Which School should I apply to?

For many students wishing to study in the US, choice of the right schools is always a headache.
There are over 400 top undergraduate colleges and universities in the US that admit international students every year. Strictly speaking, these schools are excellent places to study. However, depending on your tastes, abilities and aspirations, you might find some schools more attractive to you than others.

Top Tier Universities:

These include Ivy league institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Brown University, Dartmouth College and Columbia University. Other top schools in this category include Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These are amongst the best universities in the world. Normally, these schools are also the hardest to get into.

To consider applying to these schools, you will need an excellent record of high school grades, a top KCSE score, and a very high SAT score. You will also need to have involved yourself significantly in a couple of extracurricular activities in schools and have held a couple of leadership positions. In other words, you will need to be a star in one way or another in high school.

Many students rush to apply to these top universities only because they are the best. It is much wiser to consider your abilities and other factors (such as the selectiveness of these schools etc.) to avoid disappointment.

Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities

You might have noticed that most schools you encounter are either colleges or universities. For example, Cornell University vs. Smith College. While both schools will offer you an almost similar academic experience the difference between a college and a university lies in how their majors are organized. Liberal arts schools generally offer one expansive area of study, whereas at universities, the same major may be broken into two or more degree tracks.

For example, someone at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in engineering has options. He or she can either major in engineering through a bachelor of science program or do a dual degree in engineering through the bachelor of science and bachelor of arts programs. This means that he or she can graduate with a bachelor of science in Engineering and a bachelor of arts in Music.

When it comes to liberal arts (like Amherst) and Engineering, students have an expansive range of what they can study. They can major in Mathematics and still end up in an engineering career. It doesn’t mean that liberal arts colleges have lesser-developed classes or curriculum in these areas; it just means that they offer broader areas of study, sometimes incorporating aspects students don’t gain from more focused classes.

Liberal arts colleges are best for students who are not decided on what they want to do in life. This is not a bad thing – 75% of students change their fields of specialization at least once. Also, liberal arts colleges are smaller in size and focus on well-rounded education. Universities focus more on research, generally have a larger student body and are more competitive.

Top liberal arts colleges include: Bowdoin College, Pomona College, Williams College, Carleton College, Amherst College, Middlebury College and

State Schools vs. Private Universities

Here, we explain the difference between, for example, Ohio State University and New York University. For starters, any university that has “State University” in its name is a public university. Others non-obvious ones like University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are also public universities. The obvious difference between state (public) universities and private universities is in their funding. Public universities are funded by the US government while private universities are self-funded which makes them more expensive. Much like USIU vs. Kenyatta University in Kenya.

However, it is much harder to receive financial aid from a public university in the US than from a private university. This is because government funds in public universities are meant for US citizens. Moreover, State Universities are significantly larger (Ohio State University has over 42,000 students!). Class sizes also tend to be huge in public universities (as big as 200 students in a class).

Law, Medicine, and Business.

You may fancy studying Law or Medicine in the US. While this is totally possible, the process is entirely different from that in Kenya. To get a law or a medical degree in the US, you first must go to an undergraduate degree then afterward into a law school or a medical school (where you spend two years for a law degree and up to four years for a medical degree). You, therefore, cannot straight-up study Law or Medicine in the US.

However, most schools have an undergraduate track that prepares one for Law or for Medicine. Schools my advice you to take a combination of biology/health courses for a pre-med track or courses in a pre-law track that would prepare you for law school or medical school entry exams. In any case, you must go through four years of undergrad first. If you are impatient, you are better off studying these courses in Kenya (or in the UK)

As for business, many undergraduate schools have courses that indirectly prepare you for the corporate world. Nonetheless, you may not find degrees such as Bachelor of Commerce or Actuarial Science. Schools such as the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania offers undergraduate business degrees in areas such as accounting, finance, and management but this is a rare exception. To best prepare for business, many students major in areas such as Economics and Applied Mathematics.

Other Considerations: City vs. Small town & the weather

The location of your prospective schools is also quite important. For instance, if you are an extroverted person who loves exploring and a fast-paced kind of life, you may prefer a city school – like the University of Pennsylvania, which is right in Philadelphia or New York University and Columbia University, which are both right in New York City. However, if you are an introverted person who loves quiet and serenity to focus on studies, you may prefer a small-town university. Examples of these are Amherst College or Williams College.

Another important consideration is the weather. Most places in the US experience very cold winters (trust me, very, very cold) and broiling hot summers. In addition, some areas are prone to extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and tornadoes. Keep these in mind when choosing your schools. A rule of thumb is, the further north you go, the more freezing the winter is. For example, schools in the North-East have cooler winters than schools, say in the south. On the other hand, most schools in the west, like Stanford University in California have perfect weather (the kind we have in Kenya).

Conclusion: When choosing schools, it is always good to have “reach” schools like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, and so on and “safety” (not so difficult to get into) schools. Depending on how confident you are of your application and the number of achievements you can boast, you should apply to an equal amount of reach, reach and safety schools. There are always a few trade-offs – for example, most top-tier schools are wealthy and therefore they would offer a nice financial aid package while the smaller “safety” schools may offer very little or no financial aid.

About Author

Daniel is the Founder and Captain at Hashtag Media. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy-League university in Philadelphia, USA, where he graduated with honors in Economics.

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