How to pick your perfect college

Posted on 23rd June 2016

One of the best aspects of studying in the USA is the choice that is available to you. There are over 2400 ranked universities in the US (39 of which featured in the Times’ list of top 100 universities in the world and 53 in the US News and World Report Best Global Universities). This means that the perfect school is definitely out there waiting for you!

However, with so many options, making the right choices can be tricky! This is especially true for international students who typically have less access to fact-finding methods such as college visits or talking to alumni. Luckily, though, we’re here to help.

Determining fit
As you begin the process of choosing colleges, a term you will repeatedly come across is ‘fit’. College guides will tell you to choose schools that fit with you, while colleges will state that they look for students that fit with them. Determining a good fit (or even exactly what it means) will differ for each student. Everyone has different things they look for in their perfect college and even shared criteria will differ in importance from student to student. For some, academic considerations and college rankings are the single most important factors. Certain schools, such as those in the Ivy League, may have been the dream for some students since they were young and attending may represent their main aspiration. For others, the region of the country might be the most significant factor, often for family reasons. For sports scholars, a college's competitiveness in their respective sports will naturally be the primary focus.

Choosing Colleges
Choosing the universities you want to apply to is a big decision and a very personal one. As such, it can be difficult to know where to start. The best place to begin is to draw up a long-list of colleges you think you might be interested in attending. Don’t worry about having too many at this stage – we will look at how to cut this list below.

The best place to start researching colleges is with their websites! As well as useful information on the admission criteria and student profiles, they will also give your insight into the social and extra-curricular options available to students.

To start with, find the considerations that are most important to you and use this to draw up your college list. Below is a list of different criteria you can use to help draw up a long-list of colleges. These criteria are not exhaustive and are also in no particular order – it is up to you to decide which factors matter most to you!
  • College/Major Rankings - College and course rankings are an important consideration when choosing schools to apply to. The university you ultimately attend will represent one of the biggest investments you will ever make. However, it is important to be aware that there are lots of top universities in the US. (Remember that a top 20 university in the UK is roughly equivalent to a top 50 university in the USA!) International ranking lists can be a good way to see how US colleges compare academically to more familiar universities in the UK.
  • Location and Climate - Location can be a hugely important factor in your university experience. Some students may crave the buzz and opportunities provided by city-based colleges. Others may find that campus colleges based away from major cities offer a greater collegiate atmosphere and a more cohesive student body. Climate may also be a factor as it varies wildly across the US – from the freezing winters of the north to the sweltering summers of the south. Another important consideration for UK students is whether to choose an East-Coast college over the West Coast as this does make travel to/from the UK easier! There are no right or wrong answers here, what is important is that you spend time asking yourself what would be the best fit for you.
  • Acceptance rates - Acceptance rates for US colleges are rather different from UK universities. It is not unusual for highly selective colleges such as those in the Ivy League to have admission rates as low as 5% (of which typically around 10% will be international students.) As a result, it is important to make sure that you meet the admission requirements, as every year strong candidates are rejected for weaknesses in certain areas of their applications. This is not to say that you shouldn’t apply to these schools but make sure that you don’t solely focus on these colleges! Whilst it can be tempting to think that lower acceptance rates equate to ‘better’ colleges this is certainly not the case.
  • Size - Universities in the US come in all shapes and sizes. Typically, private colleges will be smaller than public universities (for the differences between the two, click here) with traditional Liberal Arts colleges smaller still. These differences will affect your college experience in lots of ways, from class sizes and formats to the number and variety of student organisations.
  • Liberal Arts curriculum - The liberal arts curriculum can be one of the biggest draws for students from the UK. Unlike the UK, the US higher education system has traditionally encouraged students to take a range of different subjects for the first two years of university before choosing a major to focus on for the last two years of the degree programme. Liberal Arts courses are offered across the country, in both public and private colleges. However, they are most closely associated with Liberal Arts Colleges. These are typically smaller, undergraduate institutions. The small size and relatively high faculty/student ratio can create a ‘school-like’ atmosphere and should be a consideration for students who feel they would benefit from a greater degree of support and staff engagement.
  • Majors and Research - While it is certainly a good idea to find out how well ranked your choice of major is at your chosen colleges, a good rule of thumb is to focus on choosing the college that is right for you first. The reason for this is that around 80% of students change their major at least once! For this reason, it is also a good idea to find out how easy it is to change your major if you decide to. Another consideration is whether there are opportunities to get involved with research, as this is often an attractive feature of study in the US. College websites will often include this information, but don’t hesitate to contact them directly if you would like more information.
  • Financial Aid/Cost - Cost is often one of the key factors involved in choosing colleges. The cost of tuition and living as well as the financial aid packages available can differ significantly from college to college, so it is important that you research the costs and funding options available to you from each college you intend to apply to.
  • Sports - Sports are a big part of college life in the US and students have the opportunity to get involved regardless of ability. If there is a particular sport you are interested in playing, there will almost certainly be a college that is just as passionate about it! Those who are more interested in supporting than playing are catered for too. Across the country, sports arenas and stadiums are far beyond those in the UK – at some colleges you might end up watching American Football in the college’s very own 100,000-seater stadium.
  • Student Life - With so many universities in the USA, finding the right one for you can be challenging. Whilst it is relatively easy to find out if a college will be a good academic fit for you, it can be harder to get a sense of whether the campus atmosphere and student life will be a good match. The good news is that life on campus is geared towards allowing students to discover and pursue whatever interests they might have. There are usually hundreds of different clubs and societies available, with new ones added every year. A good place to start researching student life is with each college’s website. These will give you an indication of how the college wants to be seen and will highlight the factors that they think makes them stand out. One cultural aspect of US colleges that may be familiar from TV and film is the Greek system of fraternities and sororities. These do exist at many colleges but are by no means compulsory and these days are far more inclusive than how they are often portrayed! Once you have a shortlist of schools, you can investigate arranging campus visits and contacting previous students to get a better sense of college life.
Creating a shortlist
A useful starting place to winnow down your college selections is to use the criteria above to score each of the colleges on your long-list according to your requirements and preferences. For instance, if you are interested in a smaller, collegiate environment, you might score Vassar (c2,450 students) a 10 while scoring Texas A&M (c58,577 students) a 1. You can then repeat this process for each criterion. At the end you should have a list of colleges sorted by their scores in the categories that matter most to you.  It is important to note that while there is no limit on the number of colleges you can apply to, we recommend that you aim to choose 8-10 colleges as you will need to apply to each one individually (often involving writing separate essays!)

Safety, match and reach
Once you have reduced your long-list down to a more manageable size, it is time to whittle this down into your final shortlist! The aim with this process is to make sure that the colleges you will apply to are divided fairly equally into ‘Safety’, ‘Match’ and ‘Reach’ colleges. Safety schools are those that you are very confident will offer you a place based on their admission profiles (you can find these on each college’s website.) Match colleges are ones that fit your academic and personal profile, but will still require hard work and dedication to be accepted. Reach schools are ones that will need a LOT of hard work and planning!

Look beyond the Ivies
One of the most common mistakes we see from UK students is not ‘balancing’ your college applications between safeties, matches and reaches. Whilst it can be tempting to apply only to Ivy League or other highly selective colleges, the reality is that even meeting all the admission requirements may not guarantee that your application is successful. Therefore, if you are committed to the idea of studying in the USA (and we think you should be for the reasons outlined here!) it is important to be realistic and balanced when putting together your shortlist.

This process doesn’t mean that you have to settle for ‘inferior’ colleges however. One of the best things about the US college system is the strength in depth. While people in the UK are familiar with Harvard, Princeton or Yale, we are less familiar with schools such as the University of Michigan - despite the fact that it ranks in the top 25 universities worldwide according to the Times World University Rankings. This highlights the importance of looking beyond the ivies or those colleges with name recognition. We will be putting together an overview of great, non-ivy colleges in the near future, so stay tuned!

Next steps
Once you have your short list of colleges, the next step is to visit colleges (if possible!) Although websites are an excellent resource for finding out more about colleges and campus life, nothing beats seeing it in person. Depending on the college, as well as campus tours and information sessions, it may also be possible to arrange to sit in on a lecture or even stay the night on campus. For more info on arranging campus visits, click here.       
Once you have your final shortlist of colleges, it is time to begin the application process! For an overview of the steps involved in this, click here.

If you have any questions at all about choosing colleges or how to apply, click here to get in touch!
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