Is this Stanford or Stepford? After three years of undisciplined learning at Oxford, Helen Rumbelow was unprepared for the conformist attitude of students at an American university
It's hard to admit that you're more superficial than a Californian, but going to Stanford University made me realise I was more clothes-obsessed than any mall rat. It was their wardrobes I worried about, not mine, and it wasn't even because they sported dodgy Hawaiian shirts, pink bikinis, or zany kaftans. In fact, that was the problem. Everybody wore exactly the same clothes.

You may say that California made me paranoid as well as superficial, but my sartorial impressions on that first visit to campus set the tone for my post-graduate degree. Clothes maketh the MA.

I had arrived from England to study for an MA at Stanford, a university near San Francisco. My first walk on to that sunny campus was full of excitement, as the organisation involved in getting to an American university had taken nearly a year. The process began the previous summer, when I took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in London.

The scores from this strange IQ test are essential to complete applications to American universities, which need to be sent off for in August as they take up to two months to arrive and have to be returned by the new year with essays, references, and a letter from someone at your college explaining away your lack of an American-style "transcript". While waiting to hear whether I had got a place, I began form-filling all over again, this time in a desperate scramble for funding.

At several points in the process I seriously considered dumping my huge stack of applications in the bin and adding a lighted match. But at the last minute I secured a place at Stanford and a Fulbright scholarship, and soon I was walking through the huge, palm-lined campus with a British friend.

Despite my years of curiosity about American universities, it all felt a bit surreal. It was partly the fact that the university grounds encompassed a golf course, a shopping mall, numerous swimming pools, fountains, and some beautiful Californian hills. After three years in the claustrophobic quads of Oxford, this was foreign enough to me, but it was quiet. Too quiet.

Suddenly we heard a low thundering of rollerblades on marble. "Look, a student!" my friend cried, and we watched as he rolled by, wearing khaki shorts, a Stanford logo T-shirt and baseball hat, muttering like the white rabbit about being late for class. Minutes later another passed us, clutching the keys to his Saab in coffee-stained fingers, wearing khaki shorts, a Stanford T-shirt and baseball hat. On backwards.

Pretty soon the clones were everywhere, all in identical shorts, T-shirts and hats. We imagined that an evil costumier at Gap was dressing them all alike, then wheeling them on to the endless stone walkways, hiding their dead-behind-the-eyes expression with regulation sunglasses. By the time we reached the coffee house, where the barman took one look at my black trousers and patterned shirt and asked, without irony, if I was "with tonight's band", we knew something was seriously wrong.

By comparison, Oxford, never renowned for its rebellious streak, seemed like a Zandra Rhodes fetish party. Even the bookworms made stabs at self- expression with some well-chosen lapel badges, and if you weren't a goth, a raver, a trendy or a traveller, you at least had a flair for hair and dirty jeans.

That individualism which is such a formative part of British university life is reflected in the teaching. Aside from an hour's tutorial each week, a student's time was their own, and we were encouraged to wander at will through the library's stacks. Teachers, conscious of students struggling on grants, rarely asked us to fork out for books. In our work, originality was valued above all, sometimes to the extent of nuttiness.

The affluent conformity of Stanford's student body was also reflected in the teaching, as I found on my first day in class. We were handed pages and pages of book lists, most of which were marked "obligatory purchase". Key texts were large hardback tomes, costing up to $50 each, which were only available in the Stanford bookshop, as were "readers", expensively bound collections of articles the teacher had photocopied for the class.

I made my first visit to the Stanford bookshop, a dazzling three-storey building which also, bizarrely, supplied Clinique beauty products. The shelves were arranged by course number, each groaning with a gleaming row of required books. In line for the bookshop's ringing cash registers, you could hear students point out the books in their loaded shopping baskets that looked too boring to remove the polythene wrap.

Exasperated by the costs, I asked one of my teachers if I could get my books at the library. "I think I've got the most expensive book list this year!" he said, smiling proudly.

As he packed up his laptop and left the room, his tone softened and he said that the books could not be found at the library, "but buy the books and then you'll always have them". In his mind, acquisition was equated with knowledge. I pined for the idealistic "library" model of British universities, rather than the business-style "bookshop" model found in America.

Not only did we have to buy the same books, we had to read the same part of them at the same time. More attention was paid to whether you were "doing the reading" according to the assigned page numbers, than your response to it. Grades were based on class participation, mid-term and end-of-semester exams which were aimed to check you had bought the teacher's line on a subject, or at least his book.

Although the faculty obsession with keeping all the students "on the same page" was frustrating at first, I grew to understand it, appreciate it even, as the semesters went by. Originality is prized in Britain, but as a consequence people can often find studying a solitary and alienating pursuit. Left to their own devices, many students fall behind, and fall through the gaps.

Because we were all reading the same thing at the same time at Stanford, we could enjoy discussions without excluding anyone. Ironically, for a place founded on the individualistic capitalism of the wild west, the university enforced collective learning through a fastidiously programmed timetable of seminars, discussion groups, and e-mail bulletin boards set up for each class. The exchange of ideas was much more important than uniqueness.

And this made me understand why they all dressed the same. Stanford, although it reeked of money and charged fees of over $20,000 a year, actually drew students from a wide range of backgrounds. Many were struggling on scholarships and nearly all of them held down part time jobs.

Likewise, there was a racial mix of Asian, white and black, never experienced in a British university. It's no surprise that Tiger Woods, of a famously diverse descent, went there. They dressed the same in an effort to set aside the differences beneath their clothes, the colourfulness of the student body.

By the end of the year, I was so enamoured with the system, I was urging any Brit who wanted to continue studying to apply to American universities. This wasn't just because of the opulent facilities, or the study breaks on the beach, nice as they were.

It was more that I realised I was wrong when I first thought the Californian students were so beaten into conformist submission, no cafe-latte could revive them. They weren't trying to attack society because the need to create one was so pressing. To the students, Stanford was a passport out of "diversity", a harmonious island free of the divisions that beset the rest of their state. Their clothes were irrelevant compared to their welcoming attitude and energetic sense of purpose. It is a lesson our fragmented and stratified universities in Britain could do well to learnn