topic from an older news article - “the recent European migrant crisis has challenged or reinforced racism” is much less likely to be studied/discussed in a US high school.

This is similar to the challenge many international students have taking the SAT Reading and Writing sections.

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While your suggestions are obviously areas where US applicants should work to adjust their strategies if applying to the UK, I think you are hugely overestimating the probability of admission.

More importantly, the students with a good chance of admission to Oxbridge typically have a very different profile to those with a good chance of admission to T20 US colleges, viz “we don’t want second rate historians who happen to play the flute” (Oxford hopefuls urged to ditch the flute and work hard - BBC News)

In addition, Cambridge at least has a definite bias against American applicants for undergrad courses, as I wrote a few years ago: Oxbridge admissions for Americans

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There’s definitely some variation by subject. A student I’m working with who is applying for natural sciences (and is quite remarkable) has reflected on the difficulty of his test, appreciating that he has extra time to prepare for it. Meanwhile, another student is applying for history, and her assessment of the History Aptitude Test was that she felt the AP World History exam could be a ‘better’ exam if it learned more from it.

I appreciate your experiences, but think that things are definitely shifting in the past two years. Again, I completely agree that three years ago I urged students to consider Oxford instead of Cambridge for many of the reasons that you mentioned. That has certainly started to shift. Some of this is certainly due to the pandemic, as necessity has forced Cambridge to shift to online interviews.

In fact, I’ve used the very BBC article you’ve mentioned to reassure many would-be T20 applicants that there is a place that welcomes them if they’d rather spend time in the library or the lab than pursuing an extracurricular activity that ultimately has little meaning for them, but is designed to simply fill one of the ten (!) spots that the Common App provides for such activities.

Where I think we most disagree is in our academic assessment of those applicants. You’re quite right, and admittedly I was a bit flip, and should have specified academics. Certainly, legacies and athletes have no such spot, nor should they. Oxbridge, and indeed all UK universities, are a meritocracy in ways that US universities are not. The best and brightest should get to go, and that’s something that is, in many ways, missing from the US. However, if you’re looking to get into a T20 based primarily off of academic prowess, then a look at Oxford, Cambridge, or any of the other top UK universities should be encouraged. At the very least, one is confronting an acceptance rate in the high teens rather than the dismal 3.5% that Harvard boasts.

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That’s true, but a very different statement. Perhaps 10-20% of T20 admits are based “primarily off of academic prowess”, so a very select group, such as math olympiad and international science fair winners.

And it’s a choice that needs to be made, since you need to prepare hard, for example to do you spend the summer after junior year of HS reading most of the 30+ books on the Oxford reading list (Philosophy, Politics and Economics Reading List | Balliol College, University of Oxford) or doing some EC in the hope of boosting your T20 admission chances.

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I don’t think that it has to just be math olympiad or international science fair winners, but those are definitely useful attributes to have!

Ultimately, I think it’s a choice for high school students to ask themselves; which do they get more meaning out of? For some, it will be doing extracurriculars, but I think that for a growing number, they’d rather explore a few interests without worrying about about how they look to admissions officers.

I get what you’re saying with Oxford’s PPE reading list (which is for admitted students, it should be noted, but definitely the best starting point for those interested in the course), but there are plenty of students who would relish the chance to do that rather than do a car wash in 100% humidity.

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It’s a lot about horses for courses: the student who isn’t sure what they want to study at third level is best off in the US system. Same for students who work best with a lot of teacher attention* and/or structured learning (such as continuing assessment). The student with a strong, well developed academic focus? the asymmetrical student? the independent learner with enough self-discipline to manage their own work flow? likely to thrive in the UK system. (of course, for any student to thrive in another country generally requires a degree of adaptability and willingness to be the stranger that not everybody has).

For Oxbridge there is another element as well: students who work well in the tutorial system, which is a good part of what the interview tests. I know more than a few highly talented, articulate students, who went on to top-tier US schools, who did not shine in the interview process and were consequently rejected (quite a few of whom soothed their dented egos by going to Oxbridge for grad school).

*not the Oxbridge tutorial/supervision, which is a completely different beast!

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Especially at the highest level: Cambridge accepts being on the national olympiad team in your subject as meeting your offer!

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Depends on what you call the typical US curriculum. My son did AP Calc BC junior year and then the Stamford OsX MVC class senior. He didn’t really have any issues with preparing for the Oxford MAT. But he also has a strong competitive math background (3x ARML and PuMAC/HMMT competitions). Never learned his MAT score. Just finished his 4th year with a distinction. Looking forward to hopefully attending the Sheldonian degree ceremony in October.

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Or maybe the most qualified American applicants are not interested in applying to Oxbridge? I know that for a Brit it is difficult to conceive that the Best Of The Best of the USA are not clamoring to be accepted to Oxbridge, but that is true.

For those people in the USA who are obsessed with prestige, HYPSM are more prestigious than Oxbridge, they are closer, and they are cheaper. For the vast number of Americans who cannot afford the international rates at Oxbridge, American universities, including the more popular colleges, offer far better financial opportunities.

On the other hand, prestige obsessed Australian applicants have no Australian universities which are as prestigious in the Commonwealth as Oxbridge.

Simply put, the wealthy, high achieving, “upper class” kids that Oxbridge would like to attract from the USA are only 12%-15% of the USA applicants. Just because Oxbridge is attracting underqualified Americans applicants doesn’t mean that American applicants are underqualified because something is wrong with Americans per se.

BTW, British applicants are being accepted to HYPSM at far lower rates than 15% or 12% (5% or so few years ago, fewer now), so maybe there is a Problem Of The “Underqualified” British?

PS. Despite claims of lower costs, it costs the same for an international student at Oxford as for an America students at a private US college. Moreover, for most incomes, the cost of a US colleges for an American student is far lower than for Oxbridge.

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Do you have any citations or links you can provide for this? Thanks in advance.

That’s largely incorrect, the price ranges from £26,770 to £37,510 in 2021-22 (Course fees for 2021-entry | University of Oxford). Highest costs are for engineering and lab/computer science.

Living expenses are quite low, between £1,175 and £1,710 per month in 2021-22 (so between £10,575 and £15,390 for 9 months, see Living costs). At current exchange rates ($1.38 per pound) that comes to $51,536-$73,002. You would add another few thousand dollars for the visa fees and travel.

Only at the highest end of that range would it approach full pay at private US colleges on an annual basis and most courses are 3 years, if you stay for a fourth year then you will graduate with a masters degree.

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The issue is though that in the US, the average tuition discount is over 50%…so the cost of a private college isn’t necessarily close to the list price (for a given student). The devil is in the details…some students in the US are full pay, some get full rides, and others at everything in between. So full pays could save money by going to Oxford, where some, maybe many, of the rest may not reap savings at Oxford (and it could cost more), even if they only attend for 3 years.

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My daughter just graduated with a bachelor in PPE from Oxford. The cost of studying is much lower than a private US university, and even a public one. The bachelor degree takes 3 years and masters takes 4 years as you enter directly into your major and there are no GenEd classes. The fees are lower and the cost of living also lower in Oxford (not in London, though) than say the UC colleges (we are from CA and full pay). Tuition was 75k British pounds total for the whole degree. With the favorable exchange rate post-Brexit, it was cheaper than attending a UC in-state ($140k vs $160k). Students are usually accepted directly into a Masters program in the STEM subjects. Not only do they save money, they also save 2 yrs of their lives.

Regarding acceptance, you need to understand that Oxford is a very small place. Last year, they accepted 3900 students of which 3700 were admitted. The others probably did not make their offers. To make your offer for an American student means that you got “5” on three or more APs that are related to your major: Calc BC, USH, Economics, or Physics C if you want to study Physics, etc. They don’t accept Calc AB and they don’t accept a grade less than “5”. The lesser APs (Stat, Art History, Music) do not count.

Oxford has around 30 colleges and each of them accepts around 7-8 PPE students per year. So, there are only 210-250 students in each year. 70-80% of those accepted are British. The rest are EU and Internationals with most of the internationals being from Asia. Last year, 73 out of 897 international students were accepted which is an 8% acceptance rate.

The entrance exam for PPE (Thinking Skill Assessment) is orders of magnitude more difficult than the SAT. My National Merit Semifinalist daughter who did not even prepare for the SAT, could do very few problems at first. The problems from previous years are posted online so it took her the better part of the summer before Senior year to get a hang of it.

The interview is no joke either. The books posted on their website - you better read some of them and wrote about them in your personal statement. But it is not about that - they give you a text to read and you have to analyze it with them so they see that you can think and are “teachable”. And this in the 3 subjects which are Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. All in all, they do get the brightest students and nobody gets in because of their ECs or legacy status.

ETA: Exact numbers for last 4 years: https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/AnnualAdmissionsStatisticalReport2021.pdf

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This is very much a matter of perspective.

The educational systems, approaches, philosophies from 10th grade to BA level in the US and Britain (England, Wales and NI, really) are almost diametrically opposed.

Intense specialisation in the UK, where you specialise after 10th grade (year 11) in usually no more than three subjects, usually interrelated, too (such as maths, further maths and physics) and apply to read a specific subject at university with grades from three high stakes exams, coursework hardly relevant.

In the US, breadth and distribution requirements, gen eds and sometimes even a core up to Bachelor level, with the breadth requirement including extracurriculars (as in, you show the breadth of your personality by also having extracurriculars considered, not that you necessarily need breadth in those) final exams irrelevant, grades based on continuous assessment.

No student who hasn’t been researching (or had a savvy parent, expensive counsellor or private school research for them) and preparing for the requirements of the other system from 10th grade onwards stands a chance at the most selective institutions of the other system.

Though I suppose an American university may make the choice to accept UK GCSEs (tenth grade exams), which do have breadth requirements, in lieu of four years of high school in the subjects not taken for A levels, just as UK universities have made the choice to accept AP exams combined with the SAT or the ACT, which are really nothing like A Levels, from US students.

You can call each respective student “underqualified” for the other system, it’s correct if a little harsh. I’d rather call them “mismatched”.

The OP has tried to explain the perspective of UK universities, the understanding of which is helpful for prospective US applicants. Getting offended because that perspective happens to be different from the US perspective and insisting that UK students must be called underqualified from a US perspective, is not.

I do like the concept of the IB diploma because I feel it does combine the best of a lot of systems. Breadth requirements in six subjects. Depth in three of them. Both coursework assessment and final exams. I do not think it would make sense for countries, especially not English speaking ones, to adopt the curriculum nationwide (as opposed to offering it as an option) but wish countries were inspired to adapt their national systems a little to create their own national versions which approximate an international standard. It would make international mobility for students so much easier!

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You are comparing what is paid by full pay students in the USA, who come from the top 5%-10% income range, with what is paid by anybody from the USA who will attend Oxbridge.

So any American students who are “qualified” for Oxbridge, who come from the bottom 96% by income, will NOT be paying $70,000 a year at most “top” private USA colleges, but far less. The cost of attendance at, say, Harvard, for somebody from a family with an income of $180,000 a year, is far lower than what they would pay at Oxbridge.

According to Harvard, the average amount paid by families attending the university is lower than $40,000 a year. The least that an American attending, say, Oxford will pay a year is over $50,000, not including flights, the cost of hauling 9 months worth of clothes, etc, overseas (more expensive that moving those on a domestic flight), or the cost of buying them in the UK, and the cost of the room and board for the holidays/cost of room and board during the holidays.

In short, Oxbridge is a more “affordable” option only for those students whose families are in the top 6% by income. So for 94% of all college-bound students, Oxbridge are not a good selection, financially.

Oxbridge is not affordable for any family which does not have an extra $60,000 a year at very least, and these are a small minority of the graduating high school students in general, and a minority of the highly qualified graduating high school students in particular.

Ironically, Oxbridge is only cheaper than “top” private American colleges for the wealthiest Americans.

In short:
A. The cost of Oxbridge is higher than the numbers that they post because of travel(+bringing 9 months of clothes, etc) and the cost of living during holidays which is not covered in most College fees.
B. The actual costs for the most prestigious colleges in the USA for the majority of highly qualified applicants is lower than the lowest costs for international students at Oxbridge

PS. A highly qualified low income British student will pay less at Harvard or Yale than at Oxbridge. A British kid from a family making the equivalent of $45,000 American a year would get loans to attend Oxbridge for most majors, with a small amount of actual aid and discounted room and board (a whopping %25) from their College. Even if they only take three years, they would end up with around the equivalent of $60,000 in government loans. They would attend Yale or Harvard for free.

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My daughter was also accepted to Stanford, Brown, and Columbia. No college offered her any aid, and the cost of Columbia for Year 3/4 was $90/$100 for that year (it was quite shocking to see the numbers). For a typical family where we live, I don’t think aid is an option.

Getting to London from San Francisco is easier than to some LACs on the east coast, and airfare pre-pandemic was around $500 round trip outside of major holidays. Similar to flying domestic. The college provides all the furniture, new bedding for 30 pounds, and you can rent a bike for practically nothing. My daughter found a job the summer after the first year, which paid for her stay and two trips to continental Europe where she went with friends.

Oh, and they allow you to store your things for free over the summer, and even after you graduate until you find a place to live. I hear that is not the practice in the American colleges.

Going to college in England is not for the faint of heart but it is definitely cheaper.

Edited to add that all students in her college in Oxford have their own rooms, and also ensuite bathrooms in year 2 and 3. She even had a fire place. In England, college accommodations are not shared. My son is going to college this fall. He will share a small room with a complete stranger. I already had to buy things like a mattress topper and a mattress pad because or reports that the beds are not comfortable.

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Again, it’s only cheaper for those at high income levels, students who wouldn’t qualify for need based aid.

With that said an American student with stats high enough to be accepted to Oxford, would likely qualify for significant merit aid at many US schools. Those schools wouldn’t be ranked as highly as Oxford, so it sounds like some are purposely choosing to actually pay more to attend Oxford.

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