With more than 4,700 college and university options in the United States, it can feel overwhelming to begin the post-secondary search. In the face of so many choices, students oftentimes turn to ranking lists as their sole way to research universities. Unfortunately, just because a school has a high rank doesn’t mean that it is a best fit for the student and their needs.
When your student comes to you to begin the U.S. university search, take them through a series of questions, so that they can start to realize their priorities in the process.
Initial Parameter questions (academic, location, financial):
Sometimes just these three questions will be enough to create a manageable list. Additionally, these tend to be the three most important parameters for both the student and their family.
- What are your Grade average and test scores? Every university has an academic profile which includes a middle 50% range of where their current students scored on standardized tests and performed academically in high school. Collegeboard.org publishes a lot of data around this to help students see which schools may be an academic fit. A student’s grades will help determine how selective of an institution they can target.
- How far from home do you want to be or is there a specific location you are targeting? If a student wants to easily be able to come home for the holidays, it makes sense to narrow the search to schools within drivable distance or perhaps near an accessible airport. Additionally, there are some students who target a specific location due to affinity for a city or ties to family or friends. Students should also consider what type of environment they would like their institution to be in. Urban, suburban, rural? In a particular state? Near the ocean, forest, mountains? With a particular weather pattern? The student will not just be at the university for four years, but will also be a resident of that city and state. This should be an important consideration for a smoother transition to university life.
- How much financial aid will your family require? The more aid a student needs, the more this will restrict their list. The number one place international students receive aid is from the university that they attend, so it is very important to consider the generosity of a university’s scholarship policy during the search process.
For a student that is high-achieving and also from a low-income background, there are 63 universities that will meet 100% of demonstrated need for international students. For students who are very high achieving and also have showed strong leadership qualities, a school with merit-based scholarships may be a good fit. For a student with a particular talent, namely in athletics or the arts, there are specific scholarships for these activities. Additionally, there are some institutions (typically on the border) that have either in-state tuition or specific scholarships for Canadians. For families where affordable tuition is key, these schools could be a good fit. Information about these schools is updated regularly on the EducationUSA website in the Resources section (educationusacanada.ca).
Ideal Campus Environment:
Once initial parameters are established, ask questions to determine what kind of campus environment will best suit the student and their interests.
- Do you know what you want to study? Some students will have a very strong sense of what they want to major and maybe even minor in. Having a very clear intended major could strongly narrow the list down, if the major is more niche. Other students may be more flexible or completely unsure; liberal arts schools or schools that encourage students to enter undecided can be a good fit these students.
- Do you have a narrow focus or do you want to explore? Students who want to do coursework solely in their field may be more attracted to institutes or universities with specialty colleges for their field, while students who want to explore will appreciate a liberal arts approach. Institutes tend to be either technology-focused or arts-focused.
- Big classes or small classes? Do you mind classrooms with hundreds of students, or would you prefer more intimate conversations with professors? Public universities tend to have much larger class sizes, while private schools have smaller class sizes.
- What campus activities do you want to be involved in? Do you want the atmosphere of the “big game?” The opportunity to join Greek life? Do you prefer quirky traditions? A more “artsy” vibe? A political leaning? Is there a specific club you want to join? Would you like to study abroad? Since there are so many options in the United States, it is not out-of-bounds to pick a university because it has the competitive a capella choir that you have your eye on or are the reigning Ultimate Frisbee champions.
- Would you like your campus to have a religious affiliation? Many private colleges are currently or were once affiliated with specific religions. Understanding the denomination of an institution (if it has one) and what role religion currently plays in the everyday lives of students will help narrow your search. Additionally, U.S. universities have a large variety of religious institutions including Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon. All public universities are unaffiliated with religion.
- Would you like a women’s only or a historically black college or university (HBCU)? Gender only colleges and institutions with a strong link to the African American community began out of necessity, when education was segregated by gender and race. Now, these campuses with a very unique history provide a learning environment unavailable in Canada.
Narrow the Search
With answers to these questions, your student should next prioritize how important each of these aspects are to them. For some, major will be the most important consideration, while for others, their club and social opportunities will take priority. The student should make a physical list with “needs” and “wants.” Next, your student can take to the search engines (like collegeboard.org) to see which schools meet their needs, and potentially have their wants. They will likely be surprised to learn about new institutions that may just be an excellent fit! As always, your students can always contact EducationUSA for support through narrowing their search and the application process. EducationUSA is a free U.S. State Department program. You can find out more at educationusacanada.ca.
By Jenika Heim, EducationUSA Advisor, educationusacanada.ca