Ask Richard: Young American Atheist Applying for College in the U.K. August 16, 2010

Ask Richard: Young American Atheist Applying for College in the U.K.

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Mr. Wade,

I’m starting my senior year in high school and I’m preparing for college applications. I am an American but I’m applying to colleges in the UK.

I want to study there because I know Britain has a much more secular society. I would love to live somewhere with that difference, even if it is slight. I also really admire their government’s ability to separate church and state (a problem I see n America). I see Britain as being a place of freethinking. Science also seems more important than religion. (A British ten pound has Darwin on it. And what does our money have? “In God we trust”) I yearn to live there so I can be more comfortable and open as an atheist and among more atheists.

Now you’re probably wondering why I need your advice. In the applications I’m required to write a 500 word personal statement. In that statement I must include details on WHY I want to study in the UK.

My questions are…Should I be clear and honest in my reasons? Should I risk explaining that I am an atheist? I might meet prejudices from admissions officers. I found some of your advice from October 2009 concerning a senior wanting to come out as an atheist in his college application essays. You helped him to consider the pros and cons. I know my case is different because this is a personal statement not an essay and I am applying to colleges that may not hold as strong prejudices against atheists.

Also Mr. Wade…do you think my reasons for wanting to study in the UK are actually good? I know that you have talked about your daughter in college. What would you tell her?

Thank you sir,

Dear Erica,

Please call me Richard. I appreciate your etiquette, but I consider us peers and comrades.

There are two parts to an education received far from home. One is the subject of your study, and the other is what I call “Life 101.” This includes all the things you’ll learn about taking care of yourself, the mundane things such as cooking, laundry, and budgeting your money. It also includes meeting people with different cultures and viewpoints, and discovering any misconceptions you had about the new place where you are now living. Another common benefit of this “class” is seeing your own culture with a fresh eye after living in another.

So I think your written statement should address both of these things, but I think it should emphasize the reasons why you want to study your chosen field in the UK. The colleges are aware of the “Life 101” effect, but they’re not responsible for it. They’re selling an education more than their country’s culture. They want to know how they will benefit you as a student, and how you will benefit them as an institution. They may be interested in the rest of you as a whole person, but I think their primary concern will be how your academic efforts will be enhanced by being in the U.K. and attending their school in particular.

Write about how you are hoping that the more open attitude toward rational thinking and science in the U.K., less encumbered by religious dogma than in the U.S., will enhance your studies and your contribution to your field. Then talk (convincingly) about how your research into their particular college tells you that you and they are the best match for a successful collegiate career. They want serious, go-the-distance candidates.

Yes, in general I think that you’re less likely to encounter prejudice against your atheism from admissions officials in a British college than in the U.S., but of course there’s always at least a small chance. The other possibility to consider is that because there is greater tolerance and less tension about atheism, if you make a big deal about being an atheist, they might see it as a “so what?” Presenting yourself as a freethinking refugee from the Superstitious States might not impress them as something important to their purposes.

So if you mention atheism specifically, let it be part of describing your general outlook and your interest in clear rational thinking, but don’t inadvertently sound as if you’re offering it as a qualification for considering your admission to the college. If you describe it as the main reason that you want to leave the U.S. and live in the U.K., you could do that without attending a college. You could just go, get work, rent a flat, and hang around atheists. I think the college admissions officers mainly want to hear what your purpose of studying your major will be, and how attending their school in their country is a good idea.

What would I tell my daughter if she was considering this? I’d say if you’re going to the U.K. primarily to feel more free as an atheist, then going to a college there is secondary. If college is secondary to anything, there’s a good chance you won’t finish it. College can be tough, and some European colleges can be far more demanding than some American ones (at least I’ve heard). So go there perhaps, but apply to a college only if it’s college first, country and culture second. Get really clear on how your reasons stack up.

I’d also say be careful not to idealize or romanticize any faraway land, just because one aspect is more appealing than what’s at home. There may be many other things that you are unaware of that will require very difficult adjustments. Be a good skeptical investigator, and talk to as many people as you can find who have lived and studied there, both the natives and the visitors.

I’d also tell her that while I hope she finds all that she is looking for, I’ll really, really miss her.

Erica, I hope that you can do this, as long as your reasons are well considered and right side up. It will be an adventure, but it’s also serious business. Study hard, learn like you’re starving for it, and contribute something back. After you graduate, whether you stay there or come back, please send us the insight and wisdom that you’ve gained. We really need all we can get.


I’m hoping that the several readers of this blog who are from the U.K. or familiar with it will jump in here and help Erica with this, if in my ignorance I’m either not accurately representing the situation in the U.K., or I’m entirely missing something important.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Robert

    As a person from the UK now living in England I will endorse much of what Richard states in his well thought out response. I will however disagree, or at least put a different spin on “The other possibility to consider is that because there is greater tolerance and less tension about atheism, if you make a big deal about being an atheist, they might see it as a “so what?” Presenting yourself as a freethinking refugee from the Superstitious States might not impress them as something important to their purposes”. I think Erica has the right spin on this aspect, most European / UK folks will agree with the general sentiment that the US is a largely superstitious nation in which it can be difficult for a rationalist to thrive without having to overcome unnecessary obstacles. So no, I think that angle is something that will resonate with College (University :)) entrance administrators.

    Good luck Erica, I think it’s a great decision, not just for college but for life.

  • Andrew Morgan

    I’m sure where you go to school in the United States could also produce a similar effect without having to go abroad. I went to two colleges, one a tech school in (relatively) liberal upstate New York, and UVA in (relatively moreso) conservative Virginia. In the rarefied air of elite, non-Christian colleges, the difference was slight.

    As long as you aren’t planning on going to Liberty, anyone will probably find college more accepting of atheism than the wider society. We have plenty of fine institutions here where atheism would be no problem at all.

  • Kim

    As a Brit, I think I would wholeheartedly agree with the advice given. Atheism isn’t the big deal here that it is in the U.S. We have our religious nuts, of course, but institutionally there is no reason to hide one’s atheism. The vast majority of people don’t care one way or the other, whatever their personal beliefs.

    While the more relaxed attitude here might make Erica fell freer and more comfortable, it really isn’t, as Richard says, good grounds for supporting an application to study. Stick to the educational reasons.

    I would just point out though that, paradoxically, our separation of church and state exists only in custom and practice, not in law. The Queen is head of the church in England and its bishops sit in the House of Lords – our second legislative house. A travesty I would like to see rectified as soon as possible. However, disestablishmentarianism is not as popular here as one might imagine. Not, I think, for religious reasons or because anyone really believes the church knows better than the people do, but because it’s been that way for centuries and we’re just used to it.

    Good luck with your application and your studies!

  • Angel

    Further to my comment posted on the FB link…

    If paying international school fees isn’t going to be a shock to the wallet, I would perhaps look at colleges and universities within the US that are based in friendlier locations to people with diverse beliefs/lifestyles.

    Lots of those colleges belong to semester abroad cooperatives and you will be able to experience the culture and surroundings by getting your feet wet before jumping in entirely. I discovered that even my local community college belonged to an international semester abroad program, so I could have applied at an inexpensive school locally and then spent time in some very prestigious international schools.

    It also means that if you wind up loving a destination school you’ve been sent to for a semester, it may potentially be easier for you to relocate at that point than simply applying as an international applicant.

  • Aj

    Britain does have a more secular society, and religion is not important to many peoples lives, even less among younger people, so you will find yourself around more atheists. I don’t think freethinking and science are much more important to the people of Britain compared to the United States. British people believe in irrational nonsense and don’t appreciate science like the majority of people in the world. Britain does not have a separation of church and state, it’s very much in a worse position than the United States on that count. I suspect that the difference between England and New England isn’t much concerning Erica’s interests.

    Don’t mention atheism or criticize religion in your application.

  • Steve

    Hi, Erica, I’m English and I’d like to say your atheism would not be a factor in applying for a college here, in fact you would not even be asked about your religion or lack of it, it has no place in the lecture room. As Richard says, it’s purely your academical qualifications that matter. If you are successful, please be assured there are many like minded students, plenty of clubs and associations to join, most colleges and universities even have Christian groups, nothing for you to worry about! Yes, we have our fundies and extremists but they are in the minority, we are a secular democracy and welcome everybody who wants to contribute. Be warned though, it will be something of a culture shock!

    Good luck!!

  • I’m in the UK and when I was applying to universities, we were told that within the personal statement we should discuss academic matters, but also other achievements and motivations that weren’t related to study or exams, so that those considering applications could look at the whole person. This matters more at some Unis than others.

    There’s some good advice here.

    I’d say yes, mention that you are keen to study in a society where religion has less power and freethinking is more accepted. Also what you want to study and why. Why you want to go to particular Unis, what attracts you about the city they’re in. And your interests and likes outside of academia too. Good luck! And if you end up in Sheffield, look me up!

  • Hitch

    Completely independent of the atheism thing I think it’s really really valuable to study in a different country/continent.

    But yes, topic first, country second for sure. So figuring out what you want and what good places are that do what you want is really important.

  • Laura

    I have to agree with Angel above: Look into study abroad programs through US universities, especially if you can’t come up with a good academic/educational reason to go abroad other than just “I want to go abroad.” Start college here in the US first, figure out your major (because it’ll change even if you think it won’t), and then find a study abroad program to match.

    I also desperately wanted to go abroad as a high school senior, but it would have been a mistake for me to go just for the sake of going, or because I wanted to escape my narrow-minded family. Going to a state university for two years first made me narrow in on an academic reason to go, so that when I got there (University of Kent at Canterbury in the UK) I knew exactly why I was there. That made it a much more rewarding experience, both academically and personally.

  • Nerdette

    While I didn’t jump borders, I did jump cultures when I went to college: I left smalltown Kansas to go to school at the University of Chicago. The culture shock was nearly non-existent because what I thought to be greatly secular in Kansas was the norm in Chicago. All incoming first years were required to watch a movie about how to approach the great diversity of college life at Chicago, and one of the students they interviewed was a Christian. She went on about how strange it was being a minority – “Just because I go to the University of Chicago doesn’t mean I’m an atheist!” I couldn’t express how happy I was to hear that. For once, I wasn’t a minority in my beliefs.

    There are other secular cultures in the US pocketed away, so you don’t have to jump the pond out of obligation. If you can afford to go abroad, then go for it and have fun! Just don’t be terribly disappointed it if you find yourself remaining stateside in one of our pretty-good secular communities.

  • Your religious views are irrelevant unless you’re planning on a theology degree or you happen to be a creationist who wants to study one of the natural sciences. It may be worth mentioning as a precursor to giving your reasons for choosing a particular university.

    As Richard says your application “should emphasize the reasons why you want to study your chosen field in the UK”. So if you’re applying to Portsmouth then their reputation as a premier school of engineering is relevant. If you’re applying to Cardiff then their reputation in research is important. Similarly Manchester University is known for political activism and ideology if the social sciences are your thing. I’m sure you can tie in your own experiences to these ideas.

    The supporting letter is about you and it should explain to the admissions board what it is about you that will make you a committed student. If you mention your atheism it should be in the context of how your schooling and extra curricular activities make you a more rounded individual. Were you in a debate team or were you active in a secular society or help to organise an event? That kind of thing is more important than your opinion of religion. If you’re not doing any extra curricular activities then it isn’t too late to start.

  • To echo Steve’s comment, if you do choose to study in the UK it will definitely be a culture shock. Don’t be fooled by the fact that in most parts of the UK English is the primary language; you will still be going to a different country with a very different culture.

  • R.

    I’m an American who attended a British university for my undergrad degree. It’s interesting to hear Erica say that there’s a greater separation between church and state in Britain considering that the head of state (the Queen) is also the head of the Church of England. While many parts of America can seem like a troubling evangelical Christian theocracy, there are plenty of areas in the US (and plenty of American universities) where atheism will be completely accepted, particularly major cities on the East and West coasts, many progressive liberal arts colleges, etc. Britain also has its fair share of Bible thumpers. If this is your only reason for wanting to go to the UK, I’d suggest seriously re-thinking your decision.

    With that said, there are plenty of benefits to studying/living abroad and choosing to go to school in the UK instead of the US was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A few things to keep in mind: the British university system is VERY different from the US. There is no “liberal arts” curriculum in the UK — since it looks like you’ve already started the applications, you know that you apply directly to a specific course/subject rather than applying to the university and declaring a major later on. You WILL be expected to stick to this subject. It is virtually impossible to switch (everyone I knew who wanted to switch courses had to basically start over from 1st year.) You will also be taking more or less all of your classes in this subject area. This is very different from the American school system generally (both at the secondary and university level) where you don’t specialize until fairly late in the game and are likely to have a lot of distribution requirements in different areas. You should only be considering universities in the UK if you are absolutely 100% positive about what subject you want to study.

    Assuming you are still completely committed, I don’t see any particular reason to mention atheism in your personal statement. They are looking for reasons why you are qualified to study that particular subject in that particular department/university; it’s a very different type of essay from typical American college applications which look for more creative answers that tell a lot about an applicant’s personality. If you’re applying to do Chemisty, they’ll want to know about any experience you have doing lab work and why you’re interested in it; if you’re applying study French literature, they’ll want to know about your language proficiency and the summers you spent traveling around Provence, etc. In terms of discussing why you want to study abroad in the essay, I’d focus more on wanting to immerse yourself in another culture, get a broader viewpoint, etc. rather than attacking the religiosity of the US.

  • Allison

    If your only reason for wanting to study in the UK is for the secular government and environment, I would recommend looking into Canadian universities. They’re often cheaper than their American counterparts (even with international student fees!) and, unlike the UK, our religion and government are very much separate. Like the UK, no one really cares about an individual’s religious beliefs, and the overall atmosphere is of tolerance. It would also be much less of a culture shock.

  • Tracy

    If your main reason for applying to school in the UK is to feel more accepted, try checking out places in the US that are relatively secular.

    2009 Gallup poll: “Americans with no religious identity at all tend to be found most frequently in the Northeast and Northwest (plus Hawaii)…Oregon tops the list, with 25% of its residents claiming no particular religious identity, followed closely by Vermont at 24%. Other states with at least 20% ‘no religion’ are Washington, Alaska, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Maine.”

    Also, lots of colleges have secular student clubs that are a good way to find like-minded folks. I wound up with a young-earth creationist roommate (she was astonished to discover that the other ‘non-partier’ on our hall was an atheist) and promptly peppered my half of the room with fliers for events put on by my school’s secular club. She was the first super Christian person I ever met, and I survived – we actually got along just fine – and I have some entertaining stories to tell my atheist friends!

  • Claudia

    I’m familiar with the UK for work reasons. Though I’ll defer of course to actual Brits, I tend to agree that atheism isn’t as big “A Thing”. Which is to say stating your nonbelief is likely to be met with a shrug, at most. Especially if by the UK you exclusively mean England (which I assume you do), where nonbelief is very common indeed.

    You have 500 words. That’s not a lot to sell why the school of your choice is the best for you. At most I’d make a statement about the long British commitment to scientific advancement and culture that make it a particularly fitting environment for your study of X.

    Just avoid saying that soccer is shit. Or using the word soccer at all. That will get you deported inmediately.

  • Erp

    She might mean Scotland also. I believe St. Andrews has worked hard on attracting US students.

  • Olive Oil

    Erica, I think you might also be underestimating the college culture in the US as well. I went to a liberal arts college (actually affiliated with Lutheranism, though in name only) in Pennsylvania, and the campus was very nonreligious. Religious people could seek out groups of like-minded individuals, but these groups were quite small. We even had fundamentalist Christian anti-abortion protestors come to campus every year or so and a large group of students often formed spontaneously to counter-protest, shouting responses to battle their slogans. This environment is where I began to trust my instincts with skepticism. I have since moved to the wonderful, vibrant, fantastic city of Chicago and have fully embraced atheism, and haven’t really encountered any issues at all. I’m in graduate school now at an arts school here and have not encountered any issues at all.

    So, what I mean to say is – if you love the culture of the UK and are very focused on your intended topic of study, more power to you! Go for it. If you’re trying to go to escape your town’s mindset, check out more secular areas of the US – you might be surprised.

    And ditto to whoever said “study abroad”. Do it, do it, do it, do it 🙂 (Even if you’re in the UK – they might have an option to go to another country for a semester? I know German universities offer this.)

  • Ashley Whittal

    Erica, I would echo the words of Richard when it comes to your application.

    Religion is very much a private matter here in England. I can honestly say that I don’t know the religion of the vast majority of my friends or acquaintances. So placing too much emphasise on your atheism could be a bad thing.

    I never attended University although my sister has just recently graduated and my brother is on a year off as he was elected president of his student union. There are a lot of things you should be aware of when choosing a University and the main one is finding one that offers the subject you want to study. The website below should help you.

    Culturally things in the UK and US are very similar, which will probably make the differences even more shocking.

    One of the main ones you should be aware of is the drinking age. The drinking age through out the whole of the UK is 18. The vast majority of people starting at Uni are 18, most will have been drinking before then, so social drinking plays a large part in uni life.

    Talking about alcohol, all cider in the UK is what I believe you call hard cider. Its lush but certainly not something you want to be drinking like apple juice.

    If you have any questions I will try my best to help.

  • abadidea

    Funny how people use Liberty U as their yardstick of crazy. Living in the shadow of Liberty, I hate it but it is *liberal* compared to where everyone in my family except me has gone to school, mainly Bob Jones and Pensacola. It’s the only way to justify their name, because at least girls can wear pants at LU…

    — “Not Yet Lynched” Lynchburgian 🙁

  • Spawn

    Just to be pedantic erp, she did say Britain, so in theory she isn’t, although as a Brit myself I often use the following as synonyms even though strictly speaking they aren’t.

    Britain = England and Wales

    Great Britain = England,Wales and Scotland

    United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland = England, Wales, Scotland and Northen Ireland

  • Anna

    Your chosen topic of study should definitely come first. Students in the UK spend two years in 6th form, focusing intensely on certain areas of study and preparing for university. UK students are also encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities that will prepare them for their chosen subject. “Well-roundedness” isn’t exactly stressed in the UK, especially in comparison to US schools. If your atheism has somehow influenced your studies themselves, then yes, it ought to figure (perhaps minimally) in your personal statement. Listing it as your primary reason for entering the country, however, will make you appear less attractive than students who are actually interested in that particular university. I would also caution against studying in the UK if you have not participated in a rigorous AP or IB curriculum. These are generally viewed as equivalent to A level exams in the UK and may even be admissions criteria. Colleges at Oxford, for example, generally seem to require a three AP exams with a score of five, in addition to a minimum score of 32 on the ACT (or the SAT equivalent). Cambridge, on the other hand, only uses AP and IB scores.

    You might also want to note that studying in the UK will be expensive. It is possible you could save money – an approximation of all costs involved when studying at Cambridge University is $34,000 a year for non-EU students. However, it is more difficult to get financial aid and student visas severely limit the amount of time one can work. On the other hand, undergraduate studies in the UK typically last 3 years instead of 4. This offers a lot of potential for saving money.

    PS – If you are not planning on attending Cambridge, Oxford, University College of London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow, it is probably not worth the money and/or time away from home. You will have to choose between Cambridge and Oxford as UCAS will not allow applications to both universities.

  • Sally

    As Richard and many of the commenters here have said, if your main reason to study in the UK is because of the lack of religiosity, I’d recommend a long hard rethink!

    It’s extremely expensive for an overseas student to study in the UK, particularly for those who hail from outside the EU as visa rules are strict and you will be limited as to how many hours you can work, and you will receive very little financial support. Your currency is particularly weak against the pound so your money won’t go far here, so make sure you budget carefully and can definitely afford it. It may even be worth attending a US University and doing a postgrad course in the UK in your chosen field, or one with a year abroad incorporated. If you study in the UK you’ll be stuck with your chosen subject for the full duration of the course, so make sure it’s definitely something you really want to study otherwise you’ll be throwing a lot of money down the toilet.

    I actually start University in September (Uni of Kent at Canterbury) doing Astronomy with Astrophysics – which was inspired, funnily enough, by a trip to the US (which seems to do a lot more than the UK does in terms of educating the general populace about science)! 500 words for your personal statement is not a lot of room at all, and I’d recommend (as others have said) leaving out all references to your atheism except where it is relevant to your extra-curricular interests, because your beliefs are not judged in your application. Although there has been some influence from the US in recent years, it’s still the prevailing attitude that religious and political beliefs are private and you don’t really talk about them. Most younger people could care less about religion and see it as irrelevant, so most people would probably identify themselves as agnostic or “don’t care”. You’ll find much less of an appetite for discussing religion than you will among atheists in the US. You’ll find that we still have religious nutcases of all flavours, who try to aggresively convert others or push for influence in the public sphere or try to exempt themselves from equality laws. Luckily, the EU is secular even if the UK is not.

    Personally, I would recommend taking another look at Universities closer to home unless you have found a UK University with a program that you particularly want to study, since all Universities are pretty secular in atmosphere. If you have a University in mind, then make your application about what it is that attracted you to that University (as per hoverfrog’s post), why you want to study your chosen field and what interests you have that will show you off as a person. Keep your application positive and to the point, rather than focusing on the negative (ie, why you DON’T want to study in the US). No one likes a negative nancy 🙂

    Best of luck!

  • toffa813

    As somebody who starts college in week, the first thing I feel I should advise is that you need to visit. Make sure you like the feel before you commit to a school. (I didn’t like the one I committed to at first, although I don’t regret my decision at all-I do love it) Which brings me to my next point: apply to/visit a wide range of schools. I was pretty set on a big school, but I think I should’ve looked at some smaller schools just to see something different.

    I think I should mention I’m going to attend Indiana University and part of the reason I was somewhat turned off at first was that there were multiple religious billboards on the highways, and I wanted nothing to do with these religious freaks. But I realized that a college (especially a big school like IU) is not representative of the state where it is located. Sure there will be people at my school that would shun/hate/yell at me for my atheism, but that’s a small percentage of people. In general, the younger the generation, the more accepting it tends to be, and the more atheists it will have. So don’t count out US schools for religious reasons, and you can always study abroad for a semester (I certainly plan on it)

    That being said, I think going to school abroad is a great idea. I think its too far from home too suddenly, but for some people its a great option. My best friend is going to the University of St. Andrews, and its a much better school than anything he could’ve/did get into in the states. As for value, he says that it will be about as expensive as IU for him (he applied as well and got the same $9k/year scholarship I did) so it is not always that expensive. And like others have said, it will definitely be rigorous. My friend said that somebody he talked to said his world history class had 5 hours of reading a day, (probably closer to 2-4 he thinks, but still a lot obviously) and now he is quite worried about the academics. But if that is where you want to be, you will find a way to succeed and stay there.

    One more thing: If you party, the drinking age is 18. 🙂

  • US universities, ESPECIALLY elite ones, are extremely conducive to atheism. And if you can’t find outright atheists, the commensurate philosophical and political memes of church-state separation and anti-Christian thought are very common.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    Don’t mention the atheism. As others have mentioned, its mostly a non-issue here. You’ll be wasting those precious 500 words when you could be waxing lyrical about how awesome you are in your chosen subject and all the other reasons you’ll make a great student.
    DO mention that you are seeking to experience a different culture as this is a definite sign of intellectual curiosity, especially coming from a nation (USA) where 80% odd of people lack passports.
    If you want to do the whole atheist “thing” while in the UK you might be better off seeking the Skeptics groups rather than directly atheist. If you end up in Manchester, Liverpool or London, all have excellent “Skeptics in the Pub” groups that meet regularly. If you end up in Manchester, i’ll see you there 🙂
    I definitely think you’ve made the right decision to study abroad. It won’t be easy, you’ll have culture shock, you probably won’t be used to the drinking culture amongst the UK students but it’ll open your eyes to a different society and really broaden your mind, without going through the epic culture shock that results from studying in a non-english spekaing country.

  • Beaker

    While I think most colleges wouldn’t think atheism was relevant to admission, tehre are certain colleges do have a more secular bias such as University College London which was founded as the first purposely secular university in the world (it accepted non-christians, women and atheists at a time where only christians were accepted into Oxbridge) – it’s student were historically referred to as “The Godless of Gower Street”, and Kings College London was founded with the purpose of diluting UCL’s subversive influence.

    That said, I’ve studied at both institutions and there is no intolerance toward atheism in the slightest and as they are London colleges they have a huge diversity of opinion so you can find a lively but friendly debate on the subject of theism if you look for it.

    Basically, some UK universities have founding creeds that will be relevant to your atheism that you can use to show you’ve researched the institution. Beyond that there’s not much reason to put it in beyond showing you are a critical thinker.

  • Linda

    I’m surprised at how many people are advising Erica to stay in America – living overseas is one of the best life experiences you could ever have (I feel), regardless of the reason for doing it.

    You could also consider Australia – we’re an extremely secular society (I heard today 75% of Australian weddings are civil ceremonies), weather’s great and uni fees are cheap. Our Prime Minister is an atheist too, though perhaps not for long – election this weekend.

  • GSW

    “Don’t mention atheism or criticize religion in your application.”
    I must agree with Aj here,

    Also don’t mention sex or the royal family.

    While it is true that almost nobody in England really cares whether you are gay or even catholic, (except maybe the arch-bishop), it is not considered good manners to bring these subjects up with people you do not know.

  • naath

    Mmm. The personal statement is usually a place to enthuse about why you JUST LOVE MATHS (or English Lit or whatever subject you plan to do) and also put a small bit about how you play horn in marching band or whatever so you come over as a Rounded Person.

    You could put just a really short part about why you think the UK is a good place to study, I think the admissions tutors will be looking for that to include SOME recognition that you know how uni-level study works in the UK (hint – not much like in the US) and that you’ve thought about studying in this way. You could also say something about how you look forward to broadening your horizons or something.

    To contradict OneSTDV – I don’t think universities here are a hive of radical atheism and disestablishmentarianism. Of course you can FIND such people (and hang out with them and that’s all fine and you are unlikely to face any discrimination for doing so although maybe a few arguments) but the mainstream view is more “meh, whatever, who cares” (uh, except in philosophy departments I guess) than “OMG get your church out of my state”.

  • Ali


    I’m a grad student at Strathclyde University in Glasgow so I’ve had a bit of recent experience with HE in the YookAy!

    I would very much agree with previous statements about atheism/religion being a non issue for virtually every single admissions tutor in the country. But if as part of that you have organised your own school club or something like that then that’s a great thing to mention.

    Also think about why you want to study in the UK, have a look at other European courses and HE systems, quite a few are in English and since all European countries have had some influence on the culture in the USA depending on where you are from the culture shock will be highly dealable with.

    If you do come to the UK then pick out the best course rather than location, it’s a dead small place so no bother spending most weekends travelling somewhere new. That goes for Europe aswell if you plan ahead with dirt cheap flights.

    Also if you fancy seeing how the USA isn’t too much more crazy than other places visit Glasgow or Belfast and run about in Orange or Green and Gold to have a good experience.

    I hope we have all managed to help.

    PS: Applying to Cambridge and Oxford (maybe Durham too but don’t go there cos it’s a really weird place) is different to applying to most other unis in the UK. I didn’t apply there myself but can’t help with details.

  • ewan

    I’m English, and I work (albeit in a very non-student facing job) for a major English university; quite a few of the things I wanted to say in response to this have already been covered, so I’ll keep it brief:

    – Do have a look at the UCAS link that incurable hippie posted; essentially all internal UK student applications go through UCAS’ systems, so their guidelines will be an excellent pointer to the sort of things that UK admissions tutors will be used to seeing.

    – We don’t have a separation of church and state. At all. Our constitution (not that it’s written down anywhere) deeply intertwines our government, our monarch, and the established church. What we do have is way of getting on with our lives that doesn’t require caring about that very much. I think you’ll find that an interesting environment, but it may not be quite what you think it is.

    – If you’d like to study your chosen subject in an atmosphere relatively free of religion you’ll probably find that here, but if you want to pursue your atheism as an active part of your identity then that might be harder. There are some growing skeptic groups around, but while there are certainly more atheists here than in the US there’s less motivation to get organised because there isn’t that constant need to fight against pervasive religion.

    – Note that we have laws against discrimination on the grounds of religion; while I would, on balance, mention your atheism in a personal statement I wouldn’t make too a big a deal out of it – a university won’t be able to favour you on that basis even if they wanted to.

    – When I was at university I lived in halls with a few American students and I know the experience of living in the UK changed them, and I certainly value having lived with them; we all learnt a lot from each other. Moving away to university is an intense, and in some ways quite difficult, experience at the best of times, and studying in the UK will amplify that. If you can cope with the added stresses you should benefit, but if it goes wrong it will inevitably go more wrong.

    – On a couple of minor points:
    * UK university accommodation is almost all single rooms, unlike (what I understand to be) the near the universal in the US practice of forcing everyone to share with a roommate.
    * You can legally buy alcohol from the age of 18, and most universities have bars (mine had six on campus and a couple of very nearby pubs). If you don’t already drink, an English education will teach you to.

    Also, it appears that I fail at brevity, so I hope you can pick something useful out of that lot.

  • Greg

    I won’t repeat what people have said before about not mentioning atheism – it’s really not a big deal over here. (Not to say that you won’t meet people willing to talk about it, of course). I would strongly recommend, however, not solely mentioning academia in your applications – especially if you are going to apply to Oxford/Cambridge. Those two in particular want a well rounded applicant. Knowing people that have succeeded and failed in their applications there, they want more than just an excellent scholar.

    Anyway, away from that and on to the culture shock aspect of it. There are places in the UK known as ‘University Towns’, this is because much of the town seems to be based around the university itself. I went to St Andrews, up in Scotland, and to put it into a bit of perspective, at the time there were around 24,000 people in the town (well, city – it has a cathedral), and a third of them were connected with the University. It was like living in its own little bubble. Now, this may appeal to you, it may not, but it is worth – if at all possible – checking out that kind of place before you apply.

    Whilst I loved it – adored it even – and had the best days of my life there, there were some people who came from busier places that found there wasn’t enough to do for their tastes. In St A. there’s pubs and golf and… well… hmm… a beautiful location. Although, if you do like golf you’d probably love it. 😀

    It’s really worth, if at all possible, checking these places out before applying. Oh, and as someone mentioned the cider – yes, don’t drink it like apple juice… it’s stronger than beer, and in the South West can be 10%+. I know a couple of people who discovered that the hard way and won’t touch it since… 😉

  • Steven

    As several folks have mentioned, one doesn’t have to go to the U.K to find a more secular place to study. What about Canada? We have many fine universities/colleges that are atheist-friendly. Despite the lack of official church/state separation we’re so darn polite that even asking about one’s beliefs is considered gauche. No one at my office has ever commented on the “friendly atheist” bracelet on my desk. If cold weather is a concern then I suggest British Columbia as a warmer, albeit wetter, alternative. If you want to be close to the border, the University of Windsor is just across from Detroit. You may lose the valuable experience of living in a different culture since Canada is in many ways indistinguishable from the U.S. (with some exceptions, as same-sex marriage has been legal nationwide for years). As an added bonus, Canadians are all really good-looking.

  • Sue

    @Ali: applying to Durham is the same as any other uni (except Oxford and Cambridge) except that you have the option to pick a college if you want to. And while I’ll agree that it’s a weird place, I don’t see that as any reason not to go there. I spent three happy years there.

    To the letter writer: I don’t think atheism levels in the UK are actually significantly higher than in the US, so you’re unlikely to find yourself in the company of many atheists. Instead you’ll probably find a lot of people who don’t go to church, but if pressed will reluctantly admit that yes they are a Christian. And then avoid you in case you’re recruiting for the Christian Union.

    Atheists don’t suffer much prejudice over here, but most people only know I’m one because they asked if I was getting married in a church and I had to explain why not.

    As usual, Richard’s advice is excellent. Where writing your personal statement is concerned, the one thing I would add is that if you haven’t already, go and read this:

  • Bill

    No one will give a flying monkey’s fart about your atheism in Blighty – they might be surprised that you think it worthy of mention. However, as a Brit in the US, most Unis here (that are worth going to) seem pretty atheistic in their attitude (or at least happily neutral), so not sure what you would gain from being in the UK as far as that is concerned. Except that you will have some decent beer to drink – so go!

  • Ruf

    I’m in a similar job to Ewan above (work for a major (i.e. already been mentioned a couple of times in the comments) UK university in a non-student facing role.

    I personally wouldn’t mention your atheism in your personal statement, just because you’re severely limited on words. Being honest, no-one would be biased for or against by a declaration of faith or faithlessness, they’re far more concerned about what they can determine about your character than your Sunday morning habits.

    Just in case you’re not linked out, below are a few more for you:

  • Tufty

    I second the not romanticising far-away lands bit. I’m English, and yes, the majority of us are largely non-religious. However, the minority are atheists. For most people, religious issues just aren’t on our radar. I’ve met many many people who didn’t know they were atheists until I explained to them what it was and then, get this, they didn’t care.

    It’s hard to explain to an American the mindset of a nation that mostly just doesn’t care about religion, but you won’t find outspoken atheists unless you look for them, same as in America.

  • Guy G

    Yep, I’d echo the “don’t mention it” sentiments expressed in this thread. Strong religious views are considered a bit weird here, whatever they are, plus it’s completely irrelevant to whether you would be suitable for a particular course (assuming it’s not theology or something).
    Focus on why you want to do the course you want to do from an academic standpoint and then back it up with evidence that you take an interest in the appropriate subject outside of school.

  • @Sue

    I don’t think atheism levels in the UK are actually significantly higher than in the US

    In the UK only 38% believe in God while in the US it is something like 85%. There’s about another 40% in the UK who believe in some kind of “spirit” or deist god. Numbers wise we’re well down on US religiosity. That said I woudl characterise the UK’s attitude to religion at apathetic. It isn’t as if we don’t believe in gods as a nation, it is that the question isn’t relevant.

    Does that make sense?

  • Bostonian

    I’m originally from the US but studied abroad in London when I was in college. Later I lived and worked in the UK for nearly four years. I enjoyed it there, and heartily recommend it for American students. You won’t have to learn another language, but you’ll be exposed to a different culture and new ideas. Also, excellent pubs.

    One point Richard makes that fits with my experience is that UK universities are a bit harder than US ones. There’s more independent study, more expectation that the student will learn coursework on his or her own. My semester mostly involved American courses transplanted to the UK, but I did have a few British professors who seemed surprised at how quiet my class was: they expected we would be more involved, that we’d learn some of the material outside of class and come prepared to discuss it, whereas we all thought we’d sit and listen to lectures and have the curricula neatly outlined for us as we did in most of our classes in the US.

    That said, spending four or more years in Britain is not your only option: it’s worth considering the study abroad option. This entails spending most of your college years in America, with just a brief time abroad, but I think this would be less bad than you anticipate. America is not a country of homogeneous AmeriClones (as many people on this site probably find themselves reminding their conservative acquaintances frequently). It turns out that we have a lot of great stuff here if you seek it out. When I first returned from studying and then working in London I was disappointed to be back in the United States, but on further reflection I realized that I wasn’t very well acquainted with my home country. I had never been to many of America’s great cities – San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston – but I really owed it to myself to visit these and other places.

    As my username suggests I live near Boston. New England is one of the least religious areas of the country, and Boston is a great city with a really stunning variety of universities. Just down the road from my home, Harvard University has a Humanist chaplain. Up the hill in Medford is Tufts University, where Daniel Dennett teaches. But there are atheists in places like Morris, Minnesota, as well. These people don’t exist in a vacuum: good universities employ a lot of freethinking people, simply because they employ a lot of smart people, and smart people are open to non-traditional ideas. So from a religious perspective I doubt that going to a good university in the US will be tremendously different from going to one in the UK, so long as you avoid the ones established by right wing religious kooks.

    Don’t pass up the opportunity to study overseas, but also don’t sell the US short – studying in your own country could present an opportunity to live in an exciting place you owe it to yourself to visit anyway. Also, we need more non-religious people here, and Britain has plenty, so let’s not export any if we don’t have to. 🙂

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