Where to go: Cambridge (UK) or France?

New to the site, and in a rather unusual situation, so I’m not sure if this is the right subforum.

I’m an American national, desired profession is physics researcher. Goal at the moment is to learn an enormous of amount of math and physics, don’t care for the other subjects. My intended major is math/physics double. Very sure about my plans.

I’ve been accepted to several universities. Here they are listed by my preference, with their associated costs after financial aid has been accounted for:

Trinity College, University of Cambridge (UK) - $48,000 (get a Masters after 4 years)

UC Berkeley - $60,000

Carnegie Mellon - $40,000

Brown - $40,000

UCLA - $56,000

NYU - $70,000

Stonybrook - $10,000

Georgiatech - $25,000

First let me say that my parents were astounded at the financial aid we received - in almost all cases it was < $10,000. Berkeley gave me $0, because I’m not from California. This is despite our financial situation - we are middle class, and both parents have been essentially unemployed for the past 6 years. No income now, although my parents do have a fair amount of money in savings from their long careers. So we are income poor but asset rich.

Anyways, I immediately eliminated the schools which I don’t care about or which are too expensive for what they’re worth (you have to be mentally ill to pay $70,000 to go to NYU!). I narrowed it down to Cambridge, CMU, and Stonybrook. Then I realized Cambridge would actually be cheaper than CMU, because you get a Masters after 4 years at Cambridge, compared to the 5 it normally takes in the US. So it was then between Cambridge and Stonybrook (seems like a joke right?).

Then about 1 month ago the option of studying in France

So now I’m trying to figure out where I should go, given that I am looking for: a school which will not put me in massive debt for no good reason, will allow me to study math/physics intensely and exclusively, and won’t leave me with regrets

EDIT: posted answer before I was done editing. Still editing at the moment…

Looks like I can’t edit the above post, so let me continue where I was cut off.

Then about 1 month ago the option of studying in France in the “classes preparatoires” appeared. I doubt anyone here knows anything about the French system - practically no one does outside France. But the basic way it works is you do 2 years of intense math/physics study in “prepas” and then take the really difficult entrance exams to “grandes ecoles” like Ecole Normale Superieure and Ecole Polytechnique (these two schools have something like a 3% chance of getting the required mark). You then spend 3+ years at these grandes ecoles to get a masters and do pre-thesis work, and if you like you can do a PhD.

The French “prepas” system is one of the most intense STEM training programs in the world - similar to MIT/Caltech, except probably more intense and more difficult if you go to the best prepas. The reason is in prepas you study only math, physics, english, and francais-philosophie (but it doesn’t count); you have 15+ hours of math class per week, plus 10 hours of math HW; you have two 4 hour tests each week. My French friend who goes to MIT tells me less than 15% of the math majors there could pass the entrance exam to Polytechnique.

Well, the French system is very much focused on rigor and the French students finish all Feynman lectures and teach analysis/field theory/linear algebra by the first year. Itis well known that France mass produced 1st rate mathematicians (Ecole Normale Superieure has produced 10 Fields medalists, MIT only 2).

The reasons why studying in France is attractive are the following. I was accepted to the best prepas in France, Louis-le-Grand, which is in Paris. My family lives in France. I speak French, though not fluently (but well enough to understand math/physics). I visited one prepas in Toulouse and understand the lecutred, so language shouldn’t be a problem. And most importantly, IT IS COMPLETELY FREE. Even though I’m not French, the French goverment will fund me education, and the only costs are $4000 per year for living expenses. lol it makes a mockery of the cost situation here in America.

So now I’m trying to figure out where I should go, given that I am looking for: a school which will not put me in massive debt for no good reason, will allow me to study math/physics intensely and exclusively, and won’t leave me with regrets after 4 years.

My questions are the following:

  1. My parents strongly advise me against taking at a massive loan to pay for Cambridge or American colleges where the cost is upwards of $30,000 per year. I largely agree with them - most people who make these investments expect to become doctors or lawyers or work in other high paying jobs. While I couldn't care less about the American college experience, networking, and using the brand name of an Ivy league to help me in the job world, this is probably what most Ivy league students intend to do. So what do kids in my situation - aspiring scientist faced with schools which are too expensive - usually do? Is it really worth it to pay so much money?
  2. It's hard to pass up studying at Cambridge, which is world renowned, for a school which no one in the English speaking world knows about, even though I have no doubt about the quality of the French prepas. I do want to get a PhD from an American grad school, so I guess transitioning from Cambridge would be easier. Is Cambridge worth the cost?
  3. any other advice you can give me would be helpful.

@MYOS1634, can you chime in with your knowledge of the French system?

A Grande Ecole would be fabulous, but it’s so, so difficult to get in. Many students who excel in the prepas still never make it past the written exam (the next is orals, I believe.) The exam is essentially like a competition - and there are times when no one scores high enough to get into math at ENS (Ecole Normale Superieure) one of the top math programs anywhere, as you know.

So be prepared that you could invest two years in the prepas and… not get in. It is a bit of a gamble considering you would have invested 2 years of life in Paris - over $8,000+ and not be anywhere near your goal of attending a top math/physics program.

Speaking of math/physics – you need to find out whether you can actually do both at ENS and Cambridge.

“So what do kids in my situation - aspiring scientist faced with schools which are too expensive - usually do?”

They go to their state university - and if they excel there, they go on to PhD programs which are funded. A route I would recommend exploring.

These are yearly costs? And you don’t need a Masters in the US system. If you want a PhD, you go straight in to a funded 6 year PhD program from undergrad and pick up a Masters along the way.

Do you have AP credits? You’ve had to deposit at American schools already, right? Which ones?

What math and physics have you taken?
Did you take subject tests or AP 's and in this case what scores did you get?
What’s your GPA or, if you’re in a French school, your moyenne and predicted bac results?
If you’re a resident of france, shouldn’t Cambridge be 15k? (the UK goes by residency, not citizenship - if you’ve lived in France for 3 years you’re considered a resident with the same fees as British students.)
Did you appeal your financial aid package?

Rest assured, if your desire is go into physics research the folks looking to hire you will know all about Le Grand. A top class education for free is the way to go. You will be able to go anywhere you choose for post grad.

^^ For grad school or research jobs, Le Grand won’t matter a whit. What will matter is where OP did his undergraduate, and how he performed there.

Almost the identical question was asked on the Student Room. See http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?p=64944103&highlight=

It sounds like almost the exact same situation as you. Here is what I wrote:

Have you checked the international eligibility for the Ecole Normale and Polytechnique? Some of the fanciest French schools strictly limit admissions based on nationality, or so I hear. As you have family in France, I would assume you are a dual national, but make sure you know about restrictions before you decide.

Prepa in France is indeed at a very high level and, to put it mildly, it is extremely competitive, particularly for the fanciest schools. While some of the credits can be transferred like AP courses in an applic to an American uni, keep in mind that Prepa is essentially seen as pre-university, though of course the Grandes Ecoles are a parallel system of sorts. If you don’t get into one of the better schools in France, you will have essentially wasted your time (some stay in them more than 2 years and take the exams over and over) in terms of institutional credits - it is all for passing the entrance exams, much less for learning per se. Based on test scores as they are, Grandes Ecoles can be as hard to get into as any of the world’s top unis. They certainly would match in quality, but Grandes Ecoles might also lock you into career options more French than global.

If you got an offer at Trinity, you must be a very strong candidate. With overseas student rates, it would be about as expensive as a top US uni. So why would you go to Trinity rather than one of the best American ones? That being asked, I do think Cam offers an absolutely first-rate education and would not limit your options as those in the French system would. At Trinity, you would also be starting directly in undergrad, which in prepa you wouldn’t. I am also very skeptical that you would get anything in prepa like the educational experience you would at Cam: you might do the same maths, but you would not get the discussion with peers and contact with world-class profs.

Quite right. I meant to write Le Grand Ecole Polytechnique…I assume this is the school in question. Apologies if it is not.

^^ The OP was referring to Louis-le-Grand, a famous lycee to which he’d been accepted for a prepa. But as we know, the prepa is only the beginning…

Ok guys thanks for your responses. To clarify, I already know about the French system. My dad went through it many years ago. I do know about the level and intensity of the maths - that’s the reason I am attracted to it. However, I am not a resident of France (as I said, I’m an American national).

To give you an idea of math level in math/physics, I placed in the top 30 students on the USA Physics Olympiad and I’m going to the International Math Olympiad.

I agree that going to France and not getting into Polytechnique/ENS would be a waste of time - this is the major con of this route, that France is risky. However my level in math/physics is fairly high, and as I said, I was accepted to Louis le Grand, which sends the most students to these two schools, so I do think I have a very good chance.

I’ll now respond to your posts individually.

@alcibiade : Why would I go to Trinity than an American university? The only places I got into in the U.S which are less expensive than Trinity are CMU and Brown, both of which pale in comparison to Cambridge (at least for math/physics). As I said, the question now is prepa vs Cambridge. I’m not sure what you mean by I would be starting off directly in undergrad at Cambridge, whereas at prepa I wouldn’t. I thought prepa was like the first 2 years of undergrad math/physics (in fact, more, because they do stuff more quickly than in the U.S), and we probably will be studying the same stuff. Of course, prepa doesn’t offer the opportunity to have supervisions each week from a fellow of the college (which at Trinity includes Fields medalists), but the professors at Louis le Grand constantly interact with the students, so I’m not quite sure what you mean here either.

In any case, nothing compares to the grandeur of studying at Cambridge - Trinity college no less - but is it really worth the $48,000 per year (four years) if I plan on going into academia, where the pay won’t be great?

@katliamom : I am fairly confident I can get into Polytechnique, much less so about ENS. You say if I don’t get into these two schools then I will have essentially wasted my time and spent $8000 and be no closer to my goal of going to a top math/physics program. Well, this was the argument I originally told my parents (who are pushing me to go to France, since this is the cheapest option). But after some reflection I realize this is unnecessarily pessimistic - I won’t have wasted my time because I’ll still know more math/physics than my American counterparts even at places like MIT and Caltech; furthermore, isn’t it better to lose $8000 than spend $200,000 ($350,000 with interest on the loans) going to Cambridge, and end up at a top grad school but in massive debt? However, not going to ENS or Polytechnique would really be pretty bad.

Thanks again for your advice.

@MYOS1634 : Not sure why my test scores/ ap’s are relevant. But 800 on math/physics/chemistry, 2400 sat and 5’s on all the math/science ap’s.

Right now I’ve made deposits at CMU and Stonybrook, but as I said the decision is between Cambridge and France.

Go to Stonybrook. Be a rock star there. Develop relationships with faculty and other top students. Seize research opportunities, spend your summers doing cool internships.

If you’re as good as you sound on paper, you’ll get into a top math/physics PhD program – with no debt.

Stonybrook!!?!! Sorry but Stonybrook is on the bottom of my list. I would be seriously depressed going there. I live like 30 minutes from the campus. I’ve visited, and it is a truly miserable place. I honestly would rather go to France than Stonybrook. How could I pass up living in Paris or going to Cambridge to go to Stonybrook?

You asked advice about getting a degree without huge debt. I gave it to you. All your other options involve a huge amount of money, possible debt, and an element of risk.

And why on earth did you apply to a school you hate so much?

I think people people suggested Stony Brook since you seem to be interested in LLG because it’s free and sb is the cheapest on your list. Gtech sounds like the best value, by far. If you want hardcore math and physics that’s your best choice.
Please understand you wouldn’t be 'living’in Paris. The prepa lifestyle is: go to class and write every single word said by your professor, for 7 hours a day (8-12, 1-4 or 2-5). You have one hour to eat lunch, one hour to rest from writing everything down at 4 or 5, and one oral exam. At 6 or 7 go home. You should live within 10mn by foot or metro as you’ll be at a severe competitive disadvantage if you live further away. Dinner, then homework. 6 hours of sleep. No time to do anything beside write down and memorize. Helpful instructions will tell you to keep 2 hours AWEEK for your self - sports, movie, your choice. No club, no leadership. The model is based on the monks, and ascesis - sacrifice your body, comfort, mental health, for a higher purpose. In addition, you 'll be verbally abused or belittled every single day and your class will not be diverse at all (you may not miss it but it’s weird, coming from the US, being essentially in an all-white, all-upper class, all-prepschool-equivalent group.)
You’re right a lot will be expected from you. But it’d be the same at Gtech or Cambridge. The learning hasn’t changed much in one century. Your opinion won’t matter in anything. Your ability to follow a format is what you’ll need. Originality will be cut out from you so that you can succeed in the concours - the idea is that you must prove yourself before you’re allowed to have your own ideas, which will typically he allowed in year 4. The format is very very important so you could be correct yet get a low mark because it’s not formally elegant. This may appeal to you.
In the end, all of this for two terrible years, and results based on chance as much as hard work. What will you do if you end up selected for Ecole Des Mines d’Ales and think back about the choices you had as a 12th grader? All these sacrifices and pains, for the equivalent of stony Brook, without even the facilities and resources or access to research…

I asked what AP 's you’d done because, for all their bluster, French students typically don’t cover all of calculus bc, AP CS A, or AP chemistry, and none of Physics C till prepa. They have however studied some programming, some statistics and probability, some intro to linear algebra. The calc 2-3 sequence is covered in about one year but everything is proof based. You’ll be expected to know how to write proofs * Before * you start. You’ll have to find online Annalee Du bac C de maths, Annale du bac C de physique from the 80’s and you’ll have summer reading (Hume, Racine, Balzac) as well as problem sets. However thanks to your ap 's you’ll be ahead in terms of content in all science subjects. You’ll only have to master the formal style and the literature/philosophy.
Assuming you’re doing MPSI you’ll have 12hours of math, 6physics 2 chemistry, 2cs, 2enfineering, 2philosophy, 2 English, recommended 2spanish or German. If you want straight math/physics, stick to Cambridge.

In all honesty I can’t imagine someone having the choice of GTech or Cambridge or CMU would wish to inflict this upon themselves.
The only positive is that you’ll retain your freshman status for scholarships if you decide it’s not for you, since the first prepa year counts as a PG year.

@bitznbatzn You do not understand what prepa is - it is essentially an add-on to high school, i.e. pre-undergraduate for which you get absolutely no credit in the Grandes Ecoles. You might get some credit in a French Fac, though they are inferior, or transfer credit in a US uni. As I said, they are exclusively on technique exercises to pass exams, they are not for intellectual inquiry, which you seem to want.

Believe me, the undergraduate experience of Cambridge is unique, the academic rigor is matched only by Oxford and a few SLACs or Ivy League in the US. My daughter had an amazing experience at Cam, working closely with experts and in an intense intellectual engagement with her peers, far beyond what I experienced at Harvard. SHe wrote 2 - 3 papers a week, discussed them in intimate tutorials, and in an atmosphere of shared passion. I was astounded to learn it lived up to its reputation (and as an EU resident, the total cost was about $80K, room and board included).

When cost is a factor, I have many American friends who chose to send their kids to second- or even third-tier schools in the US because they got really great financial aid. One friend’s son got into Brown and Amherst, but decided to do an honor’s program at U Kentucky because they basically paid his ticket to have him.