Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 October 2020

How to navigate the US college decision process from abroad

Choosing which university to attend can be particularly tricky for international students

Six of Harvard's schools will host online-only classes in the next academic year. 
Six of Harvard's schools will host online-only classes in the next academic year. 

The wait is over for the hundreds of thousands of international students who were eagerly awaiting offers from US universities.

After a gruelling six-month application process, US colleges have released their admissions decisions and students now must choose where they would like to study in September, notifying universities of their decision by May 1.

But for international students, who are weighing up offers from several universities, it can be difficult to differentiate between them without visiting the campuses.

This is an expensive and time-consuming prospect under normal circumstances and one that has been eliminated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, there are a variety of options to help gain a better sense of which school may best suit students, without setting foot on a campus.

As you consider your options, use these tools to make an informed choice:

A student walks in front of the Old Main building on the Penn State campus in State College. AP
A student walks in front of the Old Main building on the Pennsylvania State University campus. Matt Rourke / AP

Speak to current students

Students are best equipped to give you a good idea of daily life at the universities you are considering.

If you do not know any current students, ask teachers at your school if any past pupils have recently attended the university.

You can also ask your college admissions officer to connect you with a student. You can even request a student with a certain area of study, home country or extra-curricular interest.

Although admissions counsellors will likely connect you with a student who will try to convince you to go to that university, you can still glean valuable information by asking them incisive questions.

These could include: "Do you feel comfortable approaching your professors during office hours?", "What does a typical weekend look like for you?", "How easy is it to get an on-campus job?" and "How do you actually feel about the dining-hall food?"

Once you speak to a student, ask them to put you in touch with one of their friends or classmates so you can obtain diverse perspectives.

Admitted student Facebook groups

Facebook groups that universities create for newly admitted students can be helpful if the information they provide is taken with a pinch of salt.

They can be a great way to get an idea of the type of people you could potentially be going to university with and even find roommates for schools that allow you to choose.

However, keep in mind that a small minority of students is likely to be the most vocal, so do not be concerned if you cannot see yourself befriending the people who are most active in the group.

Universities like Harvard are a bedrock supporting the region’s healthcare and technology industries . AFP
Students walk through Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Maddie Meyer / Getty

Virtual Q&As and webinars

Check to see whether the universities you are interested in are hosting any live virtual Q&As or webinars in which students and admissions officers answer your questions in real time.

As is the case with all university-sponsored information, these webinars will inevitably focus on the positive aspects of the institution.

But although many universities expound similar ideals, there are notable differences in how much emphasis they place on different aspects of the school.

Take note which universities spend most of their time talking about the level of engagement of their professors versus the intensity of their school spirit versus the quality of their research facilities.

Many schools, including Yale University, Smith College, Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, American University and New York University offer this option.

'Fiske Guide to Colleges'

The Fiske Guide to Colleges is a reliable third-party source for information on universities.

The book includes well-written and thoroughly researched descriptions of the academics and student life at more than 300 US universities.

Using quotes and anecdotes from students, the book provides distinct, candid and balanced views of each university.

College review websites

The most easily available information on universities can also be the most unreliable.

The website College Confidential is notorious for being a platform for questionable rumours that capitalise on the anxiety of the college application process.

Since all contributions on the site are anonymous and unverified, it is best to avoid it.

If you find yourself looking for university reviews online, go to Niche instead. It offers a more orderly aggregate of reviews from current and former students at universities across the US.

Updated: March 30, 2020 04:43 PM

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