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TOEFL Tip #51: College In The US | Does Brand-Name Matter?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 15, 2009

Strictly English asked Adam Goldberg, M.Ed. (CEO and Educational Consultant of The Goldberg Center for Educational Planning) if the name of the school you attend really matters.  Here’s what he said:

If you are considering an American college education as a non-US citizen, don’t limit yourself by applying to only the “big name” institutions.

A good example of this bias came to our educational consulting office this morning from China:

“My son wants to go to USA for the high school and the college from Beijing, China. We are hoping for entry to the top 20 universities in USA. To get this done easily we decide to spend the high school in USA. He had taken a tours to visit 10 famous university and likes MIT, Princeton, and Yale very much.”

This is actually a very typical inquiry. Whether they come from China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, England, Australia, Panama, Argentina, or any other country for that matter, prospective students and their families come with “brand name biases.” Most have either only heard of the most prominent colleges (like those listed in the inquiry above), or have decided in their own minds that it is only worth pursuing an American college education if it’s at one of these “famous” institutions.

While I do not intend to crush dreams, suppress ambitions, or change others’ plans, I feel it is necessary to present the reality so that these prospective students and their families can make more informed decisions.

Here are some facts to consider:

• There are many tier three colleges in the US with a quality of education, as well as of prestige as those on the lists of the top 10, 20, or even 50 US universities.
Application volume is still high relative to prior generations, especially due to the movement of applications online. As a result, acceptance rates are considerably lower. Colleges mentioned in the above inquiry generally end up accepting no more than 7-15% of all applicants … and those applicants are collectively credentialed well above the norm to begin with.
• The currency imbalance has caused many international students to study in the US for much less money. Therefore international demand is up as well.
• You gain no advantage by applying to the same colleges to which your country-mates apply.
• Attending a top or “famous” private school in the US does not guarantee admission at the aforementioned colleges.

So, now that you have some of the basics and perhaps a slightly new perspective on American colleges, what can you do to more successfully navigate the admissions process?

1. Open up your scope of college options! Beware of lists such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong Rankings in Asia – they are not focused on individual student needs and don’t necessarily give you a truly accurate picture from afar. Besides, in my opinion, it doesn’t do you much good if everyone is operating off the same list in your geography. You will need to do more research, perhaps enlisting some help to do so, but it is well worth the time and effort in the end. As a hiring manager, there are many brands beyond the “famous” ones on a resume that stand to impress me.
2. At the same time, I certainly won’t fully minimize the importance of name brands since they do matter in some domains… you just have to consider which domains are most relevant. If a student is planning on ultimately taking a job in the US, brand name will mean something very different from a scenario where a student is likely returning to his/her home country for work. Carefully consider and discuss the longer-term outlook.
3. Differentiate yourself as a student. US colleges are not looking for generalists these days. They want specialists… those students who have demonstrated a commitment to thoroughly studying one academic topic. Again, extending the scope beyond institutions to which peers are applying immediately creates differentiation as well.
4. Most importantly, consider the fit of a college (and a private school if you decide to get an earlier start in the US system) before anything. Would you rather be a miserable student at Harvard or thrive at a slightly lesser known (but still top quality) institution? Most studies show that the latter student is more successful in the end. Socialization, acquiring work skills and ethics, and gaining confidence and self-advocacy skills, along with building productive relationships, are considered integral assets in the college experience here in the US.

The bottom line is that brand names do matter in the US college realm … but only to a certain extent. My experience tells me that prospective international students can achieve much greater success in both the admissions process and post-matriculation by merely opening up their minds a bit more.

For additional insights into both college and private school admissions, feel welcome to visit our educational consulting blog. For information on educational consulting services offered through companies, visit EnCompass Education.

Categories: Admissions Advice,Industry Issues

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