Choosing your graduate program

Choosing universities from thousands of miles away presents some challenges — especially when there are so many outstanding universities to choose from in the United States. However, careful planning and advance research will help you come up with a manageable short list of institutions that match your needs.  Finding the right academic and personal match requires careful planning, research, and networking on your part. No special formula or answer applies to everyone. You should begin the process of reflection and research 12 to 18 months before you wish to start studying in the United States.

Defining the goals for your education and career will help you select the most appropriate graduate programs and will help motivate you through the application process. It will also assist you in writing the application essays in which you often will be asked to explain your career goals and how they relate to your application for graduate study. Lastly, defining your career goals will lead you to find out exactly what qualifications are required for that career and whether or not U.S. credentials are recognized in your home country.

Develop a Short List of Programs

Deciding which institutions to apply to is one of the most important decisions you will make. It requires serious consideration. Since there is a great deal of diversity in graduate programs, it is especially important to clearly articulate what it is you wish to accomplish and find out which institutions offer the kind of program you are seeking.

Identify Universities That Offer Your Field of Study

Your first and most important step is to identify institutions that offer your subject area and any specializations you wish to pursue within that subject area. Finding the right academic “match” between you, the department, and its faculty by using the various human, electronic, and printed resources below can be the key to a successful graduate experience in the United States.

Check Accreditation Status

One of the major indicators of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. It is important to check that all institutions you are considering are appropriately accredited. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central governmental body that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by nongovernmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards.

Other Considerations

Rankings: There is no official list of the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 universities in the United States. The U.S. government does not rank universities. Rankings that you may come across are usually produced by journalists and are likely to be subjective. They generally are based on a wide range of criteria that do not necessarily include academic standards or general reputation as a primary factor. Be particularly wary of rankings that do not explain the criteria on which the ranking is based. The more established rankings may give you a starting point for your decision; however, the “best” college is the one that is right for you based on factors such as those suggested in this chapter.

Internship or Overseas Study Programs: Many U.S. universities have incorporated into their curriculum internship (voluntary or paid work placements) or overseas study (“study abroad”) programs that may be of interest to you, particularly if you are undertaking a professional master’s degree program.

Size: Some institutions are small and offer degrees in one or two fields of study; some are very large and offer degrees in many fields. When choosing where to apply, you should consider the size of the institution, as well as the size of the department and degree program. A large institution may offer better academic facilities, while a small institution may offer more personal services. The same is true of the size of the degree program. A large program that has many students may not provide the individual attention you need; however, there may be more diversity within the faculty and student body, and more assistance may be available from other students. A small degree program may not expose you to as wide a range of views in your chosen field.

Location: Universities are located in all parts of the United States, from major cities where many institutions may exist, to rural areas where one institution serves a large area. Urban campuses offer a variety of eating, entertainment, cultural, and shopping facilities. Cities are usually more diverse in their populations than rural areas and may have a significant number of residents from particular countries. However, cities may also be more expensive. A rural university may mean a quieter, more college-centered environment. Climate is another possible consideration. From the four seasons in the Northeast to the desert in Arizona and a sub-tropical climate in Florida, the variety is almost endless.

Student Services: U.S. universities offer students a variety of services such as international student advisers, campus orientation programs, counseling services, legal aid services, housing offices, day care facilities for students with families, varied meal plans, health centers, tutoring facilities, English as a Second Language programs, writing laboratories, career counseling, and more. Prospective students can compare facilities among universities to find services tailored to their specific needs.

Services for Students With Disabilities: If you have special needs, make sure that the university you choose can accommodate you.

Once you have narrowed down your list to 10 to 20 accredited institutions that offer your field of study and any relevant specializations, you will need to compare the objective data among these institutions. Do not rely solely on rankings or ratings of institutions to do this; there is more to choosing the right department than choosing the most well-known or selective university. For any particular discipline there will be at least five or six schools that have excellent reputations. Keep in mind that a department’s reputation relies heavily on the reputation of its faculty. Sometimes it is more important to study under a particular person than it is to study at a university with a prestigious name. Remember too that assistantships and fellowships are often based on the right “match” between student and faculty research interests. Good advance research can help you find the schools whose departments and faculty meet your academic and professional goals, and it may enhance your chances for obtaining financial assistance.