askST: How do I pick a foreign university for further studies?

With the release of the A Level results in March and polytechnic graduation ceremonies coming up in May, some students keen on studying overseas may have questions about how they should go about choosing a university.

Education reporter Yuen Sin went to the University Advising Team at the United World College of South East Asia to find out the answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. How important are university rankings when I am choosing a foreign university?

It is not wise to base your decision solely on rankings, which can be deceptive, said the team. They can be highly subjective and have little bearing on your success or happiness at university.

For example,  these rankings are often based on the quality and quantity of the research conducted at the university, which is usually conducted at the postgraduate level by senior professors who do not work with undergraduates; this does not necessarily translate into a good learning experience for first and second year students.

If you are going to use rankings, take some time to understand the criteria universities are being ranked against. Look for ones that are ranking the best undergraduate teaching, highest student satisfaction, or highest graduation rates; these measures will have a greater significance for you.

2. How should I go about researching universities?

Visitors at the EducationUSA College Fair held at Stamford American International School on Feb 27, 2016.

Schools from the United States (US), Britain, Australia and Canada regularly hold higher education fairs here, said the team.  You can also book an appointment with EducationUSA, the British Council, or overseas education consultants like IDP here to find out more.

You can also reach out to alumni of these schools, and talk to those who have attended university in foreign countries. It is now easy to do "virtual visits" to universities, such as learning about individual universities on YouTube, or even attend a sample lecture online.

The key is to dig deep into the websites of universities and to look for ways to get a qualitative sense of a university, because numbers will only tell you so much.

3. What are the differences between studying in the Britain as compared to the US?

The King's College Chapel at Cambridge University in Britain. PHOTO: ST FILE

There are some important distinctions that may make one country a better fit for you than the other, depending on your interests, learning style and aspirations, said the team. The key differences between the universities are:

  • Commitment to course of study

Students who are not sure of their academic interests or who are excited to explore and keep their options open are generally not a good fit for Britain.

When you apply to a university in Britain, you must apply to a specific course. You will need to have a good idea of the direction you would like to head in by the beginning of A levels or the last year of polytechnic.

At US universities, you will apply for a place at the university, rather than in a specific course in most cases. Many universities not only encourage students to take a breadth of different subjects before specialising, they actually insist that students take a variety of subjects in their first two years before declaring a major. This is what is known as the liberal arts and sciences model.

One Oxford admissions officer described it this way: the UK likes its students narrow and spiky, and the US likes them rounded and fluffy. Other countries' university systems fall somewhere in between the US and British models.

  • Professional and specialised degrees are uncommon in US

Britain allows you to study professional degrees, such as the Bachelor of Medicine or the Bachelor of Laws. You will be also surprised by the breadth of offerings in the UK with degrees available in specialties as far and wide as Brewing and Distilling, Physiotherapy, Television Production and Puppet-Making.

In contrast, professional and highly specialised degrees are most often offered in the US as Master's or PhD programmes. It is possible to major in Engineering, Business or Architecture as a US undergraduate, but these programmes are not offered at all universities.

  • Depth versus Breadth followed by Depth

In Britain, you will take most of your classes in the area you applied for with a few choices of electives. As a result, most degrees take only three years to complete, although Scotland requires students to take a wider selection of classes in the first year, so Scottish degrees take four years.

In the US, bachelor degrees take four years to obtain; most universities require students to sample courses in a broad range of subjects before specialising or majoring in one subject for the last two years.

While the US liberal arts and sciences approach makes it very easy to change your mind about what you want to study, in Britain it is far less common but still feasible to change your original choice of subject to a related subject. But there are also several combined and dual degrees in Britain that allow you to study more than one subject, and liberal arts-style offerings are becoming more available.

  • Application Procedures

Applications to British universities are processed through a central governmental agency known as UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). You can only apply to five universities in Britain, and only to four if you are applying to medicine programs. You can apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but not both. Because you will only submit one Personal Statement for UK applications, it makes sense to apply for the same or very similar subjects at each institution so that you can write about your interest and suitability in that area.

Applications to US colleges and universities are processed by the individual institution, although there is a private application consolidator known as the Common Application, which has about 400 members, that makes it easy to apply to many popular universities using a single online application, with individual supplemental essays for specific institutions.

Two places to go to see what an actual application looks like are UCAS (UK) and Common Application (US) .

  • Admission criteria

Admission in the UK is largely credential driven, with UCAS publishing minimum IB or A level requirements, and offers of admission are made conditional on attaining IB or A level results that are consistent with predicted grades.

The US has a holistic admissions process and considers a large range of factors above and beyond a student's grades, including how applicants would enhance the diversity of the student body, what special talents or contributions they would make to a learning community, and in many cases, their ability to pay.

4. What factors are important when I choose a university?

Tourists rub the toe of the statue of John Harvard, a ritual done for good luck, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

  • Learning style

Within each country, different colleges and universities emphasise different styles of teaching that may appeal to students in different ways, said the team Some students enjoy lectures and taking notes, while others do best when they are actively involved in discussions. Certain universities have long reading periods and exams, while others assess students with papers and projects. Independent study is another option, and some universities allow students to design their own courses or get credit for taking courses led by other students.

Some universities have a core curriculum that all students must take, while others have what is called an "open" curriculum with no specific requirements outside the major, allowing for extensive exploration.

At certain universities it is possible to double major or design your own major.

  • Campus culture

There is a lot more to university than classes. Where you live, whom you surround yourself with and what your life is like can be dramatically different depending on your university choice.

Universities have distinct personalities and attract different kinds of students. A day in the life of a student at a large urban campus will be very different from that of a student in a small residential college in a rural town. Some universities are more politically liberal, some are more conservative; some are diverse while others are more homogeneous; some are internationally oriented while others are less so; some have a strong sense of community; at others students commute to school like they would to a job. It's a good idea to think about what aspects of your schools you have really liked and look for universities that share those traits.

  • Future prospects

Another aspect of university decision-making is thinking about where you would like to work or continue your studies after you graduate.

In some countries, like the UK and Australia, you can study law or medicine straight out of high school, while in others, like the US and Canada, these programs are offered only at the graduate level. Some offer degrees where you can work in industry in the middle of your degree and gain valuable experience.

Many universities have extensive networks for studying abroad which could lead to future employment. Not all university degrees qualify students to practice their profession in Singapore. Medical and legal councils in Singapore have specific lists of foreign universities whose degrees are approved and it is important to check these. You can check the list of approved law schools here, or check with the Singapore Medical Council.

5. How early in advance should I start my research and applications? What makes a good college application essay?

If you are looking at the US and Britain, you will want to start researching schools the year before you apply for admission. The US generally asks students to write about stories that reveal who they are; the UK will ask students to write about their academic interests and why they want to study the course that they are applying for.

A good college application for the US is one where the admissions officer gets to know who you are beyond your schoolwork and academic life.

In Britain, a good college application is one where the university faculty understand your passion for a course, your academic qualifications for pursuing that course, and are shown  evidence that you will be successful in the course you have chosen.

To see what an actual application looks like, you can refer to UCAS (UK) and Common Application (US).

6. How do I find out about scholarships and financial assistance? What resources are available in Singapore and overseas?

For Singaporean students seeking significant financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition and accommodation, focus on the US. Financial aid and scholarships are available in Canada and the Britain, but do not generally cover the cost of everything.

Less than 200 universities and colleges in the US higher education market will offer full financial aid to international students, so it is critical to do your research well. Your research should include:

* Attending higher education fairs here in Singapore.

* Reading carefully through financial aid policies on individual websites

* Connecting with EducationUSA

A number of local companies, government bodies and statutory boards also offer overseas scholarships that come with bonds. A few offer bond-free overseas scholarships. You can read up on them at Brightsparks or the Public Service Commission's website.

More askST stories here.