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February 6, 2024updated 08 Feb 2024 5:36pm

A League of Their Own

If You Think Your Oxbridge Application Will Stand Out to Harvard — Think Again

By Spear's Partners

As prestigious universities in the United Kingdom vie for more students from state schools, private school pupils are increasingly eyeing schools across the pond. According to The Times, in 2021, the number of Eton students who received an offer from Oxford had dropped to only 48 from 99 five years prior. As UK private school graduates are becoming less desirable to top UK schools, they have turned to the Ivy League as a welcome alternative. However, they are quickly finding that what elite US universities want is vastly different than their British counterparts. 

Like many other UK parents whose children had Ivy League aspirations, James and Alice Sloane found that they needed expert help to navigate the process. Their son Oliver was an exceptional student—he earned near-perfect marks at Tonbridge School, where he enrolled in the most challenging courses available. Although he had initially hoped to attend Cambridge, his father’s alma mater, he became discouraged after seeing dozens of his talented peers face rejection.  

Oliver set his sights on Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, enticed by the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunities for academic exploration, which were more expansive than those offered by either Oxford or Cambridge. As James and Alice researched the application system and sought to understand what Oliver would need to do to stand out, they realized that the admissions process at US schools presented its own unique challenges.

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‘Tonbridge is an exceptional school,’ says James. ‘They offered support in researching schools, navigating the visa process and assembling an application—but there was still so much that they were not equipped to help us with when it came to what Ivy League schools expect of applicants.’

According to Christopher Rim, Founder and CEO of Command Education, a US-based private college consulting firm, students in the UK fail to recognize the importance that US universities place upon activities outside of the classroom. Dedicating years to these non-academic pursuits may seem superfluous to those accustomed to the UCAS system, but these aspects are crucial to an American application. 

‘Competitive US schools want to admit students with a clear and demonstrated passion that they have taken the initiative to explore independently and use for the good of their community—doing so requires students to start years before they even begin their application,’ states Rim. ‘Students should thread a unique and cohesive story through their essays, activities, and coursework, and it’s up to the student to determine what story they want to tell.’

When the Sloanes began working with Command Education, Rim emphasized the importance of creating a passion project to exhibit Oliver’s core interests and skills to US colleges. With the guidance of Senior Mentor Wafa Muflahi, Oliver identified his dual passion for science and literature, which was reflected in the challenging coursework he had completed at Tonbridge. 

‘I’ve been working on a series of science fiction short stories for years in my free time as a hobby,’ recounts Oliver. “Wafa showed me how to take that interest to the next level and build community around it.”

Wafa guided Oliver through the process of submitting his stories for publication, and his writing appeared in a respected global journal for student writing. Inspired by seeing his work in print, he mobilised a group of his peers to found ‘Pen Prodigies,’ an independent writing contest for students, which he advertised through bulletin boards, newspaper ads, and online forums. Approximately twenty students submitted their pieces for the inaugural competition. The number of submissions nearly doubled the following year.

Now, Oliver has the opportunity to expand the competition globally—after applying Early Decision, in December he received a coveted Ivy League acceptance from Brown University, where he plans to study English. 

‘We could not have navigated the process of applying internationally without Chris and Wafa’s expert guidance,’ says Alice. ‘Oliver not only has a spot at one of the most competitive universities in the world, but he also has a path for his future and the confidence to achieve his goals.’

*Disclaimer: Names and identifying information have been changed to protect students’ and families’ privacy.

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