Does university reputation matter to students?

When choosing a university, it can be easy to get caught up in how prestigious a university appears to be. Four students share why it’s important to consider many other factors in your final choice

July 17 2019
Does university reputation matter to students?

Some universities around the world have such a good reputation that by merely mentioning their name, people are aware of how good they are. Think Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge or Yale. 

However, is a university’s global reputation the only thing that you should consider when choosing a university? Should you focus your attention on those that have name recognition and are known the world over for being “good”.  While it could play a part in the decision-making process, four students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world say that a good reputation should not be the only reason you choose a university. 

Ellie Johandes, University of Michigan

Near the end of my decision process for college, two schools had the characteristics that I wanted in an academic environment: Grand Valley State University (GVSU), my father’s alma-mater, and the University of Michigan. Both were in a city with a large number of undergraduates and had strong natural science programmes, which was what I wanted to study. 

The University of Michigan is located in Ann Arbor, while GVSU is a short bus ride from Grand Rapids. Both offer five-year combined undergraduate and master’s degrees in cellular and molecular biology and, although both have active social scenes, academics are taken seriously. While I already leaned towards Michigan as a break from familiarity (GVSU is much closer to my hometown), Michigan’s reputation as an academic powerhouse cemented my decision.

I was no stranger to seeing “as discovered/developed/investigated by researchers at the University of Michigan” in newspaper articles or hearing of Michigan’s cutting-edge medical campus and well-funded research programmes. Moreover, the school had a reputation for academic excellence. Since I’ve arrived here I’ve enjoyed taking challenging classes with professors who are known experts in their subject, and there are ample resources through Michigan’s library and the Sweetland Writing Center to help on assignments.  

However, students looking at options for higher education should be wary of basing their decision on reputation alone. A student should choose a college that best fits their personal, academic, and career goals. Public versus private education, location, academic programmes, size, extracurricular options, and cost should all be taken into consideration. Though it’s easy to be taken in by a high university ranking or a well-known name, a student will receive their best education at a location that fits their personal, educational, and financial needs.     

Joe Peck, Yale University

The period when students apply to university can be uncertain. I, like so many, found myself riddled by questions such as: Will I enjoy my time at university? Will it be too hard? Will I miss home? Will it all be worth it?

For those of us who choose to study abroad, the transition from high school to university is an even bigger one. That is exactly why, when I started the application process two years ago, I needed some security. I decided to study in the United States (instead of at home in the UK) and before I firmly decided where, I emphasised the importance of university reputation in my choice as a way of finding that security.

My thinking was simple: the better a university’s reputation was, the easier it would be for me to find a job after I graduated. If I was going to uproot my life, be subjected to a different culture and adapt to a new style of education, I needed to know it was going to be worth it. The last thing I wanted was to come back to England and have people doubt the legitimacy of the degree I had moved halfway across the world to earn. In retrospect, however, I was thinking a little too simplistically.

I do not regret my choice to go to Yale, but given a second chance I would not have imposed that criterion on myself. In reality, how others might view a university name is insignificant compared with the experiences and friendships available to any person. Choose the courses, the learning style, and the people first; and relegate university reputation to an afterthought. Only then can you ensure you make the right choice.

International perspective: a French student in Switzerland
A day in the life of a student in Singapore 
Life at the University of Cambridge
Why I chose to study at Yale University
Studying at Princeton University
From a waiter working in Singapore to becoming a Harvard graduate
Women in STEM: stories from MIT students
Dispelling the myths around elite universities
Reflections from a University of Oxford foundation-year student

Benjamin Fernando, University of Oxford

The “reputation” of a university (which seems to be a combination of how old it is and its research output) is certainly a factor that students consider when applying. However, I would always encourage students to be careful not to place too much emphasis on league tables when choosing a place to study, as excellence in research does not necessarily translate into excellence in teaching. In fact, if one were being cynical one might suggest that a position at the top of the league tables does not provide a university with as much impetus to continually better its teaching. 

At undergraduate level I think a more important factor is probably choosing a course that is well structured and well thought out, rather than just choosing a university that is “famous”. At postgraduate level things are a bit different, and the research reputation of an institution is still important, but I would argue that choosing a good supervisor and a department with good facilities and support can make far more of a difference. 

I found the department that I wanted to work in at the University of Oxford to be social, welcoming and an exciting place to work; and that’s why I decided to apply (after some consideration, I might add), rather than just because it seemed famous. The same was certainly true of many other places that I applied to, and I’m sure I would have been perfectly happy if I had gone there instead. 

So, in short, reputation can be a good mark of research excellence, but don’t be afraid to look past it. 

Katherine Logan, Johns Hopkins University

Whether you’re moving down the street or to a different country, deciding where to spend the next four years of your life pursuing a college degree is a leap of faith.

When faced with such a daunting decision, it can be tempting to grasp on to all of the articles and rankings that cater to prospective students seeking to discover which school will offer them fruitful employment opportunities and lifelong friendships.

I bought all the books, attended the on-campus tours and events, and read up on the institutions that piqued my interest. However, I’ve since realised that while these experiences and resources offer a broad sense of a campus’ culture, they don’t fully encapsulate all that an institution has to offer or the day-to-day struggles that students face. 

While Johns Hopkins University is known as a premier research university, its humanities departments, especially the writing seminars, are the school’s hidden gems. By accepting their offer to attend, I knew that I was allowing myself to have both the name recognition of a school with a strong reputation and the academic rigour that I desired.

What I didn’t foresee until I set foot on campus was all the Saturdays spent in the library, the countless hours spent reading, and the sleep deprivation that would follow. Of course, attending a world-renowned university comes with its own set of fears, pressure and stressors. However, I have found that the knowledge I’ve gained, the friendships I’ve formed, and the opportunities I’ve been offered since I came to this university have far outweighed the negatives. 

Read more: The top 50 universities by reputation 2019 


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