Heading off to college or university is a rite of passage for many young people; after all, there is a wealth of new people to meet, an array of fascinating ideas to digest and copious amounts of head-splitting hangovers to experience. But how do you know which school is the right one?
With thousands to choose from, narrowing it down to the right choice can be a daunting task, especially immediately after finishing school. With the right amount of research and some basic direction, though, you should be able to identify the destination that is right for you.
First, there are several key decision factors that you need to consider, so if you’re ready, read on. This is how to choose the right university…
1. Research the Course Content
It probably goes without saying but your course should be the biggest factor in your overall decision. You will spend at least three years getting to grips with it, and chances are you’ll go on to pursue a career in the same field, too, so you’ll want to be sure that you’re making the right choice, both in terms of subject matter and type of degree.
The best way to do this is with prior research. Most colleges and universities display information about the individual modules of their courses, while faculty departments are usually more than happy to answer any additional questions you have. Try and match the course content to your own interests and consider how it will affect your future career aspirations.
2. Look at the Extras
Course curriculums are one thing, but you also need to look at what else your degree is offering: are there work experience placements or internship opportunities, for example? Some schools have better industry connections than others, and this can make a huge difference when it comes to applying for jobs after graduation.
Consider the flexibility of your choice, too. While choosing a major and a minor is common in the US, this isn’t standard practice in the UK. Therefore, if it’s possible to study in conjunction with another subject – especially one that is in line with your interests and/or career goals – then take this into account as well.
3. Consider the Faculty’s Reputation
With the arguable exception of Harvard and Oxbridge, no uni is a world leader in everything. Therefore, it stands to reason that different schools possess different strengths. If you want to study politics, for instance, then it’s no good choosing a university that has an outstanding reputation for medicine.
Do your research online. There are numerous rankings tables split down into departments that can give you an idea, as well as individual school websites. Make a shortlist of the top ones in your subject and go from there.
4. Consult the Rankings
This tip should be taken with a pinch of salt; rankings don’t tell the whole story, after all. They are a good indicator, though, of the general standing and reputation of the university, which in certain industries can be important.
The key is to dissect the right information. For example, if a university is ranked highly because it produces excellent research at the postgraduate level, then that’s great – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the standard of teaching or facilities on offer are the best.
Instead, look at the points that are relevant to you as an undergrad. What is the student satisfaction score like? What is the ratio of faculty members to students? Focus on what will directly affect your education.
5. Consider the Impact on Your CV
As previously mentioned, where you study can sometimes be just as important as what; it is an ongoing debate within HR and recruitment circles how much stock can be placed in a candidate’s alma mater. However, it’s undeniably true that if an applicant has Oxbridge or Harvard on their CV, then this will make them stand out from the crowd; this is worth bearing in mind when making your choice.
If you’re unsure, most countries have a designated list of ‘elite’ universities, such as the Ivy League in the US, the Russell Group in the UK or the Group of Eight in Australia. If you’re predicted to get good grades, it’s highly recommended that you consider these kinds of institutions.
6. Research the Area
Away from the academic side of things, it’s worth remembering that you have to spend the foreseeable future at your chosen school; this means that you’ll need to like the area that you’ll be living in.
If you want to be in the heart of a big city, then take this into account. Alternatively, if you prefer a more intimate or isolated setting, then factor this into your choices. Don’t underestimate the importance of visiting and researching the area, either; your course is important but if you hate your surroundings, then your education will undoubtedly suffer as a result.
Also consider how easy or difficult it is to get home. You might not think it at first, but after a while the odd weekend at your parents’ (and the comforts that come with it) will become increasingly appealing. If you’re particularly devoted to your mother’s cooking and laundry skills, then moving 400 miles across the country might not be the best idea.
7. Visit the Campus First
As touched upon above, actually seeing the school and the area first-hand is essential. Attending open days and university fairs is a good opportunity to meet current students and staff and ask any questions you have; you can also see the facilities first-hand, which will better inform your judgements.
You can also get a ‘feel’ for the place. After all, it might look great in the brochures and online, and it might be voted one of the best universities in the world, but when you see it first-hand you might feel differently. Before you go, make a checklist in your head of the things that will be important to you, and see how each of your choices fare.
8. Look Beyond the First Year
Going to university is a hugely exciting experience for any young person; as a result, it can sometimes be easy for your decision to be influenced by short-term factors, such as the line-up at Freshers Week or the quality of the accommodation.
Don’t fall into this trap, though. Look at what’s on offer in the second or third year and beyond; it might not be important now, but eventually you may want to spend some time studying abroad, for instance. If you get three years into your course and realise this isn’t an option, then you might be a little frustrated that you gave up three months studying in Paris for the sake of a Not3s concert.
9. Look at the Wider Campus Life
Everybody knows that there’s far more to student life than essays and lectures; therefore, you should look at the bigger picture around campus. Check out the student association websites of your choices and look at the various clubs and societies that are on offer: is there plenty to keep you interested and occupied away from your studies?
Look at the reputation of their sports programmes, too; whether you’re a casual participant or a committed athlete, playing sport is a fulfilling and CV-friendly university pastime. Alternatively, if Greek life is more your thing, then check out the various fraternities and sororities that have been set up.
10. Consider the Financial Implications
Finance should not be a barrier to education but, unfortunately, for many this continues to be the case. Even if you manage to cobble together the requisite funding, you’re going to be saddled with enormous debts for the remainder of your working life. For a lot of potential applicants, this is a factor in their eventual choice – whether they want it to be or not.
Of course, ‘choose the cheapest option’ isn’t really sound advice, and we recommend that you explore all the funding avenues available to you – but, realistically, if you’re going to be spending $60,000 a year on tuition fees, then you need to ask yourself if there’s going to be a return on that investment.
11. Look at the University’s Culture
Many universities have their own unique culture or identity, usually rooted in their founding. For instance, particularly in the US, there are schools that are single sex or faith-based. If you are Catholic, for example, then you may want to study at a Catholic university, and so on.
Sometimes the culture can be more implied. In the UK, some universities have a reputation solely for nightlife; others – like Oxford and Cambridge – are renowned for being more traditional and conservative. Whether your happy place is in a 14th Century courtyard discussing Charles Baudelaire in Latin or at Wetherspoons inhaling tequilas in a toga, you need to decide which kind of school will be the perfect fit for you.
Being able to find the right university is important; thorough preparation can save you having to transfer schools or, even worse, dropping out altogether. Neither of those outcomes are the end of the world, of course, but it can be a financially painful lesson; it can also be an avoidable one, if you stick to this guide closely.