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Research Before You Apply

How to avoid the biggest mistake prospective international graduate students make.


In my over 30 years of working with international graduate students, I’ve noticed one mistake they make that far exceeds any other. It can be summed up in these seven words: Not doing adequate research before they apply.
Countless international students rely on rankings or word of mouth as the sole factor to determine where they will apply for graduate study. While these can be a source of information, neither one should serve as the determining factor of where students apply.

It is critical, and relatively easy, to conduct detailed research before selecting an academic institution. Ideally, you should spend 6 to 12 months on your research. If you plan to start your program of study in the fall, you should start your search two years ahead. Why two years? Typically, graduate schools start accepting applications just under a year before the intended start date. In order for you to have time to thoroughly evaluate all the information you will receive, you will need at least a year before applying to gather that information, review it, decide where you will apply and prepare your application materials.

To start, conduct an initial web-based search on the graduate programs offered in your field of study. Do a number of searches, so that you find as many institutions as possible that match your search criteria. The next step is to make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you have heard about them. Write them all down or put them in a spreadsheet. Be very careful about accepting word of mouth or what you think you know as final at this point in the search process. Do not eliminate any of the institutions. You should get as much information as possible, so you can decide which options are most suitable. Assess not only the content of the material provided on the websites, but also 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? If you are unable to find the information you are looking for, such as course descriptions and financial aid for international students, or if there is conflicting information, you may write to the admissions office. This will also provide you an opportunity to find out just how responsive admissions offices are to you. The timing and tone of a response can be very telling, and may shed light on the general level of customer service of the institutions. Give each institution a grade on their website and on the level of responsiveness. Here is a suggested grading system:




A = easy to navigate, informative, captivating

A = had a response within 7 business days

B = well-done, good information, friendly

B = had a response within 12 business days

C = fairly easy to navigate, not as helpful or friendly

C = had a response within 17 business days

D = difficult to navigate, not very informative

D = had a response within 22 business days

F = no help at all

F = took four weeks or longer for a response

FF = no website, or close to nothing

FF = no response



Taking the time to do detailed research will help you find many relevant options, learn more about them and complete your applications. Your list of schools will have your top choices, selected based on substantive research and not on someone else’s opinion.


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