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,
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.