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University Search: Thinking Beyond Rankings and Name Brands

Your international university list may only consist of schools with big names that you're familiar with. Read on to find out why that could be a big mistake.

When you first start thinking about attending university, you’ll probably have a list of about a dozen well-known schools that spring to mind. Would it surprise you to learn that there are approximately 4,000 colleges and universities in North America? Many students base their college search on the rankings provided by publications like U.S. News & World Report and Times Higher Education. These sources can be helpful in comparing universities based on a general overview and statistics; however, rankings often focus on criteria that may not apply to the distinctive wants and needs of each student.

What to look for in a university…

As you craft your list of prospective institutions, you’ll want to look at the considerations that are most important to you and where you will fit in best—not just if a school is ranked #1 in the country or has a name you recognize. Here are some factors and questions to consider:

Academics

It’s important to narrow down your search to schools that will be a good fit for your academic preparation and goals. Are you interested in research? Do you thrive in a challenging academic environment? Do you prefer independent learning or discussion-based classes, or are you most comfortable soaking up a lecture and processing the information on your own? What academic majors are you considering? What are the mid-ranges of test scores and GPAs for admission?

Related: The Importance of Thinking Outside the Name-Brand College Box

Diversity and global engagement

As an international student, you should find out where your classmates will be from (the United States? Other countries? How many and where?). Does the college cultivate a passion for study abroad or cross-cultural communication? What is support like for international students: Will you feel welcome there? Are there host families? Will you have access to an international student orientation?

Location and size

Do you see yourself in a large city, a cozy suburban campus, or a sprawling campus in a small town? Does the idea of snow excite you or terrify you? What are the people like and how many of them are there: 1,000 other students…10,000…40,000?

Campus experience

If only I had a dollar for every university presentation that describes a campus as “just like Harry Potter!” This description is often used because it’s truly difficult to capture the campus experience through a PowerPoint presentation. But interactions with staff, faculty, alumni, and current students can help you find out what students do on weekends, how many students are in a class on average, what the residential experience is like, etc. Start thinking about what you want most from your college experience to help guide your research.

Special interests

Are you an athlete, a musician, a dancer…a bagpipe player? If so, you’ll find it easy to narrow your list of schools based on whether you can pursue your passions there. But know that at many campuses, you may have the opportunity to create your own club or coordinate your own event if it’s not already offered.

Related: 6 Questions to Ask About a University's Cultural Fit

…and where to find it

Once you’ve answered the questions above, the next step is to locate this information. Talking to your college counselor, attending free presentations by colleges that visit your school or city, and even utilizing college rankings and other well-known publications to find out about locations, number of students, and majors offered can be a great starting point. Look at where alumni from your secondary school have attended and explore colleges attended by some of your role models.

One of my favorite resources is Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope. A former education editor at the New York Times, Mr. Pope  spent many years visiting colleges all around the United States and wrote about them in that book. It’s a great introduction to the considerations of what a “best fit” school can look like for you and how you can find it.

After you've added several colleges to your “maybe” list, you’ll need to start some in-depth analysis. See if there are any alumni in your area that you can connect with. Ask admission counselors to put you in touch with current students (by far the best way to find out about engagement and life on campus!). Check out each school’s website and find out what graduates do. International students can’t always visit campus, and that’s okay! Get in touch any way you can.

Related: How to Build the Perfect College List

Can I really commit to a college abroad?

Studying in the United States—or in any foreign country—is an experience that brings both challenges and great benefits. Colleges and universities worldwide welcome students from across the globe and allow you to engage in respectful dialogue about politics, culture, economics, religion, and so much else with students from backgrounds that are entirely different from your own. US colleges and universities also encourage research, internships, and other experiential learning that allows you to put your theory into practice. The university experience is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that sets you up with the soft skills you’ll need for success after graduation, including creativity, communication, critical and analytical thinking, and leadership.

You may also be concerned about the cost of a university education. Universities know this, and because they want international students on their campuses, there are often many resources available to help make that cost more manageable. Ask your school counselor and admission officers at your prospective institutions about special scholarship funds, employment programs, or other financial aid opportunities available for international students.

Related: Navigating the US Financial Aid Process as an International Student

In the end, it’s hard to make a bad choice when picking a university. There is no one best fit school for you—there are several. A school could be a great fit even if you don’t recognize it or it doesn’t appear on a national top 10 list. Doing your research and asking questions that are important to you will likely provide you with many solid options where you could happily spend the next four years of your life. Enjoy it!

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