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Helping UK state school pupils into top US universities

Harvard university library
Harvard offers very generous subsidies for pupils who win a place to study

Rising costs in the UK are leading to a boom in applications from UK students to US universities, writes the Today programme's Sanchia Berg.

The Sutton Trust is launching its first summer school for UK pupils applying to university in the US.

It is aimed at the same students targeted by the trust's existing summer schools - academically able, from less affluent backgrounds, attending state schools which don't regularly send students to the top UK universities.

The trust currently runs seven summer schools with top British universities: they cater for 1,000 students a year, and a recent evaluation showed they do help these candidates win places.

The US "summer school" will actually run over several months. It will include a week long trip to the US, to visit leading Ivy league universities, and intensive support for students as they put their applications together.

The Sutton Trust aims to help bright students from non-privileged homes find out about, visit and apply to elite universities
In 2012, the Trust plans free summer schools for over 1,000 pupils in partnership with UK universities including Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and St Andrews
For the first time, a US summer school will help pupils interested in studying in the US

In recent years, the numbers of British teenagers studying for undergraduate degrees in the US has risen to 4,500 a year. This year, with university fees rising to up to £9,000 per year, the annual US universities' fair in London attracted record numbers.

Applying to an American university, like Harvard, is different from applying to a UK one. Candidates have to sit the US exam, the SAT or standard aptitude test.

They have to provide a school academic record, personal statement, and references. It can be a daunting package to assemble, especially for sixth formers whose teachers don't know the system.

Financial aid

Most of the UK students who apply to Harvard are from fee-paying schools, some come from state-funded grammars, the smallest group is from comprehensives. In all, 40 students were accepted last year.

Aisling Crane
Student Aisling Crane preferred Harvard to Cambridge

Aisling Crane, from Gosforth High School in Newcastle, is one of five former comprehensive pupils I met at Harvard. She applied entirely on her own - she even had to brief her teachers on how to write their references.

There is a fee to sit the SAT. Aisling paid for it herself, with money she had been given for her birthday.

But, once she was accepted, Harvard's generous financial aid meant the cost of university was lower for her in the US than in the UK.

The full fee is over $50,000 (£30,000) a year - it covers tuition, board, accomodation during term time. For students whose families earn $60,000 or less ($65,000 or £40,000 for next year) the university will pay all costs and flights home.

Michael said his mother had not believed Harvard would pay almost all his costs until the statement arrived

There is aid available for families on higher incomes too - up to $150,000 a year.

Michael Gribben, from Bedford, said his mother had not believed Harvard would pay almost all his costs until the statement arrived in the post. Even now, he said, she thought the university might change its mind in the years ahead. Undergraduate courses at US universities last four years.

Aptitude emphasis

Michael, like Aisling, had turned down a place at Cambridge, England, for Cambridge, Massachussetts. He'd been accepted to read Maths, but was interested in a broader range of subjects. At Harvard, in his first year, he's taking philosophy, maths, physics, ethics and law.

Of course subjects are not studied in the same depth as at UK universities.

The students said they didn't mind that - they found the courses challenging, and enjoyed putting their own programme of study together. In the US system, second year students, or sophomores, choose a subject to "major" in, but they will still study others.

Sir Peter Lampl, head of the Sutton Trust, believes these broader courses provide a better grounding for life than UK courses do, and that they will appeal to many UK students. He believes too that the US approach to admissions is something from which selective universities in the UK can learn.

Josh McTaggart
Josh McTaggart is one of thousands of UK students studying in the US.

However, the Ivy Leagues have been criticised in recent years, for favouring children of alumni and donors, most notably by the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Goulden in his book The Price of Admission.

The students I spoke to described Harvard admissions as "more rounded" than the Ucas process in the UK. The university had been more interested in them as individuals they said.

Entry to Harvard is very competitive, with 17 applicants for every place. Yet the university doesn't demand perfect grades. Indiana Seresin, from London, had excellent grades at GCSE and A level. She didn't shine in the US tests, she said, but was still offered a place.

Josh McTaggart, from Weston-super-Mare, said the Ucas process was very "narrow" compared to the US version. Harvard had asked for far more information about him - which he had not been able to include on his Oxford application.

Admission to Harvard is run by the university - not the faculty. That is a major difference between the UK and the US. At Oxford, for instance, college tutors are looking above all for students who have a great aptitude for their chosen subject.

At Harvard, they are looking for candidates who will contribute to the university and gain significantly from it. Context - the quality of the candidate's school, their home circumstances, play a significant part in the Harvard process.

Applications for Sutton Trust summer schools in 2012 are open till 9 March (UK) and 16 April (US).

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