The View From Campus: How best to approach the U.S. college search (undergraduate)

The decision to pursue a post-secondary education outside your home country may be a simple one or may be one that requires a lot of courage. Finding the right U.S. college may well take some time, with most experts suggesting students start the process between 12-18 months in advance of when they might wish to start their studies.

How can you best approach the U.S. college search?

Ask important self-discovery questions

For starters, before you pick colleges, take a few minutes to ask yourself the kinds of questions that will help you find a college or university that will be the best fit for what you want and need. Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s global network of 400+ advising centers in 170 countries, have put together a useful worksheet that is well worth trying called “Define Your Priorities.” By determining your answers to meaningful questions like why do you want to study in the U.S., what are your short- and long-term goals by studying there, as well as preferences for living in a city, suburb, or more rural area, or whether you want to be on a large campus with 20,000+ students, something smaller with under 2,000, or somewhere in between, you can begin to codify what’s important to you in this search.

Learn about different college types

Of course, understanding the kinds of colleges that exist in the United States is equally important. What you’ll find there is likely very different than what you have available in your home country. With over 4,000 accredited U.S. colleges and universities, there are many different types of institutions from which you can select: public v. private, college v. university v. institute, two-year v. four-year colleges, liberal arts colleges v. state universities, speciality institutions v. comprehensive universities. As you do your research on what those differences are keep in mind that there will be terms that might sound familiar to what you know, but may have different meanings. There is a very useful FAQ on the EducationUSA site that helps explain many of these terms.

Use search engines to narrow your choices

Perhaps the most daunting task you will face in your search is narrowing your list of possible college options down to a manageable number. There are several college search engines out there to help you in this process. The two that many students use are College Navigator (owned by the U.S. Department of Education) and Big Future (part of the College Board). Each has a variety of factors you can choose from to select institutions including:

  • Location by state (can select multiple states)
  • Institution type (2-yr./4 yr., public/private, academic program/majors offered)
  • Selectivity of the institution (how hard is it to be admitted)
  • Sports and activities available
  • Types of campus housing
  • Diversity of the student body

By using all of these various criteria (based on answers you may have given to the “Define Your Priorities” questions), you should be able to put together an appropriate list of colleges that match your wants and needs at least on a surface level. From a list of perhaps 10-20 institutions, the next step will be to investigate each of those colleges online to learn more about how close of a fit each may be for you.

Prepare for standardized tests

If there’s one area that has changed considerably in the college search this year it is the role of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. As we shared in December’s The View From Campus post, over two-thirds of four year (and all of the two-year) colleges either do not require (test-optional) or won’t consider (test-blind) SAT or ACT scores for applicants for admissions intakes in 2021. Be sure, when you start to further narrow your choices down, to check what tests beyond IELTS would be needed to apply to the U.S. colleges on your list.

More on applying to U.S. colleges in the months to come!

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