US Universities: Going Beyond The ‘Brand’. Think What Works For You

The grass can look so green elsewhere and for many UK teens today it certainly seems much greener on the other side of the pond. And after having spent years at school in the UK, it is understandable that it may seem a tad boring to stay in your hometown or even in the wider UK for university.

America on the contrary, with its big, important colleges, irresistible brand names and recognisable campuses (all those films…) is seductive. It is different, far away, and cool.

But ‘Big Brands’ can also blind us and make us forget at times what it is we need and what makes us ‘work’. So, appearances aside, it is important to unpack the seductive brand and look at what you want out of university, what sort of career you could envisage (or what not) and what future networks you will need/want. Big questions, but some with surprisingly easy answers.

Marketing works

American colleges are notably better at marketing than their European counterparts. And it works. First, they reach out to as many future applicants as they possibly can, creating a flurry of applications. Their student intake, however, is always about the same, making acceptance rates drop to precipitous levels. Having acceptance rates in the single digits is a much-coveted status for colleges’ admission teams and is a show of their success. But marketing does not make an institution great per se. One still needs to look under the proverbial bonnet, no matter how well-known the brand is.

And many prospective students heed the siren call of the elite US colleges. About 5% of enrolled students at US colleges are foreigners (just under 1,000,000). Non-US citizen/resident applicants have increased by 47.3% since 2010. China and India account for more than half of all foreign applicants. From the UK about 10,000 students each year apply to the US, which is but a small fraction (1.42%) of the 700,000 UK students applying to UK universities.

So why opt for US colleges?

The main draw for students applying to the top US schools is the fact that you don’t, like in the UK, need to decide what you want to study beforehand. You can apply as ‘undecided’ or - even when you know what subject(s) you would like to study - there is room for change once you have started. This is quite liberating and takes away the anxiety of choosing a subject which turns out to be the wrong one for you and then being stuck with it. The fact that most undergraduate courses are 4 years instead of 3 and that there are more direct teaching hours (UK universities have sometimes only 8-10 hours tuition a week) is another advantage. Lastly, if you are an athlete, your US college will treat you like a star, more so than in the down-to-earth UK, as sports are a big deal.

Looking beyond Big Brand appeal.

It is hard to avoid the ‘brand’ attraction as the big names are just so out there and everyone knows them, which can save you a lot of time in life as you will never have to elaborate on where you went to university. But moving beyond that, consider how your prospective college could ‘work’ for you. Does the college of your choice value undergraduates or is it their graduate program where they attract the fame, the publicity and the big bucks (and hence you may be better off doing a master’s degree there later?). Also, have a good look at how big the overall university and its campus are and how easy or difficult is it to get good accommodation on campus. What is the campus life like? Are there sports teams you could join even if you are not pre-selected as an athlete? Do you like to be in or close to big cities? And lastly, if you want to be able to switch subjects, look at the possibilities or restrictions of the various programs. At UPenn, for example, you can’t switch from a BA Economics to Wharton. Neither is it easy to transfer to NYU Stern from any other faculty at the university and at MIT, you will not have that many great options outside the STEM subjects.

Possible future careers and networks

Going to any top university will show future employers that you were smart enough to get in, to stay in and to graduate. Studying abroad will show grit and resilience too and this will be duly rewarded. But another important factor, often overlooked in the great busyness of applying, is where you wish to work (at least on which continent) and what value is assigned to your American degree by employers based outside the US. If you were planning on coming back home after graduation, this is something to consider. And then of course there is the important factor of the value of your future network. After all, most jobs and opportunities are found via people we know. Imagine wanting that cool new position or to fund a startup and having your ‘black book’ in a completely different country from where you live.

Reality check

Before committing to a big investment in time and money to attend a US college, consider what you want out of uni; where you may want to work in the future and where your network should ideally be. Not seeing the wood for the trees? A quick glance at the top 20 universities worldwide shows that some of the top colleges might be right on your (UK) doorstep. Cambridge, for example, ties with Stanford at 3rd position globally and ranks above Harvard (at 5). UCL (at 8) and Imperial College (at 7) rank just below Caltech. Yale (at 13), Princeton (at 19) and Columbia (at 20) rank just below the University of Edinburgh at 16th position. The tiny UK has 4 out of the 10 best universities in the world, versus the US with 5 out of 10. Food for thought, perhaps?

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