Selecting a university that is thousands of miles away, perhaps without the opportunity to visit beforehand, will worry even those most enthusiastic about their American education.
Fortunately, thanks to the Internet and its assiduous use by US universities and students, you can get a good feel for an institution without adding to Branson’s millions. Many universities provide virtual tours of their campuses and give you a clear description of student life and the services available to international students.
Just like in the UK, there are some key books to be thumbed over: see the References & Links section on this site for a full list. Most of you will not need to buy any books; the websites are stuffed with information!
Additionally, many US university representatives visit the UK on a regular basis, and attend the College Day USA fairs in London and Scotland which take place in September and October. See http://www.fulbright.org.uk/study-in-the-usa for further information.
What is it you really want to study? If you have specific requirements, will the university you are looking at be able to satisfy your needs? US universities are often pretty flexible - many will allow you to design your own course within the academic resources they offer. But can you handle the requirements that they do have? Investigate.
If you plan on studying a field that will have a professional examination or required affiliation once you return to the UK, ask the UK professional body how the US degrees you are looking at will be viewed. For the most part there are few problems, but you may be required to take additional coursework or sit an examination, and it is best to know this in advance.
How will a US university view your UK qualifications? Each in its own way (some of them have been reading our newspapers decrying the value of A levels, and may need some persuasion). Most, however, will give you credit for your A level, IB or Pre-U credentials, which can then be used to decrease the length of time needed to complete the degree. Some UK students find that an entire year of study can be ‘waived’ in this way.
However, as each US university is entitled to set its own policies regarding credits awarded, it should be investigated before you apply. Because there is such variety among US universities, it is also essential when looking for an appropriate institution that you consider the difficulty of gaining admission. All universities will publish their general criteria.
Do Your Homework
Look at that information carefully. You don’t want to spend the time and money applying if your chances of getting in are hopeless. While US universities are extremely flexible and will look at each student individually, if your qualifications, SAT results, etc. are a long way off what they normally want, the likelihood is that you won’t get in.
However, with so many accredited universities from which to choose, there is almost certainly a university out there that will be the right match for you!
How Can You Tell?
And how is the university you are looking at rated? Unlike the UK, there is no official ranking system in the US. There are many ranking ‘providers’ (see our References & Links section) and each will use different criteria. They can be helpful in the initial stages of selection.
Look closely at what is actually being measured and how, before placing too much value on their determinations. All ranking systems provide a very limited picture of what is on offer. Don't let them limit your choice of university.
In addition to academics (and, of course, cost), there are many other factors you need to think about, including location, size, social life, and student services.
Beach or Snow?
The United States is geographically diverse. Before choosing a university, it is important for you to consider what type of climate suits you best. You may have enjoyed your Easter break in Florida, but are you prepared for the summer heat or lack of a winter? Or you may think you like snow, but are you prepared to have to shovel your way across campus in -40 degrees while studying in Buffalo?
City or Cornfield?
Do you prefer an urban or rural setting? While it may be exciting to think of yourself in a great city, the costs of living there are often much higher – will your budget stretch? Also bear in mind that students in large cities may feel more socially isolated than those who choose a rural or suburban school.
Conversely, a college that is miles away from any city may have more campus-based activities, but you may find that not being able to escape to a nearby city induces claustrophobia, and that relying upon the university for socializing is too restrictive.
Cozy or Massive?
If you attend a very small college, will seeing the same 500 people every week be too insular for you?
Will you feel like a number if you are one of 60,000 at a large public university?
There are no right or wrong answers. Investigate each university and be honest about what type of environment you think feels right. Take a critical look at the university’s office for international students, and at the number of such students in attendance. While many enjoy being the lone ‘foreigner’ and having to fend for themselves, others find comfort in having a well-run place to go when homesick or confused and others with whom to share the same dilemmas.