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University Choice - Making it Wise

November, 2010
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Most students would agree that choosing universities is one of the most difficult decisions in their life. 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.

What’s more, there is tons of paper work – a dozen applications, personal statements and recommendation letters. To articulate 500 words that shine off the page in demonstrating who you are, why you are special and why you should be accepted is no easy task. The fact that every other applicant out there is trying to do the same thing as you to emphasize why they are a more competent applicant than the others means that trying to produce the ‘perfect’ essay only becomes more difficult…

Luckily, five IB DP2 students at Beijing World Youth Academy seem to have found the right path for them.

bwya-5ib-sCurrently, Ernest Li is focusing on his UCAS applications for UK universities. “I was born in UK, but I haven’t stayed in the UK for long since primary school, so I’d really like to have a deeper understanding of the culture. I think Canada is a beautiful country too, so I will be applying for Canadian universities as well.” Li’s favorite subjects are Business & Management and Economics, but he is really interested in computer technologies too. For university, he is considering Business & Computer Science as a way to combine both interests.

Sherry Zhang is originally from the USA. “I have chosen to apply to universities in the USA not only because America is a popular country amongst college applicants, but also because I would like to return to where I came from to receive my degree of higher education.” Sherry’s favorite subjects in secondary school are English and Business & Management. At university, she would like to continue her pursuit of a literary course of study, but in other languages that she has been interested in for many years: Japanese and Korean. “My first choice of major in university is East Asian Studies. With the basis of studying the languages, cultures and development of Japan, Korea, as well as China, I would like to exercise the potential of doing business in, or with, these countries in the future. Hence I would also like to minor, if not double major, in a business-related course.”

Sandra Obiora, from Nigeria, plans to go to university in China. “I made this choice to go to university in China because I realize that many students are flocking here to Beijing for school, because it is a good choice, and I agree. I feel since I am already here, and used to the environment, I will just remain, and also go to a suitable school too.”

Amy Wan has always had Universities somewhere in the back of her mind since about 6th grade. “I’m planning to go to an American university, mostly because I really like the lifestyle of the East side of the U.S. -especially New York City! I love that place! And more importantly, I really like the freedom that students are given when they choose their classes, which gives me space to experiment a bit before I pick my major.”

Stacy Gu is Chinese but she has been studying in Singapore during middle school. “I am planning to apply for universities in Hong Kong, which is nearby and has the major I am interested in. Canada is my second choice, as I really like the environment there and they are also top universities.” Her favorite subjects are Business & Management and Biology. So she will choose her major (double major if possible) based on business and psychology.


Universities on campus: an insight into requirements

August 25 and August 28: Representatives from UC Berkeley and Lee University visited Beijing City International School. September 10: Boston University visited Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA); September 14: New York University in Abu Dhabi visited BWYA; September 16: Temple University, Japan visited BWYA; September 28: Hong Kong Polytechnic University visits BWYA. October 14: Les Roches International School of Hotel Management visited BWYA. October 22: Representatives from five US universities joined the information evening for High School parents and students at Beijing City International School.

bwya-uv-s“Universities that visited BCIS are looking for academically well-credentialed students demonstrating 4 years of solid high school grades,” said Anthony Carman, High School Counselor at Beijing City International School. “It also helps if students have strong SAT grades, a strong extra-curricular history of involvement in the life of the school, and that they are well regarded by teachers who recommend them as strong university candidates. Universities really like well-rounded students who can demonstrate that they are not only academically successful but also successful across a range of areas and who are more than just a set of grades.” And, all universities highly regard IBDP students and actively recruit them. Other exam results universities seriously look at are US AP, British A Levels, German Abitur etc. 

This is definitely a two-way choice: Universities choose the students and at the same time students are choosing universities.

Usually, students look at the ranking of the university as well as the ranking of the faculty they are applying to and the reputation of the country system generally, costs of tuition and living expenses and likelihood of financial aid and/or scholarships, general safety and quality of life both on campus as well as off campus. 

Carman believes there are a lot of things to take into consideration. “Students should also consider type of university, location, size, culture on campus, environment of nearby area, facilities on campus, competition for admission, quality of academic program, make-up of student body, professors, extra-curricular activities, and costs.”

Christine Burns, university counselor at Beijing World Youth Academy, said she doesn’t trust the university rankings. To ensure finding the perfect match, she suggests the students should apply to 3 “dream schools” in the area they wish to go to, and apply for 3 “target” schools in that area as well as 3 “safety” schools they are confident of getting in.

“University is more than classes; university is also about who you can make friends with. And if you go to a really good school, you can make connections with people who are also top quality students. That can help you in life,” said Christine.

Scholarships can be helpful, but be strategic.

Scholarships are always an attractive proposition for students and families. These days many universities automatically consider all students for scholarships and financial aid, which makes the situation much easier. University education comes with a hefty price tag, and perhaps the last thing a student wants after they have graduated from an institution is to have a sizeable college loan.

carman-sCounselor Carman thinks scholarships and financial aid can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be relied upon.. He points out that the bottom line is that scholarships for international students are not very common and the competition is fierce. “If applying to schools which do not consider awards and scholarships automatically, you need to research this for yourself. Families generally must be able to finance university education themselves,” said Carman.

Counselor Burns: Completing the application for scholarships doesn’t hurt, does it? “Often the second-tier schools offer great scholarships. Sometimes that is much better than going to a top-tier school that costs a lot of money. And it doesn’t affect your career. Especially when you know you are going to get a Master’s degree afterwards; that means you can still go to a better Master’s school, and then you have your college education paid for.”


Students should make the ultimate decision, but listen to unbiased advice.

Parents, friends, relatives and schoolmates have all given Ernest Li their advice or opinions on the choice of university. “All of them have influenced me. But at the end of the day, it’s still about where I want to go and which university I think will be the best for myself,” said Li, adding that advice also came from many former BWYA graduates that really helps. “One of the most frequent pieces of advice I get would be to start early and manage your time well, and I have found this extremely important as I progress through the IB course.”

Sherry Zhang admitted her university decision is mainly influenced by her parents. “My father has often stressed that enrolling in a top university is an advantage that will follow me for the rest of my life, mainly in my career. My father helps me evaluate any university that I insist on applying to, and even suggests certain universities that I had not thought about. Though sometimes his opinions conflict with mine, they have nevertheless been insightful and have helped greatly in guiding me toward my top choices.”

Both counselors agree that students should make the decision and choose the university they want to go, but families pay the costs and so they should have a say in any decision.

“I always promote the idea of a joint decision where the student, family and the counselor all agree,” said Carman. “It is best when regular meetings take place and everyone agrees with the plan.” He suggests students should listen to all advice but especially independent unbiased advice such as from an experienced university admissions counselor. For example, school-based counselors offer a wealth of unbiased advice and are interested in the ‘best fit’ decision for the student.

Meanwhile, he warns that “agents and other representatives who work for universities and other placement groups do not offer the same unbiased advice and will often try to influence a student to attend a particular university or just give incorrect or out-dated advice.”

Christine also points out that parents, though they are more experienced about career paths, can be more open-minded that there are more possibilities for their children to lead a successful life.


Taking a gap year? DON’T lie on the beach.

For many students a gap year is a good idea. Some students are not ready for university.

Amy Wan will definitely think about taking a gap year. “It really depends on the position I am in near the end of senior year. Ideally, I feel that a productive way to spend my gap year would be to work on something I really love, to get an internship for the purpose of job experience, or to spend a few months devoted to volunteering.” Taking a gap year is also a possibility for Ernest Li, but he is not 100% sure yet. “If I come up with something I’m really interested in doing over my gap year, I would definitely take one.”

However, the other three girls all denied this choice.

Sherry Zhang has thought about applying for a gap year, but ultimately she decided against it. “University is my next priority after secondary school, and I would like to complete the next stage in my academic life before doing anything else,” explained Sherry.

Stacy Gu is not interested in taking the gap year because she wants to start her university life as soon as possible; besides Stacy feels she has done enough services and ready to enter a university. Sandra Obiora thinks it is important for her to graduate from university at a young age, because then she can consider continuing education or working.

christine-sCounselor Burns highly encourages students to take a gap year. She believes it is fantastic to get some real life experiences as long as the students are using the gap year efficiently – “If you (students) are doing something that helps you to go to a better university, or doing something you want to do.”

“When the student finishes university, she/he is usually 20/ 21 years old, so it is no big difference if they finish university at 21 or 22,” said Christine.

Again, Counselor Anthony emphasizes this issue needs to be discussed seriously between the student, family and counselor to consider all aspects of how advisable this decision is for that particular student. Besides, it is important to check with the universities the student is interested in applying to what their rules are for taking a gap year.

“However, the best advice is to make sure that students use the year well,” said Carman. “Plan the year to make sure you enhance your chances of entry the following year as well as learning and developing yourself.”


Grade 9, 10 & 11: it’s time to think about University.

Amy Wan has always had Universities somewhere in the back of her mind since about the 6th grade. However, she started gathering information about colleges for the Common Application only a few months ago. The other four students began to think about university during grades 10-11.

Counselor Burns said she is very shocked that even some Grade 12 students are still preparing their applications and taking the SATs.

“These should be done by the 11th grade,” she said. “I talked to the 10th graders that they should really start thinking where they want to go to university. And I told the 11th graders that by the end of this year they should have a list of universities they plan to go to. And in the summer, they have to fill out the university applications… not NOW when you are in Grade 12.” “University applications require many things to prepare. In their year of Grade 12, the students might also have academic requirements to complete. So the 12th Graders should definitely not be doing the applications at this time.”

bcis-uv-sThe other reason she points out is when students search for their university list, the first thing they should look at is if the university offers the courses they want to study. Therefore they should be looking at what they need to take at high school to prepare themselves for those courses. That’s why in 10th grade the students really need to start thinking about university and doing research.

Counselor Carman: Generally the process should start in the freshman year (Grade 9). But at this stage students should concentrate on self-knowledge - aptitudes, abilities, and interests. Take questionnaires, quizzes and various tests as well as talk to as many people as possible that know the student. Students should gather information about themselves and what careers/job prospects/courses/universities the results lead to.

Sophomore year (Grade 10) should be a consolidation of this process; research of various countries and their advantages, what courses take you in different directions, learning about the SAT etc. Junior year (Grade 11) is the time to get serious and begin the application process. This should be a research year, including meetings with the counselor (and family) leading to a ‘long list’ of universities that meet criteria laid down in Grades 9 and 10. Essay prep, PSAT, SAT test preparation courses, discussions with counselors and teachers and generally setting up a situation where in Grade 12 applications can start to flow early in Grade 12. The aim is for all applications to be concluded by the winter break of Grade 12 unless students are clearly committed to southern hemisphere schools or destinations clearly with later application dates, such as Japan.


Finally: plan, plan, plan.

Grades 9, 10 and 11: do read this article carefully.

The process is long and complex and changeable, so begin early in Grade 9 and follow the published timelines in the university planner through to Grade 12. Meet regularly with the high school counselor, make a 4-year plan and follow it; then you will have a successful university to attend.

For the graduating class it is time to start thinking about and preparing for life after high school. 


By Xing Yangjian


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