Choosing a University

Schools in the USA

Choosing a University

Choosing your university is a big decision--perhaps the biggest choice you've had to face in your life so far! While you should choose carefully, the decision doesn't need to be overwhelming, especially if you break it down into smaller categories to help guide you, like the following:

  • Credentials/Degrees Offered

  • Programs Offered

  • Location

  • Size and Culture

  • Cost and Housing Options

  • Quality/ Accreditation

  • Entry Requirements

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • Your Gut Feeling

  • Credentials/Degrees Offered
    Some people know right away what they want to do as a career, while others don't know what they want to do but know what they enjoy studying or are good at. Both of these senses of yourself can help decide the kind of education and the type of credential you might want to pursue--which, in turn, can influence your choice of university or 4-year college. For example, having an idea of your career goals--even just knowing the type of degree(s) your potential occupation will require--may aid in narrowing down your choices. Likewise, knowing what subjects interest you and how much time you want (or don't want) to spend in school will narrow down which kinds of credentials are available in that area of study, since different credentials of different lengths are offered in different areas of study.

    The key to making choices is knowledge. So here is a brief introduction to the kinds of credentials offered at the various kinds of universities and colleges in the United States.

  • Bachelor's degree: Usually, this is a 4-year undergraduate university degree, although some professional degrees may be 5 years. A bachelor's degree gives you broad academic knowledge of a particular area of study (for example history, computer science, business, nursing, etc.) along with "elective" courses, which provide a broader context for your major focus. Bachelor's degrees aren't necessarily designed to prepare you for particular jobs, although some do. Others are primarily gateways to graduate level study. Within a bachelor's degree you can take a major, double major, major and minor, or honors option. These degrees therefore have a lot of flexibility in terms of allowing you to explore a variety of interests and help you keep lots of doors open for the future.

  • Associate's degree: A 2-year academic degree. There are two main kinds of associate's degrees: some are fairly general, such as the Associate of Arts or Associate of Science; others are more specialized, such as the Associate of Fine Arts or Associate of Applied Science. Associate's degrees can be terminal degrees in their own right or used for credit transfer to a bachelor's degree.

  • Diploma/ Certificate
  • : Some people think 1- to 3-year diplomas and certificates are only awarded by community or career colleges. However, many universities and 4-year colleges also offer these shorter credentials, sometimes leading to professional certification.

    Programs Offered
    Zooming in closer, knowing the kind of program area you are interested in (such as business administration, architecture or microbiology) will help you to find criteria to evaluate when looking at the different university and college offerings. If you genuinely don't know what to study, scan a university's list of degree programs to explore your options and stimulate your imagination!

    Once you have a sense of your desired program, you can look at the department's or program's website to examine things like the size, options and level of specialization of the department. For instance, if you want to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, you might ask yourself the following: How many professors are there in the department? (a larger department isn't necessarily better, but it does mean you will have more course choices.) Do any professors specialize in areas that are of interest to you? What kind of courses does the department offer? Is enrollment limited or will you end up in classes of several hundred students? What credentials do the professors have? Have they published books and/or articles in their specialized areas? You may also want to investigate whether or not a co-op option exists for your desired program, since many students find co-ops valuable for work experience, networking, and as a source of income. Other features such as specialized facilities or study abroad/ exchange programs might also be factors in your choice: different universities have different projects on the go as well as agreements with different organizations--both academic and non-academic--that provide opportunities for students locally and internationally.

    Location is a huge factor in the choice of a university because you are making a 2- to 4-year commitment. The first factor you might consider is the school's proximity to home (whether distance or closeness is your ideal!). If you choose a school in another state, this will limit your visits home. For instance, if your home is Arizona, and you go to school in New York, flights back are both costly and time-consuming. You would have to budget for travel costs, and this makes it difficult to get home for thanksgiving or other short holidays. So when selecting a school, consider how often you would like to visit home and the amount of time and cost it will take to do so.

    Following that, you'll need to honestly evaluate your level of independence when choosing a university or college. Are you ready to be on your own? Do you foresee homesickness being an issue for you? Everyone matures at different rates, and there is no law that says you have to be ready to leave home at any particular age. Sometimes maturity comes in the form of recognizing that you are not yet ready to be on your own and, therefore, choosing either to wait a year before leaving or going to a school in your hometown.

    The decision of where to go for university or college also depends on whether you prefer small towns, medium sized cities, or large metropolises. You may prefer to choose a place similar to what you're used to, or you may be ready for a radical change in this next phase of your life. Also, bear in mind the climate of wherever you go, especially if it's dramatically different from what you're used to. Consider the pros and cons; for example, a long, harsh northeastern winter might be depressing if you are from a temperate, coastal climate, or it might be an opportunity to experience winter sports you haven't tried before! In any event, make sure you know what temperature and weather conditions to expect, and make sure you can live with them for the duration of your university studies.

    Size and Culture
    When selecting a university, you may want to think about its size. Usually, an institution's student population is indicative of its size. Usually you can find out about the student population on the university's website; this will give you a sense of the kind of daily "traffic" you can expect on campus. Consider things like class size, but also peak "around campus" situations such as lunchtime in the cafeteria or mid-afternoon in the library. Again, you should consider your personality and your personal preferences when choosing the size of your school. Are you a "people person"? Or do crowds and line-ups make you impatient? Do you want anonymity in the classroom (i.e. do you want to seem invisible in a sea of students)? Or would you rather participate in class discussion or ask questions in a more personal atmosphere? Consider what learning environment best suits your personality.

    Because of our evolving and diverse history and culture, there are many different kinds of universities and colleges in the United States. Some options to consider are public, private, women's, historically black, Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Tribal and liberal arts universities and colleges. Each of these kinds of institutions has its own character, mandate and values. In some cases, the affiliation may be loose--mainly in title--or it may govern the teaching practices and day-to-day running of the university. Therefore you need to make sure the kind of university or college you choose fits you as a student and as a person.

    Other "culture" aspects of a university or college could be whether it is known as a 'party school' or for its serious academics. Are there boozy frosh weeks that will make you uncomfortable and get you off track? Or maybe you need a social environment to prevent you from burning out. Remember that reputation can be subjective, so don't automatically believe everything you hear! In terms of your peers, do you want to mix and meet with people from your own area or from other parts of the country? Or maybe you want to go to a university with a high percentage of international students for a more culturally diverse experience. Universities and colleges have different "vibes" which can affect your studies as much as size or location.

    Cost and Housing Options
    The three biggest university costs are basic living expenses, tuition fees and the cost of books and other supplies. Living at home, on-campus or away from home but off-campus are all choices you need to think about, since rent or student housing fees, groceries, meal plan, travel/ commuting expenses all add up. Finding a place to live can also involve differing amounts of time and energy, so you need to budget your money and your time.

    Be sure to explore your options for any scholarships and bursaries because every little bit helps--even if it is just $500 here, $300 there. Plus there are scholarships that cover all of your costs! Alternately, have you discussed finances with your parents? Maybe they plan to pay for tuition, residence fees, and your meal plan. Where will you get money for added expenses, such as entertainment, clothes, cell phone bills, etc.? Will you need a student loan? A job? If you'll need to work, are part-time studies available? Are there added fees with certain universities or even particular programs (such as lab fees, parking, uniforms, field trips, etc.)? Make sure you know ahead of time what costs you will have to cover with each of your options, so that you can factor them into your selection process.

    Entry Requirements
    Make sure you know what the entry requirements are (and ensure that you meet them) for each of your potential universities. If your grade point average falls below their required admission GPA, your chances of getting accepted are not good. Be realistic and strategic in your application process: if your grades are not competitive, you do not need to feel powerless and give up on a university. You simply need to plan your attack. For instance, many students find it's easier to get into a community college, acquire some credits there, and then transfer to a university to finish a bachelor's degree. Another option is to do upgrade classes to fulfill any course prerequisites you might have missed and/or boost your grades, and then (re)apply with improved chances of getting in. Also, if you wait a few years, you can gain admission as a "mature student," and you may find that the requirements are less strict. Research the options at the universities you are interested in, and make a plan.

    Quality/ Accreditation
    Every student hopes to get a "good" education, so there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure "quality." Some of these have been touched on implicitly, such as looking into the professors' backgrounds. Other aspects to investigate are accreditation (at the institutional and/or program levels--see the section on University Accreditation for more details) and the resources available at the school. Does it have a good library? What are its computing facilities like? Does it have cutting-edge research labs? Is there anything related to your specific program that you need? Do they have it? For instance, if you are doing a bachelor's degree in drama, do they have venues for performances and technical equipment for their productions, etc.?

    Extracurricular Activities
    If what you do outside of class matters as much as what you do in the classroom, then you may want to give considerable weight to the quality of the school's extracurricular scene. This could include sports teams, student clubs, and general social activities on campus. For some students, participation in these kinds of activities defines their university experience.

    Your Gut Feeling
    In addition to weighing the intellectual pros and cons and costs of each university or college, put some stock in your gut feeling about each--especially if you can visit the campus. Sometimes your intuition or gut instinct about a school can assess it more accurately than a list of its facts and figures. See for yourself what the school is like before committing time and money to it.

    So make the most of this time, wherever you choose to go. Don't fret or obsess about "what ifs" once you finally decide: if you ultimately find you are very unhappy with your decision, you can always transfer. The many choices of universities and colleges in the United States are there for you!

      Universities and Colleges
    Clarkson UniversityColorado School of MinesDalhousie University
    Oral Roberts UniversityPenn State HarrisburgTemple University
    The University of HoustonThompson Rivers UniversityUNB Saint John
    University of AlabamaUniversity of ArkansasUniversity of British Columbia
    University of IowaUniversity of New BrunswickUniversity of Ottawa
    York University
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