Admissions Statistics: drawing the right conclusions

Part of my job is visiting schools and giving talks. I meet with lots of students who want to study in the United States, and who will come and speak to me saying that they are interested in the few places they have heard of: Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford. It doesn't take long for me to give them a reality check, but the myth persists that somehow these institutions are going to be accessible for many students at UK schools.

I write this with another internet tab open: the news article from the Harvard Crimson about this year's admissions rate. This year Harvard accepted 4.59% of its applicants.

Others are at similarly low points: Stanford was 4.3%, Yale was 6.9%, Princeton at 5.5%. When you read this against the real numbers as well, you see the challenge even more starkly: that 4.59% at Harvard translated to only 1,962 students being offered a place.

The comparison to the UK is interesting. Cambridge and Oxford typically hover around 20% admit rates (though seeing as you can't apply to both, and assuming that if you could, a lot of people would, you should probably halve those rates for a comparison). Imperial, LSE and UCL are in the low teens for their admit rate. However, all of these institutions are still admitting many more students than most of their Ivy League peers in the USA.

When I've been through this discussion with students and parents, many get disheartened: if it's so tough, what's the point? This is where the real reasons for applying to the USA should come in: there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of wonderful institutions out there which compare favourably to UK universities, or offer something you will never find in the UK.

At this time of year I am regularly discussing college options with the Lower Sixth students who I work with, giving them a diverse selection of colleges to research and take notes on. I love asking them to tell me what they didn't like about each college, to delve into the style of curriculum, the core requirements, the range of classes, the different extra-curricular options. My students have to consider factors which they tend not to when thinking about universities in the UK, which opens their eyes to what is out there.

To take it a step further, I'm also at the moment helping students who have a good 'long list' of colleges to arrange visits, asking them to email admissions officers and make contact. They are thrilled when they are emailed back quickly, when people offer to arrange Skype calls or meet them in person. It is nice to be wanted, but having this quick, enthusiastic, personal reply also says something else - this is an institution which is excited at the idea of having me attend.

When you boil it down, that should be a huge factor in this process: you should find a university that you want to be at, and which reciprocates this feeling. American families tend to refer to the university they studied at as their 'alma mater', their other mother - a place they have a close, personal bond to. When the students I am working with are considering studying so, so far from home, that experience - not a name-brand experience that they don't necessarily truly understand - is what they should be searching for.

David Hawkins