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When you think of a haystack, do you see rolling fields of farm with large piles of hay dotting the landscape. These haystacks are two to three-meter-high mounds of dried grass used as food for farm animals (e.g. cows, horses). Now think of a small needle used for sewing. Have a friend put that needle in the haystack and your goal is to find it. How easy will it be to find that needle?

If you are considering university-level study in the United States as an international student think of the haystack as the number of accredited colleges and universities and the needle as the institution that best matches your needs. There are over 4,500 accredited universities in the United States, and, by definition, hundreds in the Top 100 lists that make up the crème de la crème. They’re all stellar institutions. But there’s only one that’s absolutely perfect for your academic needs, one university that has the high rankings, nurturing environment, rural or urban setting (depending on your preference), and culture that appeals to YOU.

It’s a big ask. The process of identifying, researching, and selecting a set of U.S. institutions to apply to can take months of preparation. So, what tools are there to help you narrow down the haystack of U.S. colleges to allow you to find your ideal school? What kinds of questions should you be asking to get where you need to be?

Researching your options

Most international students have heard of a dozen or more colleges in the United States (from news stories, rankings, etc.). Friends or family members who have studied abroad have their opinions on different universities. So putting together a list of colleges to start with isn’t hard. But are these the right colleges? Everybody has heard of HarvardPrinceton, and Yale—yet, very few (less than 6% a year) get admitted to those institutions.

At EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of overseas advising centers in over 170 countries, to help students like you begin the college search process, they developed Your Five Steps To U.S. Study to outline the entire timeline students typically follow before enrolling in a U.S. college. Generally, students looking at bachelor’s degree (undergraduate) studies in the United States should plan between 12 to 18 months in advance of when they wish to start. To narrow the number of institutions students have to choose from, EducationUSA created the Define Your Priorities worksheet. This worksheet includes many questions that ask you what your needs are as they relate to the kinds of educational environments that colleges in the United States offer their students.

Keeping an open mind

Often, these kinds of self-assessment questions lead students when using various college search engines to add in these new criteria to how they choose an initial list of institutions. Simple geography within the very diverse United States, academic programs offered, the urban/suburban/rural environment where colleges are located, the size of the college’s student population (from 400 to 70,000), public/private status, religious-affiliation (if any), and many other factors can help students make informed decisions.

U.S. colleges and universities are different from other countries’ institutions of higher education on many levels. From the campus community, organized clubs and activities, to expectations within the classroom and student-faculty relationships, the differences can be as stark as night and day. As a result, international students don’t always know what questions to ask about the admissions process, campus life, and services available to international students.

Overcoming challenges

When asked about the most significant challenge most international students have when considering the U.S. for post-secondary education, U.S. international admissions officers identify two areas of difficulty: realizing actual costs involved and understanding what rankings represent. According to Kevin Vicker, Senior Director at the Office of International Students at Park University, both students and parents can “have unrealistic expectations of the finances required to complete a U.S. degree. For example, in some cases they falsely assume they can work their way through school to pay for a significant portion of tuition. For others, it is difficult to get past just looking at school rankings when finding the best place to study.” William Elliott, Director of International and Cultural Affairs at Missouri University of Science and Technology, concurred that “a lack of understanding of rankings is a hindrance to many students. International students neglect to choose institutions that might in fact be their ‘best fit’ based on their program of study, budget, etc.”

Considering your future

What do you want to get out of your U.S. college education? In my experience over twenty-five years speaking with international students and parents about their college search goals, the answers to that question will vary slightly, but can be broken down into a combination of the following:

  • to receive a high-quality education
  • to prepare for the next phase of their life (further education or work)
  • to experience what the United States has to offer in terms of culture, society, and its people

To help international students eventually find the right college or university that matches those expectations, U.S. News & World Report released its first list specifically designed to give international students some insight into how top national universities do in meeting those needs. The Top Universities for International Students list provides a range of criteria on which the 300 national universities ranked by U.S. News were evaluated to see which institutions would be considered international student friendly.

These criteria include the six-year graduation rate (what percentage graduate within six years of starting) and the first-year retention rate (what percentage of students who started their first year continued to their second year) for international students, the English as a Second Language programs available, international student organizations on campus, merit or need-based financial aid for international students, and a checklist of other international student services or programs. While this list of colleges on the Top Universities list is not an exhaustive one of institutions that are international student friendly in the United States, the criteria used do help prospective students and their parents identify schools that can help meet their expectations for a U.S. college education.

Finding a good fit

Ultimately, most U.S. university admissions officers will say they want students who are “good fits” with their institutions, and students, likewise, should seek colleges that are a “good fit” for what they want. So, what exactly does “finding a good fit” mean for international students and colleges in the United States? Start with your personal goals or expectations of what you want to receive out of a U.S. college education, then apply those criteria to the universities and colleges you consider. With a combination of your answers to EducationUSA’s Define Your Priorities worksheet questions (mentioned earlier) and the criteria used by U.S. News and World Report in the Top Universities list, you will have a very good guide to begin.

On the issue of fit, Mr. Vicker remarks, “to me, a ‘good fit’ means matching interests such as major, location, price, and university size with the universities which best meet their criteria.” The good news is, when it comes to finding the right college or university, you may find more than one that meets your needs. Ultimately, if all the boxes on your college search checklist are ticked off for an institution (or multiple colleges), ask “can I see myself as a student on that college’s campus?” Wherever you can answer that question with a yes, that may very well be a good fit for you. So, go forth and find your needle (or needles) in the haystack!