While many American high school students make frequent visits to colleges throughout their junior year to learn more about different schools and the admissions process, most students here in Beijing don’t have that luxury. Thankfully, resources like the Internet are able to provide us with helpful information while we sit on the other side of the ocean.
As a student just beginning the college search journey, there are two things to look for: “Students who already know what they want to major in – especially if it’s an [uncommon]major – should look for schools that offer their desired major,” says Bruce Hammond, the college counselor and vice principal of Tsinghua International School (THIS). “For example, if you want to major in aerospace engineering, only a handful of schools are going to offer that.”
Having a set major narrows your pool down significantly, but after that, you can join the rest in the search for the second most important factor to look for in choosing a college –a school that matches your personality. The personality of a school is generally embodied in the student body and campus life. “Information like the percentage of students that participate in Greek life can help you gain a sense of the personality of a college,”Hammond suggests.
A handy tool that can provide you with information about student life on campus is the website of the student-run newspaper. Most colleges will have one, and because they’re not school-run, you can get a more honest look at what living at that college is like. However, as a newspaper, it’s still vetted – making it more trustworthy than review sites where anyone can post a review about a school, he points out. Indeed, sites like Unigo or StudentsReview often contain very extreme reviews of questionable credibility. That being said, they’re still a rather useful source in evaluating whether a college matches your requirements: Unigo asks reviewers to rate the college on a scale from 1 to 10 on things from intellectual life to drug culture, and makes comments regarding academics, athletics, and college life in general.“ I like that I’m actually getting reviews from students; real-life advice, not just facts and stats,” says one Unigo user. “[It’s a] great resource for people like me who do not have the money or time to visit each college personally!”
Hammond points out that college rankings, while a popular resource for students and parents alike, should be taken with a grain of salt. “When you’re looking at a ranking, you’re just looking at what everybody else thinks,” he says.
Better yet, your personal opinion of a school should matter much more. College rankings are based on general statistics that often deserve scrutiny; for example, the student-faculty ratio. “Some colleges might be counting the janitors as faculty,” one student joked.
Additionally, alumni achievements are another common indicator used to measure the quality of school though their relationship to their experience and time as a student is often controversial.Alternatively, students should look at more reliable numbers like the total number of students enrolled, or ask a current student about the average class size.
While the prestige of going to a top-ranking school certainly matters to many students and parents alike, the name of a school matters less than it seems.Attending a renowned university holds a lot of weight in China, but in the US, school names don’t open as many doors as you think they would. “It really depends on the field,” Hammond reveals.“Alumni connections matter a lot on Wall Street, and, to some extent, in journalism – but certainly not in [technology]. If you work in Apple, no one cares where you went to college.”
Instead, Hammond suggests students utilize resources like U.S. News and World Report magazine, which are famous for their college rankings, to find admissions and financial aid tips. The U.S. News website constantly updates their college advice for both students and parents.
While the Internet is just a click away, the last and most reliable resource for valid facts and figures about colleges and universities is books. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is a college counselors’ favorite, Hammond says. “It’s a bit more selective – it provides information for roughly about 300 schools. They also ask students for comments about their personal experience, as websites do, but because they’re a legitimate publication, all statements are vetted and credible.”
According to U.S. News writer Brian Witte, while it’s important to conduct thorough research and make a well-informed decision regarding college selection, students shouldn’t sweat it if they are indecisive about choosing a school. Furthermore, he goes on to say that choosing a school you later regret isn’t the end of the world for three reasons: Firstly, as a rising college student, your career path is still undetermined. Additionally, you do not yet know whom you will meet, or lastly, how you will change as a person.Witte reminds students that as long as you have applied to schools that fit your general mentality and keep an open-mind, you will have a rewarding experience.
The truth is, there might not be a single college who is the perfect match for you – but there may be several who would all make a good fit. With research (and perhaps a pro-con list or two), you will successfully find a small pool of schools that surely will make you happy.
Bruce G. Hammond is the vice principal and college guidance counselor at Tsinghua International School (THIS), and co-author of several volumes of the Fiske Guide to College series, as well as early editions of The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges.
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