A British Take on the American Dream

James Turner reflects on the experience of the first US Sutton Trust summer school

As well as contending with the early UCAS deadline and the stresses and strains of A levels, hundreds of British youngsters are currently navigating the US university application process – particularly those hoping to make the 1st November early decision deadline.

The majority of these will be in fee-paying schools where applications to the US are becoming more common – along with dedicated advisers to help guide students through the morass.

But at least fifty of these young people won’t be from our top private schools. They are from state schools and low and middle income homes and are participants in the Sutton Trust’s first ever US summer school and advice programme, run in partnership with Fulbright.  They were recruited last winter from a pool of 700 applicants, and have enjoyed a programme centred on an unforgettable week in Yale in July.

I was lucky enough to accompany the students and witness their reactions as they saw not only Yale, but Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Trinity and Wesleyan too.  Their enjoyment and inspiration more than repaid the long hours which went into to developing the programme and numerous logistical headaches – I can testify that there is little more stressful than shepherding dozens of teenagers down a bustling Fifth Avenue.

From those heady summer days the students have really had to buckle down and put in some serious work.  In addition to the common application form, most US universities also require students to complete a supplement, which includes at least a couple of essays. Added to that, students need to prepare for the SAT or ACT admissions tests – and most colleges also want a couple of subject tests to boot. And then the youngsters need to start considering which of the hundreds of US universities are the right fit for them.

There’s also an interesting need to re-orientate from a British perspective. There is no room for English reserve in the three teacher references American universities require, for example – if the student is amongst the best a teacher has taught in their career, this needs to spelt out. And US universities are looking much more widely than academic achievement and who is going to get the best degree – they are also interested in extra-curriculars, leadership and, above all, context, context, context.   An application focussed solely on a love of physics is unlikely to cut the mustard.

The prize is certainly worth the effort, though. The fact that 50 of the 64 students we took to the US in the summer are still in the game is testament to that.  As our chairman has pointed out, if any of our students are lucky enough to get into one of the six institutions which offer a full ride to international students, everything will be free – tuition, living costs, travel. No debts on graduation and a qualification that sets you apart from the pack. Plus there are a couple of hundred of other US universities which offer generous aid, 50 or 75 percent of costs, to British students.

The programme is a classic Sutton Trust initiative, founded on the belief that if a great opportunity exists, it is fundamentally unfair – not to mention a shameful waste of talent – if it is being accessed only by a narrow section of society. Last year, 80% of the 4,500 Brits who chose the US for undergraduate study were from private schools. We need to expose US admissions staff to the great pool of talent in British schools beyond the usual suspects.

So, our US programme will expand in 2013, at Yale and elsewhere, acting as a beacon to other state school students harbouring an American dream.

Meanwhile, I am full of admiration for this year’s studentship.  The very best of luck to them all.

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