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How to Choose a College

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”
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I was recently asked again to sit down with a high school student who is about to decide which university to attend. I was supposed to help him sort through a short list of institutions where he had been accepted. I ended up learning a lot about how one should approach this important decision.

The young man had done an impressive amount of research on a large number of universities during the yearlong application process. He went through official materials, investigated online, and reached out to students and graduates. He then visited quite a few of them, sitting in on classes, paying close attention to their academic approach and trying to determine which would be the best “fit.”

He received offers from a number of universities and decided to narrow the list to three. Again, he reached out to students and alums, this time with even more focused inquiries. And, by the time I met with him, he was scheduled to visit the three institutions before making a final decision.

Determining what constitutes the “right” institution is often both time-consuming and complex, yet few students go through such an impressive disciplined process.

I am ashamed to say that my approach was significantly less meticulous when I was at a similar stage of life almost 40 years ago. Rather than doing my own research, I was heavily influenced by brand name and conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, I lucked out, and spent three enjoyable and formative years at University of Cambridge in the U.K.

When I look back, I can now easily identify five factors that explain why the university I chose after only limited research turned out to be a fulfilling experience.

  • Cambridge went well beyond teaching students about “what” and “why”; it also spent a lot of time on the “how,” making sure to present the ways different schools of thought approached the same issues.
  • Intellectual rigor was part of the university's DNA. Students were expected to read original works (I didn't open a single textbook during my entire time at Cambridge). And its famed supervision system meant we were organized into groups of two and three to discuss assigned essays with our questioning supervisors.
  • Most faculty members went beyond teaching theory and conduct research. By providing students with stories of intellectual breakthroughs and showing everyday applications, educators brought to life the topics being discussed.
  •  Cambridge offered a great mix of mandatory topics and electives. This allowed students to combine a solid analytical foundation with deeper pursuit of more narrow topics that were of particular interest to them.
  • Thanks to the qualities listed above, the university deepened my passion for economics. And the comprehensive academic experience was accompanied by other activities (in my case, sports). This was greatly enhanced by the collegiate system that Cambridge has maintained for more than 800 years.

Yes, I lucked out in my choice of universities. But the elements that made it special for me -- and that have served me extremely well in my professional career -- can be easily identified. 

So the impressive young man I sat with last week has correctly left little to chance in making this important decision. Having carefully defined what qualities would make a university a good fit, he has judiciously narrowed his preferences down to a small set of institutions. He has not allowed the brand names of the universities to play too great a role in his analytical approach. He knows what he is looking for and has managed his expectations accordingly. And to the extent that he ends up making a mistake in his final choice -- already a very small probability -- it is unlikely to be a big one.

Given his preparation, it should come as no surprise that I had little advice to offer. Instead, I came away with insights about this difficult decision. And I very much thank him for that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net