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I'm a UK Student with the chance to go to the US, but where?

  1. May 27, 2015 #1
    So I'm currently in the process of completing my ACT on a program that will help me apply to the US. As conceited as this may seem, I'm thinking of applying to either Stanford, Caltech, MIT or Harvard (for undergrad). Yes obviously they're all some of the best on the planet, but I do have a small chance. I can only put one for Early Decision, and so I was wondering which one would be the most appropriate. Hopefully a few people on here know these places well enough to guide me.

    My aspirations are to study theoretical/particle/cosmological physics. I'm not a practical guy, so engineering courses aren't preferable. I would like to have a decent social life; I want to be able to mix with people with similar academic pursuits, as well as others. Variety is the spice of life ;)

    MIT strikes me as the obvious 'FOR SCIENCE GO HERE' place. But is it really where I should be? Should I not be too concerned on the research aspects of the universities for undergrad; should I save research interest for grad schools. Or should research be a big thing to consider right now? Obviously places like LIGO and Fermilab are the coolest places alive and given their strong connections with MIT and Caltech, should this be a consideration?

    I would like to keep up my swimming, but I highly doubt I'm the standard for Harvard's teams.

    Or maybe I should stay in the UK and focus my efforts into Cambridge or Birmingham, which is where I would to be over here.

    MIT, Stanford, Caltech or Harvard for a UK student who wants to study theoretical physics and needs a strong sense of variety in a community and a good social life. Also I like swimming.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 27, 2015 #2


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    Welcome to the forum! What are your grades like? That will probably influence the decision. I assume you're currently at AS/A2?
  4. May 27, 2015 #3
    I have 9 A*'s/2A's at GCSE and am aiming towards 4 A's for AS and who knows what'll happen at A2.
  5. May 27, 2015 #4
    It's time to look at my favorite MIT web page: http://web.mit.edu/registrar/stats/geo/geo1314.html.

    There are currently 6 UK undergraduate students at MIT, so given that undergrad is nominally a four year program, they admit one or two students from your country per year.

    Apply everywhere, but just be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket.
  6. May 27, 2015 #5
    Wow, I had never seen that before. And now I'm depressed.
  7. May 28, 2015 #6
    Wow that is incredible. Do the other Universities have this kind of information public?
  8. May 28, 2015 #7
    I don't understand how this would work out financially; would it be costly for you to attend one of these schools? If so you should just go wherever is cheapest/has a decent sized physics research program for your undergraduate, then go to Fancy Pants University for your graduate degree. It will be vastly easier to get into FPU for your graduate degree as an international although still no cake walk.
  9. May 28, 2015 #8
    There is a page at Harvard, http://www.hio.harvard.edu/statistics, but it includes the disclaimer "The information on this page are for casual use only and it does not reflect official University data." You would want to look for Students at Harvard College. From the UK, there are currently 57, or about 15 admits per year.

    I never looked at this before myself... it's curious that the number is so much higher than MIT, when the school sizes are roughly similar!
  10. May 28, 2015 #9
    They are all top nothc for "science" -- but individual programs may differ. The MIT Engineering program - may have an edge over the others - IMO due to their emphasis on hands on - practical work on real life and cutting edge tech.
    For most - these schools are really pursued for their status....why are these schools your targets?
  11. May 28, 2015 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    Harvard undergrad is 50% bigger than MIT undergrad. As far as I can tell by comparing countries, MIT takes a higher fraction of students from Asia than Harvard. (Interestingly, the same is true for students of Asian extraction(
  12. May 28, 2015 #11
    *Roughly* equal. At least when comparing 6 to 57. :smile:
  13. May 29, 2015 #12


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    Out of the places you listed, it sounds like Stanford would likely be the best fit. I know several people who went there for undergrad. They all loved it and loved the physics department. They got a wonderful education and it seems like the physics undergrads have a strong sense of community. Stanford also happens to have almost perfect weather and in my opinion is the most beautiful campus I have ever visited.

    If you can afford these schools and want to go to the U.S., I don't see why you should apply. However, you will most likely you will not get into any of them. I don't agree that these schools are just pursued for status, these are four of the very top physics programs in the world. The courses are taught by some of the most famous physicists in the world. You can also do research with many of these professors as an undergrad.

    Cambridge, Oxford, and Birmingham would also provide you with a top notch undergrad education. I know people from each who are now doing high energy theory in my grad program. However, as you know, the style of education is completely different. You will not take classes in other fields which you will be required to take at the U.S. schools you listed, and the style of instruction and types of assessments are also very different. There do not seem to be as many opportunities for undergrad research. It seems that the international students I know did not have as much research experience as students from the U.S. This won't be held against you, but I think undergrad research is very rewarding and helps you figure out what research is like.
  14. May 29, 2015 #13


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    Studying in the US sounds like a good experience
    However, there are potential problems which means you need to think about what you want to do afterwards. If you later decide that you want to pursue a PhD in the UK you will face the problem that the systems in the UK and the US are not entirely compatible.
    An undergraduate degree in the US usually means that you finish with a BSc and you can then apply for grad school (I know there are terminal master's programs, but they are -AFAIK- not very common). The system in the UK is different, and you nearly always have to have an MSc before you can apply to become a PhD student.
    'Nearly' in this context means that you need to have an MSc to be eligible to apply to any of the new doctoral training centres (DTC). You still have the option of applying for a "regular" PhD position at one of the universities that do not have a DTC, but these positions are becoming increasingly rare since the EPSRC is channeling the vast majority of funding for PhD students to the DTCs.
    Moreover, you will -regardless- always be competing with people with MSc so "only" having a BSc would be a distinct disadvantage.

    I have recently been in contact with two people who faced this exact problem (both had graduated from good US universities). I believe one of them eventually managed to find a position (after working with me as an intern for a few weeks), but that was only after having worked for a couple of years as a computer programmer (etc) to make himself more attractive.
  15. May 29, 2015 #14


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    Make a list of all the schools you would be pleased to attend. Apply to all of them that you can, subject to restrictions of time and money. Many schools have application fees for example.

    Get back issues of magazines like Physics Today and various other such. These are the "happy gossip" type magazines. This school has hired a new prof, that school has expanded their lab space, and such. Get the issues with listings of recent graduates and where they went after graduating. Find the places those grads went that make you want to follow their example. Your librarian and Google should be a help in this.

    Research at an undergrad level is likely to be subdued. You may be invited to be a "lab monkey" if you are good at it. Things like stringing wire or installing stuff in the lab. Or checking other people's numbers in theory calculations. Presumably this will get better as you advance, so it is not a bad thing to put up with this for the first year or so. Just watch out that you do advance and that it does get better. If you are still "washing bottles" in third year then something is wrong.

    Competitive sports and a degree at a school like MIT will likely only be compatible for those few who are elite in both science and athletics. If you are such a super-man then my respects. I would suggest you decide which one you want to be elite in and concentrate. And you can probably be an elite athlete without paying the tuition you will pay at MIT. Don't stop being athletic, just make it a reasonable time per day.

    Oh I forgot one other thing. Many scholarships require you to apply to be considered. So get the scoop from the various university admission departments, and apply. You might get a many-$thousand surprise gift.
  16. May 30, 2015 #15
    Harvard mainly because it has a good physics department and from what I've seen, I love the atmosphere and location of the school. MIT and Caltech due to their reputations as science institutions and their links with places like LIGO and Fermilab. Stanford because of the location and they have Leonard Susskind who is a great professor I would love to be taught by.

    Obviously I'm still doing my research. Depending on how my ACT scores come back will mainly influence whether or not I apply to these schools because my academic extra curricular's and academic credentials are pretty strong. I'm hoping I stand a chance at going to one of the best.

    Regardless of whether I go to the US for undergrad or not, I will be putting all of my effort going to the US for postgrad. Hopefully going from the UK to the US with a MSc shouldn't be a problem.

    Considering I'm more interested in theoretical physics, maybe MIT isn't the best place for me.
    Last edited: May 30, 2015
  17. May 30, 2015 #16
    To be honest, Lawrence Krauss is my favourite physicist so maybe I should apply to ASU ;)
  18. May 30, 2015 #17


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    There are U.S. schools where you can get a master's during undergrad. I did this. My friend did too and is doing her PhD in biophysics in the UK there are also tons of opportunities to take grad courses as an undergrad at all of the school's you listed.

    MIT is also great for theoretical physics. They have two of the most famous condensed matter theorists in the world. They also have Frank Wilczek and Alan Guth. I would say Harvard is more of a theoretically focused place, but the department is significantly smaller than MIT.

    Why isn't Princeton included in your list? They are one of the very top places for HET. I would also strongly consider UChicago, they have a wonderful physics department. However a downside of UChicago is that my friend told me that the class sizes in the undergraduate physics courses are very large. That could also be an issue for MIT as well. At Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford that should not be an issue at all. However, of those three, I feel that Harvard overall as a university and as a department is more grad centered than MIT, Princeton, and Stanford.

    I don't think I would consider Caltech as strongly unless you really feel it's a good fit. It is a tiny school, only around 1000 undergrads, so if it is not your cup of tea you might be very unhappy. It is a very high pressure school like the others, this is made worse by the fact that the school is so small and students are for the most part not well rounded. Even at MIT you will be forced to take more non science courses and you also have the option of taking courses.

    Another thing to emphasize is that if you go to Harvard or MIT, you can cross register at the other school. This is really not tough to do and gives you access to a huge and unparalleled number of physics courses. For example, if there is a particularly good course at one school (QFT I at Harvard, Statistical physics I and II at MIT in terms of grad courses) many students come over from the other school to take the course. There are also some highly specialized courses at each school taught by world famous professors, and you are unlikely to find an equivalent course anywhere else since they can be based around the professor's research. These courses can be black holes, topics in string theory, holography, CFT, entanglement or topological states of matter, AMO, quantum information, topics in biophysics, etc.
  19. May 30, 2015 #18
    Thanks a lot! Very very helpful! I think I'm going to stay away from Caltech, and I'll certainly take a look at Princeton.
  20. May 31, 2015 #19
    I guess I'll be the one to say that there are many other great schools for physics in the U.S. apart from HPSMC. Especially at the undergraduate level, where the material will roughly be the same everywhere. What will make the difference for admissions to top-notch graduate programs is access to good/top professors in the field (for recommendations rather than for learning from) and research opportunities (amount of experience, publications, etc). Go to a school you will be able to take advantage of. Note that some schools have more competition than others.
    I would also factor in price (it's great to attend a top place for free or close to free), but I'm very unsure of how it works with internationals. My uni apparently demands full pay for int'ls. Not sure how many places are like that.

    OP, definitely apply to those schools you listed. I've been dealing with transfer acceptance rates the past semester or so and freshman rates seem generous by comparison. I wish I could go back and give it a go. Like TMFKAN64 said though, it is still basically a lottery ticket for all of those schools, especially given their holistic admissions process.

    You should probably have some "backups." Do you have any other schools in mind?
  21. May 31, 2015 #20
    I haven't had a great looks at any back ups because I'll most likely fall back on my UK unis if I get rejected by the top schools. Harvey Mudd seems to be good, though. Not sure how much of a 'backup' that is.
  22. May 31, 2015 #21
    Having UK unis as a backup makes more sense. Since you should have that covered, then yes, you can just apply for selective reaches in the U.S.

    IMO, HMC is as good a choice as any of the others if you plan on pursuing a PhD. I think it is still pretty selective though.

    Since you say you prefer theory, I was reminded of Reed. It's a small LAC with a very rigorous physics program focused on theory rather than the practical/applied/engineering. A very large amount of their graduates go on to pursue PhDs.
    However, they will probably not be able to accommodate your love for swimming.

    The schools you're looking at are all excellent. When it comes down to applying ED, I would select the one that simply "pulls" you the most. You will probably be able to write the most passionate essay for that one, which could make a difference.
  23. May 31, 2015 #22


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    Don't know what appeals to you, but FWIW, Harvard is the wealthiest of the schools you mention, so the dorms are nicer, the libraries are bigger and the social prestige factor is maximal. Boston also has a huge variety of culture, restaurants, hundreds of other schools with many dating options, etc....Stanford has much better weather than Cambridge Massachusetts, especially in the winter, and everyone I know who went there loved it, whereas some people disliked the atmosphere at Harvard in the past, which however I ascertain has greatly improved over the decades. MIT is slightly less well located than Harvard, and some of their students told me they felt Harvard students were having more fun. Harvey Mudd has extremely high level science but maybe much less diversity and other opportunities than the other schools mentioned. If you change your mind in any way, or think you might want to be exposed also to French literature as well as science, maybe a liberal arts school like Harvard would be better.

    In the end, the schools you mention are all exceptional, and you probably could not go wrong at any of them. Oh and British schools are the standard that American schools have emulated for centuries, so that sounds mightly good too. If these are realistic options for you, you have no worries.
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