How to choose the right college


According to Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu, CEO & Co-Founder at Innovative Education Group (IEG), instead of choosing popular colleges or “hot” majors, it is advised that students opt for institutions with a cultural environment they can thrive in. This will be the foundation for 4 years of purposeful higher education.

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu is one of Vietnam’s leading experts in education. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University and is a 5-time winner of Stanford’s Outstanding Teaching Award. He also has an MBA from the University of Oxford and was top of his class in all courses at London School of Economics and Political Science. In 2007, Nguyen Chi Hieu was awarded Top Economics/Political Science graduate of all colleges in the University of London system.

After years of working at multinational banks, including Barclays Capital, HSBC and the IMF, Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu made a change of course and started focusing on education. He has taken up various roles, from teaching, researching, managing to consulting at senior levels for many educational institutions nationwide.

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu as a guest speaker at Fulbright’s admission event

At Fulbright’s recent admission event in Hanoi, Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu was on the panel to discuss the heart of the matter, for students and parents alike: where and how should one pursue higher education?

Why go to college?

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu believes our rapidly changing society requires of all of us to deeply consider the question: “Why go to college?”. During his 15 years of experience as an education consultant, Dr. Nguyen identified five main motivations behind students’ college enrollment; to get a degree, to get a job, to please their parents, to gain life experience or to catch up to their peers. Meanwhile, the labor market has witnessed fundamental changes as to how companies recruit their staff. A prominent example for this trend is that up to 15% of staff currently employed at Google do not possess a college degree.

Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, graduates now find it hard to secure jobs in their respective specialized fields. Jobs are constantly evolving, some disappearing while new ones emerge. This is now the time for us to rethink college education.

“If you only go to college to get a degree and to find a job afterwards, on what grounds do you pick your school or your major? Nowadays, knowledge is much more accessible. The same principles of economics are taught at every institution, and this also applies to other specialties”, said Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu.

The education specialist believes pursuing a major in college is not as important as choosing a suitable environment for learning with the right educational methods.

Choosing to attend college abroad is a path chosen by many high school students. It allows them to practice their language skills and to be trained in an advanced educational environment. During his years of teaching and consulting, Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu also helped over 100 students apply for scholarships at world-renowned universities such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, NUS and NTU.

Not everyone can study abroad

However, studying abroad is not a universal option. Family financial situation is also a factor that students have to take into account, as not everyone can afford such education.

“Parents often have to make tremendous sacrifice so their children can get the best education. Students over 18 years old are considered adults, therefore they need to take interest in whether their education puts a financial burden on their family, and be realistic when they consider studying abroad,” Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu stressed.

As an example, Dr. Nguyen provided the story of a student who went to a gifted high school and won second prize in the National Excellent Student Contest in English. After graduating from high school in the US, this student received a 40% scholarship to continue higher education in the States. However, after three years in college, he had to drop out. An unfortunate event suddenly happened to his family, which caused the last year’s tuition fee to become unaffordable. The student deeply regretted not discussing the family financial situation beforehand and not recognizing the struggles their parents had been through.

Choose the most suitable place, not the best place

According to Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu, even if you are financially capable, you need to carefully choose the university where you can fit in.

“It has to be a place where you can be culturally integrated. You need to make sure that you can get along with the university community, the students, the faculty and even the lifestyle there. You have to ensure that the university can nurture your personality and ability. Four years of university should be the best time of your life because this is when you can form lifelong relationships and make friendships that will guide you through later challenges in life. If you are forced into an environment where you are marginalized, you will feel lost and hence unable to achieve the best academic success.”

“In order to equip yourself for studying abroad, you need to read at least 30 supplementary English books, read at least 200 pages and write 10 pages a week, as well as focus on English mock tests. Otherwise, you will struggle overseas”, Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu added.

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu: ” It is most important that students choose the university that best suits them and their capability, not the best university in terms of standards”

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu mentioned a student from Le Hong Phong high school. They went to study in the US only to realize the environment, the culture, the people and even the chosen major there were not suitable for them. After suffering from depression, they decided to come back and have happily enrolled at a university in Vietnam.

Another case is a Stanford undergraduate. This student was once an excellent student in Vietnam, yet crumbled under pressure in the US. They had to take a gap year just to regain mental stability.

“It is most important that students choose the university that best suits them and their capability, not the best university in terms of standards, no matter where they study, domestically or abroad”, explained the education specialist.

One question was raised: How can students know if a university suits them or not?

How to know which college suits you?

According to Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu, the root of culture is people. If you want to know about an institution, whether in the US or in Vietnam, seek opportunities to talk to individuals from that place: alumni, admissions officers, staff, faculty members, or students, and observe how they interact with each other. This will tell you much about the school’s values and mission, providing more personal insights.

“We go to school to gain knowledge. But you will learn from friends more than you learn from professors. Take every chance to approach alumni and students from that school. Don’t just look at the rankings. Some places don’t necessarily have high rankings but are propitious in terms of culture and community. These places are preferable to top-notch schools where you can’t conform or find true friends”, emphasized Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu.

What is the destination of education?

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu confessed only 60% of his knowledge in economics came from university. Instead, he took extra courses in movie making, rowing, photography, theatre, Mandarin and music theories to broaden his horizons.

“I wanted to learn the way of thinking in those fields, rather than just the knowledge itself. Each specialty is grounded in distinct concepts and methods. From integrated thinking and systematic thinking to analyzing and problem-solving skills, these will help you cope with our ever-changing world and allow you to pursue a career in any field or to collaborate with anyone. That is the true goal of a university education,” Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu stated.

Getting a degree should not be the only purpose of higher education.

“Get rid of the rigid mindset that you have to choose a major and follow a fixed career path in that specific area. Your degree doesn’t say anything about you. What matters most is what you gain from that degree. The certificate only helps open the doors to interviews, but it is the vibrant experience you get from university that shapes you and leads you from those interviews to true success and happiness,” Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu concluded.

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