ROBERT RAYMER offers a practical guide to varsity-hunting for students hoping to further their studies in the US.
ONE of the most difficult decisions for international students wishing to study in the United States is deciding which school, whether it’s a college or university, is right for them. The choice can be overwhelming – over 3,000 colleges and universities to choose from.
The fastest way to come to a decision is by process of elimination. If your programme of study is specific, like Landscape Architecture or Music Therapy, you eliminate all those schools that don’t offer that major.
If your major is too general like Business, or if you’re undecided, then try limiting your choice of schools to one region, or better still, to one state. Then be realistic about costs and if you can’t afford a private school, select from only state schools, and then narrow these down by admission standards, location, and size of school.
But is this the right school for you? Perhaps, in your haste, you’ve eliminated some excellent choices. Maybe you need to ask yourself some very important questions before you begin your research. Maybe you need to consider all the factors when selecting a college/university, factors that may not be very important to your friends, but could be crucial for you.
Programme of study
A good first step is deciding what you want to study. Again the more specific the major the more schools you can eliminate. But don’t force yourself to choose prematurely. Many students will change their majors at least once, and you don’t have to decide until your second year, so if you’re undecided, it’s best to keep your options open – why major in the wrong field?
Take your time, sample courses, and find out what you are good at. But if you have a major, then ask yourself how can you apply what you’ll be studying to getting a job back home. Keep in mind that what may be popular now may be saturated four years from now. Also, don’t assume you have to go for a four-year institution, just because everyone else is, when a trade or a technical school may better suit you.
You should think in terms of a career, especially one that interests you, then find out what programme of study you need to pursue to get where you want to be.
Admission standards vary greatly from school to school. It’s always best to apply to several schools, those you feel (and hope) you can get into, and at least one you know will accept you. Popular schools, those with high standards, or limited capacity, will have the earliest deadlines – so be prepared.
When considering reputations you’ll need to go beyond the Rankings and Ratings reports (which are often controversial at best). Every school likes to think it’s a “leading college”, but is it? Where are they drawing their students from? Their own communities? Their home state? All over the US? Throughout the world? How many professors hold PhDs and how many of them actually teach classes?
Then again, do you even have grades or the TOEFL/SAT scores to get into the best schools? If your grades are only moderate at best you may apply to schools with less competitive admission standards. If your grades are well below average you should consider attending an accredited community or junior college, which accepts most students who apply with a minimum of educational requirements.
This could be the foot in the door, and if you do well you can then transfer into a four-year institution to complete your studies.
When a school is accredited it means it has met the minimum requirements of a regional accrediting agency, so again schools vary widely. Professional programmes within the school will still need to be accredited by a professional association within the field. So if you’re planning to enter a professional programme, like Engineering of Pharmacy, this is very important.
Even then you should also make sure the school’s professional programme is recognised in your own country. In theory all regionally accredited schools in the US should be recognised by your government, but this will depend on your major at that school. So it’s always best to double-check, for it could affect your future income.
While considering the amount needed for your education you need to look at all the costs involved, including personal expenses and transportation to and from the school. If room and board are not included it could mean the school doesn’t offer student housing; many community colleges do not.
High tuition costs do not always reflect high standards. You must think in terms of value, or the quality of the education for the time and money spent. You should be asking, what does this particular school have to offer other than a basic education? How can this school help you become a better person? How extensive is the library system? Their research facilities? Are the recreational facilities adequate – do they have two tennis courts, or two dozen?
Education is an investment that should pay dividends, not only while you’re at school for the next four years, but also for years to come.
International student services
For many students, having an International Students Office is worth the extra expense. Cultural and visa problems may crop up and you will need someone who is not only familiar with but also sensitive to your needs.
Also, does the school have an Intensive English programme? Do you need one? That will depend whether or not your TOEFL score is above 500 or 550.
Will the school make arrangements to fetch you from the airport or are you expected to make it there on your own? Are student advisors provided? How about summer housing – a big concern for students who can’t afford to return to their home countries.
Do they provide any outreach or home-stay programmes where students can stay with an American family during school breaks when the dorms are usually closed, or arrange get-togethers with other foreign students from nearby schools?
These will add to your overall educational experience.
The US is divided into several regions: West, Southwest, Midwest, South, Middle Atlantic, and New England. The northern states have cold winters and mild summers and the south have mild winters and hot summers, but within these regions seasons can vary significantly from state to state.
So you must ask yourself, how adaptable are you? How cold is too cold? How hot, too hot? Each region has its own natural wonders and cultural diversity. Yet, when it comes down to costs, the East and West coasts can be more expensive than the other regions.
However, if you’re overly concerned with costs, make sure the lower tuition or housing costs in the South or Midwest offset the additional expense of internal flights getting to and from those regions, especially if you’re planning to return to your home country several times in the course of your four years of study.
Location/ Personal Safety
Costs will also vary according to the size of the community. The larger the city the more expensive things tend to be. Yet, at the same time, there will also be more things to do outside of school and greater variety of restaurants.
Some will even have ethnic food stores where you can find those hard to obtain ingredients to make your favourite dish. If you don’t feel comfortable staying in a large city or if you’re overly concerned about personal safety, then shy away from schools located in major cities.
However, even in a small town you have to use some common sense, like not walking alone late at night in a secluded area. Most schools have their own security staff and campuses are often designed in such a way you can’t help but feel cut off from the rest of the world even if you’re located in the heart of a major city.
Size of school
The size of schools can range from less than 500 to over 45,000 students. Private schools tend to be smaller than public schools and they can usually guarantee a better teacher to student ratio.
However, the facilities of smaller schools, may be limited, whereas those on large, state-supported schools can be quite extensive, even on the cutting edge of technology.
Small, private schools can better cater to your individual needs, but larger schools can offer more in terms of diversity in their programmes of study, international composition (some from over 100 countries), and cultural opportunities right on campus.
Regardless of the size of the school you choose, be it small, medium or large, it’s best to avoid those schools that have far too many students from your home country in proportion to the total number of foreign students. You can have that right at home.
Type of school
Those seeking a broad education may want to go to a liberal arts college where for four years you’ll be studying the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics.
This type of general education is intended to make you a well-rounded individual, someone who can think, reason, reach your own conclusions based on relevant data, and communicate those results effectively to others.
This broad base of knowledge can be applied to such diverse fields as business, education, journalism, politics, public administration – anything really. To become an expert in a field, liberal arts majors can also go onto a wide range of graduate schools – even studying law and medicine.
Many liberal arts colleges offer combined liberal arts and career majors via their 3-2 programmes, whereby a student can graduate with a full liberal arts degree and can also major in such fields as engineering and business.
Besides an outstanding education (many of the top schools in the US are liberal arts colleges) a liberal arts school has a strong international focus. A large proportion of their students not only study foreign languages all four years, but have also studied or travelled abroad.
The US also has a host of specialised schools to consider in such fields as, Culinary Arts, Graphic Design, Fine Art, Music, where you can study at a Conservatory with some of the top musicians in the world; as well as Performing Arts – like Dance or Theatre.
Then there are a wide range of two-year technical schools in almost any field imaginable. Do you want to be a commercial airline pilot? How about a radio technician? Or a set designer?
Financial aid is becoming more and more competitive and not all schools give out aid to international students, and some don’t even advertise that fact, to prevent students from applying only for that reason.
Students need to be realistic about their qualifications. Are you a solid or an outstanding student? Are you involved in extra-curricular activities or athletics?
Private schools are more likely to give out financial aid than public schools, but with their higher tuition costs even with financial aid they still may be more expensive than their state-supported counterparts.
Once you’re considered all these factors a little more closely, rank them according to how important or crucial they are to you.
With this you can develop a foundation, a base to start from – by knowing what you want in a school.
Then, it’s back to the original process of elimination ? starting with your programme of study and working your way through all the other factors like region, location, size, costs, financial aid and admission standards.
When you’ve narrowed your list down to 5-10 schools, write to them, then look at each a little more closely, comparing their brochures and catalogues.
Get beyond all the PR hype. Not every school has an idyllic setting, or the most impressive professors or the happiest students.
Yet every school does have something special to offer. After you’ve discussed your final options with your advisors, your counsellors, your family, your friends and anyone else who wants to listen, then make your final decision.
What it may boil down to is your own gut feeling. Something inside you is going to say – yeah, this school is just right for me!
A former coordinator of the Penang branch of Macee (Malaysian-American Commission of Education Exchange), Robert Raymer is currently an instructor at Universiti Sains Malaysia.