Universitas Blog

What's A Good School For X?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

As a US college admission counselor, I get that question a lot.  What's a good US school for X where X is usually some academic program like business, engineering (usually), mathematics or music (not so usually).  It's a perfectly good question to ask, especially for students coming from the Philippines where the quality of higher education is very uneven.  But when I think of US schools, it's hard for me to point out particular schools that may be especially strong in particular areas.  Of course, one has the usual suspects:  in business, one thinks of the big names like Penn or NYU; in engineering, Caltech or MIT.  But I usually find myself hesitating to make specific recommendations.

In general, I find that US colleges and universities are fairly academically even across a wide variety of disciplines.  What I mean is that the psychology taught at Coe College in Iowa is on par with the psychology taught at Harvard.  Psychology is psychology, right??  The calculus I learned as an undergraduate at Santa Clara is just as good as had I learned it at MIT.  That said, I am not saying all universities are the same.  I wouldn't send an aspiring actor to Caltech, for example. I find that, by and large, the most important differences in US universities is not academic.  Hence, when one looks at US schools, one is well served by paying close attention on factors outside--while not totally ignoring--academics.

Here is a question I ask a lot of my clients:  why do you want to college in the US?  The reply is usually something like:  I want to get a good job in the States when I graduate preferably on Wall Street or Silicon Valley.  Okay, that's fine.  But notice that the answer is focused on what happens after college as though the four years were somehow a blank, something to go through or endure until you pop out the other end, diploma and job offer (hopefully) in hand.  The question they don't ask themselves is: what do you want to happen during your four years in college?

Most Filipino students I know who are going to college in America don't think much beyond college academics.  After all, that's what they're there for: to study.  Yes, but are you going to study all the time, I ask them.   Your life is going to center around your college for the next four years and that involves much more than just studying.  You're going to be making friends, eating American dorm food (at least for a while), and taking advantage of educational opportunities outside the classroom.  You should pay attention to these too.

One thing a lot of Filipino students don't appreciate is how very different US colleges are from one another.  There are schools that are located in the middle of large cities like NYU, Columbia, UCLA, and Seattle University.  Some are rural like Linfield College in Oregon or the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The academic atmosphere can be wildly different from school to school.  Reed College in Portland is rigorous, steeped in a traditional liberal arts experience and a core curriculum with many seminar style classes while Hampshire College in Massachusetts demands that students create their own academic program in consultation with faculty members.  Others, like Brown University, have few rigid requirements for graduation.  What about the weather?  Philippine universities all have the same two seasons of the year:  hot and hotter.  US schools not so.  They can be located in deserts (University of Arizona) or in areas where it can snow as early as November and you can see all four seasons (Syracuse University).  There are mega universities that enroll upwards of 80,000 students on a single campus (Arizona State University) and a college that enrolls only 26 (Deep Springs College in California)  In short, in choosing a college to attend, what do you like?  Big or small?  Urban?  Rural?  Fraternities and sororities?  Big time college sports?  Any special academic programs on campus which seem attractive to you? Is campus religious life important to you? Something that's always neglected is what the students are like in the school.  Are they cut throat competitive where the only thing that matters to them is their grade and learning is optional?  Or are they more collaborative?  To what extent is true learning a passion among the students? Are these even important to you?  In college parlance, we call all this "fit".  What is your college "fit"?  It should be decided by factors that should include....but not be limited to....academics.

So getting back to the original question:  what is a good school for X?  A lot of people think that to get a good education in X, one must attend a top 10 or otherwise highly ranked program in X.  I would disagree.  For one thing, the student is an undergraduate so how good need the program be?  Unless he's truly gifted in say, mathematics, I'm not sure what incremental advantage an average math student can gain by attending a top 10 program (By the way, who even decides what a top 10 program is?)  And what if our student tires of mathematics after a year or two and wants to switch majors as many college students do?  If our student likes the college he is attending (because he paid to attention to the non-academic factors in looking for his college fit) then he won't have to transfer.

In the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda scoffed at Luke's earnestness to become a Jedi saying that "all his (Luke's) life, he has looked away....to the future...never his mind on where he was, what he was doing."  Don't be so focused on what you want your future to be that you forget to mind the path, to enjoy the path to that future.   Don't sweat looking for that perfect academic program.   You'll make a fine Jedi someday, I promise.



John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

johnsy@universitasph.com
+63 (917) 833-3825


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John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

johnsy@universitasph.com

+63 (917) 833-3825

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