Note: I wrote this about a month ago and had some problems posting it. Then I forgot about it. Hopefully a few of you will still find it interesting.
Last week I walked through the Shau Kei Wan market in Hong Kong looking for something tasty for lunch before my visit to Hong Kong Island School. I love street markets and try to visit them pretty much everywhere I travel in the world. As I walked past stall after stall of fresh fish, I was struck by the similarities. At least to an outsider, the stalls all seemed pretty much the same. Whenever I see markets with so many similar stalls I can't help but wonder how and why individual customers choose one rather than another. Obviously there must be no one "best" fish stall for, if there were, the others would soon be forced out of business.
I suppose if I lived in Shau Kei Wan and shopped the market day after day, I'd discover some small differences that might make me prefer one stall to the others. Perhaps the fish monger in this stall is a little better at removing scales. Perhaps that stall is known to keep some extra special pieces behind the counter for regular customers. Maybe that vendor uses just a little more ice. Maybe this vendor charges slightly less for my favorite variety of fish. That vendor's brother is a crab fisherman and always has the very best crabs. Maybe the gossip is a bit more detailed at the stall next to the diner, etc., etc. Eventually I'd probably decide which one or two special traits were most important to me and I'd become a regular there. Of course, if you lived there and experienced exactly the same set of variations you might have a different favorite - perhaps money isn't as tight in your home, or you don't like crab anyway, or you prefer to clean the fish yourselves. But the simple fact is there is no single best fish vendor for everyone.
Colleges and universities are a lot like fish stalls. In lots of ways they are all the same - especially if you consider just a single type of institution - say selective liberal arts colleges. One may have stronger science offerings. Another has a more varied meal plan. This one has a better baseball team. That one has a higher law school acceptance rate. College A has a bigger library. College B has more buildings with WiFi access. College C is in a major city. Your favorite teacher attended College D and raves about the philosophical discussions. College E offers need-based financial aid to international students. The residence halls have air conditioning at good old College F. Fraternities are an integral part of the social life at still another school. H College has an open curriculum. International Winter Term programs are famous at College I, etc., etc. But in the end, they are all great academic institutions with a lot more similarities than differences.
There are a few differences between the liberal arts colleges and fish markets, though. Liberal arts colleges generally smell better, for instance. More important, you have the luxury of returning to the fish market day after day until you find just the vendor who best meets your needs. Most people will ultimately end up at one or maybe two liberal arts colleges in their lives, so the "trial and error" method of searching for the "best" liberal arts college isn't too practical. Campus visits can help a lot, but VERY few international students are really in a position to visit many (or any) campuses before making their decisions. So in the end you have to try to weigh the myriad of information that you can learn from various sources and try to determine what the best liberal arts college for you is.
So what is the "best" liberal arts college for you? Who knows? That depends upon which of the almost limitless number of possible dimensions are most important to you. If you happen to value exactly the same things as the editors of the US News and World Report, then, congratulations!, the choice of the best college for you is really easy. But, unless your goal in life is to sell the most magazines, there isn't really all that much chance that you have exactly the same preferences as the good folks at the US News. Of course, there are lots of other rankings out there, but they, too, are based on some set of criteria that are extremely unlikely to be the ones that matter most to you. The College Board website has an interesting program where you can indicate how important a number of criteria that they have listed are to you and it will rank colleges based on that. This is an improvement as it allows at least some of your preferences to come into play. But even this is only a modest step in the right direction as the list of criteria is pretty limited and your ability to weight them is fairly minimal. (Note: if you pick just the right set of conditions you can make Oberlin rise to the very top of the list!)
Before you finalize that list of schools to which you send applications, take a minute and think about what matters most to you. Some things may be absolutely essential and non-negotiable. If you want to learn Japanese, you'd better choose a school that offers it. If you are an international student who needs financial aid, you'd better look only at schools that have some. Other items are less black and white. Do you really need the very best history program at the undergraduate level or would a merely strong program be good enough? If a school is good at getting its graduates into MBA programs, does it matter to you if they don't have an undergraduate business major? Is an institution that values community service paramount for you? Are you looking for a program that is geared primarily toward students planning to enter the labor market immediately or one that focuses more on preparation for graduate or professional schools? What sort of clubs are important to you? Do you want to participate in intercollegiate sports? Does it matter to you if your fellow students are interested in environmental issues? Which is more acceptable to you, higher tuition or higher average class sizes? Is geographic location important?
Once you've thought through which items are absolutely essential, which are important to you, and which are just somewhere on your wish list of characteristics, it's time to start gathering information. Most of the factual stuff you can get from college web sites. But if what a campus community feels like, if who the students are and what they value is important to you, you need to find a way to assess that. Student blogs can be useful tools. Blogs like mine can be helpful, but remember I get paid to paint Oberlin in as positive a light as I can. College Confidential and similar sites can also be helpful as long as you don't take every word as the literal truth.
After you've gathered your data, see how various schools stack up against that list of criteria that matter to you. Don't worry if it doesn't look the same as your friend's list. After all, does he shop at the same fishmonger as you do? And definitely don't worry about whether or not it looks like the US News list. The people who made up that ranking graduated from college a long time ago!
There is one other critical difference between liberal arts colleges and fishmongers. Very few fishmongers will refuse to sell you a mackerel if you are willing to pay for it. Liberal arts college don't have enough mackerel to satisfy everyone who wants one and so have a nasty practice of refusing to sell their services to more than a small fraction of the people who are interested in buying. This may mean that you have to temper your ideal list to factor in your own unique academic, extra-curricular, and financial circumstances.
But in the end, if you've been realistic about your own strengths as an applicant and created a college list that is based on the things that are most important to you, you will probably end up at a place that is a good match for you. And then comes the most important part of all. Fall in love with your college as soon as you can. There is often a pretty good reason that we end up in the place that we are in. As long as you end up at a solid academic institution, you will be attending an institution that has the resources to enable you to go wherever you want in life. The real trick is for you to do your best work. In the end that is a LOT more important than which school has a few thousand more books or a lower student-to-faculty ratio. And if you learn anything from this long lecture that started with a simple observation in a fish market it should be this: You will get the best education for you at the place that feels right for you. Good luck finding it. If it is Oberlin, hurray for us. If it isn't, please don't feel bad; we don't mind. We want you to have the best education that you can.
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