Oxbridge versus the Ivy League

I WOULD like to congratulate the six Malaysians who have recently been accepted into Harvard College (Harvard) in the United States as part of its Class of 2026.

To be part of only 3.19% of the 61,220 applicants accepted this year is indeed a remarkable achievement.

Every year, high-achieving Malaysian students apply to the best universities in the United Kingdom and the US.

My child applied to these universities and received offer from one of them. I would hence like to share what I know about the admissions process and selection criteria of these top universities.

Cambridge University and Oxford University in the United Kingdom place strong emphasis on academic performance, and they only recognise specific academic qualifications from each country – for instance, the A-Level or Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) exam results from Malaysia.

Typically, successful applicants are armed with straight As in their exam subjects.

Oxbridge also assess students through their admissions tests, as well as conduct interviews to verify the academic ability of students.

In short, students must show evidence of academic ability, and perform well in the admissions test and interviews to be competitive in the selection process.

The entire admissions decision is made by the subject experts (lecturers and professors).

The Ivy League universities in the US, however, do not emphasise academic performance as much as the top UK universities.

They focus instead on overall performance including extra-curricular activities.

Applicants are required to write long essays and provide answers to short essay questions which will be used by the selection committee to gauge whether the applicants are suitable.

There is no pre-university programme in the US unlike countries such as the UK, Malaysia and Singapore. Students in the US apply directly to universities after completing their high school education.

The duration of an undergraduate course in the US is four years, compared to three years in the UK.

UK students sit for a standardised exam like the O-Levels and the A-Levels, whereas US students use their school exam results to apply to universities because there is no state-sponsored standardised exam.

Historically, the privately run SAT was the standardised test used by some Ivy League universities to evaluate students but due to restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years, the SAT is no longer a prerequisite.

For international students who wish to apply to Ivy League universities, they can do so using the exam results of their countries’ public exams and/or school exams.

The selection process for Ivy League universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard is conducted by members of the admissions committee, who are not subject experts.

They also conduct an interview but it is not to assess the academic ability of applicants.

The purpose of the interview is for the applicants to have a better understanding of the university that they apply to by having an exchange session with the interviewers, who are alumni members.

These interviewers are not given information about the academic achievements of the interviewee; they are only provided with information such as the student’s name, school name and email.

The alumni interview, however, is optional, and will not affect the admission chances.

This is unlike in Oxbridge where the admission interview is an essential requirement for acceptance.

The main reason behind the admissions success rate of top US universities is the restrictions on the number of international students. While not explicitly stated, it is known that Ivy League universities limit undergraduate admissions of international students to around 10% of the admissions pool.

The reason behind this is that these universities offer very generous financial aid to all the admitted students, regardless of American and international students. Hence, an unwritten quota is set to safeguard the interest of American taxpayers.

If you search the admissions statistics for Cambridge and Oxford, you will notice that international students make up a large percentage of their admissions pool – almost 30% to 40%.

The reason for the high percentage is that if you can meet their exceptionally high academic qualifications and you can financially afford the fees to study there, you are welcome to enrol.

That is why every year, there are about 20 to 30 (or more) Malaysians who are admitted to Cambridge and Oxford for undergraduate programme while extremely few Malaysians get into Ivy League universities.




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