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One Step at a Time: How to Choose the Perfect University for You

So you want to be an international student? You aren’t sure where, but you’re sure that you want to, at least… study at a… university. Yes, StudentRoads has convinced you that it will be an amazing, life-altering opportunity and you know you want to study overseas at a university. But do you have any idea about where that university might be and what your goals are? Have you a notion about in which hemisphere it may lie? What the experience would be like? Or are you just going to wing it? Like – scroll through StudentRoads’ database until I say … “stop”. That’s totally doable, and, I guess, not such a crazy idea, but for those of you who require planning for “minor” decisions such as, well, this once-in-a-lifetime experience, here’s the step-by-step StudentRoads guide on how to evaluate international education programs that’ll help you make your final decision on where to study.

What Are Your Goals?

Why do you want to become an international student? Be honest. Everyone’s reasons are different and the more true to yourself you can be, the happier you will be. Are you driven by the thought of potential future career advancement? A special opportunity that can’t be found in your home country? A desire for cultural immersion? Just want to get away from home and try something new? Does your country’s education not stack up in terms of a cost-benefit analysis? Start your process by writing down a list of goals for your international education – or, okay, just type it on your computer or mobile as pen and papers are semi-extinct nowadays. Tape the list to your wall, email it to yourself, and make it your mantra. It will be your reality check when pictures of oceans, palm trees, and beaches start to tempt you when you really should be focusing on looking for the computer science program with the world famous professor - that happens to be in a windy and cold city - that has the academic credentials that are #1 on your personal list of goals (however, if you find a university where the two scenarios converge – kudos, mate).

Be Realistic About Costs

Once you have your all-important list of personal goals, you are ready to start narrowing it down. You’ll need to take into account some logistical stuff that’s likely to knock some of your options off the list. Consider: 

What can you afford? If you are a princess in an oil-rich country please skip to the next section but, for the rest of us, what is your tolerance for taking on loans and debt? Many undergraduate international students will use bank loans. A scholarship would be awesome but you need to realize that, for international students, these usually go to the elite of the elite and very few are available. That said, there are a small number of government and special community/religious scholarships to be had if you do some research. If you are creative and savvy with social media also consider taking a risk and putting yourself out there (in a G-rated, legal, non-scandalous way, please!). If a kid can become an internet sensation and get a college scholarship for creating a penny arcade out of cardboard why not attempt to do something amazing and see what happens? At the very least, and even if you get only one YouTube “thumbs-up”, you will have an awesome story for your university applications.

Another thing to factor in is that the cost of tuition and living expenses in foreign countries varies dramatically. An elite Ivy League education in the US may be out of reach but perhaps there are state and community colleges which have excellent professors and great programs that will fit your budget. In terms of cost of living in Europe, Paris is freakishly expensive but, Lisbon, is more reasonable. Consider the cost of living carefully, because your money situation abroad will have a significant impact on what you can and can’t do.  

Research, Research, Research

Alright, so we’ve made some progress. You have a list of goals in front of you, an idea of what you can afford, and you (should) also have your transcript and test scores so you can check university stats and see whether you have a chance of acceptance.

Use the StudentRoads “University Search” tool to check out university profiles, rankings, peer reviews, and statistics (or just click on our pretty maps to search). We also have a regional “Destinations” guide with featured universities if you really don’t know where in the world to start. Use your profile to bookmark universities that look interesting. It isn’t fun to spend hours reading about various universities and then to come back the next day needing to start again because you just can’t remember which place had the unique forestry program that “Arshad C.” said changed his life and it isn’t logged in your profile because you didn’t bother with it and… well, just clicking “bookmark”, so much easier – trust us. Also, check out our other articles in our “Resources” section that may apply to your situation.

Narrow things down further: What opportunities does the prospective university offer? What do the housing options look like? Is there an environment where you can integrate with local students? What about language? Where have you always wanted to go? What are the student services like? Is a degree from certain universities or in certain countries more prestigious in your country than others?

Don’t forget to pay attention to little things that will make you happy during your years abroad because you will start missing familiar comforts when you are on foreign soil. Maybe you’re big into Dance Dance Revolution, and one school on your list actually has… a Dance Dance Revolution club. Maybe it is worth considering?

Universities are large institutions that work to tailor to the needs of many individuals but each one is different. There are approximately 8,000 choices worldwide. You are going to be spending A LOT of time there, and probably a lot of money, so do your due diligence and don’t slack on the research. Comparing and contrasting what each university on your list offers is essential and will make you a happy student in the long-run.

Create a StudentRoads Profile and Stand Out from Your Peers

It is time to let university admission officers know that you are interested in becoming an international student and that you are a unique and amazing person. You still need to directly apply to the universities of your choice but an online profile with StudentRoads is a supplemental way to let admissions officers know about you. It is multimedia and individual, beyond your test scores and a standard black and white application form. Use your StudentRoads “passport” profile to highlight your academic and personal achievements, your interests and goals, and let admissions know why you want to become an international student. Remember that universities want to get to know the person behind the application so that they can recruit well-rounded and interesting students who will contribute to the campus community, in addition to succeeding at exams or in the science lab. What sets you apart from your peers? Make sure it is in your profile.

Reach Out to Your Network

At this point we’ve gotten your list down to a few schools that meet your standards for your major, how much you want to spend, how many years you want to study, if you want party or prestige, what are the housing options, the general geographic area you’d find ideal, if they have that essential-to-you Star Trek fan club, etc. Now is the time to discuss it with other folks.

Start by discussing your choices with close friends, family, and mentors. Often, by being outside of your situation they can offer a perspective that you didn’t see because you are so immersed in your huge decision. However, always remember that the final decision is yours and even your most trusted advisors do not always know what is right for you. YOU know you best but use feedback from others to evaluate your assumptions and make sure that you are being honest with yourself.

If you have a question for a peer or someone who has been through it already – write up a question and post it in our “Community” section. We also have contact information for all of the universities in our database – don’t be afraid to reach out to their international student admission officers if you have specific questions. However, make sure to do your research first because if the answer to your question is clearly stated on a university’s website, well, it isn’t the best way to make a good first impression.

Decide and Move Forward

You’ve figured out your priorities, done your research, talked it over - now it is time to choose (assuming that you have gotten in already – but that is a different article). If you are still stuck and can’t make a decision take comfort in a few things: picking a university is not like going to jail or indentured servitude. If things are really, really horrible you can always transfer. Wherever you end up you are making a wise decision because you have chosen to become an international student. You are going to learn new skills and even more about yourself. Your international experience will have benefits that will last throughout your life and career. So… congratulations and onwards you go towards the future!

[Top image credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock; Second image credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock]

© 2012 StudentRoads. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

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