How to Choose Your University

Oct 29, 2018

You’re not a big fish in a small pond any more. That’s how it can feel leaving high school and going to university.

It’s not so scary when you’re there – universities have extensive support networks that cover any trouble new students have (read our blog about leaving home for University, and how to make the most of it here). That being said, the way to set yourself up for success is to choose a university that aligns with your own personality traits and goals. These could be academic, social, sporting, personal – all universities have their own cultures and areas of expertise. Here’s a quick guide to choosing the right university for you.

In the end, it’s about the degree

While culture and extracurricular activities are important, the eventual goal of attending university is to get an academic degree. In New Zealand, as well as other countries, every uni has their specialties. Auckland has the highest international ranking for its law course, with Victoria not far behind. Meanwhile, Canterbury and Auckland are the best for engineering and Auckland and Otago are strong in medicine. Sometimes your choice is made for you – Massey in Palmerston North is the only place for veterinary medicine and Otago has the country’s school for dentistry. It pays to understand the rough workload of each degree (read our take on here). After all, university work is very different in scope and scale to high-school internals.

Auckland is consistently the highest ranked out of NZ universities in international rankings, but all 8 are ranked in the top 3% globally. “They are all up there, and there's not a lot to distinguish them” says Stephen Day from the Tertiary Education Union. With every university offering a quality education, students should aim for where they’re going to feel the most comfortable studying and be confident in the quality of education there. Don’t listen to stereotypes – even little old Lincoln, the country’s smallest university, is ranked in the top 50 in the world for Agriculture and Forestry study.

Thinking globally

Some academically excellent students will have their sights set higher. If you’re looking to excel in the global job marketplace, American and Australian universities can offer greater opportunities than our domestic schools. With more students, more renowned professors and more resources, it’s hard for NZ universities to compete. But the cost of being an international student is high. If your ambitions are global, it’s could be a good idea to study abroad, but don’t discount Auckland, which, at 82nd in the global rankings, still has a lot of international clout.

New Zealanders can study freely in Australian universities, paying domestic fees. This opens up a whole new world of options, such as University of Melbourne’s globally esteemed Law course or RMIT’s Art & Design programmes. The catch is, Kiwis usually don’t apply for student loans in Australia, so you’ll have to pay up front. If your family isn’t able to help you out with that, you may be needing to work for a while to save the money (and fish for those scholarships!).

Money, money, money

Money is important. One part of choosing a university is figuring out what you can afford. The government will loan you your course fees and living costs through StudyLink, and now the first year of course fees is free due to the new government initiative. The Living Costs allowance has also been boosted to $231. But, any student will tell you that in many cities, this is not enough. In Dunedin or Palmerston North, the cost of living for a first year university student is estimated at around $13,000 per year, while in Auckland that shoots to $22,000. If you don’t want to work a lot of part-time hours, or spend time worrying about money, this needs to be factored into your decision.

Consider the University Culture

Culture is another thing to consider. The party culture of American Universities may appeal to those who’ve watched a lot of movies, but it doesn’t quite exist in the same way in New Zealand. For those who aspire to this kind of university life look to Otago, notorious for its partying. Those with aspiring political agendas flock to Victoria, where a liberal political culture is strong and you have access to New Zealand’s Parliament. Those looking to immerse themselves in New Zealand’s biggest city will look to Auckland. All universities, domestic or abroad, offer social clubs and other ways to meet friends and share interests. It’s just a question of whether the student culture gives much time to these clubs, or just focuses on drinking and partying.

You're not locked in

It’s a tough choice, but if you get it wrong, you can switch. Academic, financial and lifestyle decisions all come to a head when choosing your university city - and these priorities may change over time. I started at Auckland and finished at Victoria and switching hardly cost me a thing. The best piece of advice I have is to do your own thing. Don’t just go where your mates are going. You’ll meet countless new friends, the best friends of your life. Whatever your choice is, rest assured that it will be a new adventure every step of the way.

By Jack Buckley, Wellington, New Zealand

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