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Does it matter which university you choose?

'Where you go is not who’ll you’ll be' were comments that sparked recent debate in the media and got many of us thinking: Does that statement ring true for the university you choose? Windermere Preparatory School’s International Student Advisor Ruth Lahnston, Counselor Nancy Gerena, and British International School Chicago, South Loop’s Director of Counseling Lindsay Kafitz say students should choose a university that is the best fit for them.

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When do you begin to prepare students for life after school? Does it have to include selecting a college or university?

Lindsay Kafitz: We begin to prepare students for their future the minute they enter school. Some of the crucial soft skills they learn in reception and primary school set students up for success later in life.

When it comes to university, we begin working with our students in Year 10. We meet with the students early on in the academic year to talk about how universities consider grades all the way back to Year 10. This is when we also talk about the importance of being involved in extracurricular activities and summer opportunities, in order to help their chances with college selection. We begin to build a college list for students in the spring of Year 12. This gives college counsellors enough time to get to know their students, and enough time for students to develop without the pressure of drawing up a college list.

Ruth Lahnston: We begin working with students in Grade 9. In Grade 10, students spend time exploring potential careers and what type of job opportunities interest them. At Windermere Preparatory School (WPS), we see the choices our students make change dramatically and quickly. If they say they want to go into medicine, for example, we know that, by the time they’re about to leave school, they may end up choosing something completely different.

As students move into Grade 11, students focus more on selecting and applying for college or university. They look at certain schools that offer particular subjects or majors. They may want to narrow down on the type and size of college, and then the college selection piece comes at the end of their junior year, which is when they begin applying to those schools.

When guiding students on selecting a college or university, what factors do you look at when matching them to the right school?

Kafitz: Building a college list with students is my favourite part of this job. When we build a college list, we focus on finding the right fit for each individual student. There are a lot of factors that are at play here. Firstly, academic fit. Do the student’s grades, curriculum and test scores fall within the chosen college’s range? Does the student learn best in smaller discussion-based classrooms or do they prefer to learn in large lectures? What do they want to study? Does this college offer the right course? Secondly, location. Does the student want to stay in the U.S. for college or do they want to go abroad? Then, we find out: Does the student prefer to be in a smaller setting or an urban environment? We ask what kind of social environment suits them and what sports are important, as well as the college fees, and if we need to consider colleges with a lower price tag or colleges that offer generous merit aid or scholarships.

Having worked in college admissions and college counselling for more than 12 years, I think it helps to visit as many college campuses as possible. While one college may be perfect on paper, it might not feel right when the student visits the campus in person. 

Lahnston: In the beginning, students, especially international students, come to us saying: 'I'm going to a top 50 school', not really understanding why. As they spend time at WPS, they meet more than 150 representatives from different universities who come to the school. They listen to them speak, or they go and visit colleges. The following year, they may say that they would like to look at Harvard, and Boston University because of a certain course.  

The third year, they might say: ‘I found this school called Emerson. It’s in downtown Boston and I'll apply to Harvard and I'll apply to Boston University, but I'm really excited about this small school, and it's in line with what I want to study’. The more time they spend with us, the more they transform, and they start to understand what ranking is, what that means to them, and their goals and interests. They think about what these schools are really doing for them, as far as internships, job placements and other opportunities.

Do you think or believe elite schools are the best option or the best fit for students? Do other factors need to be considered when choosing the right school for a student? 

Kafitz: Often, families are unaware of the methodology behind college rankings. One of my go-to college ranking guides is US News and World Report. They rank colleges by factoring in things such as graduation rate, retention rate, social mobility (i.e. how many low-income students were accepted and offered Pell grants), class size, faculty compensation, the percentage of faculty who work full-time, student-to-faculty ratio, peer assessment survey, and many other factors. Interestingly, this year, the acceptance rate of the college was not even a factor. I like to use rankings as a jumping-off point in helping students find the right university or college.

Nancy Gerena: I spend a lot of time working with college representatives. My main job at the school is to be the liaison between universities and our school. It's absolutely wonderful if a student ends up at an Ivy League school, but do we know if that school's the right fit for them? Students need to understand why they're going to that school. What's the reason for it? It cannot be the name. It has to be because of the programme, or the opportunities available to them there.

Also, because these are highly selective schools, you have to be more than just intelligent and a good tester. It is about what are you actively doing in high school, and how is that going to continue in your institution? That is an important factor that students must understand when choosing an elite or selective school. 

What is the secret to enabling students to successfully get into a great university?

Kaftiz: When students are matched with a school that is the right fit, they tend to do well. So much of college is finding yourself, finding your place in the world and building a strong social network. This happens at all types of colleges!

Gerena: I always like to tell students to research or Google where some of the Fortune 500 CEOs went to college, or in the media industry, which schools did news broadcasters graduation from? Often, it's about what opportunities a university can offer.

What I also tell parents is to figure out what makes your child tick. Are they somebody who prefers a discussion-based classroom or they an independent learner? Are they somebody that likes to interact with people and have conversations with professors, or will they enjoy a small campus with a small school feel? Look at what major your child has selected, what their interests are, their learning style. This will determine the best fit for your family. You want your child to be happy. You want them to look back at university life with fond memories. 

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