getting the real deal about colleges
August 20, 2012 12:40 AM   Subscribe

As an international student (equivalent 'rising senior') in high school, how can I discern what a college or university is really like, past all the glossy paper? More questions, and details, within.

I want to apply to US colleges, but every single one of them seems to promise 'global experience, 'intellectual rigor' and fantastic opportunities. OTOH, 'college review' sites have some of that, along with a steaming heap of 'this is the dumps; I hate this place and you're screwed if you go here'.

So how do I find out what it's really like? Some suggestions I foresee are 'email students', but what's the etiquette for that? I don't want to come across as fawning or desperate, especially knowing that international admissions are a bit of a crapshoot.

I know that a US education is expensive, but let's not talk about that here - I would never spring for it if I didn't get adequate financial aid, or if it were a choice between College of Questionable Repute and a school in my home country.
posted by undue influence to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's no substitute for visiting the colleges you're interested in. In the mean time, I highly recommend College Confidential. My son's about to start his freshman year at Oberlin; please feel free to memail me.
posted by lukemeister at 1:03 AM on August 20, 2012

The Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings, Shanghai rankings, and QS ranking could be useful data points. I agree you should visit the universities on open days, if at all possible, though.
posted by plep at 1:48 AM on August 20, 2012

To get into contact with students attending the colleges you're interested in, you might try going to Reddit and searching for relevant subreddits (for the college itself or for the town) and asking questions there.

Opinions are always going to conflict, but maybe if you can gather multiple responses you might be able to get a clearer picture.

Also, be warned that things like "global experience," "intellectual rigor," and "fantastic opportunities" are things that really vary by program. The school could be fantastic at one thing, but mediocre or even terrible at another. Once you're interested in a program, you should start investigating it specifically, starting with reading up on the faculty.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:58 AM on August 20, 2012

It massively depends in what you want to study or failing a decided field, what you want to get out of college (network etc).
posted by fshgrl at 2:02 AM on August 20, 2012

Another idea to get in contact with students at the university is to see if they have international student clubs. I know that at the University of Chicago there is a VERY sizable Singaporean population and there's a Singaporean and Malaysian Students Society. I'm pretty sure they will be more than happy to help out a fellow, possible, international student.
posted by astapasta24 at 2:44 AM on August 20, 2012

If the shipping to your country isn't obscene, I recall finding the Insider's Guide to Colleges to be reasonably useful, much more so than the "classic" Fiske Guide, which seems mostly like a summary of the brochures.

However, this does hinge on having a vague idea of what going to college in the US is like. For example, I decided that I didn't want to go somewhere where fraternities/sororities dominated student life and the books could tell me that. But (as I discovered this summer when I got asked lots of questions that started "As a 'local' [we were a thousand miles from where I lived], can you explain [some esoteric thing about the US]") I can't actually explain what a fraternity is or really why I thought having loads of them was a bad thing when choosing a college.

Do you know what you want to study? Is part of the appeal of going to the US not having to pick now, once and forever? If you know or have a good idea, do the places you're looking at have a robust course offering in that subject? Do they have a graduate program and do they let undergrads take graduate classes with minimum fuss? (I applied to two small liberal arts colleges (one was a total mistake and who knows what I was thinking). I went to the admitted students day having gotten in to two universities with very good programs in my subject. The day was all about how wonderful small colleges were, which was probably all true, but the faculty in my subject said "You got in to X and Y, it'd be stupid to come here. We'd make as many opportunities as we can, but we can't match X and Y because they have so many more resources." On the flip side, it seems like people I know who went to small colleges are much better at asking for things. I've been taught how to exist within a system that gives me all I need, rather than to create things that the system doesn't offer. That seems like waffle, but it probably would have done more for my first two years of grad school than the extra courses I'd taken did. On the other hand, those courses presumably helped get me in...)

Do you care whether students have to do a highly prescribed program (see the University of Chicago for one extreme (though not the very extreme))? Do you want "take whatever courses you please" (I think that's Brown)?

I think emailing international student clubs is probably a good idea. The better colleges will almost certainly have enough international students to have formed a club, if not one specific to your country. (And if they don't have enough students to support a club, maybe that's a red flag.)

The Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings, Shanghai rankings, and QS ranking could be useful data points.

I think these rankings are too heavily weighted towards research/citations to be useful for picking a college. The top 10, say, are indisputably very good schools, but the top 25 or so starts to feature places with very good research programs but where you wouldn't call the undergraduates world class (let's face it--a good chunk of my high school graduating class went to one of these places and they were pretty stupid), so that's not so useful to the OP.
posted by hoyland at 4:52 AM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers so far! I will definitely check out reddit and look at emailing people, once I narrow down my choices some. So step one should be introspection? Heh.

I dreamt once of winning free plane tickets to the US to visit colleges. I dream.

hoyland, that reminds me that I have a copy of the Insider's Guide that I found for USD2 still untouched somewhere. I shall vigorously peruse it.
posted by undue influence at 5:33 AM on August 20, 2012

Even within a school, the opportunities for intellectual rigor and global experiences are going to vary by what you are studying. If you are going to Purdue or MIT, the opportunities available as an engineering student (what the schools are internationally recognized for) will be better than what you'll have available studying History or Sociology. Not that there is anything wrong with those fields of study, the world needs historians and sociologists, it's just that a internationally acclaimed engineering school may not be the place to study those subjects.
posted by COD at 5:50 AM on August 20, 2012

If you have a few college/universities in mind, you might want to look at the student newspapers online. It's not a window to academic life, but would give you another perspective on the school. Note: some school newspapers are rather regulated by non-students, but you still may learn a bit more about the school.
posted by wiskunde at 8:00 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found it helpful to think of my college education as being three distinct value propositions:

Curriculum - what I'd learn in class.

Credential - what future employers / grad schools would think of the degree.

Connections - who I'd meet along the way.

Undergrad curriculums are likely to be roughly similar for colleges ranked near each other for your desired major. Don't sweat the details, but do look to see what a few different four year course progressions look like, and do consider the idea that you might want a double-major or a minor.

As for your credential, most hiring managers know the top schools (generally and for relevant majors) and the notorious party schools, but that's about it, especially if the school isn't located near the employer. If you don't get into a top-ranked undergrad program, don't spend a lot of money; just graduate with honors from someplace competent and affordable. That said, if you get into a Stanford or MIT type university, go.

It's worth going someplace that has a lot of other people whose life goals have some overlap with yours. Are the students people you'd like to work with in the future? Are the professors the sort of people who can provide top students with influential introductions? Do the on-campus recruiting events feature the types of companies you'd like to work for?

If at all possible visit the final candidate campuses, attend a few classes (and pay attention not just to the prof, but the students), talk with some students, do some people-watching. You'll get a feel for the place fairly quickly.
posted by grudgebgon at 8:03 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a different perspective from those mentioned above, you might also look at Colleges That Change Lives, which will expose you less to highly ranked research universities and more to smaller, unique, and interesting places you might not otherwise hear about.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:10 PM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was an international student at an American university, and I chose one without ever visiting any of the six I applied to. So feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions!

But broadly speaking, and perhaps many Americans may disagree with me on this, I say go with the top 20 universities or liberal arts colleges in the US New and Education rankings, arbitrary as they are. As an international, the reputation of your college is especially important if you plan to look for a job in the US after graduation--prospects for international students are dimmer than it used to be, unless you're in a field related to science and technology. Whether or not you plan to stay on in the US, continue onto grad school, or return to your home country for a job, a "brand name" institution helps a lot, and there will be stronger alumni networks and clubs that you can take advantage of.

I know how daunting it feels to apply to US colleges from a different country and system, but in a way, you have options even if the one you enroll in doesn't feel like a good fit. You can always transfer--I know a couple of international students my year who did it--or you can always choose to spend your junior year abroad or away at another university as an exchange student. I attended a liberal arts college in a New England town, but spent my junior year at an ivy league university in a big city for the experience.
posted by peripathetic at 2:48 PM on August 20, 2012

Go to and see if that college has a subreddit. For both my undergraduate and graduate schools, the subreddits are populated by people willing to give you a real account of student life. Also if the University of Waterloo or MIT are on your list, you can MeMail me.
posted by KevCed at 6:17 PM on August 20, 2012

I would consider some universities in Canada as well; for example, Carleton University in Ottawa has a good reputation for Industrial Design and Architecture, Queens in Toronto is good for international law (I think), University of Waterloo is in the top top ranks for engineering, etc.

I would suggest talking to university profs, post docs, and grad students at Singapore in the relevant disciplines: I'm interested in applying to university of X for their program in Y; do you know anything about it? What's the reputation of their department for research, and for academics?

This would require you investing an afternoon or two of your time, but a chunk of your life depends on this, so you should consider it. Aim for office hours, if possible. Bring donuts, and don't do it at the end of term when everyone is busy.

Also, what program(s) are you interested in? People can give more relevant recommendations.

postscript: If you are interested in a program that doesn't lead to a trade or profession, e.g. English Lit, do a double major; X1 and X2, where X1 is your love, and X2 pays the bills.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:24 PM on August 22, 2012

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