What Truly Determines Your Best-Fit University?

Felicia Audrey Nugroho
7 min read
Students celebrating their university graduation (SAGE Education)

According to a Times Higher Education survey, the 3rd most prioritized factor amongst students for selecting universities is its ranking.

Before I began my IBDP journey, this was my 1st and only priority. I used to think that the only factor that’d determine my success was the global prestige of my university. As long as I’d get to study environmental sustainability at a very prestigious university, I thought all would go well.

Hours of research later, I found many success stories of students who started in less known universities and succeeded in amazing ways, from creating a company to pursuing their master’s degrees. On the other hand, I found social media posts from students unsatisfied with their experience at a top-ranked university.

I came to realize that prestige is just one element that can affect your college experience. There are many other factors that may, in fact, be much more relevant. In my process of narrowing down university choices, I found the 4 major deal breakers to finding one’s best university.

Whether you’re a rising senior soon entering DP2, a junior in the middle of DP1, or a soon-to-be DP1 student, it’s never too late to evaluate where you’ll best fit. While each person would prioritize something different, I think it’s great to weigh up these 4 factors to make your experience worth it!

Major Curriculum

In 11th grade, I was caught by surprise as I compared majors across Hong Kong’s universities. One university had “Environmental Science,” another had “Environmental Management and Technology,” and one even had “Environmental Science and Engineering.” I believed they would all have similar content, with trivial differences.

To my surprise, the differences were bigger than I had ever expected. Some focused heavily on fieldwork, while others were made for theoretical study.

Even when a major’s title sounds similar, minor variations make a big difference. Pay good attention to these contrasts, as they can really change what you learn from your major. If you enter a program that doesn’t align with what you’re passionate about, you might learn something entirely different from what you wanted.

As such, if you have a specific subject in mind, think about how you want to study it. What modules are you interested in? Do you prefer a major with specializations? How do you feel about a core curriculum in the first year? Do you prefer a definite structure or more flexibility with electives?

Once you’ve decided how you want to study that particular subject, you can find universities with your desired major structured and designed in your favor.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

For many students going abroad from my school, this was an absolute no-brainer. Studying internationally is likely to cost much more than studying locally, whether that’s due to currency, flights, housing, or tuition fees. Not all students can cover these costs on their own.

This is where scholarships and financial aid opportunities come in handy. From merit-based scholarships that award high-achievers to need-based aid programs that support those from low-income backgrounds, there are many possible schemes a university can provide.

Choosing a university that provides these opportunities brings a huge advantage as it ensures your financial stability. Some universities provide up to fully funded scholarships, covering a student’s tuition, housing, and living cost. You'll basically study an undergraduate course for free!

Besides financial stability, scholarships still offer benefits like skill development. Most scholarship selection processes require students to prepare additional materials, such as essays. Though demanding, these requirements helped me advance my English proficiency.

Campus Environment

When you go to a university, you’re dedicating 2, 3, or 4 years of your life to a new social environment.

Unfortunately, university culture isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept. For example, some universities are all about studying and academic competition. This is not a system all students will enjoy, as several thrive on flexibility and networking opportunities.

Many students want a university where they can find a comfortable social setting, like this! (Cory Aronec Photography / The University of Winnipeg)

Before applying to a university, make sure you can feel comfortable in its environment! Do this by looking through social media and forums. You’ll find plenty of student review videos and posts where they give insight on campus life.

Also, don’t forget to consider class sizes! While most universities operate on large lectures and occasional small-scale seminars, there are some with very small classes across all courses, such as liberal arts colleges in the United States. See what works best for you.

National Conditions

Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Beyond a university is the country it’s in.

External factors that can affect your university experience (bearsky23 / Shutterstock)

Like the STEEPLE framework taught in IB Business Management HL, each country has its own social, economic, political, environmental, and technological status. When you’re not in class or doing homework at the dorms, you’re likely to be exploring the area and eating out. Reflect on the general conditions you’ll be comfortable with when doing this.

Similarly to figuring out a campus’ environment, all it takes to know a country’s conditions is to look online! There will always be news covering economic or political events. You’ll definitely also find tourist or student reviews on social environments.

In my application cycle, I chose countries where I felt safe to learn as an international student. I also considered how interested I was to learn their culture.

You might be thinking: “Even if I consider these things, I may still find displeasure living in the country.” That is right! Outrageous events like discrimination or violent attacks can still occur even if your research says otherwise.

“What’s the use then?”

Forewarned is forearmed. By researching beforehand and using known cues to decide how much you favor a country, you can at least make an informed decision. Instead of going in blindly, you can identify any situations you should be aware of, and how to work around those.

While the 4 factors above are significant, don’t neglect any other considerations that matter to you personally! I had peers who considered the proximity of a country to home for easier commute during breaks.

Overall, many things should go into finding one’s best-fit university. Whether it’s the structure of your major or the social environment you wish to be in, there’s a lot to keep in mind. Find and prioritize what means the most to you.

Remember, it’ll be challenging to find an institution that suits you if you don’t concern yourself with going through a comprehensive research process. As long as you care, I believe you’re set to find a place that truly welcomes you.