Campus Life from cambridge to cambridge

Generalist Americans, specialist British

Outside of lectures, Cambridge and MIT have different educational structures

The increasingly globalized workforce means that large multinational companies recruit graduates from all over the world. Given that various countries have their own university systems, there will certainly be differences in how students are prepared to meet the challenges of employment. I’m in the fortunate position of having studied in two countries — my first two years of college were spent at Cambridge in the U.K. (where I will return next year) and I am now at MIT through the Cambridge-MIT Exchange. As such, I have firsthand experience of how both universities teach and I have been surprised by the contrasts.

In the U.K., degree programs are usually much more subject specific than their American counterparts. Indeed, prospective students apply to a particular course at a particular university while still in high school, and often choose their A-Levels (the last set of examinations taken at school, which takes up the last two years of compulsory education to study for) to align with this. As a typical student will only take four subjects at A-Level, omitting certain subjects to narrow the field of study is unavoidable. As a consequence, the decision as to what to study and possibly which career to take is largely made at the age of 16.

This lies in stark contrast to the U.S. system of arriving at college without having declared a major and being given the opportunity to take any class one desires within the relatively wide scope afforded by the university requirements. College may also seem to many readers to be absurdly early to be making important decisions like one’s future studies and career. These different latter-stage high school and early college strategies continue to have profound implications later in the further education process.

For example, it is widely acknowledged across the world that the typical American university graduate is very well-rounded, with a good base of knowledge in a wide variety of fields and greater ability in subjects closer to his major. U.K. graduates are much more focused on a smaller range of material, leading to a narrower breadth of capabilities but a higher level of competence in the chosen field. By way of evidence, students in the CME program such as myself take a number of graduate courses to ensure good compatibility with what we are missing back home despite only being juniors, but would seriously struggle in some of the freshmen GIR classes in subjects outside our major.

Interestingly, both MIT and Cambridge lean away from their native country’s conventions. MIT, by virtue of its strong technology bias, creates individuals very strong in science, to the potential detriment of their ability in the arts relative to science students from other colleges. Cambridge, at least in the science and engineering faculties, is one of the very few U.K. establishments that doesn’t require specialization at point of entry. Engineers follow a set general engineering degree for two years before electing their preferred branch of the subject for the final two years. Scientists are required to study wide range of topics for their first two years before splitting into chemistry, biology, etc. Perhaps the optimal solution is a middle ground between the methodologies on either side of the Atlantic, with the top two universities in the world approaching this from different angles.

However, I have found that the teaching styles of the two universities are relatively disparate, despite the similar overall strategies. Lectures are a given in any higher education establishment, but beyond this the two establishments move apart. MIT has a very strong propensity for labs and practical work, promoting a very “hands-on” approach in line with the Mens et Manus motto. It is clear to any outsider that the Institute puts its considerable income to good use here with no shortage of lab space or equipment.

On the other hand, Cambridge labs, certainly the undergraduate ones, are of significantly lower priority. For the first two years of the engineering course, for example, the labs are intended to be demonstrations of theory learned in lectures. Full credit is awarded simply for showing up and occasionally writing a cursory lab report. In later years, the labs develop into more extensive and graded projects, but the courses are biased much more towards theory.

In place of recitations, Cambridge uses supervisions, whereby students go through problems and queries they may have with their work or more generally in the course with academic material at a typical ratio of two to one. This incredibly intensive procedure is an invaluable resource students really come to appreciate — though there is nowhere to hide in the event of not having done the work — and allows a very thorough and comprehensive understanding to be developed in a relatively short time. Which is perhaps just as well, given that Cambridge runs three eight-week terms a year, compared to MIT’s two semesters of around 14 weeks not including IAP.

The final, and perhaps greatest, difference lies in the grading system. MIT’s continual assessment through quizzes, midterms, problem sets, projects, and finals is a very in-depth method, with the added advantage of spreading pressure over a longer period. In Cambridge, an entire year’s work hinges on the one or two weeks in June when the exams take place. During the final term of the year, there is a tangible difference in the atmosphere between the weeks of serious revision before exams and the glorious celebration of excess the week after. This time is known as May Week, and has the world renowned May Balls.

One might think that you can cruise through the first two terms of the year, but this way of thinking would be a catastrophic mistake: a lesson many students learn the hard way. If you don’t learn it the first time, chances are you won’t in the five or six weeks before exams as you try and pour over a year’s worth of material. Both methods divide opinions; some feel the continual assessment leads to students cramming the night before quizzes without learning for the long term, while others think that finals alone do not factor in practical skills and impose unrealistic amounts of pressure on students. Nevertheless, both are undoubtedly tough tests of a student’s ability.

MIT and Cambridge both provide brilliant levels of education for those willing to seize the opportunity and put in the hard work. The students who persevere are the ones that companies will be looking for, regardless of where they studied.