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Brendon Fulton, Principal, Dubai British School

Making the right choice - Education Journal ME

We start our careers programme from Year 7 as we believe that preparation for life after school should start as early as possible for DBS students.

- Brendon Fulton, Principal

It's that time of year when students across the GCC race to submit their university applications, if they haven't done already. While the region's higher education sector has witnessed impressive growth, with brand name universities from across the world opening branch campuses in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, students still leave the region in droves to pursue their higher education dreams.

And while students typically apply to the universities of their choice in Year 13, it seems schools are preparing them for the next step earlier than ever before.

For instance, Dubai British School (DBS), which is operated by Taaleem, begins talking to students about their aspirations from Year 7 onwards. Principal Brendon Fulton explains: "We start our careers programme from Year 7 as we believe that preparation for life after school should start as early as possible for DBS students. In Year 9, students have their first taste of subject options, where they are given information on new subjects and what options these subjects give them for tertiary education and beyond. In Year 11, a similar process is applied with an even stronger focus on potential university courses. During post-16 we have a structured programme which focuses specifically on making that final career choice and then supporting our students in getting into the best universities."

Similarly, at GEMS Modern Academy, an Indian curriculum school, students begin exploring career options in Grade 8, followed by country-wise university application workshops.

"From Grade 11 onwards we start conducting workshops guiding students according to the countries, their document requirements, application process, etc. Workshops include interaction with universities, experts in the field, writing essays, and so on," says GEMS Modern Academy career counsellor Dr Mauli Mahajan.

Peter Davos, founder and managing director of Hale Education, also believes that it is best to start preparing students from their first year of high school, particularly if they are applying to universities in the United States.

He says: "As American universities assess candidates on all four years of their high school academic and extracurricular records, ideally they would start preparing the summer before high school… it is important to identify a child's passions and interests in the earlier years, and push these in whichever way possible."

To help students make the right choice, schools use a combination of online programmes and school-based workshops to aide students.

At Dubai British School, students receive training on CV writing, interview skills, job applications, and then a focused programme on the university application process.

Fulton says: "Students receive targeted support with their application, each having a dedicated tutor to support their application process. We also offer sessions on how to research universities and careers and extensive support in making the right choices.

"Through the Careers programme, we offer help and advice on an ongoing basis. Students are given a university 'mentor' in Year 13, who will be their first port of call for help on applications and the general process. In addition, we offer practise interview sessions for students who are applying to the top universities. This comes in two parts: firstly, we have a network of parents who work in a particular field that a student may be interested in. These parents facilitate and provide constructive feedback on mock interviews. Secondly, we have a partnership with an external agency in Dubai which offers interview help and advice via recent Oxbridge Alumni."

GEMS Modern Academy uses a career and college planning online tool called Choices 360 for its students in Grades 8-12, allowing them to identify, compare, and choose from a vast network of work and education options. The school's counselling programme also offers psychometric testing, individual counselling sessions, workshops on university applications and life skills, career fairs, and trips to universities (which will be introduced in 2017).

However, not all schools are equipped to help students with university applications, according to Camilla Smiley, director of consulting at Holland Park Education, which offers advice on UK university applications. "What we've found with schools is that they're all doing a great job of preparing the kids for A Levels, and they're all getting fantastic grades. But a lot of them don't have a specific resource to help with the counselling for getting into UK universities. In the UK, the school would take over the application process and apply as the school on your behalf, whereas here, students have to apply as independent candidates. That's where we can be very helpful," she says.

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE

When it comes to demand, the US is the most popular choice among students from the Middle East, particularly universities in the northeast, according to Davos. He says: "The northeast remains the most popular choice, with most students looking to apply to schools in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. California is also a preferred destination, because of its weather and number of leading universities.

"There are over one million international students studying in US universities, with Saudis comprising the fourth largest foreign student population in America. The number of foreign students in the US is only expected to grow, and international students currently make up as much as 22% of the student population at leading American universities such as Carnegie Mellon."

Smiley notes that an increasing number of students are also choosing the UK as their top choice for university.

She says: "The London universities are always going to be popular, given the fact that London is so international and cosmopolitan. And some students already have connections with London or family in London. The big, prestigious names are always going to attract interest. So Oxford and Cambridge, Durham, Warwick — what we call the Russel Group universities, which are the 24 most prestigious universities in the UK that attract the most attention. I think also the big difference for these students between the US and the UK is that in the UK you specialise much earlier," she adds.

Engineering and STEM subjects are the most popular choices for students from the region, while choices such as economics, business, and computer science also remain popular.

According to Smiley, there has been a shift towards "more vocational and technical subjects rather than the traditional humanities and arts". Moreover, she says students are also beginning to study courses at university that may not necessarily be related to their field of work, and then either complete a conversion course related to their chosen jobs or learn on the job itself.

"I think university is so expensive nowadays, particularly for international students. We're finding more and more that there's a sense of investment and how are we going to ensure that there's a return on the investment we're making of time as well as money. So it's about making sure that parents and their children understand that they don't have to do a vocational graduate degree in order to show employers the skills you developed at university.

"Future employers are looking at what kind of skills you developed — are you a critical thinker, are you a problem solver, do you work well in a team? And those are the skills that make you very employable but don't necessarily apply to any one degree subject," she says.

And while some students might have ambitious plans when it comes to their top choices for universities or the courses they wish to pursue, it's up to the school counsellors to steer them in a more achievable direction.

Fulton states: "This is always the most difficult part of the process — convincing students (and parents) that their preconceived ideas about where they want to study and what course they want to follow may not be the most appropriate pathway for them. We offer support and advice from many different perspectives, including through the Careers Department, the tutor system, guest speakers from specific industries, university counsellors and our DBS alumni — the latter being one of the most effective in terms of relevant, trustworthy advice.

"To determine which courses are the best fit for a student we look at far more than basic academic achievement. We consider the whole student, what their interests are outside of school and where their strengths lie academically and socially. Some students would benefit from a more practical based course for example."

Davos adds: "It is important to take into account a range of factors when putting together a realistic, balanced college list and considering the best fit school for a student. Many students and families are often attracted to the big names and ivy league, but finding the right school is about a lot more than name and rankings. Families should not overemphasise rankings at the expense of qualitative factors.

"If a student is to spend the next four years of his life at this campus, it is important that he clearly understands each university through the lens of its academics, curriculum, student body, size, geographical context, value system, extracurricular opportunities, and campus culture. Universities that do not offer the curriculum, culture, courses, community or size that are consistent with students' needs and preferences should not be considered."