Choosing a university

Many students taking a KE programme are interested in studying in an English-speaking country. Even those who are not will generally be pursuing their studies elsewhere, possibly in their own country. How do you decide on the right university?

The main point here is that there is no ‘right university’ for everyone – but there is a right university for you, and if it’s in an English-speaking country we want to help you to find it. Unfortunately, we can’t usually take you to all the universities in a particular country, but we do try to take you to a good selection – some in big cities, some in smaller towns; some based on colleges, some based on a single campus; and so on. We don’t try to direct you towards any particular university: instead, we invite the universities themselves to tell you what they see as their strong points, so that you can make up your own mind.

University rankings

One factor which will feature prominently in your choice will be the rankings of the various universities. (Another term for ‘rankings’ is ‘league tables’.)  You can find these lists of universities in particular countries, and also for the world as a whole.  KE encourages you to aim high when it comes to making university applications, and in fact we take you mainly to visit the higher-ranking universities. But you should also think a little more about what the rankings mean.

Everyone is aware of the rankings (above all, the universities themselves), but we would suggest that you should keep them in perspective, and they should certainly not be your only consideration when you make your selection, and for the following reasons:

  1. There are a number of different lists, and they don’t always agree.  For example, the Times Higher Education Supplement ranked Ivy League university Princeton 6th in the USA for 2013; but for the Washington Monthly it came in at 31st.   You will find a lot of discrepancies like this.  They can in part be explained by the different criteria used to determine quality.  If you look at the various websites, you can usually find these criteria.
  1. Different criteria are more important for different people.  For example, a lot of the most prestigious universities owe their high ranking in part to the strength of their research.  But you should perhaps ask how important this area is for you if you’re considering an undergraduate degree.  And you should also ask whether strength in research necessarily equates to quality of teaching: universities strong in research may well attract the finest minds, but the finest minds don’t always make the best teachers.
  1. You may also find that high rankings are in part determined by great facilities.  Here, too, you should ask whether these facilities are relevant to you.  So if, for example, you are planning to study for a history degree, will great science labs make very much difference?  And how important are amazing sports facilities if you don’t like sport?

What we suggest is this:

  1. Look at the criteria used by the different ranking systems.  They may include facilities, research – and much more, such as student societies and student feedback. Very often, universities score higher in certain areas than in others, and these may be broken down in the ranking system.  Decide what’s important for you, and then see how any university you’re interested in scores in those particular areas.
  1. Remember that most universities are stronger in certain subject areas than others.  Even the most prestigious universities may not have an equally strong reputation across the board; and some of the lesser-known universities may still do exceptionally well in certain areas.   See if you can find rankings for the subject which you are interested in.
  1. One consideration for many students is ‘employability’: how likely am I to get a job on graduating?  Some of the ranking systems factor in employability.  But here, too, questions need to be asked.  Is the record consistent across all subject areas?  What types of jobs are factored in (only permanent, professional positions, or any job at all)?  It may be the case that graduates in certain fields are in such demand that they will find it easy to get a job regardless of the university they attended.  Conversely, some subjects don’t lend themselves quite so readily to employment, and further training may be needed before a job is found – again, regardless of where the subject was studied.

Of course, if you do compare a number of rankings, you will start to see a general pattern – for example, every ranking system you see will place Oxford and Cambridge pretty close to the top in the UK. You’ll see that some universities do score consistently well in every ranking system, whereas others fail to make the top half in anything.  That has to say something!  And there is no doubt that, for some employers, the name of the university is important – particularly in certain fields.

You need to do some research on the rankings, but don’t let your choices be determined by these alone. There are other factors to consider:

Other considerations

  1. Look very carefully at the subject you wish to study, and find out as much as you can about the way it’s taught at various universities.  What sort of teaching style suits you best? Also consider subjects which are slightly different from what you had been considering – many universities offer courses in new and developing fields which you might not have considered, while others offer really exciting combinations of subjects. There’s an incredible range of options and combinations on offer.
  1. Even if KE doesn’t include a visit to the university you’re interested in, try to visit it if you can. If you can’t visit, try to find out what some of the students taking your subject have to say about it – there are plenty of opportunities through websites and social media for you to do this.
  1. Where does a particular course lead? What kinds of career path does it open up? Is it broad enough to give you a range of options? Suppose it leads to one fairly narrow career path, but then you realise that that particular career path doesn’t suit you – what can you move into?
  1. Different types of university suit different types of people better.  Do you like to be in a big city, or do you feel more comfortable in a quieter   environment?  Big university or small?  Traditional or modern?  Campus or collegiate? And don’t forget:
  • Where you will live
  • Costs – living expenses as well as tuition fees
  • How well you will fit in as an international student
  • Safety
  • Accessibility – getting there and getting home again
  • Social life and leisure

Remember: there are no right or wrong answers to any of the questions you may ask yourself – it’s what suits you.

Here are some final thoughts:

  1. A degree from Harvard or Cambridge is not an automatic passport to success.  You will always have to combine your prestigious degree with other personal qualities and experiences which an employer is looking for.  And as you progress through your career, so the university you attended becomes less and less important compared to what you’ve achieved since leaving.  This also means that, if you attend a lower-ranking university, but have brilliant skills in the areas which are in demand, you will do well regardless. Wherever you go, whatever you study, take a broad interest in the world around you, develop a good range of interests, and work on your personal and social skills as well as your academic skills.
  1. Be ambitious in your aspirations, but also realistic.  If you’re not highly academic, the most academically demanding university may not be the most suitable for you.  On the other hand, you may be wonderfully happy and successful at another type of university which is just right for you.

Good luck in trying to find the place which is just right for you!