Know the difference between countries

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 12 Oct 2021

Cctober is a time for students to begin their search for further education options as universities start coming out with their open days and information sessions.

For Richard Cheung, who is currently reading computer science at Stanford University, he had applied to universities in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Academic life in the US and UK systems differ greatly, said Cheung. Since many colleges in the US adopt a liberal arts curriculum, students are expected to explore different subjects and even switch majors.

"For example, because Stanford is a liberal arts college, I've been able to take golf for credit," said Cheung. "I'm currently doing music conducting, which is really cool, and I've been taking a few writing classes and some public speaking classes on top of my computer science major."

Cheung started at Stanford as a mathematics and economics major but was able to switch after discovering his interest in computer science.

"That's what I really appreciated in the United States. I was able to explore a bit more before deciding on my major, which is now computer science. If I had gone to the UK, I would have stuck with math or economics, and wouldn't have discovered that actually I quite like computer science."

But flexibility and a well-rounded curriculum means trading off time to specialize in your chosen field - an advantage of UK universities.

English universities are more subject-focused, "so if you apply to a specific program or a subject like economics, then it's very hard to jump out of it," said Cheung.

He found that the Canadian system sits in between the UK and US systems in terms of flexibility. "When you apply for the University of Toronto, they ask only basic things. They don't even ask for an essay. But once you get in, you have to apply to a specific dorm or a college, and that application process involves quite a few short essays."

The major-oriented approach of the UK system is also reflected in its application process, where grades matter. "It's one essay that basically just asks you about your experience with the subject," said Cheung. "What experience have you had to do this? Why are you interested in it? And so it's a simple, around 500-word essay. That's all you need."

The Stanford sophomore describes the US system as "a more convoluted process." He noted: "It's quite a complicated process most of the time. The majority of your applications will go through this platform called the Common App."

Students applying to US universities are required to write a personal essay, which took Cheung a lot of drafts. "It's an essay about you, and it's not really about any subject. It's more so colleges know about your personality, and that's really what they're looking for."

Universities would also ask prospective students to answer additional questions in a short essay form.

"There are some universities, such as the University of Chicago, which are notorious for giving you weird questions like: is a hot dog a sandwich?"

Such questions allow students to show their personalities.

"My biggest tip for applying to the United States is to be honest, start early and make sure you know everything that you need to do."

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November 2021

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