From the outside, American schooling is weird


Hey, so I wanted to start this dialogue because we were talking on Discord about the secondary school systems and college admission processes in the US vs NZ, and some of the differences were very surprising to me.

I think that it may be illuminating to fellow Americans to see the variation in pedagogy. Let’s start off with grades. In America, the way school works is that you sit in class and then have projects and tests that go into a gradebook. Roughly speaking, each assignment has a max points you can earn. Your final grade for a subject is . Every school has a different way of doing the grading though. Some use A-F, while some use a number out of 4, 5, or 100. Colleges then use these grades as one of the main criteria in admissions. How does this work in NZ?


In New Zealand, we have the NZQA (New Zealand Qualifications Authority) which regulate the NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Attainment).

NZQA manages three levels of exams and scholarship. The levels are numbered Level 1, 2, and 3. Level 1 is taken mainly in Year 11 (11th year of a 13 year education), Level 2 in Year 12, and Level 3 in Year 13.

You take several assessments throughout the year for each subject. These are divided by whether they are taken internally or externally. Internal exams, while standardised across New Zealand, are graded by your teacher within school. External asessments are sat by all New Zealanders at the same time and are proctored by officials outside the school.

Each assessment offers a different amount of credits and these credits can either be Achieved, Merit, or Excellence. By recieving 14 credits in a subject, you can be endorsed and this endorsement will depend on whether those credits are Achieved, Merit, or Excellence. There is also a requirement that at least some of these credits are from external exams. These certificate endorsements aren’t very useful for anything.

Aside from subject-specific endorsements, you can also recieve a certificate by level and this requires a certain amount of absolute credits. For example, you can recieve a Level 1 certificate with Excellence by gaining 50 Excellence credits but either completely fail Maths or never take it. Most students take assessments totalling more than 50 credits. For me, I took assessments worth ~85 credits each year.

Finally, to gain entrance in university require University Entrance and sometimes there are stricter requirements.

You require University Entrance (UE) which requries attainment of Level 3 at any endorsement, 14 credits in 3 approved subjects which is nearly all of them, 10 credits at Level 1 (or above) in Numeracy and 10 credits at Level 2 (or above) in Literacy.

​​​​​​​​​​F​or some competitive subjects at universities, you may require achievement beyond University Entrance. This is usually something like Level 3 endorsed with Excellence or similar. There are caveats such as requirements being lower if you’re from certain backrounds or being different if you want to enter university from Year 12 but this is what most people’s experience of trying to enter university is like.


Wow! Thanks for all the info. Let’s unpack it one at a time.

In the US we have standardized exams (the Regents for example in NY or the APs from the College Board which is a private company), but they don’t contribute much to your grade. There’s nothing standardized at the national level though. The SAT/​ACT (which I expect we’ll talk about later) is an exception.

However, most of the exams are created by the teachers and also graded by the same teacher who created them. There have definitely been situations where I feel that my grade would have been different if I were a different person since the teacher factored my personality and how much they thought I knew into the grade (though not consciously). Does the same person who teaches the material and knows you also grade it?


External assessments are always the sort of exam where you all sit silently in a hall and take exams.

Internal assessments, though, can be any number of things. For example in Chemistry I had an internal assessment called “Carry out a practical physics investigation that leads to a linear mathematical relationship, with direction” which involved titration in a group, writing, and graphs.

While internal assessments are always graded by someone in the school, it doesn’t have to be your teacher but it can be. Sometimes teachers of the same department will mark eachother’s classes. This is obviously open to teacher bias and error. To ensure that everyone is being assessed fairly across New Zealand, the NZQA will sometimes request random papers from teachers. These will then be marked by NZQA to determine whether the paper was marked properly. If not, action is taken.


Wow, that seems a lot more sane. I’m pretty sure there is no auditing of grading going on in my school; teachers have a lot more freedom. I guess this can be explained by the different philosophies that the countries have: America is much more freedom-loving than New Zealand, which does come at a cost.

You mention that most of the University entrance requirements are just based on exams and credits. This is so different from what we have in the US, where it is based on GPA (calculated differently for every school), test scores (like SAT/​ACT), essays, and extracurriculars/​accomplishments. Is academics really the only thing in NZ University admissions? How does this affect stress level during secondary school (I’d assume people get a lot more stressed about having good extracurriculars in the US)? I know that you are also applying to some American universities, so I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.


Freedom for who? I can’t imagine it is very freeing for a student at a public school to know that on average they will be less grade inflated than their private school counterpart.

NZQA assessments are the only factor in New Zealand university admissions. Some health-related degrees may require you to have taken Level 3 Chemistry, Biology, or Physics but entry is always dependent on your academics.

Nearly everyone is very chill at highschool. It is incredibly easy to enter university to do almost anything. You’d only really be stressed in you wanted to do a LLB (Bachelor of Laws) or something in health because those degrees require additional exams or a certain GPA within the degree to continue since so many people are guaranteed entry.


The point about freedom for who is a good one. Teachers and schools have much more freedom in the US, but students probably have less. I’d imagine students also have less Self-Responsibility since they probably feel more forced to do what is “expected” to get into college.

The funny thing is that because most schools have different grading systems, it’s super unclear to me how colleges even use GPA as a factor in admissions. They are the opposite of transparent about it. One way to do it would be to compare to similar students from your school, or go by student ranking. But what if you are the only one applying from your school, or your school does not believe in rankings (like mine)? Then there is literally nothing to compare against. Further, some teachers would give totally different grades for the same assignment. I know that one of mine (who is very good), will rarely give anything over a 90100, while if I handed the same paper to a different teacher, it would get at least a 95. Since teachers are chosen at random, this can create significant (at least perceived) difficulties.


What about your limited experience applying to American universities? How much of a shock was it?


The problem you describe with GPA is the same problem universities on the East Coast of the United States faced when university became more popular and someone from Wyoming applied. Isn’t this why the SAT and ACT exist?

US admissions are definitely different but the holistic admissions system was actually very useful. I was on exchange in my last year of school so I don’t actually have a full transcript. New Zealand universities don’t care because I’m a New Zealander with very strong Year 12 results but universities like Oxford would require me to achieve Level 3.


Ah, this does make sense. Holistic admissions can be helpful if you don’t exactly fit into the system they are looking for. But most people do.

Regarding the SAT, I’m actually not sure of the history. I just checked Wikipedia and it says

The College Board, the not-for-profit organization that owns the SAT, was organized at the beginning of the 20th century to provide uniform entrance exams for its member colleges, whose matriculating students often came from boarding and private day schools found in the Northeastern United States. The exams were essay-based, graded by hand, and required several days for the student to take them.[214][215] By the early 1920s, the increasing interest in intelligence tests as a means of selection convinced the College Board to form a commission to produce such a test for college admission purposes. The leader of the commission was Carl Brigham, a psychologist at Princeton University, who originally saw the value of these types of tests through the lens of eugenic thought.[214]

In June, 1926, the first SAT, then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was administered to about 8,000 students, many of whom were applying to Yale University and Smith College.[216] In 1934, James Conant and Henry Chauncey used the SAT as a means to identify recipients, besides those from the traditional northeastern private schools, for scholarships to Harvard University. By 1942, the College Board suspended the use of the essay exams, replacing them with the SAT, due in part to the success of Harvard’s SAT program as well as because of the constraints from the onset of World War II.[214] At this time, the SAT was standardized so that a test score received by a student in one year could be directly compared to a score received by a student in another year. Test scores ranged from 200 to 800 on each of two test sections (verbal and math) and the same reference group of students was used to standardize the SAT until 1995.[217]

This makes me think that it was originally meant just for admissions (and maybe to justify eugenics), but then gradually morphed into a standardized test that would help, as you say, normalize grading.

So it’s quite ironic that many universities are starting to not require them in the name of equality. The SAT seems like the thing that is the least manipulable with money. With money, you can easily get fancy extracurriculars, hire tutors /​ go to a private school, or pay someone to write your essays for you. According to Wikipedia, “the National Association of College Admission Counseling suggests that tutoring courses result in an average increase of about 20 points on the math section and 10 points on the verbal section,” which is not a lot. After doing a bunch of research, MIT reinstated the SAT/​ACT requirement because it actually was more equitable. And now, lots of ivies are doing this.


It’s important to realise that every measure that colleges take into consideration is correlated with privilege. It’s my understanding that some schools in the US even hire counsellors who are former admissions officers.

As you said though, the SAT is the least manipulable. We’d find it horribly unfair if consultants could take the SAT in place of the student. Why isn’t there a similar outrage that consultants can write a student’s essays and no one will be the wiser?


On the other hand, seeing how you write seems quite important, and learning grammar rules for the SAT just does not cut it. The SAT used to have an essay section, but it got removed after finding that “by simply gauging the length of an essay without reading it, the given score of an essay could likely be determined correctly over 90% of the time” (Wikipedia).

An interesting approach to college admissions that seems sane is Minerva University. When I applied, it had three steps:

  1. Submit your information and ask your school to send transcripts.

  2. Do a bunch of tests online with Minerva recording your webcam and screen. Some seemed IQ-like (shape manipulation), while others were math or reading comprehension. Most interestingly, they had an essay test in which you saw a prompt and then had to type an essay responding to it for 20 minutes (with them recording you). It was clear that they were not grading on length. This seems like a much better method for essays, if you are going to include them in admissions.

  3. List your accomplishments, including links/​references and a description of its impact.

This system seems obviously better than the current system for a few reasons:

  1. You can’t pay people to write your essays for you.

  2. You have to provide verifiable evidence for your accomplishments (like an email or article)

  3. Since the tests/​essays are timed, it takes way less time and stress.

I got into Minerva and I’m seriously considering attending since it seems sane compared to everything else.

Given the resources of universities, I see no reason why they couldn’t implement these changes to make admissions way more fair.


I agree with you that it is possible for universities to implement this. But when we think of unfair admissions we aren’t thinking of some state school with 90% acceptance, we’re thinking of the best universities—the fabled ‘T20s’. These universities are nearly all private non-for-profits so aren’t necessarily focused on meritocracy.

First you’d have to figure out what these universities are trying to do and why they should make admissions like the way you describe rather than as they currently are. Regardless of any talk like eliminating legacy admissions, these top universities also apparently want different sorts of people.


Yes, you’re probably right. They are not actually looking to find the smartest people. They are looking for a well-rounded class with really cool people in it. Yet I’d still argue that there are better ways that select even cooler people that would still create an even more well-rounded class.

We are also totally in a sort of bubble. I think that although college admissions does feel stressful to most kids, state schools with a 90% acceptance rate are probably great for most people (including me!). It’s important to recognize this to give ourselves some perspective. If you are a high-schooler reading this: I’m pretty confident that it will turn out okay.

Before we end this dialogue, I want to ask if you have anything else to say? We’ve gone over the high school system and how that translates to college admissions in both USA and NZ. There does not have to be (and might not be) a single silver bullet that solves schooling. But we should strive away from inadequate equilibria and towards kinder ones that benefit people and are positive sum!


No, I think this has been long enough.

As I’m typing this now, it’s only a few short hours before Ivy Day. This means that it’s hard to think abstractly about any inadequate equilibria. I’m thinking about the emotions that a lot of applicants, including me, feel right now. Sitting alone in my room, it’s very easy to assent to all the arguments about how one ought not catastrophise. Even so, my heart rate still spikes when I’m on a university’s portal.

“You’ll be fine” rings hollow whenever the speaker’s idea of what constitutes fine is a difference in degree rather than in kind. It’s important to remember, though, that I will be fine if I so choose. After all, if the scary impression was the real thing then it would appear scary to everyone.