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Investigating and choosing
There are some 175 universities in the U.K. Macalester has put seven of them on its Recommended List. They are St. Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland, University College London, King’s College London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and Oxford University (two colleges in particular – more about that later). There is a chance one of these is right for you.
If you want to investigate on your own, a good place to start is with the Guardian newspaper’s University Guide. This ranks all UK universities by academic subject area. As with all rankings you need to pay attention to the criteria that make them up, but at a minimum these rankings serve to identify the most highly regarded universities – and that is where Macalester students should begin.
Begin is the key word. When investigating a particular university . . .
- Pay attention to its academic calendar. Many are on trimesters (one term in fall, two in spring) or have a very short fall semester and a very long spring semester. Oxford, University College London, and SOAS are among these.
- Remember that you fall into the category of “international student” or “visiting student.”
- Go as deep as you can into individual department web sites looking for classes. Keep in mind that in the U.K. “course” usually refers to a course of study, not an individual class; the usual word for what we call a course or class is “module.”
- Pay attention to required prerequisites and which semester modules are given. Some are given all-year only.
- As the rankings suggest, universities (with the possible exception of Oxford and Cambridge) are not equally strong across disciplines. But our Recommended List does not go to that level of detail. King’s, for example, maybe be great in History but undistinguished in Economics.
- If you get seriously interested in a particular university, ask around among faculty in your department to see if people there have inside information. And check student evaluations here.
Oxford University consists of 34 independent colleges. Most of them DO NOT accept visiting students. Those that do have their own entry quotas and standards. You will need a minimum GPA of 3.6, and some colleges require higher. Entry to Oxford as a visiting student is competitive, but Macalester students get admitted regularly, do well, and love the experience.
Macalester has direct relationships with two colleges – St. Catherine’s and Regent’s Park. Each of these has its own strengths and limitations.
Studying in the UK
Macalester students who study in Britain (except at Oxford and Cambridge, which they always love) are often put off by some features of the UK university system. They find the professors distant, classroom discussion sparse, British students unengaged, grading criteria vague, and academic standards disappointing. What’s going on?
Here are some things you need to know:
- The system is VERY different from what you’re used to at Macalester, where there is so much emphasis on close interaction between professors and students. This is not the British tradition.
- British professors, as a rule, do not feel accountable for (or even interested in) your learning – that is up to you.
- The classroom part of the course is not the most important part; it may not be very important at all.
- The most important part is what you do on your own, with little or no guidance or feedback from the professor. It’s up to you to explore the subject area as broadly and deeply as you can. You get out of it what you put into it.
- Don’t expect the British students to be actively engaged during class time. They, after all, have grown up in the system.
- For the most part, you are going to have lectures and an exam. The lectures may not be much related to the exam. There will be lots of ambiguity about how to study for the final.
- Visa information: For students studying less than 6 months and not planning work or internship, no visa is required.
UK Border Agency.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this system.
- You aren’t used to it and it will take time to adjust.
- You don’t get regular feedback.
- You may not be buoyed by your peer group.
- You won’t know exactly how to go about getting a good grade.
- You run your own show, on your own schedule.
- You don’t necessarily need to go to class all the time.
- Register, if possible, for upper-level (300) courses, especially in the area of your major. These will be more challenging.
- For social life, look for a club to join. It will be easier to join clubs if you study in the fall semester.
- Read what previous Macalester students have written about their experiences in the UK.
- Recognize the differences between the two university systems as a cultural difference that you must adapt to. The Mac students who have done the best are those who have embraced independence, let go of worries about grades, and set about just learning as much as they could.