What are the secrets to getting into a top university?

Universities worldwide are competing globally for the brightest students. Given the growing array of options, how do school-leavers identify the one that best meets their needs?

Preparing for university application
Applying for a university place has never been so competitive, or on such a global scale. Universities in the UK and the US are particularly sought after by students the world over, thanks to their reputation for enhancing career potential and their language of instruction.But just as students are competing for the best universities, so more universities around the world are enticing able students. Competition is no longer just from universities and colleges in English-speaking countries. Today, a growing number of non-English-speaking countries are offering degree courses using English as the language of learning, in order to compete for students on the global stage.Although US and UK universities still host the largest percentage of students from overseas, their share is being eroded as competition increases from universities around the world.With the increasing number of global options, how do high-school students make the right choice of college or university, and how can expatriate students who are considering international options best prepare?

Plan early

“Start planning your university options up to two years before finishing school,” recommends Danette Anderson, director of marketing and enrolment at John Cabot University, in Rome. “The application process is a very time-consuming, sequential one. You need to think about best fit and affordability, and it takes time to sift through the huge maze of university options.”David Thornber, regional manager for East and South East Asia at the UK’s Durham University, says, “If I only had one piece of advice for students considering their overseas study options, it would be to do your research. Studying overseas can be life changing. It also represents a not inconsiderable investment of time and resources, so it is important to ensure you are making an informed decision.”

Do your research

Research thoroughly, advise all the experts. “You can learn a lot about the institution by viewing its webpages and associated media to explore universities that will be a good fit,” says Patricia Croom, associate director for international admissions at Michigan State University, in the United States.David Thornber adds that many universities have online resources that are particularly helpful for international students. “Bespoke, downloadable prospectuses, virtual tours of accommodation and departments, online chat facilities, links to university social media channels – all help to inform you about the student experience a university can offer.”“Social media can be a very effective way of seeing what people are saying about a university,” says Danette Anderson. “Connect with alumni of the institution to find out what they have to say, too.”Katerina Kanlis, international officer at the University of Essex, says, “Find out how the university supports international students and encourages them to become active members of the student body.” She adds that the university experience goes well beyond academic learning to include social activities and sports on campus. “So be sure to see what’s on offer,” she suggests.

Use your school’s university counsellor

Most international schools have excellent university and careers counsellors, and David Thornber recommends that students and parents make the most of their expertise.“Many international-school university counsellors will have visited UK universities, or will be in close contact with international office staff, so their knowledge of entry requirements and admissions procedures will be up to date. Take every opportunity to speak to university representatives if they visit your school, or if you meet them at an exhibition. Ask lots of questions, and gather information.”

Don’t get hung up on rankings

“Move beyond rankings when looking at universities,” says Patricia Croom. “Ranking methodologies rarely reflect factors relevant to the quality of undergraduate education and the student experience on campus. Consider instead aspects such as programmatic offerings, institutional size and location, opportunities for research, study abroad, and other engagement outside the classroom, plus breadth and quality of student activities and support services.”

Find the right degree

“My advice would be to think outside the box when it comes to bachelor degrees,” says Janice Grant, international officer for Abertay University, in Scotland. “Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or a lawyer. If you are driven to study creative writing, or sport, or computer games, find the university that offers it.“Academic success at school is important for university entry, but so is personal growth in areas you excel in,” she adds. “You will get more out of a university degree in a subject you are genuinely enthusiastic about, with like-minded students, and can develop professional networking contacts, with a real chance of a happy and successful career.“Importantly, once you have a particular specialism in mind, make sure you have the right portfolio of subjects at International Baccalaureate, A Level or School Diploma to follow that dream.”Katerina Kanlis agrees. “Pick a course with opportunities to pursue your interests and career ambitions,” she suggests. “You can choose from a wide range of degrees, including flexible and interdisciplinary courses, an industry placement year, or a year studying in another country. These experiences will also provide you with excellent graduate employment prospects.”
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Visit if you can

“Visiting the college is important; it’s a very big decision, so get on a plane,” recommends Danette Anderson.Christopher Hobson, head of student recruitment at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, agrees. “There is nothing like visiting a university to get a real insight into that institution. So, if you can afford, in time and money, to visit the universities that you are considering applying to, then I would strongly encourage it.“A large number of universities will be able to offer visits outside the advertised dates, so be proactive and search for a contact in the international student recruitment team, and ask what opportunities they can provide.”David Thornber says that Durham University is seeing a rise in such visits from overseas students and their families; it had more than 60 in July 2015. He suggests a family vacation could be a good opportunity to build in trips to some universities.“During a typical visit, we would programme a meeting with international office staff and a departmental admission tutor, and, depending on the visitor’s availability, organise student-ambassador-led tours of the campus and college accommodation,” adds Mr Thornber. “It is important that the campus, facilities and environment feel right for you, and your parents – seeing is believing.

Develop your independence

Several experts highlight the importance of ensuring that students are well prepared for the independence needed at university.“Pre-university study and travel experience is very useful, as it helps you to develop a huge number of transferable skills, such as confidence and determination, as well as languages and increased intercultural understanding – and it shows that you have gone away from home,” says Liz Green, senior international officer at the University of Manchester.“We need to know that our international students will stay, that they can cope with the cultural shift. Travel or experience of studying abroad will give us the reassurance that they are more independent and prepared for a move.”Daralyn Auld, manager of international recruitment and admissions at Trent University, Ontario, agrees. “Many students who are considering completing university outside their home country opt to gain some international study or travel experience first, to ensure that living abroad appeals to them,” she says. “For others, their plane ride to their new university might be their first trip away from home.“If you are considering studying abroad, try some independent travel with friends outside your home city or country, to develop a comfort with experiencing new places. Explore culture and media – novels, films, music – from your new country, to gain additional cultural awareness,” she adds.Danette Anderson suggests that, prior to university, a gap year, or any type of independent international travel, can be a great way for a young person to gain more independence. She says that she finds only a small portion of students are sufficiently independent.“Parents need to make sure they are not giving conflicting information; they have to encourage their child to go,” says Ms Anderson. “A lot of parents don’t want to do that. It’s important that parents keep their own anxieties about missing their child out of the decision-making process.“Instead, they can help their child with their search – so that, wherever in the world they choose to go, they will find the university where they’ll thrive.”

The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.

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