A US-style application system isn’t everything it seems

Characteristing the US university admissions system as "PQA" misses a lot of important differences. David Kernohan looks at the facts.

As we seem to be sleepwalking into a season of university admissions reforms, it seems timely to take a look at how things work elsewhere.

One of the things that advocates of post-qualification admissions like to tell me is that no other country does things in the way we do with predicted A level grades. But it is not sensible to look at a single aspect of admissions outside of a wider examination of society and education. As Graeme Atherton puts it:

“HE admission systems are grounded in particular individual country circumstances”.

Save Ferris

If you were looking for a global significant competitor to UK higher education it is difficult to look past the USA. Certainly if you pay any heed to those global league tables (you shouldn’t) it is not unreasonable to expect to see the likes of Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford alongside Cambridge, UCL, and Birmingham City University. So how does application work in the land of the free?

Our understanding of American education is coloured, indelibly, by the filmography of John Hughes and those inspired by it. And we can learn a lot from what we know – for instance, when he took his famed day off Ferris Beuller was a high school senior.

Senior year at high school is a cultural shibboleth because it sits outside of the educational mainstream. While a UK 18 year old may yearn for a day off between completing a UCAS form and A level revision, his US counterpart is very much more relaxed. University applications are planned in the junior year (equivalent to the first year of A level) with the actual submission taking place in the autumn of the senior year, and high stakes exams are a distant  memory. Some students elect to take elective “advanced placement” courses in preparation for higher education (credit for these may count towards their degree), for others senior year (grade 12) has more to do with the senior prom, graduation, the yearbook, and senior skip day.

School hard

Junior year (grade 11) is a different, and far more serious matter – think season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – though, to be entirely clear, most students don’t start the year by returning from the dead. Grade 11 is when students apply to their chosen universities, and when they usually take one of two external exams – the standardised admissions test (SAT) and the american college testing (ACT) test. A student applying to a very selective college may also take a SAT subject test.

The ACT and main SAT are not explicitly a test of what has been learned at school (an entire industry of consultants and tutors exists to help students prepare for these tests), and both are aimed almost entirely at college admissions. All are short – around 100 multiple choice questions for a subject SAT, multiple choice questions plus an optional essay for the main SAT and ACT.

Tests are expected to take no more than a morning, and can be taken multiple times – allowing students to improve their score. Around 1.5 million students take the main SAT or ACT each year – this number fell sharply during the pandemic resulting in widespread changes to admissions requirements for 2021.

This’ll go on your permanent record

Of at least equal importance to college admissions is a student’s performance at school – expressed via a grade point average, the permanent record (a transcript of classes taken and results achieved), a “class rank”, and letters of recommendation, the latter covering character as well as academic potential. Applicants will also submit a college essay to one of a set of provided titles – like the UCAS personal statement these are short (around 650 words) and reflective, but unlike the UCAS statement the quality of the writing is an important consideration.

The grade point average and permanent record continue into the senior year – it is rare but not unheard of for an offer of a place to be rescind for a student whose grades are slipping.

Applications are made in the autumn term of the senior year, with the majority of the preparation happening in the junior year. Early applications in September or October can deliver an offer by November or December – these are usually binding and cannot be turned down. It is also possible to apply through “early action” in November and December, but the regular deadline is January 1 for a decision by March or April – students must accept an offer by May 1. Some providers offer rolling admissions, accepting applications at any point until their capacity is full.

Different universities will make use of a range of these sources of information, more selective providers (for example, the Ivy league of prestigious historic universities) may also be likely to place more emphasis on academic achievement, but many also have programmes offering places to the children of alumni.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveys universities and colleges on their admissions requirements each year – these are the results for 2019:

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A structural note

A proper description of the US higher education system is way beyond the scope of a short article. Briefly, some providers are more selective in admissions (receive far more applications than they accept) – these tend to be what are known as four year colleges which offer both advanced and batchelor’s degrees, and have a reputation for academic excellence, research excellence, or historic prestige.

Unlike in the UK there is no real difference between public and private four-year providers – the former are funded at state level (for example UC Berkeley and Michigan) , the latter are self-supporting either on a non profit (MIT, Cornell – generally seen as more prestigious) or for profit (like Phoenix or DeVry – generally seen as less prestigious) basis.

Community colleges (also state owned) form the main part of the two-year sector, offering associate degrees that are both qualifications in their own right and enable transfer to a four-year college for a batchelor’s degree. Transfer between providers is a huge part of the US system, this may happen for academic reasons (to study for a higher degree), finance reasons (the public sector, especially in a student’s home state, is much cheaper than more selective private providers), or personal reasons (see, for example, Legally Blonde). More than a third of US higher education students will transfer at least once during their career.

Unlike in the UK, students generally apply to a provider rather than a course – specialisation happens during university study, with students taking courses in a variety of subjects both before and after they declare a “major” subject of study, and some students never do this.

In comparison

Though American students do apply after their SAT or ACT results are known, this is only post-qualification admissions if you deem the SAT or ACT to be a qualification rather than a college entrance exam. The emphasis on the wider school record (generally from 9th or 10th grade onward) and the wider need for initiative (for example, making the best of what your school offers by taking rigorous elective courses) and character (references, extracurricular) is arguably much healthier than the UK system.

Another difference is the absence of UCAS – the direct relationship with the university starts earlier, though there are two major national “application platforms” (Common App and Coalition App) even here providers set their own information requirements. Students can request that school records and SAT/ACT scores are sent to particular universities directly, though there is a charge for this in some cases. There’s also a charge (usually between $40 and $90) for each application, though this may be waived under certain circumstances.

I’ve got this far without mentioning finance – but it would be ridiculous to think about American higher education without noting that fees are much higher and loan terms much more onerous than in any part of the UK. Finance, both fees and living costs, play a huge part in application decisions – some providers offer financial aid, as does (in some circumstances) state or federal government.

Bonus data

If you’ve ever wanted to browse every HE provider in the US and see how selective they are, what kind of entrance grades students hold and what they require from applicants, I have you covered. Use the filters to look at states or provider types, and click on a provider on the map to view the detailed information.

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One response to “A US-style application system isn’t everything it seems

  1. Is ‘unlike the UCAS statement the quality of the writing is an important consideration’ a joke?

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