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September 29, 2010

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Choosing the right university for you

HOW do you get your child into one of the best universities? This question, which many parents ask, is a complex one. However, there is another question that perhaps needs to be addressed first: What exactly is meant by the "best" universities?

There is undoubtedly an elite group of universities that are renowned throughout the world - Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Yale. They are deservedly famous, have superb facilities, excellent teachers and in some instances, a degree from a top school gives a grad a head start in a career.

In addition, there are universities that have excellent reputations within their own countries but are perhaps not as well known abroad: Seoul in South Korea, Canberra in Australia, McGill in Canada, Leeds in England, Tokyo in Japan, Beijing in China (this list is far from exhaustive). These universities, and indeed many others, have the same standards in real terms as more internationally famous institutions.

However, there is another, perhaps more important, question that parents should ideally be asking: Which is the best university for my child?

The choice of university is a very personal one - not every student is suited to every institution. A wide variety of additional factors need to be considered alongside the school's academic reputation.

Factors such as how comfortable a young adult would be living very far from home; the international nature (or otherwise) of the university town or city; the support services for international students; the availability of scholarships for international students - all of these are important.

Even seemingly irrelevant factors such as the weather can have a bearing on a student's success and happiness. Many parents underestimate the effect of the social conditions at a university on the academic progress of students. The drop-out rate for universities somewhat surprisingly runs at around 10 percent. Social support and friendship groups are important for all students.

A university with a tradition of accepting students from all over the world may be more welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds than those which do not have such traditions. Even for a student attending university in their home country, such matters can be important.

A particular faculty and its reputation are also important considerations when making a choice, and it should be borne in mind that in certain careers and professions it is undoubtedly true that the university one attends can influence future prospects and career.

That is why your choice should have as much to do with the specialities and excellence of the teaching staff in the field that you would like to enter rather than simply more general notions of reputation.

For example, in the UK, Leeds and Edinburgh are recognized as superb medical centers and a degree from either is an excellent passport around the world despite the schools not necessarily being seen as elite institutions.

Therefore, a key issue for parents and students is getting quality information that is relevant to you and the courses you wish to study.

Another way in which to seek information is to ask the professionals. If your child is interested in design, call a design company and ask for their thoughts. The same with engineering, or medicine, or indeed any other career. Companies are in fact very willing to answer brief enquires and a little flattery can go a long way.

Cost is a real issue, of course, for many parents. Sending a child to university is not simply a matter of paying the tuition fees. Accommodation, food, travel, books - the costs mount up at a considerable rate.

The cost of tuition is not always directly linked to the quality of education on offer, or indeed the reputation of the university in its home country.

Careful research into the other indirect costs is vital when considering a university, even in one's home country, as costs can vary considerably from city to city.

Financial aid, bursaries and scholarships are being offered more and more and looking into these and what is on offer can make a considerable difference to the overall cost.

The key factor here is to enquire early, in most cases some three to four years before the intended entry date. This is simply an issue of practicality as many scholarships have detailed requirements for entitlement that might involve a number of years of service to a particular institution or perhaps evidence of belonging to a particular community or service group. Sporting artistic and even musical scholarships often have such provisos attached.

Furthermore, it is worth approaching a wider range of funding bodies that might be traditionally considered. Even in these credit crunch times, many large businesses and organizations will still have financial aid packages available for university students.

Many do have "strings" attached, such as a requirement to work with the company for a period of time, but these "strings" might also be seen as benefits. One shocking fact is that each year 22 percent of scholarships remain unclaimed, mostly because no one has applied for them. A quick search of the Internet is perhaps the best way to begin looking into the funding that might be available - simply typing "scholarship" into Google produces over 26 million hits.

Universities themselves often have discretionary funds available to help undergraduates in times of financial hardship but these are not available until the student is already enrolled. Plus, university finance managers take a very dim view of "planned hardship." So beware.

The international award, internships, community service, work experience, participation in school teams and sporting events can all contribute to whether students are accepted at the university of their choice.

Academic grades play a huge part in the admissions process and there is no way around this. However, should your child's grades fall below the absolute optimum for any reason, don't despair. A gap year is no blemish on an application and, if well spent, can be a real asset. Using a gap year well and then retaking examinations that didn't go so well can be a good use of time.

Remember one thing above all: A little planning and a lot of hard work, combined with a quality high school that really cares for its students, will make all the difference in the world.


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