Posted: 18 October, 2017

US Universities Half Term Trip

Blog, Sixth Form, Suzie Longstaff

At Putney, we pride ourselves on helping our sixth formers find the course and institution that best suits their ambition and talents. Given the academic achievement and intellectual ambition of our girls, it is no surprise that most go on to the best universities in the world and this of course includes the USA.

We have all heard of the Ivy League. Universities like Yale, Harvard and their non-Ivy colleague for STEM subjects, MIT, are names that conjure awe and admiration on both sides of the Atlantic. But you may not know that the United States boasts around 2,000 universities and colleges, in comparison to only around 130 in Great Britain. This of course means that the potential ‘top-tier’ that students might apply for is much larger and for those that think globally in their aspirations, the opportunities are immense.


According to the Fulbright Commission, which fosters educational links between the UK and the US, there are around 11,600 British students currently studying in these institutions and the number is growing thanks in part to an increasing awareness in the UK of what is on offer, combined with a number of enticing scholarships – some of the most well-known American universities offer generous financial aid to make them more accessible.

This October half term, a group of intrepid Putney sixth formers will be venturing “across the pond” on a tour of some of the top universities that the USA has to offer. They will be ably accompanied by our dedicated US Universities Coordinator, Susan van der Linden, who has helped to organise private campus tours and information sessions at Harvard, MIT, Tufts University and Northeastern among others.

The trip isn’t a purely academic one, as the girls attending are all keen rowers and will no doubt be excited to see how the facilities on offer compare with Putney’s own boathouse on a prime stretch of the River Thames. They will be taking part as an eight in the 53rd Head Of The Charles race, an event which attracts over 11,000 top athletes from around the world. But aside from an enviable education, fantastic opportunity and obvious kudos, what is the real appeal of a US university?


‘Not having to specialise too early’ is one major attraction of the US college system, explains Susan. ‘In the first two years, you are able to study an array of subjects before narrowing down to your ‘major’ at the end of your second year’. So called, ‘Liberal Arts’ colleges are a great choice for many Putney students as they offer a strong foundation in skills like writing and critical thinking; their aim being to impart a  broad general knowledge and develop general intellectual capacities, rather than simply preparing students to fill more defined professional, vocational, or technical roles.

This is an appealing concept to anyone with broad academic interests and after all, isn’t success at life about finding out, not only who you are, but what you are really passionate about?

What can they expect when it comes to the application process? In its advice to undergraduates, the Tufts University in Massachusetts advises applicants to, “Think outside the box as you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected”.

are two examples of their recent essay questions:

1.       ‘There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today’. (200–250 words)

2.       ‘In a time when we’re always plugged in (and sometimes tuned out), tell us about a time when you listened, truly listened, to a person or a cause. How did that moment change you?’

Questions to strike terror into many hearts, but hopefully not for Putney pupils, for whom original thinking is a concept they are entirely familiar with. Last week, the whole senior school took part in PIE, part of the school’s Putney Ideas Exchange programme and a day intended entirely to push the boundaries of thought far beyond the confines of the school curriculum. Visitors such as University Challenge’s polymath, Bobby Seagull reminded us all of the importance of curiosity, and how we should strive to be “the best version of ourselves” and above all, to “say ‘yes’ to opportunity”.

The Harvard website champions an education focussed on both knowing and doing, one that “fosters intellectual risk-taking …Our students leave here and exert ripples across the world.” Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard. These are bold assertions indeed, ones that will no doubt inspire Putney sixth formers who are well on the way to becoming independent thinkers in their own right, with the support of fortnightly Critical Thinking lectures from experts as diverse as: adventurer, Anna McDuff and neuroscientist, Dr Bhavana Solanky; designed to stimulate and inspire them to be fearless in their intellectual curiosity.

At our PIEday, one of the many inspiring guest speakers, conductor and music educator, Suzi Digby OBE, reminded us that, “It’s the opportunities we don’t take which are the ones we regret.” So as our would-be American students prepare to pack their bags and venture into an educational Wild West, let’s remind them of an important Putney maxim and one which Suzi summed up so beautifully in her talk last week, “Be brilliant and go beyond your horizons.”

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