Advice| Marek Svoboda

Student Marek Svoboda: Why and how to study in the U.S.

Marek Svoboda graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in the City of New York and is now preparing for his admission tests to a master’s course in General Medicine. He describes his experience preparing for admission tests for American universities for the readers of the Mensa magazine. Marek has received a grant from The Kellner Family Foundation’s Universities project to study abroad.

(Published in the Mensa magazine)

Though I come from Slušovice in the Zlín area, I recently completed my bachelor’s degree program at Columbia University in the City of New York. Unlike most of my peers, I decided to study in the United States, a relatively rare destination for Czech high school graduates compared with Europe, when I passed the school-leaving examination. There are several reasons why only few Czechs go to the U.S. to study, but I believe the most important one is the generally low awareness of this option. Studying in America often seems to be out of reach, and this discourages many, even though the knowledge Czech students have is at least comparable with that abroad. So I will try to describe in this article what bachelor’s studies overseas actually entail.

Quality, breadth and duration of enrolment
There are several reasons to study in the U.S. One of the principal ones is the high quality of many American schools, which is usually rated with the following basic criteria: high academic ratings of teachers (based on their research and skills as educators), a low student-to-teacher ratio (as a measure of a personalized approach), broad-ranging facilities for academic and leisure activities (to ensure that students grow as well rounded people) and, most importantly, good career prospects for graduates (measured by their later employment and income). Bear in mind that the quality of schools in the United States runs the gamut, and so there are also many relatively less good universities that may not be worth applying to over Czech schools.

Another reason that attracted me was the Liberal Arts, the educational system that predominates in bachelor’s degree programs (called undergraduate schools or colleges). This places emphasis on a versatile education that is designed to produce students with a broad understanding, including in fields outside their specialization. In effect, students leaving high schools apply for a specific school in general, and not for a specific field of study. When admitted, they have the first two years to try out several different fields at once, and they choose their specific field later. American undergraduate programs are therefore great for those who, having passed their school-leaving exams, are not yet firmly decided for one specific academic field and would first like to try studying philosophy, economics and biochemistry at a university level, all simultaneously. This is why undergraduate programs take four years here, which, however, can be a relative waste of time for those who are no longer interested in exploring the varied options at grammar school.

Diverse academic experience
For my part, the American university gave me an opportunity to study literature, philosophy, art history, and music, although my primary focus is behavioral neuroscience. From my very first year, I focused on preparations for my medical school while being allowed to work as an assistant at a research lab in my free time (another benefit of studying in the U.S.) and enjoying studying the humanities. In my third year, I even got to spend one “foreign” semester in Paris, dedicated to subjects such as French-American Relations, French Colonization in Africa, and the Philosophy of Ethics. I regard an all-around education as being very important for my future, and studying in America was therefore the best choice for me.

This system is also combined with a certain compactness of campuses at the undergraduate level. University buildings are usually located near the dorms, where most students spend all four years. Since initially almost everybody studies everything, as described above, students of various fields in the future are intermingled both in lecture rooms and the dorms. This makes for a very interesting dynamic of constant interaction between young people of various origins and interests, who thus enrich each other with unusual cultural experiences, versatile knowledge, and new friendships, and also professional contacts for the future. Unlike many European universities where students barely meet in lectures while living scattered all over town, this makes for another important dimension of university life that typifies schools in the United States.

As suggested above, there also are some disadvantages to studying overseas. The undergraduate school takes one year longer, which is a result of the time-consuming Liberal Arts education as well as the fact that pre-university studies are one year shorter, just 12 years for Americans. This is usually an obstacle in particular for those who want to start their professional life as soon as possible. Also, bachelor’s degree programs are fully separated from masters, so if a student plans to continue his or her academic career, they often have to undergo another fully-fledged admission procedure for the follow-up master’s school while still studying for the bachelor’s degree. However, the obvious transition to doctoral studies (PhD) is the reward for that, primarily in science programs. This is one of the reasons why graduating with master’s degrees is much less common in the U.S. than in our country.

Admission requirements
The decision to enroll at an undergraduate school in the U.S. is followed by the admission process, which consists of five basic components. First, the standardized electronic application for undergraduate programs in the U.S. (the Common Application) contains forms where you have to fill out your academic results for the last four years of your high school studies. The students’ academic aptitudes are also rated through mandatory standardized tests – SAT I or ACT (you have to take at least one of these basic mathematics and English tests; ACT also covers science) and at least two SAT II tests (high-school level tests in specific subjects). International students often have to take the TOEFL language test as well. The third component of the application is two recommendations from teachers and one from the guidance counselor or principal. The general picture of the student’s personality is supplemented by an overview of his or her extracurricular activities and achievements. The last item, required by all schools without exception, is a personal essay on one of the five suggested topics (one of which gives the student freedom to describe any important event in his or her life).

The admissions department considers all of these five elements with equal weight. A personal interview is an optional part of the admission process and is only offered to students who live near some of the school’s representatives such as the members of the admission panel or alumni, and so Czech applicants are usually left without this option. When all of these steps are taken, talented Czech students have a realistic chance to study in the United States. What are the real roadblocks, then?

One of the potential problems for Czech high school graduates is their inadequate knowledge of English; however, this can be overcome by attending a language school or extracurricular language courses, or by spending time abroad. Some extracurricular activities such as academic debating (http://www.debatovani.cz/) and various international projects are other great places to practice. As regards more details of admission procedures, and not only in the United States, potential applicants can approach their school’s guidance counselor and/or students who have already gone through such experiences. (https://www.facebook.com/StudujVZahranici). Much valuable information about studying in the U.S., as well as free access to the study materials needed for preparing for the standardized tests is also available from the Czech offices of the Fulbright Commission (http://www.fulbright.cz/). The financial inaccessibility of these usually private educational institutions, where the cost of one school year may exceed $70,000, or about CZK 1.5 million, can often be a bigger hurdle to tackle. Many of the most prestigious institutions offer generous grants that make the goal achievable. In addition, there are several foundations in the Czech Republic that offer students heading abroad full or partial grants to make their dreams come true; the most generous ones include The Kellner Family Foundation (KFF, http://www.kellnerfoundation.cz/) and the Zdeněk Bakala Foundation (http://www.nadacezb.cz/). Both foundations support several dozen of the most talented students every year.

The Kellner Family Foundation fully supported my undergraduate program in the U.S., which I completed in May 2014. Being a Czech student, I was able to expand my horizons with general knowledge that I am planning to put to use as a future physician and researcher. I decided to stay in the United States to study medicine, and am currently going through the admission procedure. I have also succeeded in obtaining grants from both of the above prominent Czech foundations for my master’s. Considering all the benefits of studying overseas, for me this means a unique opportunity to prepare for the for a career in medicine at some of the best academic institutions in the world, with access to the best education and technological achievements of modern science, which I will then be able to use in the Czech Republic, or anywhere in the world.

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