The University Dilemma

Stanford: a view from Hoover Tower

I have mentioned again and again that I am torn between going to the US and staying in Europe for University. Do I want that campus lifestyle in a relatively foreign and exciting country, with some of the best institutes of the world, or do I want to stay within the culture I want to potentially live and work in [in later life, anyway] and learn a second – maybe even a third – language properly by having classes taught in them? The UK, despite it being a familiar scene to me, is also not out of the question. Cambridge and Oxford are both world-class institutions, and dirt cheap compared to the US. In this post, I would like to dissect this dilemma – in my signature broken and disorganised way – and hopefully reconstruct it in a somewhat coherent manner.

ETHZ: the main building

I have started year 12 (US Junior year) this year, taking 5 AS levels: Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry, Physics and German. You know those motivational speeches they give you at the start of term? Mine was more of a “work or die, but the work will also kill you. So you are screwed either way. Enjoy the year!” kind of thing. I had somewhat of the same feeling at the start of GCSE year, but not to the extent I am having it now. We are expected to complete three hours of work per evening minimum – that’s a school standard, not an arbitrary number. Of course, this means at least 4 hours averaging over 6 evenings. Oh yes, then I have at least 4 other commitments in terms of school-related extra-curricular activities, most of them after school. But you know what? I am more preoccupied with university choices and fretting over a future that may not even happen too much to afford to waste time worrying about that! (thats not to say that I am getting bad grades though…!).

I went to the ETHZ on Wednesday the 4th of September, one of their annual open days, where all the faculties present themselves within the main building, offering tours, presentations and free lectures, so in that respect, it is as much a learning experience as it is an open day. I stayed with a family friend on the eve of the event, then took the train and tram down to the centre of Zurich in the morning, where the University is located. The Swiss teaching style is starting broad – but not as broad as is done in the US – an then narrowing in the later years. All the engineering disciplines, for example, have the same general education in sciences and maths for the better part of the first two or so years. It is similar to the UK system, in that you apply to a course, but the major difference only comes in the third bachelor year or the fourth (masters) year, but even then, everything is so interdisciplinary.

I went to the Maschineningenieurwissenschaften – mechanical engineering – presentation. The professor put up a slide that will not soon be forgotten: a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge with the words, “ein Ingenieur ist jener der eine Brücke zwischen was die Menschen wissen und was die Menschen brauchen bauen kann,” (please excuse the grammatical inaccuracies) which translated means “an engineer is a person who can form a bridge between what humanity can do and what humanity currently needs”. It’s not particularly profound, but I just like the saying. Of course, it sounds much better in German! He also said, “mit Jus Studium, verdienet man zwei mal so viel [als wie mit eine technische], aber wir haben Spaß!” Translated, this means “with a degree in law, you will earn twice as much than with a technical degree, but at least we have fun!” Again, a funny saying that I will hopefully remember!

In terms of seeing myself live and work there, I could. It’s a city university, very much like Imperial College, which I am familiar with, so I would not have a hard time adjusting to a radically new lifestyle and city. But then the little voice in my head says, “but a campus university is so much fun!” Yes, it is, but is such a protected and enclosed lifestyle right for me? It may be for others, but I enjoyed my time at Imperial – a non-campus university – but I also enjoyed myself at Stanford at the EPGY program immensely! I can also see myself for sure studying at Stanford, and I am sure my British accent would not go unnoticed!

I am also torn because of the supposed difference in academic quality. ETH is high, always in the top 10 or 20 rankings, but MIT, Stanford, Harvard, etc. are always in the top 5 or 10, as well as Cambridge and Oxford in the UK. I have learned to become weary of rankings after hearing my school’s reasoning for not publishing GCSE or A-Level results – namely, it does not give an accurate picture of the standard of education at an institute – and indeed, these rankings are often published by US or UK publishers, so the motives may be questioned. I am reminded of a point made by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: success – measured in this presented case by the education of Nobel Prize winners – does not mean going to the best university, just a good enough university. Indeed, ETHZ has educated 12 Nobel prize winners, while Stanford has done so for 9. Both the institutions were founded before the foundation of the Nobel Foundation.

But this statistic is skewed – like many of those in The Daily Mail ‘newspaper’ here in the UK. There are, of course, other US institutions! MIT has educated a huge number of 30 prize winners, while Harvard, 67! Even Cambridge in the UK has educated 64. Is it perhaps the case that my take on the ETHZ is incorrect? It is after all 20th in Wikipedia’s list top 38 Nobel laureates by university affiliation, which is not unimpressive in its own right, but its still below names like Cambridge and MIT.

The question that should therefore be asked is whether my extrapolations from this data are valid, seeing as many may graduates and post-graduates decide to go to the US due to the research funding available and for the association with a famous university name, not necessarily the quality of education. Is it then the case that US institutions are a self-fulfilling prophesy? Become prestigious > get better students > get more funding > increase education quality. If this is the case, then the university reputation is set by the quality of the student, and not by the quality of the faculty. But then again, is this not the same for any institution?

Another thing I need to consider is the international diversity of people I would meet. Clearly, a US university would have a more internationally diverse student body, given that at the ETHZ the first two years must be undertaken in German, limiting the international non-german speaking entrants, but looking at Stanford’s and MIT’s international (i.e – those not holding US passports) acceptance rates, they are painfully low – in the range of 10%. The international diversity they advertise should really be called ethnic diversity: second-generation Americans, of many ethnicities, is what is being advertised. The ETHZ, on the other have, accepts 40% international (non-swiss passport holding) students per year, and that would translate to a lot of ethnic diversity! Going to the ETHZ would also give me a better founding in European life, allowing me a more Euro-centric network in the future and potentially a degree that is more attractive to future European employers, although, I would also think that a degree from MIT would not look too bad either!

On that point, I spoke to a very nice representative from a university in Bern, Switzerland at the Student World Fair in London recently, who had graduated from MIT, gone on to do graduate at Harvard, and still found it hard to get a job in Europe. She told me that the easiest way back is to work in the US for a large multi-national company, and ask for a transfer. But realistically, I would like to do graduate (if I decide to get a study for a graduate degree) in the US for sure, just because the US graduate schools are certainly better than in Europe for graduate. The question then becomes one of whether four years of undergraduate in America would be overwhelming. I spoke to a Stanford Alumnus at the London US College Fair, who told me that he came to the UK for graduate because “he had had enough of California”. When asked whether his professional network in the UK and Europe is substantial, he replied that he still flies to California at least twice a year. I could not determine whether he was implying that he enjoyed these trips or found them a burden. In any case, he does not regret going to Stanford!

A further factor that must be, less so considered, but overcome, is the pressure of parents, and in my case, an unhelpful sibling as well! Going to any of them for advice is futile: my mother – and associated family members – wants me to go to the US, while my father – and associated family members – wants me to stay in Europe. My sister, whenever I even bring up the suggestion of attending the ETH will burst out with, “why the hell wouldn’t you go to Stanford? Please don’t tell me that you think ETH is better than Stanford!”. I was, and still am, surprised that she has taken an agenda on the matter, but I have, as any older brother does, learned to ignore these statements, but when prompted for an answer by her, I reply, “the question is not that simple,” as we have already discussed. “They are different,” is my inadequate response. I eventually told her that if she could not contribute any useful insight or information to the discussion, she may as well keep her thoughts to herself. Of course, my actual words were a tad bit less formal than that. She is keeping quiet for now. I doubt she will if she finds this post though.

A final word on the matter. I would love to apply to all ETHZ, Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, etc., and attend them all simultaneously, but that would mean that I have to apply through four systems separately: CommonApp (US), UCAS (UK), MIT and ETHZ. As you can imagine, this will probably require more time than I will have available to me, and seeing as I am doing 4 A2s and an AS next year – the absolute maximum my school has slots in the timetable for – I am going to have even less! Indeed, the head of year said to us that applying through both UCAS and CommonApp to the UK and US simultaneously is an unbelievably large workload and that it would be wise not to do so. Imagine doing it for four! Then again, as mentioned, when was I never not up for a challenge?

So overall, where does this leave me? Well, I have seen many universities and I have plans to see Cambridge. I am talking to my school’s Universities department (who lack knowledge about European universities in comparison to US ones), and I am now more confused than ever. A good start, I would dare say. At least I have gotten in contact with the relevant people earlier rather than later, when the entire process would become much more rushed and stressful! If anybody has anything to say, get in touch: the same problem, new insights, thoughts on the above, anything. I would greatly appreciate it. Of course, there are a few other things I have not considered here, but those are for another time!

In any case, dear future admission officers, when you read this post, please be safe in the knowledge that any application you receive from me will be from a student who has spent possibly an unhealthy amount of his latter teenage years pondering whether to apply to your institution, based on a wide variety of deep-rooted factors, and will, if indeed accepted, take full pride and advantage in attending it.

It Couldn’t Be Done

By Edgar Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


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