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Knowing Where You’re Going

I was educated in England and have found the American education system to be one of the most difficult “assimilation” areas so far. One thing I have never really done is make comparisons; the two systems are so different it’s not really apples and apples. However I have recently discovered my one exception to this rule – the college applications process.

My daughter is currently applying to American colleges for attendance in September. It’s quite a different system from its English counterpart, and I have to say, kinder. In England, you apply to most colleges through UCAS, (Universities and Colleges Admissions Services) with a single application that UCAS manages. You can apply for up to five courses (at the same or different universities or colleges), it’s all confidential, and you’re not required to give a preference order. In my day you had to put them in order of preference, meaning that the colleges further down the list often rejected you just for daring to list them so low. Students then receive offers either conditional on end of year grades, or unconditional which means that you’re in.The tricky part comes in knowing which ones to decline, as you can only hold one firm acceptance and one insurance place. Do you accept the offer from the fab university and hope you get the grades, or plump for the college asking for slightly lower grades? Nowadays, there is” adjustment” whereby if you meet or exceed your expected grades, you have five days to reapply for a better place than the one you’re holding.

The worst part about the English system is that exam results don’t come out till August, so you leave high school having no idea what the future holds. If you make your grades it’s all happy and smiley, but for students who don’t quite get what they need, there begins a mad scramble through the UCAS clearing system to find a place somewhere.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pond, American students will mostly all know where they’re going by the end of May and often months earlier. They can apply to an unlimited number of colleges individually, and usually receive offers or rejections. Some students going for “Early Decision” may have their application deferred, but only till the regular notification period. There is such a thing as “senior slide” where some students relax their studying a little, but for the most part, their offer is safe. Colleges may rescind an offer if the student’s end of year grades plummet significantly, but for most students, the biggest headache is deciding between two or more offers. They leave high school knowing where they are going for the next four years, and very importantly, can enjoy a stress-free summer.

I have to say, that’s the best way to do it.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

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