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Decision Day: Choosing the Right University

January, 2009
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Students and school counselors weigh in on how to navigate the maze of choices for universities and colleges


Christine Chen is one of the 160 students at Shanghai American School (SAS)–Puxi who are going to graduate this June.

Chen is an American of Chinese descent. Both her parents are from Shanghai and went to university here. But she never considered attending a Chinese university.u-choice_christine

"My level of Chinese isn’t good enough,” she said. “I was born in the States, so going back to the country of my birth was logical for me.”

According to Kirk Mitchell, high school counselor at SAS-Puxi, 75 per cent of the graduating students on average are going to universities in the United States, 6 to 7 per cent go to Canada, 6 to 7 per cent study in the U.K., and the rest will be scattered around Europe, Australia or elsewhere.

With more than 5,000 English-speaking universities around the world, how are you going to choose the right university or college?

Will this decision change your life in the future? To a certain extent.

It’s not like this is the single most defining moment of my entire life, but it is a decision that will determine what my experiences in the next four years or so will be.


How Many Applications Should the Student Prepare?

Christine Chen is interested in pursuing the humanities or journalism. She has been preparing nine applications so far, including for her dream school and safety schools.

Meanwhile, Sarah Schneider, a graduate from SAS last year, did only four applications. She applied to Emerson College, Emmanuel College, Temple University and the American University of Paris. Emerson College was her first choice and they chose her, too. She was accepted into its Writing, Literature and Publishing program in downtown Boston, a great college town on the U.S.’s East Coast.

"I wouldn’t choose a different school but I do think that during the application process, I would apply to more schools,” said Schneider. “I only applied to four because I thought I wouldn’t get into some of the other ones I was considering. Essentially, I didn’t even try and just assumed I wouldn’t be accepted. I would take the risk next time.”

Adam Neufield, university guidance counselor at Yew Chung International School, suggests his students apply to between 6 to 8 institutions . “These 6 to 8 institutions we divide into 3 categories: dream, target and safety,” he said.

Andrew Lowman, college counselor of Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), suggests sending 8 to 10 applications, including for one or two dream schools, four or five good schools which the students feel comfortable about and have a good chance to get into, as well as two or three safety schools.

"Safety schools are usually hard to find, especially ones offering good programs,” he said. “If a student has really a school he or she wants to get into … they might prepare fewer applications. It takes a lot of time to fill out the applications, preparing more than 10 applications is kind of crazy.”u-choice_sris

According to Richard Cooper of Shanghai Rego International School (SRIS), who has been working with the Year 13 students on their college applications, most SRIS students will go to England, and they are applying to UKAS, an organization in England that organizes applications. The student just needs to send one application to this organization, and then UKAS would send the student’s application to five universities of his or her choice.


When Choosing a University, What Should They Look at?

When Christine Chen is searching for universities, she pays more attention to whether the programs the university offers are conducive to her interests, if she enjoys the campus, and if she could picture herself living, learning, and laughing there.

Finding the “best” college can be fairly easy if you know exactly what you want. But most people don’t.

According to Shaun McElroy, SAS-Puxi high school counselor, only about 15 per cent of the students at SAS-Puxi have a pretty good idea of what they would like to study at universities. In the U.S., over 50 per cent of the students will change their majors twice, not once, during their university years. McElroy himself started out as a double English and History major, but he didn’t finish that. He wanted to do a counseling major later.

"We always tell the kids and parents to relax if you don’t know what to study in universities,” he said.

"I think the first thing they should make clear is what they want out of their university experience, where do you learn best, and always look for the one that fits your personality.”

He says the problem is some students or parents just take the shortcut and depend on magazines that rank universities.

McElroy said people need to understand these rankings really don’t exist in the real world. The quality of a university is measured in many other ways. For example, one U.S. magazine ranking looks at one criterion - the number of books each university has in the library.

“In this day of the Internet, does that really matter?” he argued. “Pretty much many universities in the U.S. belong to the Interlibrary Loan. Even if I am studying in the University of Oregon, I can find a book that Harvard University has and ask Harvard to send it to me. They would do that. Do I need to go to Harvard then? Maybe I need to go Harvard for other reasons.”

"So, the decision on university choice starts inwards. Ask yourself these questions first, such as ‘Who are you?’, ‘How do you learn best?’ and ‘What school experience do you want to have?’”

At YCIS, Adam Neufield has been encouraging students to do a great deal of self-reflection, explore their interests, wants, hobbies, likes and dislikes. This allows them to have a clearer understanding of what they are looking for and to basically match their criteria with what the university is offering.u-choice_ycis

Every parent and student is different so what is important to one may not necessarily be important to another. It’s difficult to say which definitive factor should come first when deciding which university to attend.

Some factors, in no particular order, Neufield would suggest parents and students consider are: the type of program offered, the type and structure of degree, geography and environment, distance from parents, cost, financial support, size of the institution, student-professor ratio, activities and associations to take part in and entry requirements, to name a few.

Ideally, the students should visit the university before they make their decisions. That gives the student a real sense if the school fits him or her.

Talking to university officials is also a valuable source of information. According to Shaun McElroy, SAS has former students studying in over 350 universities around the world. Learning about college life first-hand from SAS alumni who have been there is a tradition for Grade 12 students on the SAS campuses. Recently, a bunch of SAS alumni came back to SAS Puxi and Pudong campuses, doing presentations and panel discussions with the current Grade 12 and 11 students about their college life.

Today, the Internet really changes how you look at universities, added Andrew Lowman of SCIS.u-choice_scis1

"The university websites are amazing nowadays. There you can get a virtual tour of the school, get to know the programs online,” he said. He recommended his students to start out at the College Board website, which allows students to put in their preferences, and then it will generate a list of universities for them.


The Student Makes the Ultimate Decision

Christine Chen did talk about her decisions with her parents. They wanted her to choose somewhere she would get a good education, and love every moment of it.

"My parents believe that what I choose is what I will enjoy, and what I will enjoy is what will allow me to thrive,” said Chen. “I think it’s good to talk with your parents about where you want to go, and consider the tuition fees, etc. In the end, though, the choice is up to you. After all, it’s you who is going to college, not your parents.”

And parents must be there, believes Richard Cooper of SRIS. “The parents should have offered advice. We cannot expect a 17-year-old to have all the information and experience their parents have.”

But how much should the parents get involved?

In a survey on SAS students last year, asking “Do you want your parents to get involved in the college search process?”, half of them said their parents were not involved enough. The other half or so said their parents were involved too much.

McElroy sees this as more of a cultural variation. The tradition of Asian families usually allows the parents to make decisions. Ultimately, they would advise their son or daughter and maybe decide for them.

"Well in the western countries or North America, we would say ultimately the kids make the decision and perhaps the parents advised them. We intend to encourage independence, so we want young people to make decisions and follow their heart.”

According to Kirk Mitchell of SAS-Puxi, in Grade 11 they conduct a long interview with both the student and parents.

"We require both parents to attend this interview. It is a way to understand the cultural dynamic of the family, what is going to be appropriate for the family. We want to make sure the parents are handling the right information,” said Mitchell.

"We want to encourage the parents if they are going to make decisions (for their children), they at least use the right resources to find out more in-depth information about schools and career paths before they say “You have to apply to this school.”


Scholarship Policy

Kirk Mitchell found people in Shanghai international schools are less interested in scholarships than anywhere else. He said there are wonderful scholarship opportunities out there for international students in the U.S., particularly at smaller liberal art schools. He believes families could take more time to research scholarships.

Adam Neufield of YCIS suggests that students apply for need or merit-based scholarships. In fact, more than US$800,000 in scholarship offers were obtained by the YCIS Visual Arts graduates in 2008. “University education comes with a hefty price tag and the last thing a student wants after they have graduated from an institution is to have a sizeable college loan.”

Andrew Lowman thinks it depends on the student. If the student is applying to a very good school, and applying for a scholarship program, the likelihood of getting into that program decreases.

If the students are in need of money or they cannot afford the college, they need to be very strategic and very pragmatic about their chances of getting into universities, Shaun McElroy said


Take a Gap Year or Not?

Sarah Schneider is indeed very happy with Emerson College, her first choice school, and she can’t wait to start studying there next year. However, she decided to take a gap yearbecause she wanted things to slow down a bit. “I was so tired by the end of my last year in high school that I really just wanted an extended break where I could decide things for myself for a change,” she said.

During her gap year, Schneider is studying Chinese at East China Normal University in Shanghai and just started an internship at a casting agency. In the future, she hopes to work in journalism or publishing and she believes "Chinese will be an asset in both fields.”

Her life has changed because of this. The pace of life is completely different. She also interacts and works with a new group of people these days. Before she started working, she also had a chance to just explore parts of Shanghai she hadn’t seen before.

"It’s a very good city to be unemployed in,” she said. “I still live at home and although nothing has changed here, I feel more grown-up because I have my own responsibilities now.”

"I know that some people are hesitant about taking a gap year because they feel they will lose momentum, but this year is going by incredibly fast. It’s already January and I’m just starting to realize how many things I’d still like to take care of before college. Gap years really do give you the chance to evaluate what you really want to do, explore some options and relax a little bit.”

Shaun McElroy and Kirk Mitchell are both big fans of the gap year. But McElroy posed three questions for the students to ask themselves: Do you feel you need a break? Do you feel uncertain about what you are going to do? Or do you have other things to accomplish as well?u-choice_sas1

Adam Neufield of YCIS also believes the gap year can be used well. Spending the year working in a field you are interested in, volunteering at a charity organization or interning at a company are invaluable experiences. Even more important are the skills and knowledge the student attains from these experiences. Has it changed them for the better or broadened their horizons?

Andrew Lowman of SCIS warns the student should have a clear reason or plan on why he or she wants to take a gap year. “If the student just wants to take a gap year because he or she is tired of school, then I don’t quite support this decision,” he said.


Thinking Ahead

If preparing for university means starting to take AP courses, then it would be Grade 10 when Christine Chen began preparing for college.

"The applications ask for what I’ve been doing since the summer before ninth grade, though, so technically that would be when I started ‘preparing.’”

It is always wise to be prepared – the sooner the better.


"What’s more important is the attitude you carry with you day to day, and the passion you have for your dreams. Then wherever you go won’t matter as much, because everything you experience becomes a celebration of your life." – Christine Chen. 

By Xing Yangjian

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