5 Reasons to Rethink Your Dream U.S. School

Big cities and elite universities may seem ideal, but there’s more to consider when choosing a college.

By + More
Crossroads make for decisions.
Crossroads make for decisions.

Like many college applicants, you probably have a clear idea about which U.S. school is your top choice. It may be filled with your old friends, or located in the middle of a large city or close to the beach – possibly, a combination of all three.

You might want to take a second and reconsider. You are picking a school, not a vacation spot. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Going to a big school: A large school can be a great option, but in a crowd of tens of thousands of students, particularly as an international student, you can easily become marginalized.

[Explore the universities with the most international students.]

Moving from your country is a big step, and your ability to find friends will have a crucial impact on how well you adjust to your new home away from home. At a big school, you will walk past hundreds of faces each day that you will never learn to recognize, and they might not recognize you either.

The larger the school, the larger the probability that you will find other students who are from your own country. Instead of actively trying to cross any cultural borders and make friends among students of other nationalities, you might just be tempted to take the easy way out and spend most of your time with your fellow countrymen.

That wasn't what you had in mind when you moved, was it?

Many of your classes will have hundreds of students, and your professors more often than not won't know your name. That can be challenging. Smaller schools often rely on small classes to accommodate for this. Having a professor who knows you and takes an interest in your academic success can prove invaluable.

The president of the institution where I started out – where there were 800 students – ran the school according to the adage: "Find a small college and fall in love with it." After my first year, I knew all my professors and most of the students and staff by their first names. It was like one big family.

2: Going to school in a big city: Believe it or not, that classic American college you've seen in movies – with football games, fraternities and sororities (those clubs with the Greek letters) and an old, beautiful campus – is more likely to be found in small countryside towns than in large cities.

Colleges can become the hearts of these communities. School spirit, cultural activities and athletic success can trickle into every home, causing the entire town to live and breathe the spirit of your school. There are always tons of things going on, giving you opportunities to get involved and make new friends, whether in music, acting, sports or something else.

I was part of the swim team and spent countless hours each week in the pool with my team. We bonded quickly. Participating in activities is the best way to immerse yourself in this new place and become a part of it.

Dare to settle down somewhere you may never have never heard of, and save New York and Los Angeles for your spring break.

[Learn how to explore the U.S. as an international student.]

3. Going to school somewhere with warm weather: Sure you want to – you and thousands of other students.

Be realistic: The weather will obviously affect your college experience on a daily basis, but it is only one among dozens of factors. If your main concern is good weather, you should go to surfing school, not college.

4. Going to a school where you know people from home: I never came across anyone from my home country, Sweden, at the two universities I attended during my undergraduate years. Instead, I made dozens of friends from America, Israel, South Africa, France, Croatia and countless other countries.

You did not leave your home and settle down in an opposite corner of the world to hang out with old friends – you left in order to make new ones. And fortunately, Americans are extremely outgoing. They will befriend you whether you want it or not.

[Prepare for your first semester at a U.S. college.]

5. Going to an elite, Ivy League school: Your probable obsession with this reputable group of eight schools – including Harvard, Yale and Princeton – is perfectly normal. Each have graduated people who been extremely successful in a wide range of professions.

These schools are often featured in books, movies and TV shows, and are often mentioned in news outlets. Some tally the number of Nobel Prize-winning former students or current faculty by the dozens.

But you must realize that admission to one of the Ivies is not a guaranteed one-way ticket to success.

What most successful Americans have in common is an unyielding willingness to work extremely hard to achieve their goals. Many of them also have a keen eye for other individuals who show proof of great potential.

Make sure to show off yours by always staying ahead of the pack. If you do, opportunities will present themselves, regardless of where you went to college.

Anders Melin, from Sweden, is a former collegiate swimmer for Limestone College and the University of Missouri, where he earned an undergraduate degree in finance. He is now pursuing a master's degree in journalism at New York University.