Monday, August 30, 2010

Selecting Universities

Q. How many universities do I apply to?
Q. How do I decide which universities to apply to?
Q. What are the different things to keep in mind while choosing the universities to apply to?

First, lets talk about how many universities one should apply to. The easy answer is the more you apply to, the better your chances of getting into a university of your choice. Practically however, the number of universities you can apply to is limited by the application costs. This includes the base cost of the application itself which can range anywhere from $45 to well over $100 (depending on the university), and the postal charges in shipping the application material. Depending on your spending budget, you can apply to 8, 10 or more universities, but I would advise applying to at least 8 to have a reasonable chance of making it into a good university.

Once you have an idea of the number of colleges you will be applying to, the next step is to choose them. Some of the factors to consider are:

1. Ranking, general reputation of the college, campus recruitment scenario, average salary of a graduate from that university - these factors are more relevant for MS than PhD
2. Professors, their reputation, research groups, relevancy of research to your own interests - more relevant for PhD than MS
3. Course structure and specializations offered, whether there are enough good courses offered in your area of interest - for instance, there might be good CS universities which might not have enough exciting courses on say, AI or Theoretical Computer Science, since their area of focus is something else. Make sure that the university offers enough courses related to your interests.
4. Flexibility of curriculum, whether it is possible to take interesting courses from other departments as well in addition to your department's core courses - for instance if you are specializing in AI within CS, it might be helpful to take a few courses from other departments like mathematics, statistics, psychology, linguistics, etc. and it would be good to get credits for taking those courses too.
5. Tuition fees and living expenses, i.e. how expensive the education is
6. Funding opportunities

The university website and its students (by getting in touch through email) are good resources to get the above information.

Finally, the last thing to evaluate is how realistic your chances of getting admitted into that university are. Obviously, the higher ranked or reputed the university is, the tougher it is to get into them (with few exceptions). Also, PhD admissions are much more tougher to secure than MS admissions at the same university. There are many online forums (Edulix being one of the most popular ones) where existing students from across different US graduate schools help in evaluating the profile of aspiring graduate students and give them guidance on which universities might be a good bet for their profiles. In addition, you can email students from your interested university and get their opinion on how good your chances are.

The usual algorithm followed is to apply to a few ambitious universities (ones which are out of your reach and would mostly require a miracle for getting accepted there), some gettable ones (i.e. those which should ideally be gettable for your profile, and if luck's on your side, you should get accepted into those) and finally a few safe ones (i.e. those which have been known to give admissions to students with profiles even worse than yours, so you should definitely get an admission there). Suppose your were to apply to 8 universities, depending on your risk taking capacity, you can do a 2-4-2 or 3-3-2 or 4-2-2 split, etc.

Also, there are few universities which have very late deadlines compared to others - these are so late that you can get results from the other universities you have applied to, and still have enough time to apply to these. Keep in mind that such universities do exist, and especially if one of those happens to be a safe or gettable one for you, you can wait for hearing from other more ambitious universities before applying here.

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