Advice on studying oversea

In the past few weeks, I received several emails from parents asking for advice regarding the studying in the U.S. schools. Some want to send their children to attend top universities (i.e., Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell, etc.) Since I cannot answer each individual email, I would like to use this blog to answer some of their concerns.

Although your children may do well in high school, passing required college entrance exams with a high score, have good English skills but to do well in college, especially in a foreign country, requires more than just things they learn in high schools. They have to be prepared for the challenge of studying in a different education system and environment as well as how mature they are to be responsible for their action.

The most challenging factor for any parents is choosing the “right university” for their children. There are many choices (i.e. Public or Private; for-profit or non-profit colleges; traditional or online; large or small, etc.) My advice is both you and your children need to carefully investigate many universities BEFORE applying as it will take time and efforts.

Some parents want their children to attend the best universities without taking into consideration of the fierce selective in the admission process. Each year, hundreds thousand students apply to Havard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, or MIT and most applications were rejected. I often wonder why many parents want their children to go to these famous universities, knowing that over 90 percent of their applications could be rejected? Many people believe that these prestigious schools will make a big difference in their children’s career . The fact is the successful career of college graduates is depending on their knowledge and skills and how well they function in their job, NOT on the degree from the school that they attend.

A few years ago, when teaching in Asia, I met some parents who were proud that their children were attending these top school. They told me: “My son is at Harvard.” Or “My daughter is studying at Stanford.” I understand about their “Pride” of having children at these schools. But being a Professor in one of these schools, I have seen issues that their children did not tell them. For example, How many parents know whether their children are thriving or struggling in these schools? Or How much stress they are enduring in a fiercely competitive environment? No one doubts the prestigious degree from these universities but there is a lot of pressure there too. Sometimes, the heavy curriculum could overwhelm the student if he or she is not prepared. My view is top universities are NOT for everybody. Getting accepted is one thing, but doing well is another matter. I have seen many students struggled, failed and eventually got dismissed and that can be devastated to their psyche. That type of failure can linger for a long time and may not never be healed.

My advice is both parents and their children should discuss thoroughly on which school to apply. It is also important to have a career plan ready to set the direction for the study, especially if the children are a not mature enough or still unsure about their educational goals. To study in a foreign university is a major investment in term of time, money and efforts and parents and children must investigate carefully by looking at some major factors such as the rigorous of the training programs (i.e. how much time students must spend studying each week? How much reading is expected? What type of training methods is being used such as traditional lecturing or active learning where students learn in a group? What is the ratio between faculty and students? What is the students’ placement number? How many units are needed for graduation in the field of study? How many foreign students are studying in that school, etc.)

My advice for the parents is to be thoughtful about whether these universities fit with your children’s personal and career goals. There are many other excellent universities that they can apply without the famous names that they should investigate using information from the ranking of schools such as the U.S. News and World Report on the reputation and academic excellence of the school. Finding the “right school” for your children can make a big difference to their future success. Of course, if your children are strong and have done well in high schools, they should apply to their “dream school” but do not forget to apply to other schools too. You may have a better chance to get accepted there than the top universities.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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