If you’ve been following this blog over the past three and half years, one of the constant themes has been just how different the experience of living abroad has been to living in the United States. It has been a continual learning process that comes with a pretty steep learning curve. High School and College Admissions are no exception.

As Jackson comes to the conclusion of high school here in Spain (and Cassius embarks on the beginning), we thought we would take the opportunity to share a bit about his experience.

At SIS, the International school the boys attend, most students work to complete the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. There are a small number of IB schools in the U.S., but AP courses are much more prevalent. However, the approach of the IB is completely different from AP or Honors courses in the U.S. and also different from A Levels, which are very popular in the United Kingdom. Some of the differences are listed below.

  1. The first two years of high school don’t count towards your IB score (similar to your GPA in the U.S.) even though it is an IB curriculum. This makes these years of little importance to European Universities, so students do not find themselves under pressure to achieve particular grades. In this regard, it’s almost as if high school doesn’t begin in earnest until Junior year for kids who plan on studying in Europe.
  2. There is almost no nightly homework. This might sound shocking, but I can’t think of one night when our sons have received an assignment to complete and return the next day. This is not to say they aren’t working, or that they have no work, but they literally do no repetitive busy work. All of their studies center around critical thinking, exploration and discovery, real world connectivity, and lots and lots and lots of writing. Their work ultimately comes to be evaluated in the form of tests, papers, presentations, and projects, but nearly all of these assignments are long-term, complex, and never focus on regurgitation. They are asked to use what they have learned to think critically and solve problems. It’s not easy, but it’s also delivered in a measured and thoughtful manner—particularly for the first two years of high school. This allows students to have relatively balanced lives, with friends and activities, while they are learning, growing, and progressing through their studies.
  3. In the third year of High School (D1 here), the focus shifts with the start of the IB Diploma. Students have selected their courses based upon what they hope to study in college, and their marks at the conclusion of the D1 year are the most important grades Universities will look at when reviewing their applications the next year and determining whether to make them an offer for admittance. This does place increased pressure on the D1 students, particularly as they prepare for their final exams. Regarding the workload, it’s manageable, but students know that considerably more is riding on their performance.
  4. However, the final year of high school, known as D2, is massive. There is no way around it. While students in the U.S. are battling Senior-itis, the workload for D2 students here is only ramping up as they head towards Spring of their Senior year. It is very demanding, and they have to remain focused until the year is complete. Each student has six courses (3 High Level and 3 Standard) that include a final exam and IA’s—which are essentially independent research papers in each subject. They are no joke, and Jackson’s IA’s have averaged between 15-20 pages each. At the same time, they are incredible opportunities for students, and Jackson has written papers that his teachers are encouraging him to publish in academic journals before the year ends. In addition to these 6 courses, students take Theory of Knowledge (TOK) which includes a paper and a presentation along with their Extended Essay (their longest paper on a topic of their choice relating to their collective coursework), and CAS, their community service requirement. It is an incredible amount of work, but the output and type of work is impressive.
  5. Tutors don’t exist. In the U.S., nearly everyone we know seems to be hiring tutors for their children as they go through the demands of high school. Here in Spain, this is virtually unheard of, and parents are very accepting that their child will end up where they belong based upon their performance. This results in students heading in all kids of different directions—to competitive universities, trade schools, jobs, and apprenticeships. But we haven’t met one family who seems to be trying to move heaven and earth so their child can get into a particular university. It’s one of the most refreshing parts about the entire experience as a parent.

Just as the academic experience of the IB here in Spain has been different, so too has been the process of applying to college. Of course, the experience of attending a university in Europe is also different, but it’s truly staggering what a complete departure the application process is from the process of applying to school in the US. Here’s how.

  1. There are no SAT’s. We are not sure we can articulate just how nice it has been for Jackson not to have to think about the SAT test, preparation courses, or practice tests. It’s not an insignificant part of high school in the U.S. and he hasn’t given it a moment’s thought.
  2. Universities evaluate students purely on their Academic Performance and potential through their grades, personal statement, recommendations and, in some cases, an entrance examination related to the subject they are hoping to study at the University level. Sports and Extra Curricular Activities, which are plentiful here, have absolutely no bearing on your admittance into university. They are concerned only with your ability to succeed academically in the course at their university and contribute to the field. They couldn’t care less if you are Lionel Messi or if you have locked yourself in a room for 4 years. It literally does not matter—so much so that you are told not to even mention them on your application or in your personal statement unless they relate directly to your ability to succeed in your chosen field of study at the University level.
  3. The Personal Statement is not personal! Universities do not want to know about you, where you are from, or what you’ve managed to overcome or learn during your eighteen years on earth. They want to know why you will be an asset to the academic department at their University, why you are interested in studying that particular subject, and where you plan to head in the future. If you want to study Applied Mathematics and you are a National level tennis player with Adele’s voice, good for you, but they couldn’t care less. Say what you will, but this leaves no room for parents to maneuver to help their child get a leg up on their competition. It may be less well-rounded and more impersonal, but there seems to be some attempt at fairness that, honestly, helps relax the students. I don’t know if we are willing to say that students have a sense of where they can and can’t apply, where they might be able to get in, etc. before the process begins, but in many ways they do. Then they just move forward. Applications are free if charge. They write their personal statement. The school sends grades and recommendations. Done. You are judged primarily on what you’ve achieved academically.
  4. Parents are barely involved in the process of selecting where their children will apply. A guidance counselor at school has the students use online programs where they input what they want to study and what their grades are. The programs generate University recommendations that come with that particular student’s percentage chance of being accepted. That’s basically it. Cost is not as big an issue, because nearly all of the elite Universities in Europe are public—with fees that only differentiate for students based on whether they are from the EU or from outside the EU. Tuition for students outside the EU in some of the top countries to study ranges from being free in Germany to around 12,000 Euros in the Netherlands to being just over 20,000£ in the UK. However, even schools in the UK are considerably less expensive than going to a private University in the United States. Honestly, it’s shocking.
  5. In addition, most bachelors programs are only 3 years. And for one additional year, students can usually obtain a Masters in their chosen field. This also contributes to the reduced cost of study abroad. And, while the U.S. boasts so many great Universities, it’s not as if Europe is lacking in places to obtain a quality education. The UK alone, regularly places four universities in the Top 10 in the world in Global Ranking tables.

Now that Jackson is halfway through his final year of high school and the IB Diploma, friends and family have begun to ask about his future plans. At this time, he is still in the application process, but we can say with certainty that Jackson is planning to continue his education in Europe. This was completely his decision but, to be honest, we couldn’t be happier. So many aspects of living in Europe have suited Jackson well, and it now feels completely natural for him to continue his studies abroad. He is hoping to focus his studies around Human Geography, Economics, and Sustainable Development.

Although this will likely come across as boastful, but Jackson is an excellent student. He is also an incredibly hard worker, and his academic achievements put him in a position to apply to some of the top ranked Universities in the world. He is fortunate to have already received offers to attend University College London (8th) and the University of Edinburgh (20th). He’s put an incredible amount of effort into his studies, and we are proud of him.

Lastly, we wanted to share one additional story that we think really sums up the incredible experience our kids have had going to International School here in Spain. Last fall, Jackson was one of ten students at his school who applied for a place at Oxford. The admissions process there includes an entrance examination as well, and the top students from around the world are then shortlisted and invited to interview in person at Oxford, where they are basically asked to solve problems and think critically on the spot. Jackson was the only student from his school who was invited to interview, although he ultimately was not offered a place at Oxford. Even though it is an incredible honor to be shortlisted, Jackson was disappointed not to be granted a spot. However, we didn’t want to share this story to illuminate his disappointment or to boast about his achievement. We wanted to share it because no experience he has had here in Spain is better suited to illustrate this incredible school community that he and Cassius have become a part of over the past three years.

Jackson was the last person to hear back from Oxford about being given an interview, and his peers (including the 9 who were rejected outright) celebrated his achievement. They were so happy for him, and the school even had all his classmates give him one piece of advice before he went off to interview at Oxford. It was pretty overwhelming for us to witness the support Jackson received. The teachers were equally elated, and one of them even came out to the car and said, “If Oxford doesn’t accept him, it is their loss. And either way, I will be toasting Jackson.” Two of the teachers at his school graduated from Oxford, and they went out of their way to offer him words of encouragement—even though they have never even had Jackson in class. Upon learning that he wasn’t accepted, the support only continued. Parents continue to offer us congratulations simply for the achievement of obtaining an interview at Oxford. Disappointment is a part of life, but it really is heartwarming to see the way the community has embraced our children, championed them, and helped inspire them to learn and grow. How lucky we are to have stumbled into this special place.

Now it’s up to Jackson, to take advantage of the opportunities before him and move into the world of adulthood. Much as we wish he could stay at home forever, he’s ready to take the next step, with Cassius not far behind. It’s been nice for all of us to witness Jackson going through this process. Cassius has been watching his brother’s every move closely, and it won’t be long before he’s in the same position. Cassius is also a very good student and a unique personality, and he has become formidable in his own right.

Jackson’s impending departure from our small apartment will also signal the conclusion of our European journey as a foursome. And while it hasn’t been lost on Cassius that he will finally have his own room, Jackson moving on from “our little Dinghy” as Karen calls it, will leave a big void for all of us.

In 2016, we came to Spain for a sabbatical year abroad. We had no intention of staying beyond a year, and we certainly didn’t foresee being here nearly four years later. We weren’t thinking about the possibility of either of our kids attending a University in Europe, and we couldn’t have imagined the position Jackson and Cassius would find themselves in, with so many unique and wonderful opportunities before them. We just wanted to carve out a little space for the four of us to spend some more quality time together before it was all in the rearview mirror. That was really all we aspired to do, all we wanted. But it’s funny. We took our kids here, 6,000 miles away from the only home they had ever known, to Spain, but the truth is….they are the ones who are going places.

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