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Choose Right

Research the universities and programs that interest you, and make a comparison among them before you pick your best fit.

When you begin your search for the right higher education institution or program in the United States, it is crucial that you take the time you need to do an effective job. The biggest mistake most students commit is they don’t research their options well before applying. Here’s a guide to choosing the right higher education institution or program.


Spend enough time on your research
Selecting a college or graduate school is not something to be taken lightly. It involves major investments—intellectual, social, emotional and financial. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to do your “due diligence” and get all the information you would need.


Create a college/graduate school spreadsheet
Do an initial web search for institutions and programs on established websites like College Board’s Big Future and those listed on the EducationUSA website. At this point, do not have any sort of rank order in mind. Remember that perception is reality—it is where you should end up after the research process, not from where you start out. It would be good to have at least 15 to 20 options at the start of your research.

Once you shortlist suitable institutions and programs, create a research spreadsheet for each of these options. On the left hand column, make an alphabetical list of institutions. At this point, do not consider what you presently know or have heard about them. Be very careful about accepting word of mouth. We are all different individuals with different needs, expectations and experiences. This would be your educational experience; not someone else’s. Do not eliminate any of the options from your list at this point.

Gather as much information on each institution as possible so you can select the most appealing ones. Assess the content of the material available on their websites, as well as the way in which it is presented. Is information easy to find? Is the tone friendly and inviting? Are there easy and quick ways to request more information?

Once you finish exploring your options, contact each of the institutions to ask a question not addressed on their websites. This will help you find out how responsive their admissions offices are to students’ queries. Grade each institution on the basis of the quality of their websites and on the level of their responsiveness to your queries.

Across the top row of your spreadsheet, place the items you want to compare for each option. For instance, include the grades you just assigned. You can also use the following criteria.

•  Usefulness of printed materials like brochures.

•  Friendliness of admissions staff.

•  Interaction with current students, faculty and alumni.

•  Campus visit or admissions events you attended.

•  Number of students enrolled in the institution.

•  Number of international students enrolled in the program you are considering.

•  Student-faculty ratio.

•  Average class size.

•  Grading system.

•  Facilities.

•  Housing options.

•  Extracurricular opportunities.

•  Career services and employment percentages.

•  Total cost of education for one year.

•  Financial aid—scholarships, loans, assistantships, fellowships and work study.

•  Application requirements, including the required standardized tests.

•  Can you do an interview?

•  Other points relevant to you and your family.

Complete the spreadsheet, filling in every column for each option. As you go along, you will eliminate a few of them. That is okay. You are simply comparing and choosing the best option for you.

After reviewing your entire spreadsheet, rank your remaining options. Or, group your options: top group, second group, third group, etc. 

Take a look at the completed ranking. Do you believe the ranking is based on what you really feel? Did you get enough information to complete your ranking? Remember, you can and should feel free to change your spreadsheet evaluation at any time. Perhaps, further information or contact with one or more of your options will make them go up or down your overall list. That is another reason for taking plenty of time to do your research. The longer you research about an institution, the more you tend to learn about it. First impressions, though important, may change later based on repeated observation and communication.

By spending enough time on researching institutions or programs, and creating and completing a spreadsheet, you will be in a better position to choose the best fit for your educational needs. Good luck with your research and planning process!


Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern, and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”

Wesley Teter is a former regional coordinator of EducationUSA in India and Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Department of State.