7 Steps to Finding Your U.S. University

by
International Admissions, Boston University

American colleges and universities are as diverse as the many countries of the world. So how can you be expected to know if you’ll feel at home at a school halfway around the globe? Going through these steps is a good way to start!

You are the only one who can determine what your “right fit” college or university feels like. But if you follow the steps below, you will find yourself well on your way to choosing the U.S. college or university that best suits your goals. 

Step 1: Know yourself

The most important step in finding the right college or university for you is to know the circumstances in which you excel. If you’re not entirely sure what those circumstances might be, you can figure them out by asking yourself a few key questions: Are you a person who thrives on big challenges? If so, you may be ready to make the leap to a highly rigorous academic institution. Do you enjoy being around crowds of people? It may be worth putting a large research university on your list. Or are you a person who doesn’t deal well with change? Then it may make more sense to search for a university or college that is similar in size to the school you currently attend. Does the idea of snowy winters excite or terrify you? Picture yourself in different settings and write out how these scenarios make you feel. Putting your ideas down on paper can provide great insight into how you might handle different university settings.

It’s also very important to make sure your personal values align with the mission of the university you eventually choose. For example, if you are someone who cares deeply about giving back to the community or if you come from a strong faith culture, a school that serves the community around it or one that was founded on your beliefs may be a fulfilling fit. Think about the pillars of your personal values and try to find a place where you can grow both personally and intellectually.

Step 2: Keep an open mind

When you first learn about American universities, it is easy to become attached to one or two “dream” schools. Many students begin their college search with a list of schools thought to be perfect in every way. However, after visiting campus, watching a virtual tour, or speaking with an admission representative, the reality of the school’s culture and programs may not match what you imagined. This is why all students must keep an open mind, take a chance, and research and/or visit schools that aren’t on their initial “dream” list. After expanding their options, many students find their perfect school was very different from what they initially thought.

Step 3: Use your network

Current students and alumni are some of your best resources for learning more about a university, as they can provide perspectives and experiences that can’t be found in a printed brochure or on a website. You don’t necessarily have to travel thousands of miles to meet them either. Reach out to your school’s guidance counselor and ask them to help you contact students who are currently attending the universities you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to contact someone you may not know, because alumni once stood where you are and understand how to help make the process easier for you. You can also ask if any of the teachers at your secondary school are alumni of the schools you are considering. You may be surprised to learn your science teacher went to a school at the top of your list! Keep in mind that universities change over time, so speaking with both alumni and current students may provide very different perspectives.

Step 4: Visit campus

If you are able to travel to the American universities you’re considering, make sure to take time after the official tour has ended to explore on your own. Stop in the student union or dining hall and ask current students what their experiences are like, or ask a professor why they love teaching there. You will never get a more honest answer than talking to those who are living it firsthand.

While you’re on campus, take note of four key areas: the physical, student, administrative, and cultural environments. Pause to really see the spaces you are in. Are the physical buildings modern, historical, or in need of repairs? What are the students like? Do they seem warm, ambitious, or approachable? Does it seem feasible to finance and enroll at this school? Finally, does the overall culture make you feel welcomed and included? Taking note of these four aspects of campus will help you determine if you could one day call this school home.

If you can’t visit your prospective universities in person, see if they have a virtual tour (many do!). It can change your perspective on the size of campus, its surrounding areas, and how the campus culture aligns with who you are.

Step 5: Dig deeper online

Spend time on your potential universities’ websites and get creative! Instead of going to the prospective students’ website, go to the one for current students. See what type of cultural organizations or student activities they offer and try to imagine becoming involved. Join a Facebook group for admitted students and follow your schools on other social media sites to get a sense of the campus dialogues. You can even browse current course syllabi to learn more about the various classes being offered; they can tell you a lot about the academic environment, rigor of the programs, and breadth of subjects available.

Another way to discover a university online is to attend a virtual event. Doing so not only demonstrates your interest in the school but also provides great insight into the environment. But don’t just be a passive participant—type in your questions and engage! The admission counselors running those events are there to answer your questions, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Step 6: Emphasize academics

A school’s cultural and social environments are important, but when choosing a college or university, academics are imperative. Ask yourself if the course work you are doing now is a fit for any U.S. universities you’re considering—and whether the course work they offer is a fit for your academic goals.

You also should gather information about how competitive admission is to the school. This information is usually easy to find online, but you can always contact the admission office directly if you have trouble locating it. You should determine if the academic information provided includes international students or if the average admitted international student profile is different. An international admission advisor can provide a more specialized perspective on this complex fit and explain how applications are evaluated through the lens of course work completed overseas.

Next, seek to understand the level of rigor expected of the university’s students. How much time do students usually spend on homework and studying—and how much free time does that afford them? Depending on your goals, you should also look into whether your school offers graduate or professional programs.

Step 7: Trust your intuition

It is often said that “college fit” is impossible to define because it is unique to each individual person. After taking all the steps and asking all the questions outlined above, only you can really know if a university feels like the right fit for you. “You know when you know,” they say.

If you have conducted an open-minded, thorough search and you think a particular university is right for you, trust your instincts. The university search process is just that—a process. Trust each step and you will find yourself on a path leading toward the U.S. college or university you can call home.

Key questions to ask

  • Geographic diversity and global engagement: Will your classmates be primarily from the United States or from many different countries?
  • College location: Do you want to study in a bustling, urban setting or a scenic, rural college town? Or perhaps something in between?
  • Classroom sizes: Will your classes take place in large lecture halls, small classrooms, or both? Which class size do you feel most comfortable in?
  • University size: Do you want to study with hundreds or thousands of fellow undergraduate students?
  • Faculty: Are you seeking to learn from professors who are dedicated researchers or who have credible real-world experiences—or both?
  • Community involvement: Does the university give back to the community? What level of involvement do you want to have?
  • Academic focus: Does the school offer liberal arts or professional studies or both? Which academic track meets your needs?
  • Social life: What kind of campus social scene would make you most comfortable and happy?
  • Athletics: Does it matter to you if the school has a large athletics program, or are you not interested in this aspect of student life?
  • Mission: Does a school’s mission align with your personal and academic goals?
  • Weather: Are you ready for an extreme climate change, or do you want to attend a school in an area with a climate similar to where you live now? 
  • The arts: Does the school offer opportunities to engage with the visual and performing arts that are important to you?
  • Experiential learning opportunities: Are you able to get hands-on experience in your future field through the university? Is having an opportunity to conduct research important to you? Do you want to have internships or study programs off campus? In what ways will you be able to practice what you’ve learned in the classroom?

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