University Student

Looking Beyond the Brand Names:  Choosing the US University that’s Right for You 

In the 1990s, as a student at a British independent school, I made a decision that has had a profoundly positive impact on the rest of my life: I decided to apply to universities in the United States. While I was not the only pupil at my school to do so, we were certainly a very small group. During four fantastic years at Harvard I was able to study subjects ranging from astronomy to opera to South American literature, become a more confident person and build lasting friendships with remarkable individuals from all over the world.
These days more students from around the world are looking to the US for higher education. For instance, every year more than 5,000 students from the UK opt to attend a US university for their undergraduate degrees. While it is not for everyone, it is a move I highly recommend for motivated students keen to expand their horizons.
There are over 4,500 US universities offering undergraduate degrees. Selecting the right one for you can be a daunting task—you may not have even heard of some of the top universities in your field! The most frequent mistake we encounter from international students who express an interest in an American undergraduate degree is that they want to target only the ‘brand name’ universities. If students focus on the perceived reputation of a university rather than looking for the best-fit institution, they may miss out on finding the place where they will most excel as undergraduates. I have met teenagers who tell me that they would like to be in a rural, idyllic environment and in the same breath mention NYU in the heart of New York City. Alternatively, students who love a particular subject – be it engineering or studio art – should make sure that they are seeking out universities that offer those courses and have excellent faculty and opportunities in the field. Applicants should look for institutions where they will be engaged, challenged and happy.
The first step is to determine if the US is the right destination for you. In many ways, the decision to explore a degree in the US is about choice. In addition to the sheer volume of quality institutions to choose from, students can try out different courses before finalising a major and can choose from a rich array of campus activities. While we are seeing more broad-based ‘Liberal Arts’ style programmes on offer in Europe, it is fair to say that most degrees on offer are focused on one area of study. For many international students, the attraction of a US degree is the opportunity to further their academic studies in a wide range of subjects. When students arrive on campus as freshmen, they can explore different subjects for a year or two before declaring a major. So if you are a student with broad interests and you don’t want to focus on only one area then the US may be right for you. Of course there are opportunities to focus more narrowly in the US at specialist institutions like MIT for science and technology or RISDI for visual arts.
There are many good reasons why a student may elect not to apply to US institutions. Medicine and law are both graduate degrees in the US and while students can pursue an undergraduate degree in the US and return to their home country to take medicine or law as post-graduates, it is important to fully think through the cost implications. It is incredibly difficult for international students to gain entry to US medical schools and a US law degree may not be the most valuable when a student returns to their home country.
Once you have decided that the US may be the right fit for you, the next step is to start building your list of target universities. In the rest of this article, I have included some critical points to consider when building your university list.
The most competitive US universities accept fewer than 10% of applicants, so even if you have stellar exam results there is no guarantee that you will be accepted. Your list must consist of a range from these highly competitive “reach” universities to “accessible” options where your exam results and SAT/ACT scores are significantly higher than last year’s admitted students. If you are also applying to universities in your home country you will want to develop your “US list” and your “home country list” in tandem, ensuring that you have a good range spread across both. For many European students, options in their home country will be more affordable and so it can make sense to allocate more “accessible” options to the “home country list”.
Going to a US university can be a major financial commitment for a family, so make sure you have researched funding options while you are drawing up your list. Funding is available in a variety of formats for international students including merit scholarships, sports scholarships, ‘need-based’ financial aid and scholarships from external sources. While over 600 universities offer scholarships of $20,000 or more to international students, often this large scholarship will only cover about one-third of the total annual cost. Unfortunately, at most US universities, an international student’s need for financial aid will be considered in the admissions process. Fewer than 10 US universities offer to meet international students’ full financial need and do not even consider need in their admissions decisions. We advise families to run the numbers early in the selection process to identify how much they will be able to contribute and how much external funding they will need.
There’s a wonderful assortment of universities located all over the US so you should consider: location (East Coast, Midwest, West Coast etc.), rural vs. urban and size. For most international students, access to an international airport will also be important. In terms of size, do you want to be at a school like the University of Michigan with 28,000 undergraduates or one like the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) with only 1,000 undergraduates? Consider the size of the student’s secondary school and how he or she feels about that environment and then try to imagine (or visit) being one of over 100,000 American football fans watching the University of Michigan Wolverines at the Big House stadium!
The wide selection of possible majors and a Liberal Arts curriculum are big attractions for many international students. However, some institutions are particularly strong in certain areas so it’s important to research which professors teach in a department and what courses are offered. Consider how you learn as a student—do you want to be in a large lecture hall to learn microeconomics or in an intimate seminar with 12 students and a professor?
Adjusting to life in the US can be a big challenge, particularly for international students who have not spent prolonged periods away from home. It’s important to look at how many international students attend an institution, as there’s a significant range from 17% at Claremont McKenna College to 5% at Bowdoin College to many institutions with only 1-2%.
A large draw for overseas students is the rich campus experience on offer in the US. Students are given the opportunity to participate in a wide range of clubs and activities covering areas like student government, sports and special interest groups. If there are particular interests or causes you’d like to pursue, be sure to check out what’s available at your target colleges.
While much attention is focused on acceptance rates, we should really be looking at how well prepared graduates are for their careers and life after university. In your research, investigate what jobs recent graduates are taking and what alumni have gone on to achieve. In many ways, this is a key factor in shifting the focus from perceived to actual value.
The summer is a perfect time to get started on your university list: research on the Internet, speak to local alumni, call admissions departments and even visit a campus or two if you can!
About the Author
Ed Smallwood is the Managing Director of A-List Education UK, a leading educational consultancy that guides international students through the US university application process. Ed attended Harvard for his undergraduate degree, New York University for his Master’s and Columbia for his MBA. Go to for more information.

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