Monday, 23 January 2012

How to choose a university

Several former students have been in touch with me recently to give me an update on their progress at university, and I was intrigued also by a couple of references in Niall Ferguson´s latest book: Civilization, The West and the Rest. Here are a few thoughts.
One Spanish young man is studying at Boston University  and says he notices two distinct groups: those who are there to have 4 years of fun, and those who are there to study to the limit. Of course he is in the second group and, although he finds himself working very hard, he feels confident that he is among the highest achievers on his course. I expected to read on something like: so I am happily settled here. In fact, he wrote that, as he was doing well and in such tantalisingly close proximity to the leading institutions which he applied for last year, unsuccessfully, he was going to apply for transfer to Harvard or Princeton or MIT 

I think this young man has taken a sensible approach: he applied for several extremely competitive institutions, and he applied to others that were more accessible and would also provide him with a satisfying and challenging academic experience. This first year has made him more prepared, not less, to reapply to his dream colleges, and has been a year well spent. The win win outcomes are that he does achieve the place of his dreams or that he continues at Boston U, a worthy destination if ever there was one, in spite of Mr. Zuckerberg´s sly comment to his never-to-be (fictional) girlfriend in The Social Network. A visitor to Madrid from Boston U was delighted to tell me that many scenes from the film were actually filmed at BU.
For full information on applications to universities in the USA, visit the College Board If you are fortunate to find a branch of the Fulbright Association 
near you, contact their Education Adviser: they are not in principle set up to advise on undergraduate admissions, but their staff are very knowledgeable and can be really nice people to get to know. In my experience, one of the things they will tell you is to broaden your search to include more than the top ten world famous institutions. I cannot agree more with this premise: the important thing is to find the right fit for the student´s aspirations and leanings.
I recently heard a great concert by ensembles from  Shepherd University from West Virginia 
The Choral Director is Dr Erik Jones 
A Spanish young woman applied to a top British uni a year ago and was not successful, so she started a course in the same subject area in Madrid and applied again, slightly broadening her scope to include a more accessible uni in her list as well as the most exclusive ones. This strategy was also successful, and she is now settled in a very competitive uni studying exactly the course she wanted.
On the other hand, another Spanish young woman was disappointed by her grades and settled for a uni in the UK which was not among her first choices, neither is it recognized as being a challenging uni. The result has been three years of frustration as she has found her ambitious, serious attitudes to study ill-fitting with the relaxed pace of professors and fellow students.
For full information on application to UK universities, visit UCAS and Education UK
 The case of the IE University    in Segovia, Spain is really interesting. Here is a very new uni, less than 10 years since its foundation, which has an excellent programme of studies free of hangovers of tired traditionalists, and with an obligatory element of internships and a well established network of international opportunities for students.  While working at  my former school I was invited to visit and was delighted to meet some ex students from my school who were effusive about their experience there in Segovia. When the time came for my school´s universities fair, the IE University took the inspired decision to send their current students, alumni of my school, to represent the uni. The result was striking, and the number of students from my former school attending IE University has grown steadily. The curious thing is that IE Uni  grew out of the extremely highly regarded IE Business school in Madrid, and many of the current generation of parents are satisfied alumni of the business school. Needless to say, they are more than happy to enroll their own sons and daughters to make the most of the undergraduate experience that IE University has to offer.
The IE Uni has an exchange programme with top universities in China, and I was delighted to accompany a group of Visiting students from Beijing 
For extensive information see Universities in Spain    Google translator will help you if your Spanish is not great.
It is not by any means always a snobbery issue that drives students to apply to the most demanding institutions, and the cases I have cited are a key to this. It is vitally important that young people find an environment which satisfies their intellectual style and which challenges them academically to the maximum but not beyond their limitations. It has been a pleasure to follow certain young people through their uni, and to hear them say that this is the place they belong, with all the huge effort and pressure that goes with that, they have found their soul mates with the same passion for learning in general, and for their subject in particular.

A very worthwhile online guidance resource is i-Student, which I have written about in an earlier post:
Whatever you do, don´t let attitudes like those of Niall Ferguson guide your way…. In his latest book, Niall Ferguson makes a couple of references to the universities where certain characters studied. As the book is worth reading I won´t tell you the whole story, just to say that his attitude to unis is worth critical attention. In a footnote on page 273 he writes about a certain person from the entertainment business: “JK, (Charterhouse and Trinity, Cambridge)”. This person’s school and university details bear no relevance to the tale being told: it´s as if he´s saying, how could anyone from such an impeccable uni have got mixed up in what he did? Or is he poking fun at the Cambridge world because he is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford?
Then, on page 290, he makes a comment when writing about a young man born and raised in the UK, and makes a snide reference to an institution that is providing for the needs of its local community. Does the uni deserve this treatment just because it is not among the most competitive in the UK? “(ST) was not uneducated, in so far as a degree in sports science from Leeds Metropolitan University counts as an education.”  For someone who spends his time taking cash from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford, writing a comment like that is not clever and it´s a pity the phrase survived the book’s editing process. 

So, when choosing a university or college, do make sure it is an environment that suits your learning style and aspirations, and also do give yourself a worthwhile Plan B, and be brave enough, if necessary, and if you are fortunate to have financial support, to consider the Plan C of taking a year to try again where you did not succeed the first time. 

By all means don´t be influenced by the Niall Ferguson style of snobbery.

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