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How to Prepare for the Best Universities

The world of college education is a mess. There are thousands of colleges, most of which are useless. Anyone, no matter how poor of a student, can “go to college” today because there are colleges that are simply doing the business of granting degrees, but these degrees are relatively meaningless. These colleges offer students none of the benefits of college life. Their interest is in using students to gain access to government funding. That’s their business.

When we talk about preparing for college, we should be focused on the best universities. These universities are valuable for the resources they offer their students. Their professors are leaders in their fields. Their campuses are beautiful and inspiring. Their libraries are massive. Their research facilities are state of the art. Their students are intelligent and humble. Their connections with influential institutions around the world are unmatched. Their alumni are leaders in all fields. Their financial aid resources are abundant and used generously.

They offer their students the best of everything, but becoming one of their students is not easy. The best high school students in the world are competing for a limited number of spaces and the universities get to pick the best of the best.

The question, then, for university preparation is: How can I become one of the best?

When most students and parents think about college admission, they do so with ignorant, common ideas. They talk about grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, and so on. The problem with this is that all of the best students have excellent grades, high SAT scores, great experience, and the rest. These things are of secondary importance, and if these pose a challenge to students, they can forget about seeking admission at the best universities. Most students are struggling to even get through high school requirements.

What, then, should be the primary focus of students who want to gain admission to the best universities?

We need to begin by asking the question, “What do the best universities in the world actually do?”.

Let’s let the best universities in America[efn_note]Source: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities[/efn_note] describe what they do

“Through teaching and research, we educate people who will contribute to society and develop knowledge that will make a difference in the world.”

#1 – Princeton University

“The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.”

#2 – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

“Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders who make a difference globally.”

#3 – Harvard University

“One of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions. Catalyzing discovery, accelerating solutions, sustaining life on Earth, and preparing students for active citizenship.”

#4 – Stanford University

“Since its founding in 1701, Yale University has been dedicated to expanding and sharing knowledge, inspiring innovation, and preserving cultural and scientific information for future generations.”

#5 – Yale University

In addition to these, let’s also consider the top universities in the United Kingdom:

“Oxford University provides world-class research and education to benefit society on a local, regional, national and global scale.”

#1 – Oxford University (UK)

“The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through education, learning and research at the highest international level.”

#2 – University of Cambridge (UK)

Now, if we look at these descriptions, we can see a number of common points of emphasis:

  1. the best universities in the world are RESEARCH institutions;
  2. the best universities are concerned with TEACHING;
  3. the best universities are seeking to raise LEADERS;
  4. the best universities are focused on the FUTURE.

In light of this, when you think of your current education, activities, habits, etc., are you preparing for these universities? Or, is your education and daily life concerned with something else? This is where preparation for admission to the best universities begins.

Most students today have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They are just trying to look like others and do what they’re doing. Does that sound like an education preparing students for leadership in the future? No way.

Most students today are talking about how they are going to “make a living” when they grow up. They are thinking about work, money and possessions. Does that sound like an education the best universities are interested in? No way.

Many parents are talking about “keeping the faith”, and are working to shelter their children from ideas and people they are uncomfortable with. Does that sound like an education preparing students for work in innovative research in modern society? No way.

Most of what students and parents are doing today is the opposite of what the best universities are doing. Consequently, these students are not being prepared for the best universities, but for the worst colleges, which appeal to students who just don’t “get it”.

Many Christians will criticize the best universities, labeling them as “liberal” or complaining that they “persecute” Christians, but these accusations are unjust. What concrete examples can be provided? They are refuted by facts. The truth is that the best universities are open to students or all faiths and nationalities because they focus is on research, not religion. Religious discrimination is illegal and is not practiced by these schools. (This is, in fact, why they’re called “liberal”!) Most people who make these accusations aren’t comfortable discussing their faith in diverse environments, which is a weakness of their own.

What students should be doing, if they desire admission to one of the best universities, is developing knowledge, skills and experience that will contribute to success in research and leadership. The best universities are looking for students with the knowledge, skills and experience that recommend them as the promising researchers and leaders of the next generation. Again, most students are doing none of these things.

When we look at the admission requirements published by the best universities, we find these things explained in more practical detail. These universities are not asking students to become copies of a single ideal student. These universities are not asking students to abandon their family religion. These universities are not asking students to play sports. These universities are not asking students to abandon their moral values. These universities are not asking students to focus on Mathematics and the natural Sciences (although the study of them are required).

These universities are asking students to pursue the most challenge course of studies available to them. These universities are asking students to be themselves. These universities are asking students to be good neighbors. These universities are asking students to develop leadership skills. These universities are asking students to ask questions and investigate problems that interest them. These universities are asking students to acknowledge their dependence on other people, including those with whom they may disagree on important matters.

Which of these things are not taught by the Catholic faith? Catholics, of all people, should be most comfortable in such an environment. In fact, Catholics should thrive at the best universities in the world–as many of the saints did.

The first thing, therefore, that Catholic students need to do to prepare for admission to the best universities is learn habits of researchers. They should seek the most challenging studies available to them, across all subject areas. They should learn to ask questions and seek answers to those questions from sources that offer evidence and lead to certainty. They should not seek answers from Google, Wikipedia or opinionated websites that offer no evidence for assertions that are made. They should not get their information from popular media channels, but scholarly sources[efn_note]Students can freely access scholarly sources through university libraries online.[/efn_note]. They should raise their level of reading comprehension, reading periodicals like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and should learn to read articles published in academic journals rather than popular books and magazines. Catholic students should learn to write out their thoughts daily to become exact in their thinking. They should begin to think and act like researchers because that’s what the best universities do.

Where Do You Go for Information?

Social media, Wikipedia and search engines are not sources for reliable information. Students have access to the best libraries in the world–and should use them.

Second, Catholic students should learn to trust in the protection the American Constitution provides for its citizens and live the Catholic life freely, happily and comfortably. Catholic students should learn to practice their religion as a matter of private conscience and know that they are free to do so. Catholic students should recognize that they believe in the Catholic faith by God’s grace and should not unjustly judge those who do not have faith (which is a gift). Catholic students should learn to discuss questions of philosophy and religion objectively and patiently, imitating great saints like Thomas Aquinas. Catholic students should welcome all opportunities to learn of the experiences and research of others and compare it to their own. This is how life works in democratic, civilized society.

Third, Catholic students should seek out opportunities to use their unique interests and abilities to serve their neighbors: the family, the Church and the larger community. Where problems are found that lack solutions, students should take leadership and seek to solve them. If students are needed to help their families, they should be happy to do so. If students have opportunities to serve at Church, they should embrace those opportunities. If students are involved in sports or other activities, they should seek to lead their friends to success. If students are faced with challenges that call them out of their comfort zone, they should accept those challenges, thinking of the benefits they can gain for others, rather than the difficulties they might bear themselves. (This includes learning foreign languages, which allows them to communicate with and serve groups that do not speak their own native language.) This is the kind of leadership the best universities are looking for.

What the best universities are seeking in students is nothing other than the virtue that all Catholic students should be seeking. When, on the other hand, we find Catholic students settling for minimum requirements, avoiding challenges, choosing selfish interests, following their own opinions, wasting time in idleness, following common society, and so on, there is no excuse for such. Unfortunately, we find most Catholic students in this crowd today. Catholics are not only uninterested in gaining admission to the best universities, they’re not even interested in serving the Church.

Fortunately, the opportunity to break out from this lazy culture is within the power of Catholic students. Any who desire to do so can do so if they seek wisdom and cultivate virtue. If they do, they will find the best universities eager to reward them for it.

God bless your studies,
Mr. William C. Michael, O.P.
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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