Advice| Martin Bucháček

Martin Bucháček | Don’t Be Scared of Studying Abroad

Martin Bucháček, a student in the four-year Mathematics and Physics program at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, has described his experience with preparations for the admission tests and studies at a university outside the Czech Republic. Martin has been financially sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation since 2012.

(Published in the Mensa magazine)

Short-term scholarships at foreign universities are popular amongst Czech students, and they often use in particular the Erasmus program. However, only a few students consider seeking a degree outside the Czech Republic. The high costs of living, the school fees, and the language barriers are the most frequent reasons for most of the students to opt for a university in the Czech Republic, despite the fact that many of them would have the potential to graduate from a prestigious university of their choice in another country. The purpose of this article is therefore to convince the readers that studies abroad don’t have to be dreams never to come true.

I will describe in more detail mainly study in the United Kingdom. I myself began contemplating a mathematics and physics program in the U.K. after meeting, at a Mathematics & Physics ‘training camp’, a student who was notified of admission to the University of Cambridge at that very time. Naturally, most people ask such students - how have you actually achieved this?

The answer is very simple: just submit an application. Universities in the United Kingdom are willing to accept students regardless of where they completed their earlier studies. It is, therefore not required to produce an A-level certificate (an analogy to the Czech school leaving examination) or an International Baccalaureate; Czech secondary level education is quite sufficient. Part of the application is the student’s motivation letter and the teacher’s letter of recommendation. The purpose of these documents is to also provide the universities with information about the student’s interest in the field of study and what they are doing in this field over and above normal classes at school, in addition to the student’s marks.

The documents have to be sent in January via the UCAS online application. Most U.K. universities will decide only on the basis of the details in the online application, and some of them may request the candidates to send their essay on a given topic. The most prestigious universities usually invite students to interviews. In successful cases, the so-called conditional offer follows, i.e. admission to enrolment subject to specified results of the school leaving or similar examination, and/or other standardized tests (for example, in the case of Mathematics, it is the STEP [Sixth Term Examination Paper] examination). You should usually also expect to sit an internationally recognized language test, where the level of proficiency required by different universities may vary. In the case of applying for sciences, where a perfect knowledge of the language is not a precondition for successful studies, the language test is sometimes not required.

The two best-known British universities, Cambridge and Oxford, have the most challenging and the longest-lasting admission process. Both of these universities differ from others by a specific system of the so-called colleges. The university only provides common lectures and examinations, while students’ other individual training takes place at one of the various colleges, and each of the colleges has its own academic staff for these purposes. Students also stay, eat, and live their social life at their college. For these two universities, applications should be sent as early as by mid-October to a particular college, which organizes the subsequent interviews. The prestige of these colleges varies, and if the student is rejected, they may end up in a so-called pool, standing a chance of being conditionally admitted to a different college than the one they originally applied to.

It should be emphasized that everybody must decide in advance on whether to apply to Cambridge or to Oxford, as applying to both of them is not allowed. At the first stage, each of the colleges selects students for interviews on the basis of the motivation letter. The best way of attracting this attention is to participate in student competitions, Olympiads, and scholarships, and to follow your desired field of study in your leisure time as much as possible. My own interview took place by way of a written test and subsequent discussions with the teachers on the problems being solved. Interviews focused on sciences or mathematics usually have such a purely practical nature - questions geared towards the student’s motivation or goals are rather rare.

You should be prepared that the curriculum in the United Kingdom may differ very much from the Czech curricula. In Mathematics, a much greater emphasis is placed on differential and integral calculus, which in the Czech Republic is a subject in the last year of school only and usually given only cursory attention. In my own case, one of the conditions for admission was passing the STEP examinations, which also test the candidate’s mathematical aptitude in questions beyond the courses covered at high schools in the United Kingdom. In humanities, a hurdle can crop up - the concept of these subjects is different in the Czech Republic and in the United Kingdom, where emphasis is mainly placed on analyzing information, and expressing and defending one’s own opinion through essays, to which Czech students are not accustomed.

The school fees and the cost of living “swallow up” most of the money when you go abroad to study. The same amount of school fees always applies to foreign students from the European Union as for the country’s own students; for example, it used to be 3,500 pounds per year in England. However, as of this school year, it is 9,000 pounds. You can apply for a loan for purposes of paying your school fees. The advantage of the loan is that it is repaid by 9% withholdings from your wages above a certain level and if it is not repaid in 25 years from graduation, the balance is waived. Thus, taking such a loan does not imply any financial risk.

The costs of living vary depending on the place of study, type of accommodation, and lifestyle, and they usually amount to some CZK 25,000 per month. In this respect, another advantage of enrolling at Cambridge or Oxford can be felt - the school year there is only about 7 months and students can receive subsistence grants of about CZK 100,000 per school year. Unfortunately, the other British universities do not offer such opportunities to foreign students. Additional funding can be obtained from several foundations that support Czech students outside the Czech Republic; for example, The Kellner Family Foundation sponsors students throughout their bachelor’s program.

The system of studying at British universities differs from that of Czech universities in many respects. Here, emphasis is placed on the students’ own course work and self-learning. In my field of study, three or four times per trimester we receive a list of problems to thrash out in every subject, and these problems are then discussed with the teacher, usually in a pair with another student, during the so-called supervisions. And again, you can only come across supervisions at Cambridge and Oxford; the other universities take a less individualized approach to students. And so our parents’ recollections of their time at university as years of comfortable peace and quiet, when, as they say, they only had to cram in the examination period, definitely do not apply here. Cambridge holds examinations only once a year in June and they contain the course material for the whole year. Preparing for these exams only entails reviewing the already learned schoolwork thanks to the system of supervisions; in spite of that, the demands placed on students are so heavy that in some courses, there are no lectures in the six-week run-up to exams and students prepare for exams throughout this time. And you can also forget about oral examinations before a board of examiners - as a principle, examinations have the form of written tests, and an essay may be required.

British society is said to be very conservative; on the other hand, it would probably be difficult to find places that are more open to foreigners than Oxford and Cambridge. British bureaucracy is easygoing and, for example, I was quite surprised that I was not asked to send my school leaving examination translated into English; a copy of the Czech original accompanied by an explanatory commentary sufficed. The number of the other required documents was comparable to the number required for admission to a Czech higher education institution. If, then you want to improve in a foreign language, gain experience abroad, or try out a different style of instruction, don’t hesitate - applications really can be submitted by everyone.

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