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How to Decide Where to Go
By Patrick Fitz
The deadline to accept an offer of admission to the top colleges and universities in the US, including the Ivy League, is just around the corner. Here in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, fortunate students will have multiple excellent offers from which to choose. The question is: how?
If the application process is essentially a “looking back”—a record of past accomplishment including grades, SAT or ACT scores, extracurricular engagement, and awards and recognition—then the decision of which admissions offer to accept is without doubt a “looking forward.”
While they must decide for themselves, students ought to recognize that an undergraduate degree is a foundation for future professional work or study and not simply a trophy for historical achievement, gained through challenging activities and SAT classes. The decision of where to attend must be future-oriented, not simply a congratulatory gesture for a job well done. Education consultants recommend students to generate criteria that matter to them and make an informed, rational decision based on those well-thought-out criteria.
The upshot is that the highest ranking school a student was admitted to may not be the best choice for them. Similarly, an institution that offers generous scholarships or financial aid may not be the best option financially, when considering long-run earnings potential.
Below are some criteria to get students started on how to think about how to decide.
This means moving beyond rankings. Students should consider what it is about the particular academic programs they have been admitted to that appeals to them. Within the major, which courses will be most beneficial or prove the most stimulating? Which professors will they have the occasion to learn from, research with, and be advised by? What opportunities are there for further study in the field, including honors coursework, a thesis or capstone project, or internships?
Outside of the major, students should realize that they will be mandated to take other classes to satisfy core or distributional requirements. How does this fit in with their overall academic objectives? Are there opportunities to double major or minor in something else? How much flexibility is there with scheduling; can they enroll in classes at other undergraduate schools or colleges within the broader university community?
In sum, as much as the undergraduate experience is an opportunity for self-discovery and self-actualization, the real reason students enroll is to earn a degree, and so academic considerations must be first and foremost.
To return to rankings, it may be the case that one institution is more prestigious than another, but it is worth considering the extent to which reputation is worth it if one institution, though less prestigious overall, actually has a superior department in the student’s chosen major and would better establish the student for future success in the field. Such a calculus requires a reasonable amount of understanding regarding future plans.
On the other hand, students lacking a clear vision for their future selves—be it professionally or personally—may best be served by a college or university that really does have that level of prestige and is “good” at everything, or at the very least offers students a wide array of alternatives that undecided or less certain students can choose from. Surrounding oneself with opportunity is, itself, a form of looking to the future. Setting oneself up for success can be equally about ensuring that no door is closed and all remain open.
As previously mentioned, the undergraduate experience is just that: an experience. As important as courses and professors and research and grades are, the vast majority of students will be miserable (however satisfying the actual learning is) without some amount of “fulfillment” outside the classroom—again, however students define that.
While most institutions, especially larger universities, are enormous places with something for everyone, campus culture is real, and students would be advised to do some research into what it will actually be like to live somewhere for four (or more) years. How do students spend their time? Is there a vibrant extracurricular scene? Do students live primarily on or off campus? While it can be difficult to envision what life will be like, students should try to consider what it is that they are looking for out of their time and evaluate their accepted colleges and universities accordingly.
A suburban campus at which most everyone drives to get anywhere is not the same as a well-connected urban campus easily accessible by public transit. Similarly, a school at which most students are content to study and devote their lives to academic pursuits is not the same as one at which many students are involved both in and outside the classroom and pursue their interests through both coursework and activities—organizations and initiatives that put into practice their aspirations and curiosities.
A student with wide-ranging interests and commitment to clubs and organizations would not be well served by an institution that lacks that infrastructure. It is one thing to enroll at a university and start a group because one had not previously existed; it is entirely another to show up on a campus where students don’t really form groups or sustain engagement outside of their studies. Students deciding where to attend must consider these factors when judging colleges and universities.
Professional Training and Opportunities
As mentioned above, an undergraduate degree is a foundation from which students can pursue even higher education (a Masters or PhD or professional degree) or obtain employment in the field of their choice. Consequently, the decision of where to attend is hugely important when determining a student’s future trajectory.
It is one thing to consider academics as training, but it is also important to take note of what professional and career-building opportunities a college or university offers its students. Start with career outcomes: what do students in the major do after they graduate? What sorts of jobs do they obtain? Where do they pursue graduate study? How do graduates of the major and university become leaders in their fields?
Additionally, consider opportunities at the institution. What sorts of career services are there for undergraduates? How specifically does the academic department support students? Are there career fairs, or do recruiters visit campus to attract specific students? What sorts of internships, work placements, co-ops, or shadowing opportunities do students obtain—and how responsible is the institution for facilitating those placements?
While it may be the case that an academic department is particularly strong, it does not necessarily mean that the college or university can assure a job placement after graduation. Likewise, students should not underestimate the power of the alumni network and the value of the “brand name” of the institution: both may prove immensely useful in the short- and medium-term after taking the undergraduate degree.
Ultimately, the decision of where to study for an undergraduate degree is a personal one. Considering all of the various factors and weighing the sundry considerations is an intensely personal process. Educational consultants would advise students to choose the institution that is right for them—whatever that means to them.
The criteria a student chooses to evaluate accepted colleges and universities should be grounded in reality, relevant to the student, and verifiable. Furthermore, students should be aware that while they have limited time and information with which to make the decision, at the end of the day, there is no bad option. An undergraduate degree is an immense opportunity, regardless of the institution, and students should be confident that however hard the decision of where to attend may be, they have established themselves for success in the future.
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