Guide to choosing a university Part 2: Years 11-13

It’s crunch time – that extremely exciting, and a little nail-biting, phase when your child is firming up what their next steps after school will be. There’s so much to consider – which country, which programme, which university. We talked to school Career Counsellors and Heads of international schools across Switzerland to compile their advice for making the best choice.

Make sure the student is at the centre of decision-making.

First of all, it’s about the students and who they are. So, forget about what country you might end up in, what institute you might end up in, what course you might take. What is their individual personality in terms of learning and environment? And it has to be individual. It has to be theirs. I encourage parents to help their child think about themselves, and avoid projecting what they want for them, which can be difficult!

Once they research themselves, then is the time to think what subjects they enjoy the most, and why and what that might lead them to be doing in the future as a career. And then once that research is done, what institute will match them the best in terms of academic enjoyment and learning style. Because if they say, “I need to live by a lake, because I love to sail” and the top university is MIT for what they want to study, that isn’t going to necessarily match what they need in order to be emotionally healthy and happy, so it’s worth looking at alternatives.

If we can let the student take the lead on their future planning, whatever that is – a career, university, or a gap year – then I believe that they will be more successful in whatever path they choose than if their parents have done it for them.

Rachel Doell, University and Career Counsellor, Inter-Community School Zurich.

Be realistic.

I think probably the first tip is to be realistic about expectations. For parents, you shouldn’t expect miracles. And this includes understanding different evaluation systems so as not to put too much pressure on your child. Four A* at A level is not the same as the full 45 points at IB. You would never say to a child that’s doing four A levels, we want four A stars. But regularly, parents come in and say, “We’re looking for a 36. We want a 38.” And it can be a matter of reminding them that a 38 will get them into Oxford to do medicine. As for students, they are going to be expected to give up a lot of their time to achieve these sorts of scores.

It’s well documented that every point above 32 is a significant number of extra hours. If you’ve got a bright child that’s willing to put in the extra hours, willing to put in the leg work, willing to develop their bibliography, then they get the extra points. From 32 to 45, though, there’s still a big difference. We need to be, as a collective, managing that pressure and commitment together, parents, teachers, and students.

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, & Andrew McLachlan, Deputy Head of Curriculum, La Côte International School.

I often find that with decreasing admission rates in highly selected colleges, there is a perception that, “If I don’t get in, my life is over.” But there are lots of ways to achieve your dream. There are lots of roads that will lead there. Very successful people in the world often took alternative routes to get where they are today.. If you keep an open mind in the process, it’s going to be a lot better than if you zero in on undergraduate at university X.

I also often wonder why students aren’t taking more gap years if they don’t know exactly what they want to do. You need to be very realistic of the reality that, for example, only four point something percent of students got admitted to Stanford last year, that means that 95 percent were rejected. I would add that you also need to understand that US universities rarely take more than 10 percent of their cohort from outside the United States. So you’re actually fighting for 10 percent of that 5 percent who’ll be accepted. And maybe the demographics of international school communities are not the cohort communities that some of these universities are looking for in that 10 percent. So, just be really realistic. Have a plan A, B, C, D.

Leanda Wood, Head of Counselling, Zurich International School.

Keep an open mind about less traditionally prestigious universities.

Don’t be afraid to choose a university that you’re not familiar with. Keep an open mind and don’t limit yourself to the country you’re from or what you know. Quite often students have well-known universities at the forefront of their mind. But for some subjects, they’re not necessarily the best institutions. With some research, what you’ll see is that a lot more universities in Germany, the Netherlands, and even Eastern Europe are now offering complete programmes of study in English as well. And if you’re factoring in the costs involved, and the U.S., U.K. might be prohibitive, why not explore those options.

Something we’ve just introduced is BridgeU. It’s a programme that pupils can access and set their filter preferences including aspects like geographical location, programmes of study, and predicted grades. It then comes back with a selection of universities and programmes. In some cases, the programmes are obvious, but others can be surprising. For example, we saw one where it was a combined psychology and engineering degree in Bristol which, when you think about it, is quite a smart combination in the sense that graduates are going to create something that people really want, and understand why people want it, and why people are drawn to it.

Based on your input, BridgeU can tell you, “Oh, someone with your predicted grades has a 5 to 10% chance”. You can always change the parameters when you get a new report card. The thing I love about this programme is that it’s making alternative options real to parents and students.

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, & Andrew McLachlan, Deputy Head of Curriculum, La Côte International School.

Empower the child to make the decision on their next steps as they’re the ones who are going at the end of the day. A great book for parents and their children to read is Frank Bruni’s, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be”. Then you’ve probably heard the phrase, “College is a match to be made not to a prize to be won,” by Frank Sachs. University is not a trophy, it’s all about the best fit. Why a student is great for the university and why the university is great for the student.

I think most high school counselling offices have the best fit philosophy, because what is a great fit for one student, is not a great fit for another. Selectivity of a school does not equal the quality of the school. You can have a great experience at a great university that isn’t as selective as maybe the Ivies.

Joseph Amato, IB DP Coordinator & John Switzer, Upper School Principal, Zurich International School.

Make the hardest choices first.

We try to say to students all the time, do the hardest thing first. So, if the hardest thing for you and your family is choosing whether it’s America or Europe, do that first. Then start thinking, is it a campus or a city? Because if you start globally and then you narrow it down, it’s less scary. For every family it’s always something different. For example, the girl I sat with yesterday. She said Netherlands, U.K., U.S., but in her case, she’s thinking about a hockey scholarship.

Sports with scholarships in athletics tend to be the U.S., so location was important in the equation for her. But other times, it might be that a student’s heart is set on a particular programme. Looking at the reality of their predicted grades, where could they actually access that? So, I think it varies, but tackling that first, everything else will feel much more manageable afterwards. Or even start with, “What do you know you don’t want to do?”

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, & Andrew McLachlan, Deputy Head of Curriculum, La Côte International School.

Know the culture and requirements of the education system your child is applying within.

Different systems look at very different criteria. It takes Europeans by surprise that an American university will be looking at their day to day grades from grade nine onwards and that they’re accepted by the time they’re finished their exams. That’s a really different mindset. On the other hand, Americans, who are really stressed about the GPA, may not realise that a European university won’t be looking at the GPA. I think the big surprise is that the high school diploma is worth something. Outside of North America, people have not heard of a high school diploma, generally. So, we have some parents who don’t realise that a North American university won’t take you without the high school diploma. It really is a useful document.

Leanda Wood, Head of Counselling, Zurich International School.

Do visit universities.

If you can, go on a university tour, the summer before or two summers before. Definitely have that on your radar by the end of your GCSEs as that can add a bit of direction. Factor it in as part of your summer holiday even three years before. A student might have had dreams of studying in New York as there’s a certain glamour about NYU, for example. Then they get there and realise that NYU is in probably the roughest part of Manhattan, and think, “No, thanks.”

Seeing the university, feeling it, can solidify your thoughts. And going on a rainy day is always better than a sunny day as well. See it at its worst. Start to narrow down what it is, or really consider what you’re after out of your university experience as well. It’s not just the programmes of study and the places. However it can be, do you want to live in a big city? Would you want to live on campus? Do you want to be somewhere with a real international demographic? Do you want to be somewhere that’s perhaps a bit more local or community based?

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, & Andrew McLachlan, Deputy Head of Curriculum, La Côte International School.

Consider finances very carefully.

It’s important as a family to have an early discussion about things that they might not even think about, such as where is financially viable to study. That’s really important because what I don’t want to see happening is a student get really excited about going to a specific university, but actually they didn’t realise that they can’t because it’s not either financially possible or the family might not want them to live in that country. So I think that’s really important to discuss as a family early on.

Rachel Doell, University and Career Counsellor, Inter-Community School Zurich.

We recommend that you’ve actually already had this conversation with your child before this stage. It’s so important to have conversations early on so your child knows your financial limitations. Simply saying, “We can’t afford $60,000 a year” allows them to recalibrate and adjust their expectations. If a child gets their hopes up, even if they get the grades, they can’t afford to go. That’s brutal.

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, & Andrew McLachlan, Deputy Head of Curriculum, La Côte International School.

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