As study abroad counselors if we come up with a list of Frequently Asked Questions by Students, then I would say “Which Universities should I apply to?” would top the list, and irrespective of the university we recommend, a question that almost certainly follows is “Is it worth going there?” So let’s step back a little and discuss ‘how to select universities that are worth applying and going to’.
When you start looking at an MS degree abroad, what exactly are you looking at? Try asking yourself:
- Why do I want to do an MS?
- What are my expectations from an MS?
- Where do I want to see myself 5 years from now?
If you are looking at the MS program just as means of getting to the US, you can probably go for any university (cheaper the better). But if you are also looking at a serious career option, then you need to be a little careful while selecting universities. Here are some factors you should consider:
- Reputation of the university: Check if the university is ranked. US NEWS is the most reliable source of ranking. (BEWARE of other sites that give their own rankings). While ranking is a good indicator of the university’s reputation, you need to understand that ranking depends on several factors and as a graduate student you may not be affected by all of them. So a university ranked 23 is not necessarily better than a university ranked 24. From a student’s perspective, they would be the same. But a university ranked 23 is definitely better than a university with rank 53. Basically what I am trying to say here is that you use rankings as a guideline to get an idea of the reputation of the university.
- Statistics: Statistical data is a fair indicator when it comes to predicting admission trends. So look at statistics of past students of a particular university. This will give you a good idea of what profiles of incoming students does the university prefer. Again remember that there aren’t any hard rules here. Just because somebody with a 1250 on his GRE with a 65% aggregate his academics got it last year, doesn’t mean that you will definitely get in even if you have a GRE score of 1400 and 70% on your academics. You need to understand that admission is a subjective process and your overall profile (which includes your recommendation letters, your resume, your SOPs) counts.
- Experience of past and current students: Talk to current students of the university. With emails and forums, it’s easier these days, but at the same time don’t SPAM. And don’t ask vague questions, because if you ask vague questions you get vague answers. Most students would send an email to a current student at a particular university asking “I am applying to your university, how is the ‘funding’ and ‘job’ scene there?” and all you get as a reply “Bad”. Now how do you interpret this answer? Most of you would interpret it as “If I go to this university I won’t get any funding and after graduation I won’t get a job”. And a few months later you realize that this same person who said the situation is ‘bad’ had an assistantship during his/her second year and secured a full time job on graduation too. So what exactly did he/she mean by ‘Bad’? Anyways the point is ‘Ask questions that make more sense and don’t leave too much room for assumptions’. You can ask “how many or what percentage of students get funding or campus jobs” “how many of them get those in the very first semester” “Do MS students get to participate in research” .“do companies come to campus for recruitment” “If they don’t, how do students go about their job search”
- The Big City advantage: Yes there is definitely an advantage of studying in a big city, especially when it comes to jobs after graduation. A lot of small and medium companies in big cities prefer to hire locally from universities close by. So does this mean that San Jose State University (SJSU) which is located in the San Jose – the Silicon Valley, better than Texas A&M University located in College Station, Texas with hardly any IT company around? Definitely NOT. But yes studying at SJSU would bring you more career opportunities than a comparably ranked school in the interiors of USA.
- Your career interest: This should preferably be your most important criteria. Ask yourself again “What are my interests when it comes to a career. What subjects or topics interest me the most”? Having completed your bachelors, or being on the verge of doing so, you should preferably have an answer to this, but unfortunately most students don’t. So it wouldn’t hurt looking back at what you learnt in the past years. Also take a look at the university department pages to understand what research is going on in a particular university. If you find some professors research interesting, do not hesitate to call and ask more about their interests. Trust me international phone calls are not as expensive as you think and professors would be more than willing to talk to you and answer your questions.
- Cost factor: Take a look at the fees the university charges. If you think you cannot afford it, there is no point in applying there even if you think you might get admission there. Apply only to those universities where you can afford to go.
- Be realistic: You need to understand that wherever you do your MS from, you are NOT going to get a red carpet welcome, neither by the department where you are doing your MS or nor by companies where you apply for jobs after your degree. There is competition and you will have to face it. So if your expectations are that immediately after your MS you will start getting calls from companies offering you big fat pay cheques, then trust me that wont happen (whichever university you graduate form). Job search is an activity that you will have to carry out on your own. Your university career center and other recourses at your university would assist you with it, but eventually it’s your responsibility to make your career, and you will have to work hard at it.
And finally a question that we get asked often is “How many universities should I apply to”? Our answer to that is ‘7 to 8 universities”. Applying costs you money, so ideally we advise you to apply to not more than 8 universities.