In Search of a Dream School - Undergraduate Version
By: Natsuko Tohyama
When I think back to my sophomore year of high school (secondary 4 in Singapore-speak), my mind flutters. I look back and find: dusty images of ancient Egyptian history, late night cram sessions until 4:00 am; fierce competition within close friendships - and, most of all - a blinding obsession with the Harvard brand.
There's nothing wrong with Harvard. Or Princeton, or Oxford, or any one of the world's famous academic institutions. The students at these schools have amazing talents, the teaching and research facilities are ingenious; of course the resources available to students are top notch.
I'll even admit this: Harvard's crimson sweaters are pretty snazzy. Actually, there are so many things right with these prestigious universities that I can't possibly do them justice here.
But a decade later, I find myself in question:
Why was I so hypnotized by the Harvard brand that I turned my snobby nose up at the other 4,000+ colleges and universities in the US? Why did I drastically limit my social life, physical activity, and leisure in order to look perfect on paper? Was getting into Harvard and only Harvard more important than my health and happiness?
Many of you have perused university rankings such as those provided by US News and World Report or Business Week. Which schools have the best business programs? What about up-and-coming colleges? Which institutions offer the most merit aid? Rankings address these questions and many more.
As an admissions consultant, I appreciate rankings for their informational value; they help to narrow down students' college and university lists. I frequently use them as a basis for recommending specific institutions to specific students. I also encourage them to look up "Best Journalism Programs on Urban Campuses" and even "Top Medical Courses in the UK".
But I become concerned when students walk into the office, proclaiming that they will "only apply to the top 10 universities in the rankings, top 10 mind you!" To these students, the US News rankings are no longer just sources of information. Instead, they become Bibles (or Korans, or other definitive religious texts). Rather than expending effort to explore their personal interests and abilities, and find matching institutions that will help their unique dreams come true, these students only focus on what others tell them is worthwhile.
Here's some advice from someone who's been in your shoes. Apply to an institution because it is the right one for you. Highly ranked, brand name schools are wonderful because they are known for providing an education of exceptional quality as well as giving graduates a significant leg-up in their career pathways. They do not determine your worth as a human being; only you can do that.
Start your college search with a "soul search". Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What accomplishments are you most proud of? What are you passionate about? If you don't know, what do you think you could become passionate about?
- Would you be happier surrounded by the unlimited cultural and entertainment offerings of a chaotic urban center, or do you require peaceful, natural surroundings to concentrate on your studies?
- What academic or extracurricular arenas have you enjoyed or excelled in?
- Can you see yourself doing well on a campus where the student body is homogeneous, or are you attracted to a more multi-cultural vibe?
- Are you a self-driven student who can confidently navigate a large research university, or would you perform better with the greater guidance from faculty and staff at a liberal arts college?