Hi everyone. I went on the exchange for 06-07 (so I’m senior now heading off to math grad school next fall).
I really appreciate Kathy’s post (A Day in the Life…), but I should also point out that the Exchange offers a wide range of experiences and can depend significantly on what subject you are studying. I went through Course 18, to study the second year Mathematical Tripos (Part IB):
It should first be said that I worked nearly as hard if not harder there at Cambridge in my junior year than during my time here at MIT. The learning style is definitely different at Cambridge and requires a great deal of individual motivation and tenacity to make it through the year successfully, i.e. earning first-degree class marks on the exams.
In particular, although the only evaluation for Cambridge occurs at the end of the year in the form of four 3-hour exams (the tripos), these exams require a great deal of preparation and are significantly harder than most exams at MIT. Of course, what makes MIT difficult is that you are faced with continual assessment, and are given maybe a few days to prepare for tests, and thus the pace is certainly more intense for a given semester at MIT. Cambridge, on the other hand, might be more akin to the experience you might have preparing for quals in grad school — your knowledge needs to be integrated and synthesized and then demonstrated in only a few hours of blazing glory.
I have to say that I also feel like I learned and retained more in a single year at Cambridge, than in my first two years at MIT. This is because under Cambridge’s year-long system, subjects from each semester are meant to build on top of each other, and you continually need to revise and internalize information throughout the entire year. I think that many MIT students go through MIT learning to survive semesters, and then promptly forget a great deal of the material they supposedly absorbed. At Cambridge it is far more likely that people retain material over the entire year, because it is a cognitive fact that memorization (an important component in even problem-solving-driven thinking) requires repetition over a long period of time to be properly encoded in long-term memory.
I should say that research definitely is not the focus of the undergraduate education at Cambridge, but it also isn’t totally impossible (Actually, as a result of the Exchange, Cambridge is creating it’s own “UROP” system). The idea is that students in England come out of high school (or Sixth Form as they call it) having already done some portion of what American students do in their first year of college. Prospective Cambridge undergraduates apply to study a specific subject, and there is only a little lateral mobility once they’ve matriculated. Many undergraduate degrees then consist of only three years of intense study, where an average student will take 10+ courses in their subject in a year (contrast this with MIT’s 6 technical subjects a year and 2 required humanities). After 3 years, many will enter a fourth year and do the equivalent of a one year Master’s or MPhil. At least in mathematics, after this fourth year, many enter a research-only PhD, which they complete in 3 years. Often the reason PhD’s in the States take 4-7 years, is that coursework is required to get American students “up to speed,” which many international students, including Cambridge ones, will have done as part of their undergraduate degree, or one-year MPhil. So basically research is not the focus early on because instead you are expected to master the fundamentals for serious research as an undergraduate.
I could go on to address some of the subtleties and differences in funding that mathematicians, scientists, and engineers might face on the other side of the Atlantic. I could also talk about my own great travel experiences, and the wonderful friends and social life I had during my year, but I’ll save that for anyone who is interested. As a concluding thought, let it be noted that Cambridge is about to celebrate it’s 800th anniversary as an educational institute that has produced the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Green, Stokes, Kelvin, Rutherford, Watson and Crick, Stephen Hawking and so many other intellectual giants. The Cambridge-MIT Exchange thus represents a wonderful addition to any MIT student’s education and is certainly not a year wasted.