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How do you find your best fit university?

In our previous article, we highlighted the misconception that the “best” college equates with the “best fit” college. In this article, we discuss the parameters to consider when making your college list.

With many organisations lauding their ranking tables, it is easy to get enamoured by the guise of what is generalised as best. But selecting the “best fit” college goes beyond these generalisations – it requires an understanding of the university’s entire identity and comparing how a student’s identity matches it. In many ways, think of it as a partnership. Students need to ask, “Does that university have all the traits that I am  looking for?” “Does it offer me a wide array of stimulating classes?” “What do I as a partner bring to the table?” 

As a student, it is important for you to research what is your “fit”. In other words, what are the aspects you value that a particular institution may or may not offer? 

Let’s deconstruct academics first. The depth and breadth of a school’s course requirements can vary widely. Some institutions require you to pre-select a major prior to joining. At all UK universities, you have to pre-decide your major. You are required to apply to a specific course and you cannot change that in the future. Most courses in UK universities have a fixed curriculum over the three-to-four-year undergraduate programme. If you’re someone who wants to be adventurous with course selection, the UK may not be the best fit for you. 

Conversely, US universities offer varying degrees of flexibility in their courses. For example, Brown University and Columbia University are both a part of the IvyLeague, but for an undergraduate student, their prerequisites are different. Columbia University has a very strict core curriculum, which is geared towards humanities, that all students have to take, irrespective of their major. On the other hand, Brown University challenges students to develop their own curriculum while completing their concentration requirements. As a student, you need to understand how much flexibility you want and whether the curriculum is aligned with your interests.  

Another critical aspect of academics is teaching methodology. Universities such as Oxbridge (University of Oxford and University of Cambridge)  thrive on their tutorial and supervision style of teaching. As an Oxbridge student, besides attending lectures and classes, you have one-on-one meetings on a weekly basis with your tutor. You have a week to complete a pre assigned problem set or write an essay on a particular topic. You hand this in a day before your weekly tutorial and then discuss your answers, oftentimes debating the topic in that meeting. Your tutor will probe you and this is how significant learning happens. This is the USP of an Oxbridge education. If you are someone that prefers attending large lectures and doing class reading and research on your own, then this would certainly not be the right place for you.  

There’s also a life outside of academics that a student should consider. The ecosystem of a university extends to internship opportunities, extracurricular activities and community involvement. If you’re an international student, you may be looking to be a part of a demographic community. The presence of such a community could be a strong reason for a student to apply to that particular school. University of California, Los Angeles, has an 11 percent international student intake for the freshman class, while 20 percent of Carnegie Mellon University’s first-year students are international. 

Inclusion may be a big factor to some, however, access to internship opportunities may be a big priority to others. Universities such as  New York University have a strong career centre and work to place students in internship roles as early as their second semester. Colleges in Canada have internships integrated in their courses through their co-op semesters. Usually, co-op programmes have alternate work and study terms. For the work term, a student gets placed in an organisation for a period of four months to gain real-world experience and they can also get paid for these months. Having access to such centres and leveraging work opportunities can shape a student’s decision of what really fits their goals. 

Just as any partnership is a two-way street, so, too, is university selection. During the admissions process, colleges also want to understand why you are the “best fit” for them. Gone are the days when transcripts and test scores were the only determinants of whether a student should be given admission. Today, universities emphasise a more holistic approach while reviewing their next cohort of students. As future torchbearers, they will look at you as a totality of all your experiences. Your interests, how you see the world and why you see it the way you do is an exceptionally important component of the admissions rubric. Essays, for example, help universities understand how you convey all of these points through your authentic voice and are therefore given (sizeable) weightage during the evaluation process. 

The selection process is not only about how well a student did in the past, but how well they will be able to manage the rigor of college academics going forward. Universities also want to ensure that you will take advantage of the opportunities available within and outside of the classroom. Remember, these institutions invest a lot in premier faculty as well as resources for their community. Are you someone who will be proactive enough to leverage these resources towards your development? Equally important, are you someone who will bring a distinct perspective to share with your peers and campus community? 

Finding your fit is not just qualitative but quantitative as well. With the cost of university education increasing substantially every year, it is necessary for you and your family to understand what funding looks like from a personal context. In the United States, for example, college prices have gone up 4.4% in just ten years. To put this into context, for the 2010-2011 academic year, the University of Chicago charged $40,188 in tuition (excluding room and board) whereas for the 2020-2021 school year they charged $57,642. Such significant costs can have a bearing on selecting a school. Therefore, understanding your “fit” in the context of financing means introspection on the following questions. First, can my family and I afford the full price tag of this university? Second, do I require scholarships or aid? And lastly, if I do require funding assistance what sources are available for me and what is the respective criteria to apply? 
With the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions are even keener to understand how students are creating opportunities during times of difficulty. University of California, Berkeley, saw 112,000 applicants (28 per cent more than the previous year), while Harvard University had 57,000  (42 per cent) more applicants than last year. Likewise, as world class education becomes more accessible through technology, the need to understand your “best fit” becomes even more necessary. How a university has adapted to nourish students’ well-being and continues to provide the necessary tools to educate will become an important metric we use to measure fit. If anything, this will lead to an even more holistic evaluation method by both universities and students alike.

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