Recently, I’ve been going through the joy that is university admissions in 2023 applying simultaneously to US & UK systems. Trying to get in a halfway decent application for them both without sacrificing my studies and the theatre productions I’m involved in has been, to put it lightly, a little bit of a huge pain.

Here I’ll be writing about my experience applying to US universities, specifically MIT (and if plans hold, then a caltech post later this year) from the perspective of a Brit.

Long-Term Prep

One thing that both systems seem to have in common is that you need to be an interesting person who can show passion for their subject. From a Computer Science view this means that I’ve spent the last few years making more projects than I can shake a stick at. I’ve tried to make a variety of projects, but the main focus has been on making sure that the project was fun to code over making it actually useful. I found this insanely helpful to make sure I actually ended up finishing these projects to an acceptable degree, rather than just having a halfway finished physics engine that I wasn’t really all that interested in. If you want to see what I’ve been cooking, I’ve got a few writeups on this site, with more coming.

I’ve also kept up with computer science and general tech news, like making sure to flick through TWIR every week or listening to WAN show on my runs.

Admissions Tests

This is the main difference between UK & US admissions as far as I can tell. I’ll take a bit here to explain both systems so everyone understands.

In the UK, at the end of the second-last year of school you take an internal set of exams and your school gives you a set of predicted grades - you send these to the universities with a personal statement and then universities hand out conditional offers. These are conditional in that the offer will have a set of requirements for grades which will normally be at or below the predicteds you submitted.

Whereas in the US (as far as I can tell), you take exams (like SAT or ACT exams) which get sent to the universities with a metric ton of uni-specific essays (apart from if they’re part of a coalition like Common App where there’s one common essay). Then, they send back unconditional offers. There appear to be loads of exceptions and weird bits though - like applications which are binding if they accept you, or some universities which are test-optional or test-blind.

So, I’ve got all my predicteds sorted because I go to a UK school, and then I took a few ACTs last year after doing a prep course.

Observations from a Brit

It’s really interesting what the different systems prioritise. A-Level Physics is about a fundamental understanding of the subject with equations and some bits you’ve got to memorise whereas ACT Science is more about reading, understanding and then answering questions about those experiments. A-Level Further Maths is about long questions with problem solving elements, but ACT Maths is simpler and seems more solve this matrix than prove by induction that this matrix does that.

Part of that difference might be that the American Universities also ask about which courses you’ve done, and what your GPA is. I can’t answer them though because I don’t have a GPA. I also don’t have any AP classes because that isn’t really a concept in the UK. In some ways I don’t have to stress as much through the year because I don’t need to worry about every individual test affecting anything that goes on my record or to the universities, but equally if I mess up that one big test at the end of the year then I’m properly screwed.

Recent Stuff

So I filled out my applications and wrote my essays, and ended up submitting early action - very slightly better odds and earlier knowledge of success or failure in return for earlier deadlines.

I then waited for a few anxious days and got a text & email from my EC (Education Counsellor - if I’ve seen worked out one thing about MIT so far, it’s that I’ll need to make a pretty big spreadsheet for acronyms). We had a chat, and eventually she sent me a calendar invite for about a week later on a Friday afternoon in a coffee shop.

This is another interesting difference - most UK universities seem to work off a series of successive filters, like grade requirements, or personal statement and then interviews. They are themselves a filter, but you’ve got to have passed through a fair few beforehand to make it to that stage so people consider it an achievement. Whereas in the US, every attempt is made to give everyone an interview which is just an interesting change.

This was when my MIT interview prep properly started (probably a bit late). If I were doing this again, I probably would’ve started reading the MIT blogs earlier because they’ve been insanely helpful, and you can find them over here. Over the last week and a half I’ve read more blogs than I can count, on everything from the best spots to cry or study to organising Splash to struggles with burnout. There are YouTube videos, but I haven’t really found many of them as useful. I also can’t lie - the student bloggers over there are definitely part of my inspiration for this.

I also started preparing answers to all kinds of questions from ‘Why MIT?’ to ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’ to ‘How do you spend your free time’, and, especially relevant this year, The Community Question. I’ll happily say that some of these questions were asked and some weren’t and that I also had a fair few questions I hadn’t prepared. What to prepare is kind of up to you - it’s not my place to tell you what questions because every interview will be different. I will say that if you’ve got topics that you’re planning on getting to, then make sure to be ready for them to ask follow up questions.

The Day Itself

Since my interview wasn’t until 3PM, I did my usual friday morning classes rather than sleeping in. I do regret this - I wasn’t really able to focus for lots of that morning and I just felt stressed about when I was planning on leaving. One part that was quite funny was walking into one of my lessons knowing well that I could walk out whenever I damn pleased because I’d have a pretty decent excuse. That teacher had done one of my references so he was happy to just let me go without complaint.

I sprinted over and made good use of TfL to get to a Pret near my interview location about an hour and a quarter early. I was lucky that it had a decently sized bathroom which I made use of to get changed, before buying a sandwich and some food. I then realised - the Pret was full of people trying to do exactly what I wanted to do (using the Pret as a warm place to work that had food & sockets). Eventually a table opened up and I sprinted over to get my phone & laptop charging for later use.

Then, about 30 minutes before the scheduled start I went outside for a 10 minute talk to the interview place which was a way nicer café than the Pret I’d gone to - nice staff, better vibe & much better Hot Chocolate (I’d rate it as best I’ve ever bought).

Then, at about 15:00 on the dot, I instantly heard when my interviewer come in - a US West Coast accent stands out in a sea of Brits. I’d lucked out in this case and got an interviewer who was attended the same ‘School’ at MIT which I wanted to attend, which was the School of Engineering. She’d done Course 2 (Mechanical Engineering), and I want to do something in the Course 6 area (Computer Science).

I luckily got a chance to speak about pretty much everything I wanted, and I came up with some pretty decent answers to the questions I hadn’t prepared for. From what I’ve heard, my Cambridge (UK) interview will just be lots of Maths questions so I loved the opportunity to speak about things I’m really passionate about. It had definitely helped that I’d done practice questions in a vaguely interview-like format and from my end it seemed like she made an effort to just let me speak about anything & everything I wanted to which was really lovely.

As for the questions I asked her - I think I asked her about things like what she did for accommodation and the things she’d done for her extra requirements but the most interesting answer I got was definitely not from the question I expected.

That would have been when I asked if the vibe I’d gotten from the blogs was accurate - work hard, play hard. One of the main social activities for her was doing homework with friends which is certainly a contrast to what I’ve heard about other universities in the UK.

My interview ended up lasting a hair over 40 minutes, which went by at a speed you wouldn’t believe. I felt it lasted a good amount of time. I did have more to talk about but I wasn’t 100% sure how to fit it all in.

All done

I’ve got a few things I probably would’ve done differently if I could do it over, like mentioning a few of my outside of school hobbies that didn’t make it into my application but all the moping in the world isn’t going to change anything.

All I can do is nervously wait for mid-December. I had a peek at the stats last night, and I’ll share my interpretation - there’s about a 20-30% chance I’ll get outright rejected, which sounds incredible until you factor in that there’s still only a 6-7% chance of acceptance. The rest get waitlisted, and just dumped into the regular application pool. Of those waitlisted, it’s about a 2-3% chance of acceptance which is pretty slim, so a waitlisting isn’t all that far from a rejection 😭.

Out of all the international applicants, regardless of admissions stage, the chances are just 2% which is pretty small. That having been said, the UK seems to punch above its weight in terms of students in relation to the population and I can see that about 2 get admitted every year. It’s a shame that they don’t do applicants per country and not just current undergrads because then I could actually work out more stats. Then again, it’s probably not healthy to obsess over those stats so we’ll see what happens 🤷.

16/12/2023 Update

I got waitlisted. Guess I’ll be waiting until π Day?