My series of articles about great American universities and colleges has stimulated a dynamic exchange with interested readers. I’ve particularly enjoyed responding to comments and queries inspired by the posts. Perhaps the question I’m asked most frequently is how can a prospective student best go about selecting a school from among the thousands of tertiary education institutions in the United States.
Frankly, I’m probably the wrong person to answer that question. No one (including me) knows what put the idea in my head, but from an early age I was focused exclusively on Princeton University. I politely resisted all other options and advice, including my high school guidance counselor’s dire warnings that no one from our coal town could possibly get into such a good school.
I did relatively little research, in part because my mind was made up and in part because information was difficult to get. (I lived in a rural area, and there was no internet back then.) I didn’t visit campuses because the logistics were prohibitive and, frankly, because I didn’t think the scenery would be relevant to my decision.
When the time came to apply for admission, I yielded to adult pressure, and assembled and submitted applications to two additional schools in the same general category as my first choice. And then I waited for the Princeton response to arrive.
Don’t do what I did.
Since I did just about everything wrong when I went through the process myself, I sat down recently with our Educational Adviser Drew Dumas to talk about how I should have gone about screening and selecting schools as a prospective student. Paraphrased below is a summary of his counsel, which I thought was quite good.
There is, of course, no single right approach to selecting schools. What would work best for you depends on a variety of objective and subjective variables including your own analytic style. A potentially useful starting point, though, is to consider the following seven factors, in order, which should help you narrow the range of options in an efficient and productive manner:
(1) field of study,
(2) geographic location,
(3) community size,
(4) school size,
(5) extracurricular offerings,
(6) financial considerations, and
Field of Study.
It’s always good to start your thought process with what you think you want to study. Of course, not everyone enters university certain about what their major field of study will be or what kind of career they want to have after they graduate. Most students, though, have at least a general sense of direction or a few subjects they think they would like to explore.
Depending on your interests, part of your analysis should be what specific degrees does the school offer, and how much flexibility is there to combine fields of study. I once met a graduate student who wanted to specialize in “computer music,” combining computer engineering and music composition. She found three universities with existing degree programs in the field as well as a few others which offered the flexibility to combine the two components.
The best way to conduct your initial research these days is with Google. I suggest doing a few searches in the nature of “best school for [X]” or “top [X] programs.” More often than not, the first few results will relate to U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, Forbes, or other famous university rankings. Such rankings can’t and won’t select the right school for you, but they will give you some indication of how particular institutions and degrees compare with their peers.
Useful as they may be, don’t rely too heavily on such rankings. They are inherently subjective, greatly dependent on precisely what variables are considered and how variables are quantified and then weighted. There may also be commercial, political, and marketing influences unrelated to quality of education, particularly with some of the newer entities generating rankings. And, of course, the folks doing the lists don’t know you, your goals, your passions, or your personality.
Your decision on what university or college to attend will greatly influence the rest of your life, so don’t subcontract the decision to a remote committee or someone else’s algorithm. Take a look at the rankings, draw up a preliminary list based on academic curriculum and reputation, and then proceed to step #2.
For many students this is a very important factor, particularly if they don’t yet have an idea of what they want to study. For other students this is only a small consideration. However heavily or lightly you weigh its importance, you should think carefully about where you want to spend several years of your life.
There are several different considerations. Is it important or helpful for you to go to school near family or friends in the States? Do you have a personal or cultural affinity for a particular city, region, or topography? Does a particular place resonate with your professional interests or advance future job prospects in your chosen field?
Does the kind of weather matter to you? As you would expect with such a huge country, the climate in the United States is extremely diverse, with everything from desert to sub-tropical to alpine to permafrost. Will it enhance your focus, motivation, and peace of mind to have four seasons, or just a couple?
If you don’t have initial preferences regarding location, this step might not narrow your list at the start of the process. If that’s the case, circle back to this issue closer to the end of your analysis. Even if location doesn’t matter much to you, it could be helpful in breaking any “tie” when you’ve come up with a handful of favorite schools later.
One element of location should be considered separately and with particular care – the size of the community in which the university sits. Given all you know about yourself, your goals, and your interests, do you think it would be better for you to go to school in a large city, a small town, or something in between?
For a variety of reasons, I was interested in going to school in a small-town environment close to a big city. That seemed to give me the best of both worlds, and in the appropriate doses. That was a very personal calculation. I have friends whose educations were greatly enhanced by being in the middle of a large city, or in a rural area with no nearby urban concentration whatsoever.
As you know from my series of university profiles, you can find excellent tertiary schools in the United States with student populations anywhere from a few hundred to more than 50,000 on a single campus. Think about what might work best for you.
Smaller schools tend to have a more intimate community atmosphere in which you can really get to know your classmates and professors well. Larger student populations tend to have greater diversity of students, professors, and offerings, and sometimes provide enhanced opportunities for carving out customized niches for yourself.
Although parents and prospective students don’t always recognize the value of this one, it’s well worth taking a close look at the non-academic programs offered at the schools in which you are interested.
As a general matter, the array of student organizations and activities provides a sense of campus culture and priorities. As a specific matter, there may be particular organizations that would enhance your academic experience – e.g., having access to an award-winning student publication if you are interested in becoming a journalist, or to a world-class student symphony if you are a musician.
Some universities have vibrant, influential debating societies and active political clubs that foster life-long personal and professional relationships. Other universities invest heavily in public and community service activities for students. The fraternity and sorority culture at some schools exposes students to philanthropy as well as public service and professional networking.
And, of course, there’s sport to consider. Whatever your skill level, if sports are important to you, then consider the diversity, quality, and inclusiveness of the offerings at the schools to which you are attracted. Look to see how particular schools rank in the sports of most interest to you, and look to see if there are intramural or club opportunities to play if you don’t want to commit to the rigors of inter-collegiate varsity competition.
As you know from my prior posts, sports and athletics help define many American schools and contribute greatly to a sense of community, not only while you are on campus working toward your degree but throughout your life as an alumnus.
As a prospective student, I was about as laser-focused on quality of academics as a person could be (and grossly indifferent to other factors). As an alumnus, I realize in hindsight just how influential Princeton’s non-academic offerings were in my education … and in helping me navigate the rigorous academics with sanity intact.
American universities are not subsidized by the central government (with the exception of our military academies). Thus, prospective students need to consider the relative cost of various options when compiling and evaluating your short list of targets.
As you know from my series of profiles, our public universities (i.e., the schools established by individual States) tend to have lower tuition and fees, with discounts for folks already resident in the State. Our private universities typically have higher tuition and fees but more extensive financial assistance for international students.
Schools from both categories often have scholarships for students who excel at particular sports. Reviewing the financial aid pages of universities’ websites may also give you ideas about potential outside sources of scholarships, grants, or loans, as well as whether the school provides campus employment opportunities for students who wish to work.
Depending on your goals and resources, you might also want to consider what are called community colleges (or junior colleges), which offer 2-year associate (rather than 4-year bachelor) degrees. Community colleges tend to have smaller classes, a more flexible atmosphere for learning, and significantly lower fees and costs.
Drew tells me that most American community colleges have partnerships with larger 4-year universities that allow students to spend their first two years at the community college before completing a second two years of more degree-specific classes at the university. For many students this approach can be a very cost effective path to earning a bachelor degree.
The above steps should help you winnow our thousands of schools down to a dozen or so options that seem to fit your needs. Then let chemistry take over. In my experience, the best choices are a combination of intellectual and emotional, rather than all one or the other. As I said at the outset, I didn’t end up at Princeton because of a checklist (although the checklist seemed to validate my gut instinct).
Superb chemical agents for your process are alumni, and you should certainly try to talk to graduates of your target schools once you have narrowed your search. Virtually all American schools have extensive alumni cohorts into which it is easy to tap, either through the school or artful googling. Talking with an alumnus can really bring a school to life, as well as give you a way to probe points that might be of particular importance to your decision-making. The alumni with whom I spoke when I was in high school were candid and genuinely interested in helping me make the right choice.
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For more information about finding schools and narrowing your options, please feel free to contact our Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov. In addition to responding to inquiries, Drew regularly runs group sessions on school selection, SAT preparation, college essay writing, and more. Email him to find out when future sessions will be held in your area.
FYI, the next in my series of university profiles will run just after New Year’s, highlighting either Cooper Union (a prestigious New York City university where every student receives a full-tuition scholarship) or my alma mater, Princeton University, whichever I finish first.