Skip to main content

John Wallis was just finishing his final weeks as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge when he wrote this blog for The Times Schoolgate, May 30 2012. But John wasn't writing about the Oxbridge dream. Instead, he wrote of his recent experiences stateside, after crisscrossing the lower 48 to review unis for Uni in the USA. John says he'd love to have studied in the US. Read on to find out why...

What's It like to Go to Uni in the USA?

At Florida State University you can get academic credit for participation in the student-run "Flying High" circus program, proudly offered since 1947.

At the University of Chicago, whose (semi-)official motto is "where fun goes to die", attempts to ease up the undergraduate curriculum were met with student protests.

The undergrads at Reed College in Oregon, meanwhile, are the only students in the world who operate their own bona fide nuclear reactor.

All this and more I learned over the course of several months traversing the USA in search of top universities to review for Uni in the USA, the UK's definitive guide to higher education across the Atlantic.

I discovered a great deal of variety - from the 13,000 acres of Sewanee University on a mountain in Tennessee (almost 10 acres per student) to the 20,000 students at famous Hunter College who cram into a few buildings around a single junction in Manhattan's Upper East Side.

From the masochist work ethic at Georgia Tech - spurred on by awareness that the university "forces" one in three students to leave by the end of the first year - to the cosy cake-bake sales at Lewis and Clark near Portland, home to the ominous "gang who decided they were never going to shower": you're never short of surprises when you're researching higher ed in the US.

But at the same time, there were things I found myself writing again and again in reviews of these fascinating places.

Firstly - the beautiful campuses. In the UK you're lucky if your uni even has a campus, but in America it's considered crucial for most respectable "schools" to have spacious, verdant and secluded premises for students to enjoy while learning. 

My first reviews expressed surprise and wonder at these phenomena; by the end of the trip I barely mentioned them.

I also found professors who were not only experienced, qualified and good at teaching (as students constantly gushed to me) but also really cared and made time for their students.

"School spirit", created by tight-knit campus communities centred on sports teams or other symbols of university pride, was highly valued, producing amazing extracurricular experiences.

A selection of popular annual events at Rice (in Texas) includes "the nod" (Night Of Decadence), Baker 13 (running in the nude), and "Beer Bike" (involves bicycles, alcohol and water balloons).

US universities are famous for their broad curriculums, offering such classics as Elvish (Wisconsin), Science of Superheroes (California) and Lady Gaga studies (South Carolina). 

The reason they can do this is because students don't have to limit their choices to just the one discipline they put on their UCAS form at the age of 17. Students can explore their full interests and benefit from connections between subjects, as well as delve deeper into one field in the last two years. Many told me how glad they were that they hadn't had to shut off options before they knew what they really wanted to do.

The cruel irony was that at the time of my trip, I had already begun to study at Cambridge, and it was too late to apply to participate in the incredible new educational world I had just uncovered.

For anyone who wants to see for themselves, I highly recommend doing your own trip. I used Greyhound buses and (both comfier than you'd think), and not only saw mind-blowing universities, but enjoyed an extremely cheap trip around the bizarre country that is America - from mint juleps and banjos on a Kentucky porch, to beer-pong in a Los Angeles fraternity, to playing chess in the ghettos of West Philadelphia.

Yes, there was a spot of awkwardness the night I realised that my couch-surfing “hosts”were a cult famous for recruiting members at Grateful Dead concerts, but the trip was a life changing experience even without the insight it afforded to the amazing world of US universities.

Or, if you want to save several thousand pounds in airfares and months of wandering, you can pick up a copy of the new and expanded Uni in the USA.



Related articles

  • The typical European university

    The prototypical University of Europe exists as a collection of old, pretty buildings sprinkled through the historic centre of your average, fairy-tale European town, indistinguishable from all the other buildings around them but for a discreet plaque by the door.

  • Exchange students and integration

    Europe is the land of exchange. It seems like every student in the world who wants to take a year or term out to study abroad descends on Europe with high hopes of self-discovery and Broadening of Horizons. Within the continent itself, the ERASMUS program generates thousands of criss-crossing exchangers every semester.

  • Six things you need to know about uni in Europe

    If you want to escape our Island, why look further than across the channel?

  • The Bologna Process explained

    You'll see mention of the Bologna Process cropping up in a number of our European uni write-ups; it matters to you for all kinds of reasons if you want to study in one of the 47 countries that have now signed up to it. Simon Sweeney's explanation of this fairly complicated new educational development is the clearest and most succinct we've seen.

  • Uni in Germany

    Germany’s educational reputation is perhaps the best in the world after the US and UK. The snag is that all international students must pass stringent German language tests to study at most good universities in Germany. This has lead to the bizarre contradiction that the country is among the most popular destinations for exchange students, but one of the least popular for full degree-taking students.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews, data and catchment:

Comprehensive catchment maps for English state schools inc. year of entry.
 School exam results by subject and performance GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 Which schools pupils come from and go onto.
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of more than 1,100+ schools.
 Overall school performance by GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 School data comparison by A/B weighted, relative success and popularity.
 Compare schools by qualities and results.
 Independent tutor company reviews.

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

 GSG Blog >    In the news >


Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

This month 'Breducation'

Are you knowledgeable about Scottish schools? Would you like to review them for the Good Schools Guide? Click here for more information.