US university rankings are no guide, look deeper

US education experts told Chinese students and their parents not to rely on rankings when selecting universities at a recent forum in Shanghai.

Do not rely on rankings when selecting universities, US education experts told Chinese students and their parents at a recent forum in Shanghai.

“There are no official rankings in the US,” said Anthony Nemecek, former director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission with responsibility for the US educational advisory service. “The ranking system you encounter is one that has been created by a company trying to sell you a product, be it a magazine, a book, etc.

“The criteria that they use are not usually the criteria that the students are going to be judged in an institution of higher education.”

Then what should they look for when applying for US universities? Nemecek said they needed to consider at least three things.

“One is what academic majors would be available in the institution,” he said. “For example, business management is not going to be offered in any of the traditional Ivory League schools for undergraduates.

“So you wouldn’t go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, for instance, to study business because they don’t offer that. You can study economics, but you would never be able to study business management.”

Secondly, they should look at the educational requirements of the institution. Nemecek said some universities, such as Columbia University, had a very rigid prescriptive core, which meant all students had to fulfill the same basic classes and didn’t have too many options, while in some other schools students could have a lot of freedom of choice.

The third thing students should consider is minor opportunities so that they could complement their major with other interests.

Nemecek also said students should consider the environment of the institutions, in terms of location and what’s available outside the classroom.

“Because when you go to universities, you will learn probably much more outside of the classroom than you do inside the classroom,” he said. “It’s not just pure academic in the classroom 24 hours a day.

“You need to position yourself in an environment in which you will be happy and in which you will become the best person that you can be.”

Bob Patterson, vice president of Student Success at Chegg and a former director of admissions at Stanford, shed some light on what kind of qualities top US universities are looking for.

“Stanford University, one of the most competitive universities in the US, looks for some different things beyond academics, beyond just the test scores,” he said. “We had hundreds of students, who had perfect SAT scores and were No. 1 in their classes, not admitted.

“So what we were looking for were students who were involved in different things.”

Patterson said when he started his admissions career 20 years ago, institutions were looking for students that were well-rounded.

“In other words, they were involved in a lot of different things. They were involved in athletics, academics, organizations outside and inside the school, maybe volunteer work for church,” he explained.

“Now, what universities are looking for are a more well-rounded class. So you have a small percentage of those students that are well-rounded. But then you also have students that we call pointing.

“Pointing means you are interested in one particular area and you take that particular area, make an impact with that area, whether it’s sciences, math, computer science, or humanities.”

Patterson said competitive universities look for initiative, commitment and leadership.

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