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Question of the Week: How do you Decide Where to Apply?

This week’s Question of the Week was about how you choose where to apply, and where to ultimately go. What factors are important? How do you research different colleges to make a decision?

The question dovetailed with this week’s CollegeWeekLive International Day, a virtual college fair for international students, put on in partnership with EducationUSA. Students who attended could get information from over 200 colleges in the U.S., chat live with admissions representatives, and attend live lectures with EducationUSA representatives on topics like choosing a college and finding financial aid.

What is a virtual fair?
Here are some screencaps of the event, to give you an idea of what it's like:

I spoke to the Institute of International Education's EducationUSA Marketing Director Marty Bennett, who was involved with the fair and helped staff the EducationUSA booth. He said these types of events represent a new way for students to research how and where to apply.

“Increasingly these web-based tools and platforms are the way moving forward, at least from what we can do here in D.C. to help institutions get connected and help our advising centers reach broader audiences,” he said. Bennett also told me he’s already speaking with CollegeWeekLive about doing more virtual college fairs on an ongoing basis.

Bennett acknowledged that a virtual fair requires access to a reliable and fast internet connection, and said he did receive comments from “students that might be in an internet café in their hometown because they don’t have internet access in their home. Many students that might be contacting us from Africa were probably in that situation.”

“But,” he said, “they certainly were making the connection.”

In fact, 10-15% of the attendees came from Africa, according to CollegeWeekLive’s vice president of college partnerships, Greg Wilkins.

Wilkins talked to me a bit about the value he sees in college fairs (both real-life and virtual) as a tool for researching colleges. He cited two advantages: students get to find out about colleges they might not otherwise be exposed to, and they can create a personal connection with schools.

Wilkins admitted that virtual fairs are not as effective at creating that personal connection as a real-life fair, but said that it’s easier for admissions representatives to attend a virtual college fair than a real one, so you may get a wider range of universities attending.

“Face-to-face interaction is always the best kind of interaction. That said, it’s also the most expensive. That’s where the virtual plays in,” he said.

For those attending college fairs online or in-person, Wilkins suggested students should “make sure and search the environment for all the schools that are relevant to them, versus just going to the ones that they know.”

Andrea Loreley Ilanos, an architecture student in Mexico, attended the fair and emailed me with this reaction:

I decide to attend the CollegeWeeklive because is a opportunity for know the universities of the world from the comfort of my home.

it is very very helpful for me and obviously for other people because is so important meet more universities and sometimes we cant go to visit the colleges and this is a opportunity for international students to take the best decision to study in US.

Andrea said she is thinking about studying in the U.S. for a summer program or a year-long exchange. The most important factors she will be looking for in deciding where to apply are: “the program because this is that i going to study, then is the level of the university and for the end the students in the university how is this life in the college. I search a university that can help students in all aspects, the school /campus have to be comfortable, need a open spaces, good teachers and security.”

How did you make your decision about where to apply?

Tara Cheng
My criteria for picking a university was the location. Since I wanted to make the most of my experience in the U.S., I believed the big cities that can represent the culture and style of typical America would be my best choices. I only applied to Columbia University and USC, which are located in New York City and Los Angeles respectively. I got admission from both of these great universities. It was a fairly tough decision to choose USC over Columbia, which is an Ivy League school. I have to confess that I am not a very confident person in some ways, and I thought the competition at Columbia would be too intense for me, plus the unbeatable weather in southern California was irresistible, so I finally went with USC.

I attended a college fair once in Beijing, China and did not find it very useful, probably because what I applied to was graduate school, which has substantial differences from applying to college. The American universities coming to the college fair also were not really prestigious ones, which were not my targets. I think an online chat would be useful for applicants and there is not much difference between the online one and physical one.

Nareg Seferian
Now that it's my final year, I've been looking towards graduate school. I did my research into the various possibilities of pursuing a master's degree in the field of my interest about a year ago, using the internet for the most part to compare different programs. I gave a lot of weight to location as a criterion. There is a great deal of diversity and wide variety of options for education in the US, so choosing just where exactly you want to study can be an affordable luxury. The literal and figurative atmospheres of different cities and regions are more appealing to some than to others, after all. Unless, of course, you plan to go for something highly specialized, which is only provided in one or two locations. Applying to big name schools is all well and good, but sometimes, what you really want out of an education can be really special and well worth the obscurity. That's been my undergraduate career in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Nick Hoang
Selecting schools was probably the hardest part in my experience applying to U.S. colleges, simply because there are so many of them. This seemingly impossible process became a little more manageable as I prioritized my criteria in the search. I basically had two main criteria, namely the quality of the department to which I was applying and its financial aid program (or the availability of any scholarship program specifically for international students). I wanted to study political science so in using the search tool on and from exhaustive research on the schools’ websites, I came up with a list of 10 colleges. I then placed them in different categories: safe schools, fit schools, reach schools, and dream schools by looking at their acceptance rates – obviously the lower the rate, the harder it is to get in. Above all, this list made sure that I wasn’t overreaching.

Though the list gave me a little more confidence, I was very uncertain to whether I have selected appropriate schools. Luckily enough, I got to attend a study abroad conference organized by VietAbroader. Especially in the school fair with more than 45 colleges represented, I was able to see more schools in a much more broad and personal scope. I inquired many students as well as admission officers who are representing their colleges with questions about the school, the applying process, and its scholarship program. After this event, I redid and confirmed my college list; more importantly, I had gained much more knowledge regarding the colleges I was applying to and direct contacts for further inquiries.

The way I came to learn of St. John’s College was out of pure chance. During the summer of 2008, I encountered an old friend at a library event in Hanoi. She happened to be a prospective Johnnie (nickname for St. Johns students). She was telling me about the college’s weird yet amazing curriculum and how it is her dream school. That immediately caught my interest. I went home and did some more research and found myself charmed by this small liberal arts college. St. John’s College ended up on top of my list and since it had rolling admission, I invested a lot of time in furnishing my essays and submitted my very first application. Fortunately I got accepted with an excellent aid package.

Jaime Bellemare
I didn’t have to put too much thought into picking a university. I applied to all of the top journalism programs in the U.S. and then some back up schools. After attending a small high school, I knew I wanted a larger school, preferably in a city. My high school had a four-year journalism program, so I was already pretty familiar with what schools were known for turning out top of the notch journalists.

There was really only one other large factor that went into my decision, and that was an all-inclusive anti-discrimination policy. As an LGBTQ student, it was important for me to find a campus where I would not only feel safe, but welcome. I was happy to find Syracuse had almost everything I was looking for, but now that I am here at Syracuse University, I realize the reason I love it so much has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons I chose the school in the first place.

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Criteria for choosing university