Guiding where, what and why?

By David Hawkins

A regular pleasure of my work involves visiting schools, supporting high school career advisors, and helping students find their perfect fit universities. When speaking with students, I try to address the 'myths' that many hold on how choosing a university works. The biggest one of these is this: that I have to know what I want to study so that I can choose a university.


How many students actually know, aged 17, what they want to study? I ask this question when I give talks in schools, and usually at least half the hands go up. But what about the other half?

What about those who have other motivations for going to university? What about those who want something that is not 'off the shelf'?


Finding the passion

Some of the most enjoyable moments of my career came when I worked at the International School of Brussels and we would meet with Grade 11 students and parents to discuss their plans. We started with a blank sheet of paper, and discussed the student's own motivations, aspirations and hopes, and could then look at options all over the world that would suit them best.


A memory that stands out is of speaking to one student, who presented me with a very strange list of ideas: primary education at one place, nursing somewhere else, psychology at a third place. I couldn't work out the underlying motivations. After some fruitless discussions, I asked her mother for her thoughts. "She just wants to work with small children" was the reply.


Finally, being able understand what the student was passionate about, I could help. I showed them details of Norland College in Bath and The Chiltern College in Reading, both in the UK and both of which offer formal childcare qualifications for prospective nannies. Students can't know everything that's out there, but it's a college counsellor’s job to understand their passion and their personalities, and suggest universities where they can thrive. The family left inspired and so did I.


What is a top university?

Unfortunately, too often I hear that instead of a student-led approach to counselling, the call from above is: ‘Our students can only go to top universities.’ Delve down into what people mean by 'top university' and there's generally a mishmash of things: highly ranked, has a good name brand, somewhere where my friends went. A lot of this pays precious little attention to recent trends.


By definition, parents are a generation out-of-date on their knowledge of the relative merits of universities, and many teachers and heads of sixth form have little time to update themselves. How many headteachers know that in the Guardian league table of UK universities, the University of Nottingham is no longer the top ranked university in that city?


Earlier this year, the Times Higher Education (THE) supplement published a ranking of academic experience at UK universities, and though some of the name-brand universities appear towards the top, seeing universities like Harper Adams, Chichester, and Trinity St David up there too, was hugely heartening and reflects what many of us in this field have always known: the so-called 'top' universities don't necessarily offer the 'best' education. 


This quote from the THE article is telling: "A primary aim of most students is to come out of university feeling more educated than when they went in." Isn't it sad that this is something which needs pointing out?


How high is too high?

In a recent Facebook discussion, a friend who does similar work to me in the Philippines asked how to advise students who aim too high, on the off-chance they might get in somewhere. My reply sums up my philosophy in this area and something which I believe is important whichever university system students are thinking about. Ask the student: “Even if you did sneak in to the ‘best’ university you could get to, what would it feel like to be (one of) the weakest students in every class you take, every day, for the whole course? Wouldn't you rather be somewhere where you are of a similar level to everyone else?”


One of my standard questions, is to ask students where they like to be in any class: at the very top, in the top third, in the middle, or at the bottom. No-one ever says ‘at the bottom’.


How to help?

School leaders have an obligation to ensure that their students have access to trained, knowledgeable guidance professionals, who are given the opportunity to educate themselves about a wide range of post-secondary options though attendance at conferences and visits to universities. 


Going to university shouldn't be like purchasing a product; being able to show off to one's friends the type of car or the flashGuy phone that you own. It should be an education, fit to the needs of the student; one which will be transformative for them. We need to help our students achieve that.


David Hawkins is an independent college counsellor, affiliated to the Council of International Schools and is also a member of International ACAC. He supports students all over the world with their university applications as part of the global team at Syzygy Global Education, and is based in Somerset in the UK. You can follow David on his blog; The University Guy

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