Intuition and Intelligence - the College Decision for American Students

Picture a young man in the 21st century who, upon returning home, would immediately check the contents of the old mail. The few times his parents said there was, indeed, mail for him, immediate anxiety and excited breathing overtook his normally calm demeanor. To his disappointment, the letter he would receive was acceptance from some other school.

While he was consciously aware of how his fate, in terms of getting into Harvard, was in the balance, what he didn’t know was that the setting of his 4 most critical years of development was also being determined. The pivotal decision that high schools senior make – what college to go to – is one of the most important decisions made, and the student needs many different types of data, combined with intuition, to make the choice. This will be contrasted with the kinds of tools and data that international students, relative to American colleges, have available to them.

Let’s start where most students start – brand image. By the time an American high school student has reached the age of 16 or 17, they have been exposed to a vast and multifaceted pool of data about universities. They have watched USC football games, or they have heard about how well known businessmen have gone to Stanford and Harvard. A very important but usually ignored criteria for choosing a college is simply the following: how many people who I personally think are successful have gone to a school? The closer the better – many people go to the same schools their parents go to, for example.

Like a student who has learned about history and geography, even before the search begins a young person has a kind of map of the different kinds of schools and their relative merits. They know, relative to their own achievements, which schools are ambitious, which schools are reasonable choices, and which ones are not the right fit. Perhaps, based on this knowledge, they have even set their mind on what university they plan to go to. More likely they have a list of about 10-15 that they would consider applying to, but in order to narrow this list a little and to manage expectations they begin to do some more research. This next step is primarily about research into the numbers.

General college rankings, rankings of specific programs, rankings of donations, and a variety of other numbers are important for informing prospective students about what college to go to. Perhaps a college that does not seem fantastic on the previously mentioned map stands out with a superior program for the student. However, I have found from personal experience that rankings and quantitative metrics are not extremely important for making the final decision. Sure, an engineering student will want to choose a college with a highly ranked engineering program. But what really is the difference between the 4th ranked program and the 8th ranked program? Most likely rankings are used to gauge what kind of academics the school excels in. Some colleges will appear in the top-25 of almost all academic rankings, while others are specialist.

Once the student knows what colleges they have gotten into, the most crucial piece of information comes into play: the gut feeling. Some people mistakenly think a gut decision is made with no information. On the contrary, at this stage the most important information becomes available to the student: campus tours reveal, in far more detail and with far less varnish, exactly what a day in the life of a student is like. I remember when I chose my school, I visited the campus and saw a lot of friendly and enthusiastic people, but few real academic stars. I had a sinking feeling in my gut that I had made the wrong decision. And that intuition, despite my efforts to repress this feeling, turned out to be completely right.

In addition to tours, brochures and other direct evidence of what a college is “made of” there are firsthand accounts from people in your social circle that make a major difference. This returns to the idea of a map of schools that has been developed since the beginning of adolescence. Now that your “final 4″ is a topic of conversation among friends and family, you might find out an uncle went to one of the schools. He tells you that it was an incredible experience and emphasizes the football games. But sports don’t matter for you personally, and you want a completely different career direction from him.

When the final choice comes, it has rarely been made purely because of quantifiable numbers. Most likely the other 2 types of data: reputation and the “experience” weigh much more heavily. As we will discuss in the next part of this article international students typically only have the data available. They are not familiar with the reputation of schools beyond the select few that market themselves heavily internationally, and they often cannot even visit the campus before arriving at college.

In the next article in this series we will contrast the almost overwhelming amount of information and impressions available to American high school students with the relatively small amount of information available to international students for making this decision. For example, I was able to visit the campus of one of the schools I was considering going before I decided it was not the right fit for me. International students rarely have that opportunity.

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