Choosing Universities - An Alternative Way

The same article in Hungarian:

As always, what I describe is my mental model, and not “a universal truth”. There are implicit exceptions to everything I write. You can benefit most from it by open-mindedly considering my points and incorporating them into your mental model.

In a recent discussion with a young person who was facing a university choice I realised that our regular assessments are oriented around less important aspects.

Discussions around universities tend to be dominated by subject quality: which university is the best at teaching a given subject? For heavily knowledge-based subjects like Medicine, this might make sense. But for others - like Maths, Computer Science, Social Sciences, and so on - it does not.

In fact, teaching quality, above a reasonable threshold, doesn’t matter. Most of the value of university learning is developing an intuition and mindset to operate in your particular domain (how do engineers/biologists/physicists/social scientists think?). Once that’s satisfied, the development of your subject expertise will be driven by yourself and various projects, research, and the full-time jobs you choose.

To put it another way, the university course content hardly ever actually influences your job opportunities or future path, whereas your mindset and personality do.

While we’re obsessing over subject quality, there are a whole lot of critical elements that fundamentally shape your personality, your mindset, and your perspective, and ultimately heavily affect your future - and we tend to underappreciate these.

So here I propose a few aspects which I found critical and fundamentally life-altering - and certainly more important than maximising subject quality. I talked extensively with people who have already graduated (in their home country or abroad/in another state) and started their career, and could therefore talk about their experiences with hindsight: what they have found useful and what they have regretted not having. The below synthesis is based on these conversations.

  • What culture will you be exposed to? Can you see new social classes and circles? Can you get to know a different city? Or can you experience an entirely new culture in an entirely new country? Note that here by “culture” I don’t mean arts, but rather the unique mindset of an entire nation/country. How do they think about each other? How accepting are they? What’s natural for them? How direct are they in conversations? How important are communities to them? This is a strong argument for studying abroad: being immersed in a different culture will massively expand your perspective and add to your personality. I cannot emphasise enough how life changing this can be.
  • What opportunities will you get access to? Do companies fight to get students from that university for their internships and new grad positions? Will you get access to top quality researchers? Will the university fund your projects and trips? How much personal attention do you get from tutors, supervisors, professors? Is the university financially stable?
  • What domain mindset can you learn? Will you just be taught material to memorise, or will you be taught to think like an engineer/biologist/physicist/social scientist? This depends both on the university and the country’s dominant teaching style. Is research world class (or at least up-to-date) and diverse? You can only learn about useful and modern mindsets where they actually practise it.
  • What is the student work culture like? What is "cool"? Is it slacking off, a good exam result, or creating a society or a startup next to your course? Is the culture competitive, and if so, is that going to make you perform better or crush your spirits? Is there a proactive, creative culture? There are no good and bad answers here: pick what you need and what suits your personality.
  • What does the selection say about you? The main reason Cambridge and Oxford in the UK are so sought after is arguably not their lecture quality, but the very fact that all the best apply there. An Oxbridge degree gives assurance that you were among the top students (top according to some ranking) when you were 17.
  • Can you learn to become independent? If you live in the same city[1] with your parents, you typically can’t. University is a great chance to learn this in a fairly protected environment, while you’re shaping your identity.

This is a lot to consider… but how do you figure out the answers to these questions? Standard university rankings[2] can inform you about a few of these aspects, such as research, individual attention, and employability, as long as you consider a subject based ranking. However, they won’t normally help to answer questions around culture and your personal needs. For those, I’d recommend that you find people - both students and professors - who were part of your potential universities of choice, and form an opinion based on their stories and perceptions.

So overall:

  • You can learn the subject pretty well, pretty much everywhere that's considered a reasonable place.
  • Socialising in an appropriate culture, learning mindsets, being exposed to opportunities, and expanding your perspective are the crucial elements of shaping your future.
  • Consequently, you should prioritise choosing based on the culture and the opportunities to which the university exposes you.


  • [1] Household is more accurate, but most of the time living in the same city also implies living at home for economic reasons (I have only ever seen a single exception to this).
  • [2] Here’s the methodology of one.
  • Money is a limiting factor in these decisions. But this highlights that it is really worth pushing for bursaries, finding funding, or taking student loans.
  • Corollary is that you should almost always move abroad (or to another state in the US) when you can, even if the best university for your subject is in your country/state.
  • Of course, there can be reasons for you to stay at home. Specific subject circumstances, your personal needs, a plan to go abroad later, etc. Again, the point of this post is to tell you that almost everybody severely underappreciates the importance of culture.
  • Sometimes people strongly judge places based on their lecture quality - the above explains why that doesn’t really matter. (Cambridge is an example for lower lecture quality; counterbalanced by personal tutoring and other aspects.)
  • Thanks to EB, GL, and GH for the useful comments and language corrections.