Choosing a University: Keep an open map, an open mind and ask lots of questions

Choosing a University: Keep an open map, an open mind and ask lots of questions

by Whitney Tudor Sarver, PhD

“This place is both more and less than what I expected,” says Abdul* an international student attending university in a small town. When I press him on what he means he explains that when he first arrived, he was disappointed that the town where his new university is located is so small. He was more used to a large, busy, crowded city, and this isn’t one of those cities at all. “But,” he adds, “it’s better than I thought it was. I made a lot of friends, people here are nice to me, and I feel very safe. I am also a better student here,” he says with a grin.

How do you decide if a program will be the best for you? As an international student, you have a lot of choices, and a lot of different kinds of colleges and universities want you to pick their program. All of those schools think their programs are the best, and they’re right – in a way. There is something about almost every program that is a right fit for someone. But it’s not easy choosing.

As a Director of an intensive English program and an instructor, I sometimes think that my students just picked a spot on the map and applied to the school without learning more about it. This is especially relevant when I hear a student complaining about the place where they live. There are several ways that you can decide whether or not a program will work for you and your individual situation.

The best advice I can give you about choosing a program is to have an open mind. Have you ever lived in an urban environment? You might like the crowds and the energy there. Have you ever lived in a rural area? You might enjoy the small town, the open spaces, and the close community. Have you ever thought about going to a school on the east coast? What about going to a school in the southern region? Well, you should. Have you ever considered going to a school with only 5,000 students? What about going to a school with over 20,000 students? Again, you should. You should think about the different options, and you should make sure you are not marking a program off of your list just because of one factor. You just might find the best program for yourself in one of those places you’ve never thought – or heard – of.

It’s very important to remember that there is something to like about every place, but basing your choice only on location is not advisable. You must consider all the aspects of the location before you decide to apply. Do some research. As one student told me, “Honestly, I did not have any idea about this place before I came here. Just one of my friends told me about this city.” I wouldn’t recommend this tactic. Don’t just pick a place because that’s where your friend, your brother, your mother’s hairdresser’s cousin, or your professor went to school. Think about the programs available at that location. Sometimes students get to a place and are surprised that the school doesn’t have their major. Oops! What will they do now? When you’re doing your research there are several aspects that you should consider.

Think about your future. Studying overseas is expensive, time consuming, and a big decision. You don’t want to go to a place that will not ultimately help you achieve your future goals. Find out what programs or majors the school offers. Do they have a major that is right for you? Are there student organizations that will help you in your future career? Are there opportunities for volunteering, internships, or scholarships? Are there professors in your field that you respect and that you think do interesting work? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you may have found a good place for you.

Think about your personality and who you are. What kind of environment will help you be the best person that you can be? Do you need to be around a lot of people all the time to feel energized? Or, do you need time to yourself to recharge your batteries? Many students think that they have to be someone new and different when they think about studying overseas. Expanding your experiences and going outside of your comfort zone are both good, but you also have to feel comfortable about where you are and who you are. “I think this place is beautiful…it’s small, but it’s happy,” says Tran, from Vietnam, of her university’s town. Learn about the environment of the school and the surrounding community when doing your research.

Think about what kind of student you are, which is different than what kind of person you are. Do you need quiet and fewer distractions? (The answer is probably yes.) Or, do you need more choices and activities so that you have to fully schedule your day in order to make yourself study? Be open to considering different types of programs based on the activities that are available to you – both on and off campus. The social aspect of studying abroad is as important to your experience and development as a student as the educational aspect.

Ultimately, it’s vital to research the places to which you want to apply. Look into the school, the specific programs, the extracurricular activities, and the community. Find out how close the school is to other things you’d like to do while you are in the country. Learn about the weather of that place. If attending a place of worship is important to you, investigate those as well. Thanks to the internet, finding this information out is relatively easy. Ask questions of the admissions coordinator or student advisors at the schools. They love where they work and live, and they will be glad to give you more information. The more you know, the better able you are to make a good decision for your future.

Abdul told me that he didn’t do those things, but he would recommend that incoming students really learn about the place they are thinking about spending their time. “But don’t just say no because a place is not where you want to go,” he says. “I love it now, and I want everyone to come here,” Abdul says, “because it’s my American home.”

Abdul’s American home is The University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, which is found in the southern United States, in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford has a population of approximately 23,000 people when classes are not in session. Adding in the University, the population doubles, and on home football game days, the population of Oxford can triple or even quadruple. Oxford is consistently ranked as one of the best college towns in America, as well as one of the best small towns. Life in Oxford is never dull.

Ole Miss is well-known for its School of Accountancy, which is ranked in the top 10 in the U.S., and the university is included in the elite group of R-1 research universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The student to faculty ratio is 19 to 1, and the university awarded over $294 million dollars in scholarships and financial aid in the last year. In addition, Ole Miss has been ranked as one of the safest university campuses in America.

The Intensive English Program is part of the Office of Global Engagement which houses the Office of International Programs, the Intensive English Program, the Study Abroad Office, and the U.S.-Japan Partnership Program. All of these units work together to provide a wonderful experience for our international and domestic students on campus.

*Students names have been changed to protect their privacy.


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Whitney Tudor Sarver, PhD, is the Senior Director of the Intensive English Program and an Instructional Assistant Professor in the department of Modern Languages at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss).


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