Cambridge for Undergraduates
Not that Cambridge really needs any more Americans, but…
Last post I wrote about differences between the US and UK postgraduate programs as a surreptitious way to post video clips from The Simpsons. This time I’m going to write about differences between the US and UK (particularly Cambridge mathematics) undergraduate programs as a blatant way to encourage American high school students to consider applying to (Old) Cambridge.
Amid the usual debates about top up fees and better representation of the country, the recent talking point in British education has been the increasing trickle of UK students who opt to study in the US.
The converse, however, remains largely unspoken. To be sure, there’s a popular MIT-Cambridge exchange program, but it’s not very common for American students to commit their entire undergraduate career to study in the UK. (I know of one and a half exceptions.) This may be due to some degree of “stereotypical” ignorance about the rest of the world, but also because it’s a bit harder to imagine Animal House occuring anywhere outside the US.
More pragmatically, people assume that studying abroad would be significantly more expensive than studying in the US. This, however, is not necessarily true. Below are the annual tuition / estimated total cost of an undergraduate education in notable US universities (personally) compared to Cambridge University:
- Stanford: $32,994 / $47,000
- Harvard: $30,275 / $46,450
- Berkeley*: $26,484 / $42,956
- Cambridge**: $23,724 / $43,624
* – Berkeley tuition based on non-resident. (Subtract $18,684 for California residents… Mr. Schwarzenegger, please support California students and the UC system!)
** – For overseas students studying Natural Sciences, subtract £2,808 ~ $5,616 for Mathematics. Exchange rate has been taken to be £1 = $2. (It’s getting there.)
It is probably true, however, that American students are more likely to get financial support for one of the US universities either via loans or internal/external scholarships. To be sure, however, there are scholarships and finanical aid available to Americans who wish to study in the UK. (By the way, grad students: the NSF fellowship can be used abroad.) Plus, students are automatically covered under the UK National Health Service.
But let’s actually get into the nitty gritty of the differences between a US and UK education. I should preface by apologizing for not being the most knowledgable person on UK undergrad programs: I’ve spent four years in Stanford as an undergraduate and only one term in Cambridge generally avoiding undergraduates. So what I have to say may only be relevant to Cambridge, and perhaps only for students who would be interested in mathematics or physics.
First of all, English undergraduate degrees are usually only 3 years with the option for an ‘honours’ (or M.Sc.) 4th year (Scottish universities are a bit different). In Cambridge and especially for Mathematics/Natural Science students, this is represented by the tripos system. The fourth year of the mathematics tripos, Part III, grants a student a “certificate of advanced study” (something like a M.Sc.) and is the gateway to a Cambridge mathematics Ph.D.
Typically British students focus in on a “major” before their undergraduate years with assessment of secondary education is based primarily on high stakes exams (GCSE, Advance Level). Based on the Cambridge Part IA/B curricula, however, I suspect that an American high school student with a solid background and good AP scores (including Calculus AB and BC) should be able to fit in nicely. Students who have had the benefit of more advanced coursework, such as university courses taken over the summer, may find Part IA repetative.
Such students needn’t worry, however, as things pick up very quickly. Unlike American universities which usually have “general education requirements” mandating a breadth of coursework, English universities such as Cambridge are subject-focused (again, Scottish universities are a bit different). Third-year courses in the mathematics tripos are roughly equivalent to American junior- and senior-level courses in mathematics/physics, while Part III courses are roughly equivalent to all the graduate courses one would ever need to take. Indeed, postgraduate degrees in the UK are usually purely research with no further coursework requirement.
To be fair, the tripos is very rigid. (As the oldest continously taught mathematical course in the world, one might suspect this.) American universities, by comparison, are remarkably laissez faire. A first year student with a strong background could start taking upper level and graduate level courses early on, and indeed many of the most competitive American postgraduate applicants have taken several graduate-level courses***. Even then, however, Part III offers several courses that many schools may not even regularly offer, such as a wide range of fluid dynamics courses that have been forgotten in the US, and Michael Green’s String Theory course… which is technically being taught to undergraduates. It would be very difficult (but possible) to be able to take such a breadth and depth of courses within mathematics/theoretical physics in the US****.
So where’s the give-and-take? Do UK students just study and learn more than their American counterparts? Do they play less*****? Actually, Cambridge students spend a remarkable amount of time doing extracurricular activities including sport(s), community service, and arts. The way I see it, there are three major differences in the way Cambridge works versus US universities that contribute to the above disparity:
- Year-end assessment. Unlike anywhere in the US, all assessment in the Mathematics/Natural Science tripos takes the form of year-end exams. That’s right, year-end exams. This means that there is no mandatory homework, no mid-terms, no late night cramming before May, etc. Instead, there is one set of high-stakes exams at the end of the year while students are allowed to study whatever, whenever and however they feel most comfortable. British students will have already honed their skills at preparing for such exams from their experiences with GCSE’s and A-levels.
- Tutorial system. Actually, I lied a little. There is some assessment in the form of small group tutorials where the faculty-student ratio is something like 1/3. If you ask me, this is one of the remarkable and amazing benefits of a Cambridge education. The chance to talk through problems in a small group with a professor (or lecturer or fellow or advanced grad student) does wonders for one’s understanding. It’s far more effective than sitting with a bunch of students to ‘write up’ solutions.
- Research. One of the unwritten but de facto requirements for grad school admission for US students is undergraduate research experience. For many students, this research becomes the entire raison d’etre for undergraduate coursework: the chance to make progress on the front lines of human knowledge and (probably) play with some cool lab equipment in the process. US research universities and national labs have extensive undergraduate research programs so that their students can contribute to current research. The payoff for the research groups is free grunt-work which can evolve into publishable autonomous research. For the student, a published paper is a gold star for graduate school applications. Further, it’s a chance to really experience what life in academia is like and to decide what particular fields they’d like to pursue. On top of that, one’s professor and graduate students often act as mentors, giving helpful advice and support as one trudges on towards grad school. For students who are keen on an academic career, the opportunity to take part in research early on is priceless. Unfortunately, within the rigid structure and coursework of the Mathematics/Natural Science tripos, there is little room for research. Natural Science students have some limited research experience in their fourth year, though not to the same extent as what a dedicated undergraduate at a US university would have had. Part III Mathematics students have the option to write what is essentially a literature review on current research which can turn into the kernel of a PhD topic. While this is a valuable thing in its own right, it is not quite the same as actual research experience. (“Research is long periods of frustration punctuated by very brief moments of absolute joy,” as one Stanford theoretical physicist once told me.)
I should also include a word on culture. Yes, it’s great to be in another country and experience another culture. Or, in the case of Cambridge, experience several different cultures. But beyond generalities of being “somewhere else,” there are a few notable points about the ‘university culture’ at Cambridge versus what one may experience in the US:
- No ‘uncivilised’ housing. Before I left Stanford, one of my friends who had studied in Oxford noted that the English would think that Stanford’s undergraduate housing is downright uncivilised. In the US it is typical for undergraduates to at least spend one’s first year in a one-room double. While this is economical for universities, there is a lot of tradition involved with having a college roommate. (Involving, for example, vocabulary such as ‘sexile.’) Perhaps because the English tend to be more culturally guarded of their privacy, a Cambridge student can expect to live in a single. There are obvious benefits of this, but one should also note that many American students become lifelong friends with their old college roommates.
- Colleges. Oxbridge (+ Durham… sometimes called Doxbridge, but only by Durham students) students are members of the university as a whole, their department, and their college. The college proctors tutorial sessions (see above) and provides a general social context for one’s university experience. The best analogy would be houses in Harry Potter. Harvard ‘houses’ are similar, but not quite as involved as Oxbridge colleges.
- Getting in. Forget about those SAT scores. English universities are more likely to look at AP exam results (as substitutes for A-levels) and personal/telephone interviews for admissions. So instead of lengthy college essays, one would have an intimidating interview (often involving puzzles or worked problems) with a college fellow (faculty).
- Getting to know professors. As mentioned in my note on undergraduate research, one benefits significantly from having faculty and graduate student mentors during one’s undergraduate career. Students at US universities tend to get this through undergraduate research and less so from office hours for courses. In Cambridge an undergraduate is primarily under the care of his or her tutor. In addition to getting to know students personally through small group discussions and problem solving, tutors also throw parties where students are invited. The idea of drinking with professors is nearly unthinkable in US universities (where students can’t legally drink until they are 21) and, I suspect, leads to a different kind of personal interaction with faculty mentors.
Anyway, the punchline is that I strongly suggest that any mathematically inclined (including theoretical physics) American high school student consider applying to Cambridge for an undergraduate degree.
Useful websites if you’re interested in studying in Cambridge or anywhere else in the UK:
- British Council USA: Education
- University of Cambridge Undergraduate Admissions
- Cambridge in America
- Wikipedia: Education in the UK
PGS: Have you taken [graduate level course]
Us: … yes. So where are you fr–
PGS: Me too! So have you taken ….
From that day on we would refer to him as ‘Mitu.’
**** – Another way of putting this is that if one were to plot the breadth\depth of mathematics coursework versus percentage of graduates, Cambridge students would be a narrow (delta-function like) gaussian with a mean, MUK, much greater than American students. However, the American bell curve is much wider, and perhaps the 4+ sigma students greater than MUK. This example was motivated by a terribly geeky t-shirt that I saw someone wearing at CMS.
***** – Contrary to what countless American fratboys might think, UK students probably ingest as much (if not more) alchohol than their American counterparts. This is due both to a healthier pub culture (socialize versus paralyze), the abundance of formal events with wine, and the fact that drinks usually mean hanging out with friends rather than doing keg-stands.
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