How to pick the right international university?

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Diving into the college application process is an exciting moment for any prospective student. This is the moment where you get to start defining the path of your future, and it’s important to ensure that you’re taking the time to make sure the college you pick works for you. Fortunately, there is a way to make all the essays, interviews, and tests worth it. All it takes is a little research.

As a graduate of an American university, and someone who not only went through the college application process once myself, but also aided many family members and friends through the same, I’ve found a few things that are key for applicants to keep in mind while finding their “best fit”.

Consider where you’re going

Yes, the school itself matters, but before you get too attached to a program, consider where in the world you’ll be! How far away from home do you want to be? Are you ready to deal with visa application processes? Have you ever visited the country you’re going to? What is the weather like there? 

It’s important to ask yourself these questions, because ultimately, you will be able to thrive academically, only if you are comfortable physically. Everything from culture, weather, proximity to loved ones, food, and even future job opportunities is important to consider. Also note that paying for college, and pricing can be vastly different from country-to-country, especially for local versus international students. It’s important to take this into consideration as well.

There are great schools all over the world — narrowing down your list of countries is an important first filter to apply. 

What program are you interested in?

I so often see students aiming for universities instead of programs. Yes, some schools have great ratings and awesome professors, but it doesn’t make sense to go to a great computer science university if you’re interested in drama (unless they have a great drama school too). It is very much worth looking into departmental reputations, research opportunities, curricula, and more, when looking at a school. You should also consider what sorts of interdisciplinary opportunities there are, if you want to explore things beyond your field of study.

Furthermore, a school’s ranking is the combination of a lot of factors – but many universities have great facilities, faculty, and resources. Look beyond the facade of the university homepage and dig deeper into what you want to study. You might find something unique!

Scholarship Opportunities

Some schools offer scholarships, but many have conditions tacked on. Some of these are merit-based, some are need-based, and many are limited to students from certain demographics (e.g. local students, women, etc.). There are also some organizations and government bodies that offer special internships depending on the program an applicant is applying for, or an applicant’s background. It’s worth looking into these opportunities from your home country, the country your university is in, organizations connected to programs you’re interested in, and within universities themselves. Scholarship money is money towards your future and may open up other opportunities for you. 

On-campus jobs

Another way to earn while in college is applying for an on-campus job! Lots of universities have work-study programs, or at least offer paid jobs to students. There are often also employment opportunities in the area that you can take advantage of during the school year. See if your school has any of these opportunities and get in touch with alumni or advisors to see how students have taken them up in the past.

Extracurricular activities

Are you interested in sports? Are you a passionate debater? Do you like volunteering in the community? If extracurricular activities were a big part of your high school career (or if you’re even interested in trying new things in college), you should definitely look into what sorts of clubs, teams, and outreach programs your university has. 

In terms of sports and other competitive activities, some colleges have a larger sports culture than others – if that’s important or interesting to you, then look into that as well! This applies for things like music and theatre as well – schools with strong performing and visual arts programs will often have discounted or free tickets for students to attend and support their peers. It’s a great way to build new interests.

City, country, or something in between?

Some universities are in more remote parts of the country, but have big, beautiful, historic campuses. Some universities are in the middle of cities but have less spacious amenities. Colleges come in all shapes and sizes and are placed in all sorts of settings. It is important to manage your expectations and ensure that you are taking your needs into account. The setting will, after all, determine everything from what you do on the weekends, to internship opportunities. 

On that same note, some colleges have a few hundred students total, and others have thousands. Depending on the college, classes can be as small as 3 students or as large as 500 or more. If you are the kind of student that needs more 1-on-1 time, and a close-knit community, maybe a smaller school would be a better fit. If you like to be a part of a big community, with larger events and more diversity and energy, than maybe a bigger school works for you. Not sure? Lots of alumni and current students post about their experience on online college forums, which are definitely worth looking into.

Application Fees and Essays

While it’s ambitious and exciting to try your luck at a lot of schools, you will mostly likely be subject to a decent application fee for each of them. This is the first of many places where you’ll have to make a payment from overseas; tuition and other expenses will come after you commit to a university. I highly recommend looking into Zero forex mark-up cards to make these payments – remember, finances can get tricky and it’s good to set yourself up for practical spending and saving opportunities as early as possible.

Coming back to application fees, instead of racking up a huge bill and spending excessive hours on essays, try to use the above tips to narrow down your list to places that you really appreciate. Counsellors often recommend applying to a combination of “safety”, “target”, and “reach” schools. This is good advice, but often, students will only put real thought into the target and reach schools and choose their safety schools quite randomly. 

Ideally, you should be able to glance through your list and say a few really great and exciting things about each school you’re applying to. Of course, the reach schools may have a few more points in the “pros” list, but you should not be completely disappointed by the other items on your list. If you don’t like a school, don’t put it on your list! Find one that fits similar admissions criteria and has some great things to look forward to. I promise you this is possible and urge you to consider the importance of this.

A positive outcome of researching and picking the schools on your list carefully, is that it’ll be much easier to write your essays. If you are excited by a school, your honesty and authenticity is more likely to shine through in your writing. Know yourself, and what you want, and the rest will come to you more naturally. 

Remembering, you are not just applying for a spot at a school, you’re also giving the school the opportunity to take you on as a student. Advocate for yourself, your needs, and your interests, just as much as you would advocate for the prestige and reputation of a university.

Good luck with your applications! I hope you find your best fit.

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