The Problem of the “Underqualified” American

@skieurope, it is now 20 hours since flagging.

Multiple people (maybe 2?) have to flag a post for it to be obscured, so seems like no one else found the post to be in violation of TOS (which was ski’s take as well). Even if the post is flagged by multiple people, and obscured, anyone can still see it by clicking on it.


Thanks for explaining, @Mwfan1921.

I didn’t know that. Thought it was something the judgement of a moderator could make a call on after seeing it violates ToS.

What part of “attending an expensive school, with private tutors, and paying for interview prep” would be considered “self-starter mentality”?

People here repeatedly ignore the benefits the income and class provide in regards to grades, standardized tests, and interviews.

Furthermore, despite supposed attempts by Oxbridge to increase economic diversity, kids from private schools are still more likely to be interviewed than kids from lower income schools with similar scores.

Before Oxbridge can really become egalitarian, the people who are deciding who gets interviewed, and the interviewers themselves should not have reached those positions because of the same issues of privilege that they are supposedly in charge of reducing. Basically, they have to be people who have not been raised in a society that equates class with talent


If you are talking about the English K-12 education, I would not know. My daughter was educated in a public US school district and prepared for the exam by doing past exams available online and for the interview by looking up stuff online. Getting a good education in US is by no means “egalitarian”. In the Bay area a house in a good school district costs literally millions of dollars. Sports, activities, and college prep runs into the thousands per year. The very popular local tutoring service charges $150-200/hr.

My comment was about her experience in Oxford. The year is divided into three terms and each term is only around 8 weeks. This makes for very intense academics. One of her economics profs (called “tutors” in the UK) used to teach at U Penn and the material they covered in UK was at twice the pace compared to the US. The semester-abroad students from the States (she had a friend on a semester abroad from Brown) find the pace challenging. The long pauses between terms are periods of self-study, and there are exams in the week students return to school called “collections”. These “collections”, however, do not count toward the final grade, and neither do any homework assignments, projects or other work. The final grade is determined by 8 exams of 3 hours each at the end of the third and final year that cover all the material. There is no grade inflation.

It takes a lot of mental strength and motivation to succeed especially when being a foreigner.


I don’t know where you get this information from. Do you have a kid that applied to Oxford or Cambridge? The interviews are assigned strictly on the basis of the entrance exam scores, and the potential to meet the entrance criteria which for American students are 3 APs in relevant subject with a grade of “5”, and for the English students are the predicted results on their A-levels.

The system isn’t perfect but is fairer than the opaque holistic admission.

Isn’t egalitarian the opposite of elite? Can any “elite” college claim to be “egalitarian”? Oxbridge, along with the most “elite” colleges in the US, attract the most talented students worldwide. The difference is that Oxbridge have a higher minimum academic standard for admission, which “excludes” many less talented students, than their US counterparts (with a couple of exceptions). That “exclusion” makes them more meritocratic but also less “egalitarian”.

1 Like


For the upteenth time:
A. if “talent” is being measured by standardized tests, and
B. students can improve their standardized tests through expensive courses and private tutoring, and
C. low income students have multiple ways in which their abilities to perform on single opportunity tests are curtailed,

then standardized tests scores are not based on talent alone, but rather talent + income.

So a low income individual has to have far more talent than a high income individual in order to be considered, and from the group we call “average excellent” students, many high income individuals with be considered, and not a single low income individual. When admissions are in the 10% range, this means that most of the admitted students will be wealthy students whose talents would put them in the top 20%-30%, but who are able to be in the top 10% by test scores. It also means that low income students who are in the top 10% by talent, but lack things like quiet spaces to study, will mostly not score high enough to be considered.

Moreover, having admissions determined by an interview makes the idea of admissions by “talent” a lie. Interviews were the main tool by which Ivies limited the number of Jews who were able to be accepted. Half the interview was ways that an interviewer was trying to figure out the origins of the interviewee.

So the the “standards” of Oxbridge make sure that the classes are mostly filled with high income kids, and the interviews help cull the incoming class even more. Even as Oxbridge seems to be trying to reduce the biases in the interviews, and the biases in determining who to invite to interviews (though we’ll see how long that lasts), they are doing little to address the biases inherent in having different levels of schooling based on income, and the biases inherent in standardized testing.

Top 20%-30% kids from the top decile by income is competitive for Oxbridge, but only the top 1% or higher from low income groups have the academic and financial support to get the test score required to be competitive. All in all, not that different than what is happening in the USA with “holistic” admissions.

With all of the ways that people here seem to think that ECs are a waste of time, and should not be considered, they are ignoring one of the absolute best results of students in the USA engaging in extracurricular activities.

Many to most extracurricular activities in the USA are ones that involve social action.

That means that wealthy American teenagers are being taught that helping others is a positive activity, while wealthy British teenagers are being taught that anything which does not directly help them in their studies is a waste of time.

We’re not talking about “we don’t want the best piano player in the Midwest”. What Oxbridge are also saying is “we don’t want wealthy kids who spend their time helping vulnerable populations”.

As an aside - if British schools were the same as Finnish schools, and all students had the exact same education, and low income students were provided safe places to study, tutoring, etc, I would say that standardized testing provided a better indication of “talent”, or at least talent in answering standardized test questions.

I am not even starting on how useless standardized tests are at identifying truly gifted individuals. I was part of a advocacy group for gifted kids, so I am pretty familiar with the severe limitations that standardized tests have in identifying “talent”.


How do you identify academic “talent” in a 17 year old, if not by tests? We can certainly argue about whether a particular test is discriminating enough for such purpose or how income affects test preparation, but these issues can be resolved, or at least minimized, by the design of the tests. Isn’t it ironic that most of those who argue that tests are less relevant are also the one who want to make the tests less discriminating and easier so they become more prepable and more likely to be influenced by income?


This is not at all true. Oxbridge admits 6000 total per year, roughly 5000 domestic students out of ~1M 18 year olds in the UK. So only the top ~1% of all students in the UK are actually “competitive” (around 3% apply and about 0.6% will receive an offer of which 95% take it if they get the grades). If 20%-30% of top income decile students were competitive, that alone would be 2%-3% of 18 year olds and as noted above, 27% of students have a family income of less than £43K (Household income | University of Oxford ).

Realistically perhaps 3%-5% of top decile students are competitive, and fewer than 2% will get an offer (that would still mean they account for a third of offers).

I have no idea why you think that lots of rich kids get private tutoring and test prep. They get better teaching in either private schools or in good public schools, compared to schools in poorer areas. But the schools are teaching to the A level test, so there’s no equivalent to the US SAT for which schools don’t give test prep.


@MWolf I think your vision of an egalitarian society is beautiful. It also mostly does not work. I grew up in such a state, and we all received an excellent education. The problem was that there was not much we could do with this education to get a decent standard of living. For this and other reasons, all these states collapsed in the late eighties/early nineties.

Finnish children receive an excellent education and are routinely ranked among the top performers in international student assessments such as PISA. According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest country in the world. However, I have colleagues in Finland and they get half of what we are paid for the same work despite all having PhDs. The Finnish sociatal contract is very different than the one in the US and UK. I don’t think people here would agree to adopt the Finnish model

1 Like

About 12% of all UK students who take A levels achieve A * A * A or higher, and, in 2019, 289,623 students took the A levels. At Oxford, for example, 25% of the offers go to students with AAA or A*AA scores. That means that, in 2019, at least 35,623 students scored high enough to be considered for Oxbridge. There were, in 2019, 589,096 students who could potentially take A-levels. So, in fact, at least 6% of all students who were finishing high school in 2019 were competitive for Oxbridge, not ~1%.

I’ll use private school kids as a proxy for wealth, but there are also wealthy public schools.

About 16% of high school students in the UK attend a private schools, so 90,000 or so students. About 8,500 students applied to Oxbridge from private schools in the UK in 2019, so 9.4% of all students. Most private school kids do A levels, but not all. So close to 10% of all private high school students in the UK apply to Oxbridge. Of about 500,000 public school students in the UK, about 17,000 applied to Oxbridge, so 3.4% of all public schools students, and 8.5% of all A-level students (200,000).

Oxbridge offers admissions to around 6,000 domestic students, from around 25,000 domestic applications, from around 590,000 students. So 1% of all students who graduate in the UK will end up in Oxbridge

About 9% of all A-level students apply to Oxbridge, and about 22% of those are offered a place.

About 42% of the A-level scores for private schools students were A or higher, versus 20% for public schools A-level kids. A total of 12% of all A-Level takers had AAA, so it really isn’t far-fetched to say that 20% of all private school students were AAA at least.

The median income in the UK is £30,800. An annual salary of £43K puts a family of three in the top 40% by income (average family with children. It is more than a teacher makes in most of the UK.

So they have 73% of their students from the top 40% by income. Considering that the bottom quintiles have fewer than 10% in each, I have no reason to suppose that there will be any more students in fourth quintile than there are from the third. In short, Oxford looks like it has a very similar income distribution as Harvard.

There is still a huge difference between a level A student who is getting private tutors, and has conditions at home like a private room, and a student who does not have either.

Worse - a low income students is far less likely to even be a level A students, because of tracking.

I guess I read it in the Guardian…

1 Like

@Mumfromca My point isn’t that Oxbridge should be as egalitarian as Finland. My point is that many posters here are making the argument that Oxbridge already has a fair and egalitarian admission policy.

My point is to demonstrate that the Oxbridge admissions policies of using standardized testing and an interview do not result in admissions which are any more based on meritocracy than the holistic admissions policies of the “elites” in the USA. We still see the same huge advantages for the wealthy.

Let them continue to maintain the class system of the UK if that’s what the UK wants, and that’s what works for them. However, I have no patience with claims that they are not doing so, or that they are being oh-so-fair.

1 Like

Straw man. Nobody (that I have seen) has said that. What I have seen is commenters appreciating that the UK system as a whole is more transparent, and does not have what another forum on CC has referred to as “the tyranny of holistic admissions”. There is a clear, explicit focus on identifying students who are genuinely interested in a given subject, and able for pursuing it in a particular way.

It is also implausible that any system can re-invent itself in one smooth, flawless leap. Like most human organizations and systems, increasing accessibility and representation has been, is, and will continue to be a messy mix of improving primary and secondary schooling quality, reaching out to and building bridges with a wider range of schools, and continual refining of ‘contextual’ admissions.

But if you compare who was at Oxford in my mother’s generation and who is at Oxford in my daughter’s generation the change is striking and meaningful.


No one claimed, or can claim, that the Oxbridge admission policy is impeccably fair or flawlessly meritocratic. The nature of highly competitive admissons to the most “elite” colleges, whether in the UK, or US, or anywhere, makes such goals impossible. However, Oxbridge’s policy is more meritocratic, fairer, and certainly more transparent than those of their US counterparts. IMO, their indepth interviews on subject matters are the best part of their admission process, even though they obviously can’t be offered to all applicants. Some type of filtering of applicants must first be performed to reduce the number of candidates to some managable level. Perhaps it’s unfortunate for some, but there’s no fairer, or more meritocratic, or more transparent way to do that filtering than testing.


@MWolf I do share a lot of your concerns about educational inequality. And a lot of it is mediated by income. But if you equate “class” with “wealth” in the UK, you do not understand that society at all.

Also, the percentage of students who get As at A level does not equal the percentage of students competitive for Oxford or Cambridge. There are definitely A levels that count, and A levels that don’t, sort of like the difference between AP environmental science and physics C, and a number of course offers have actually moved to at least one A* out of three, if not more.

And as a former tutor, or rather a member of an army of tutors to an upper income kid whose parents desperately tried to keep her in (the equivalent of my country’s) college prep classes, I can tell you one thing: tutoring can only do so much. Among the maybe 5% percent of qualified students, it may give you a small leg up. But the one thing that the British private schools give their students is a completely overblown self confidence that lasts for life, and an induction to a tiny circle of people who will cover one another in their supreme confidence and incompetence, also for life. And just getting into Oxford or Cambridge will not give that to you. It’s a total straw man to blame these universities for not doing enough to dismantle a class system that is way older and more entrenched than them, and in many cases, functions very independently. Are they doing enough? No. Are they improving? Very much so. Could they ever do enough? No way, they are by no means the main problem. Really.


I can’t argue with that.

I will argue with that. There are mounds of evidence pointing to the unfair advantage that the wealthy have in standardized testing. I say that as a person who has always done well in standardized testing, and whose kid consistently aces standardized testing. Standardized testing mostly tests the ability to do well on standardized testing.

Now, the A-levels are better than the SATs, and because of the way UK universities work, doing well on A-levels is a better indication of a person’s ability to do well in a UK university than the SATs (or even the A-levels) are an indication of how well a person could do in a college in the USA.

However, the entire British education system is still set up to track the kids from positions of wealth and privilege to the A-levels, and to help them do better on these tests.

Bottom line, testing is only fair if the education system is fair. Since the latter is not true, the former cannot be true.

It’s like saying that a foot race is a fair measure of people’s talents and practice, when some runners have top notch running shoes, others have army boots, and others have weights tied to their ankles.

@Tigerle That wasn’t my impression, based on my interactions with a number of college bound kids from the UK, but I accept that you have more personal and extensive experience.

I agree that tutoring won’t help a person who has little academic talent, but, as I wrote, we’re talking about the kids who have a large amount of academic talent only. To go back to my metaphor above. If you have a racer who gets training, diet, a place to sleep well at night, and good gear, they will, invariably beat another one who has the same innate talent, but has not had any of these advantages.

To repeat, though, using A-level test scores isn’t fair when the education system isn’t fair, and the education system in the UK isn’t fair.

Furthermore, requiring an interview for admissions add another level of unfairness, since it is strongly affected by the personal biases and preconceived notions of the interviewers.

In all honesty, though, like the USA, the UK should not be changing admissions policies for Oxbridge as much as they should be changing their education system.


Is there data that show A level tests are more correlated with college success than ACT/SAT? Sincerely asking because I am curious, not challenging.

I don’t disagree that US needs education reform, but it has to start with K-12, not colleges/the college admissions process. The affluent not only have an advantage in testing, but data show advantages in other measures important to college admissions like grades (advocate for themselves, teacher assumptions of academic strength, etc ), letters of rec, essays, and extracurriculars.

1 Like

You’d expect one-off end of course summative A-level tests to be correlated with success in the UK university system (where most and sometimes all of the final degree class comes from similar exams) and high school GPA to be correlated with success in the US college system (where grades are based on continuous assessment on a course by course basis).

1 Like

Agreed. Yet sometimes data don’t show what we expect.