In search of the collegiate ideal
By Natalie Cruz and Chris Glass

When the whole world is open to you, how in the world do you decide what university to attend?


Students from international schools often find themselves at a crossroads when choosing a university. To unpack the college choice process, researchers from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA, United States partnered with ISC Research to interview 19 graduating students from international schools and countries across the world.


We explored the key people and experiences that shaped students’ college choice process and their expectations for the future. We have used pseudonyms in this article to mask participants’ identities. Our conversations highlight four elements that shaped students’ view of the ideal university experience: pre-college experiences, college explorations, college choice, and post-college aspirations.


Pre-college experiences: experiential learning that builds a sense of purpose

Students’ most meaningful experiences at their international schools involved experiential learning inside and outside-the-classroom.


Students spoke of how discussions with classmates and teachers helped them reconsider their views on complex issues. Anastasia shared her reflections on a discussion-based senior seminar at her international school: “It's more about making us think rather than being told what to think.” Other students shared how international service-learning and meaningful interaction with local community members had developed their ability to work with others to analyse and address issues that transcend borders.


Students believed the ideal college experience involved similar high-impact experiences. Just as strong relationships with teachers and counsellors were critical to their development of a sense of purpose, they hoped that universities with strong connections with professors and community engagement would enable them to prepare for the future. Aidan described how his sense of purpose had developed from experiential learning: “I think that one thing that I learned from being in an international school is that no matter where you go, wherever you've been to, it's shaped you as a person.” 


College explorations: universities as hubs of global activity

The US and UK remain popular destinations for international school leavers. Students with well-defined goals tended to be attracted to the UK and European-style university education to prepare for specific careers. Students were attracted to the US when they saw college as an opportunity to explore different career pathways and identify post-college goals as part of a liberal arts education.


The students we spoke with had been primed to select universities they considered to be hubs of global activity. Although most of the students continued to see the US and UK as reflecting this ideal, almost half of students we spoke with had also considered universities in mainland Europe or new education hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong. Students saw these emerging destinations as vibrant intersections of global, cultural, and commercial activity that most closely reflected the international learning environment of their school. Consequently, students did not typically have allegiance to a particular destination or university system, but to universities that reflected an ideal global learning environment. For a number of students, emerging educational hubs often appeared to embrace this global, interconnected future more readily than traditional destinations. 


College choice: personal connections and sense of community

Most every student started their college search process in the same place: a look at the world university rankings. The search for the global collegiate ideal continued on the internet and social media with many students seeking out the opinions and perspectives of friends, extended family members, university students, and sometimes total strangers. Rarely did students stop there, and often the influence of rankings waned as students gained information and weighed options.


Human connections were what most influenced a student’s ultimate choice. Students weighed academic programme quality, input from family, and recommendations from counsellors, but college choice came down to personal connections and personalised opportunities. Rosemary said that speaking to current students at a prospective university finalised her decision, while Kaitlin described how a visit by a current university to her international school confirmed her decision. 


For many students, the collegiate ideal meant living in a global, cosmopolitan city where they could experience the diversity of people and cultures that had been so integral to their international school experience. Several students specifically mentioned that universities with large numbers of international students were appealing because they could seek out diverse friendships.


Each student had a way to sift through options, but they tended to select universities where they already felt a part of the university’s community even before their first day on campus.


Post-college aspirations: careers and causes that impact on a global scale

It’s no surprise that students from international schools are the business, non-profit, and political leaders of tomorrow. Their goals involve careers and causes they believe will make an impact on a global scale.

Emilia wants to empower women through increased employment opportunities back in her home country; Yasin wants to create solutions to influence views of climate change via new media; and Hamzah wants to provide more accessible pathways into tertiary education.


Sami captured the prevailing sentiment among school leavers: “All the problems we think about here are international problems. We don't just think about, you know, problems in our hometown or home country... people like to think about solutions that would be applicable on a global scale. I hope to continue that at my university.”  


Advice for supporting students in their college choice

  • Reassure students that while institutional rankings and prestige are a bonus, the most important concern is to find a tertiary institution that will provide the curricular, co-curricular, and career experiences that are most important to them.

  • Encourage students to imagine their college experience and what types of places align with their vision.

  • Connect alumni with current students to share candid advice about the college choice and transition process.

  • Empower students to reach out to people and students at a prospective university beyond what they can see online. Personal connections make all the difference.

  • Emphasise experiential learning in and outside the classroom. These experiences leave a lasting impression on students.

  • Pat yourselves on the back: you’re doing a great job and students are very grateful for the experiences they’ve had and the connections they’ve made with students, faculty, and staff at international schools.

Natalie Cruz ( is a doctoral student and research assistant at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA, US, and Dr Chris R. Glass ( is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership. He is also the Senior Editor of the Journal of International Students and the Co-Editor of the forthcoming Routledge Studies in Global Student Mobility book series. This article offers a glimpse into their longitudinal research study about the college choice and identity development of students from international schools. A full research report will be released in early 2020.

©2020 International School Leader