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How to Begin Your US University Search

Here's what you need for a good university or college search: a working knowledge of the possibilities, an honest assessment of yourself, and an open mind that is skeptical when it needs to be.

Here’s what you need for a good university or college search: a working knowledge of the possibilities, an honest assessment of yourself, and an open mind that is skeptical when it needs to be.

There is a piece of advice you are apt to find in the how-to literature about applying to college: no single university or college is best in the absolute sense, but there is one that is just right for you. The purpose of your college search is to find that best match.

In some ways this is good advice, because it aims to draw your attention to—and to get you to take seriously—the wide range of schools, programs, and opportunities available to you, especially in the United States. On the other hand, the notion that there is a single ideal match out there for you may do more harm than good. For one thing, it adds unnecessary pressure to make the “right” choice rather than a good one. Also, it doesn’t line up with reality. There are many terrific universities and colleges in the United States at which you can get a fine education and from which you would graduate feeling entirely happy about your choice.

Take charge of the process

The breadth and depth of the higher education system in the United States makes it one of this country’s most important resources. In fact, your biggest challenge will probably be the sheer wealth of options to consider—not the problem of getting in.

At the same time, with so many schools, programs, locations, degrees of selectivity, and admission requirements to take in, it is easy to feel a little intimidated. Where in the world do you start? Begin with a promise to yourself that you will stay in the driver’s seat. Be proactive, take full responsibility for gathering information about schools, and arrange it according to your own set of priorities. A spreadsheet on your computer—or even a simple handwritten list—is a good way to start.

Make headings for as many variables as you can think of. For example, how important is the size of the school community and its location? Do you feel strongly about attending a school with a national reputation (either overall or in a particular field of study)? Perhaps you want to be close to relatives or in an area where the climate and natural surroundings are to your liking. Will you need financial aid?

Asking yourself questions like these will help you determine how important size, reputation, location, nearness to family, or scholarships are to you. Understand that in the United States, universities and colleges may be public or private, low or high cost, single-sex or co-ed, religious or secular. Consider the environment, both social and physical. Be sure you understand the kinds of curricula you may choose from: liberal arts, science/engineering, technical, arts, conservatory, or professional.

Graphic displays of comparative information about schools can help you think about what really matters to you. Try making lists, charts, or tables. Much information on universities/colleges has already been organized for you in guidebooks and on websites, but it is usually better to formulate a homegrown list first.

Your rankings matter most

Because the university/college rankings in guidebooks and on websites seem like the most authoritative-looking presentation of “the facts,” you may be tempted to let them do much of the comparative work for you. However useful those rankings may appear, it’s important to understand it is impossible to quantify the quality of education or the educational experience. What is important to one college applicant may be meaningless to another. Rankings may tell you what schools are popular, but beware of using them to gauge a school’s quality.

Studies tell us that parents, classmates, friends, and students attending universities of interest; brochures from those universities; and materials available in high school guidance/career centers are—in that order—more frequently consulted than rankings or league tables. Be open to gathering information from all sources, but always be ready to question what you read or hear. Use websites, guidebooks, videos, campus visits, and discussions with teachers and counselors to gather information and impressions. Chat, IM, or e-mail with students at your target schools. Consider keeping a notebook of your thoughts to keep you on track.

Well-known doesn’t necessarily mean best

One of the goals you might set for yourself in your own university/college search is to discover a great school that no one you know has ever heard of. Many students naturally tend to focus on the best-known and most prestigious universities and colleges because these are the ones they have already heard about. By doing this, however, you miss the chance to identify many other excellent but lesser-known schools that might actually suit you better.

Almost everything about the college search has a dimension of uncertainty, but it is uncertain for everyone. For example, while you may not be able to visit your target schools, lots of American students do not have that luxury either. And even those who can visit might not learn very much at all from a simple campus tour about the life they would lead if they enrolled. Embrace the uncertainty, and you will be able to enjoy the search process much more—and see it for the adventure it really is.

Learn to see differences

When you are satisfied you have enough information, make a list of schools that interest you and then contact those schools directly. (An easy, time-saving way to contact many schools at once is to use this website using the college search.)

Take time to carefully study each school’s website and/or promotional literature. What kind of story does the university/college tell? Is it about intellectual life, social commitment, creativity, or leadership? Is its tone playful, serious, dull, practical, pompous, or bureaucratic? Or is it welcoming, even inspirational? Promotional literature can start to sound the same after a while, but if you pay close attention to the differences, you will learn more than enough to make a list of schools that would be right for you.

Only after you’ve made your preliminary list should you think about whether you might be accepted at these schools. A university’s or college’s median test scores or ranges of scores give some indication of how selective the college is relative to others you are considering. The same goes for the rate of admission. But play it safe. Always apply to a range of schools; never assume that you will be admitted just because you have a strong secondary school record. Many factors are at play in the admission decisions of selective colleges and universities, and you cannot always see or control these factors. Spend as much time selecting your “safety” schools as you spend on the schools at the top of your list.

Now get serious

After you have gathered information on colleges and universities, the next step is to collect information about yourself. Self-assessment is a crucial part of the college search process. You will never know which school is right for you without knowing “you.” No school is best in the abstract.

Begin by asking yourself questions: What are your likes and dislikes? What are your career aspirations? What are your reasons for even attending university? Interview yourself with a list of such questions, and your educational goals will begin to take shape. While the most useful questions will probably be your own, make a point of including your parents, close friends, mentors, and your college counselor if you have one—those who know you and your life situation best.

The bottom line

In the end, the choice of what university or college to attend should be up to you. In fact, universities and colleges expect it to be your decision. So take control of your college search from the very beginning and stay firmly in charge throughout the entire application process.

Be open to advice, yet always willing to question it. Plan well in advance so that there is plenty of time for each step in the process—from taking tests to writing essays to making your final decision about which offer of admission to accept. Maintain a steady pace. Recognize that almost any decision can be altered: if you outgrow a school, you can transfer. Be confident that a great education is available at many different colleges and universities, and if you find five first-choice schools rather than one, the chances of a satisfying outcome shift decisively in your favor. The risk of making a wrong choice is smaller than you might think. Making a good one is relatively easy.

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