Juha's number 1 reason to study at a top university abroad
This post was written by Juha, a Project Access mentor and a third-year student at Cambridge.
My number 1 reason to study at a top university is the quality of education.
There are 2 main parts to this:
The system is less lecture-centric.
In Finland, the mode of teaching in universities tends to be relatively lecture-centric.
One goes to lectures, reads the relevant material for the exam (Fin: tentti), passes the exam and repeats the procedure until one has graduated.
Notable exceptions to this pattern would be the writing up of one’s BA and MA theses. In top UK/US universities, one would usually get an opportunity to interact and collaborate quite closely with leading academics of one’s field.
Study sessions where an academic sits down with you one-on-one or alternatively leads a small discussion group of 5-10 students are relatively common in well-resourced US/UK universities. In Oxford, these sessions are called ‘tutorials’, in Cambridge ‘supervisions’ and in Warwick ‘seminars’. In the American ‘Ivy League’ universities, class sizes are also usually quite small.
At this point, I think I should describe the contact-intensive teaching method that I know best - Cambridge supervisions. I have to (or get to) write 8 essays per term i.e. an essay per week.
The topics tend to be very engaging and I’ve had an opportunity to write on things like the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, the breakthrough of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s as well as the level of dissent to Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. One is also usually quite free to choose their essay topics- a thing that fosters independent academic curiosity.
Having done reading for about 5-6 days, I usually take about a day to plan and write my essay and send it to my supervisor. At the supervision we discuss the level of my writing, gaps in my knowledge and the development of historiography i.e. how has this problem been framed/understood before. This mode of more personalised teaching is usually in place, to varying degrees, in many top US/UK universities.
I’ve personally found the Cambridge supervision system a very stimulating way to learn.
It takes quite a bit of pressure off reading when one is certain that they can ask questions on confusing and complex matters in the supervision itself.
My supervisors have also been great at teaching and explaining very complex things. Additionally, frequent communication with academics has built a culture of interaction in which it’s totally ok to email any academic at any time to discuss reading or a particular subject-related problem.
While academics tend to sit at high tables like Hogwarts teachers, this academic culture based on communication actually tends to flatten hierarchies.
2. Rigorous demands help you thrive under pressure.
Being set a daunting amount of work can be quite exhausting, even exasperating at times. The typical workload for an Oxbridge student is c. 1-2 essays per week for Arts subjects and a similar amount of problem sheets for the sciences. At other Russell Group universities, the level of intensity is not far off from this.
Admittedly, I half-jokingly spend most of the term berating myself for ever choosing to come to Cambridge and dreaming of greener and more chill pastures in Finland.
However, it is paramount to emphasise at this point that learning how to thrive in an intense and rigorous environment is a formative experience that will undoubtedly prove useful in any setting in the future. The ability to read c. 10 items of academic literature (journal articles/books) in a week in addition to going to lectures, having an extracurricular or two, condensing one’s reading into a 2-3k word essay, as well as socialising, may seem like an impossible task at first.
Nevertheless, when you will get the gist of it, you will have learned tremendous time management skills and work morale.
Nowadays, people of our age tend to be extraordinary ambitious and have a deep desire to change the world for the better. This change may be achieved within the framework of business, academia, art, politics or any other field. To be an impactful changemaker one needs the ability to think critically and analytically, show initiative and balance a plethora of commitments.
Studying at one of the best universities in the world and thriving there will give you confidence and bravado to truly succeed in anything you will want to undertake after your studies.
There might indeed be a lot of work.
Nonetheless, that work will definitely pay off in the form of firmer resolve, higher levels of confidence, greater ambition and a host of precedents of survival to draw on when one will have to persevere under great pressure in the future.