Shortlisting Universities

Short-listing graduate or PhD programs can be a challenge because of enormous variety of available programs. Researching the 1,700 or more U.S. higher education institutions that offer Master's and PhD programs is not a simple task and we suggest narrowing your search using the following tips.

The key to short-listing universities is to begin by setting your own priorities. After you set your priorities, use a university search engine or print guide to narrow your search to 10-20 universities meeting your criteria. The most up-to-date information about a university will be on its official website. Thoroughly review university websites using these steps:

  • Begin with the international admissions page for information on the university's selection criteria, application process and deadlines.
  • Read the financial aid page for information on costs and university-funded scholarship, fellowships, or assistantships.
  • Research external funding opportunities from private foundations, businesses, and other organizations.
  • Review the department website to learn about the academic environment and the intellectual resources of the faculty and the facilities you can expect to access at the department.
  • Read the student services and international student pages for information about campus life and activities. Each university tends to have a unique "campus culture."

Consulting alumni of American universities and current university students, conducting campus visits, and speaking to EducationUSA advisers at USIEF can also help you narrow your search and chose 4-6 universities to which you will apply.

After deciding the type of degree you would like to complete, begin by researching the academic fit and suitability of departments. Make this your top consideration. Then, take into account location and campus setting/size, competitiveness of admission, cost of attendance and funding and accreditation and reputation.

Academic Fit and Suitability of the Department

"I like the fact that the department has an academic advisory committee that works closely with students, providing advice on your choices of classes, your general progress and areas for improvement." - Laura, Indiana University at Bloomington

Your academic fit within the department should be your top consideration, before location, brand name of the university and pretty much anything you can think of! It is essential to research the department to find the right 'academic home' for you. Consider the following factors:

Areas of faculty expertise

For research students, faculty members' interests and backgrounds will dictate the electives and research assistantships/projects available for students. It is important to find a department with faculty conducting research in your specific area of interest. This will ensure you have support for your research as a student and a great number of useful contacts when you search for jobs.

Electives, concentrations, joint degree programs

For students on professional degrees, the key is finding a program you can tailor to your interests or future career plans. Look into elective courses both within and outside your department, concentrations and joint degree programs, through which a student can earn two degrees in a shorter time than completing the degrees separately. Popular joint degrees include the JD/MBA or MD/PhD.

Size and atmosphere

Graduate programs can sometimes feel quite insular and you will likely spend most of your time studying and socializing with members of your department. The atmosphere of a department can greatly impact your experience. Consider what type of experience you're looking for – an academically rigorous experience in which you are constantly challenged and kept on your toes or more of a balance between your academic demands and extracurricular interests? Do you want a close-knit, small department? Do you want a competitive environment? Will you have support from fellow students and faculty? Would you benefit from a university with a strong graduate student associations or professional organizations for students to get involved and socialize, as well as special events throughout the year – social activities, lectures, poster competitions, etc.? As you consider a department, you may want to enquire about the size of the department and type of students it attracts to determine whether it would be a good fit. Departments will put this data on their website. The university may be willing to put you in touch by email with a current student who could be a good resource in determining what it is like to study there. Many departments have a link on their home page to the email addresses and the web pages of current graduate students. This is a great way for you to directly contact graduate students and pose questions about the department and the program.

Relationships between students and faculty

Ask about the opportunities to work with faculty and the type of support you can expect, particularly if you will be writing a thesis. Face-time with faculty to discuss your research and a supportive network of faculty are essential to ensuring a smooth progression through a research-focused master's or doctoral program. Often you can assess this criterion by contacting a current student or faculty member. Have a look at the faculty members' webpages. Are they allowing students to co-author papers or attend conferences with them? What kinds of projects are faculty members working on at present? Which grants and funds have they won for their own research? These factors will help you identify the resources and opportunities you can expect from the department.

Getting socialized into the academic profession through various opportunities

Opportunities to gain teaching or research experience are available through university assistantships. Some professional degree programs will also include internship or work placements. These types of experiences can set you apart when applying for further study or jobs after graduation. Attending professional conferences across the sub-fields of the discipline and in your major field of study will provide you with an opportunity to meet other professors, researchers, and potential employers. Serving as a teaching, research or graduate assistant will make you stand out in the job market and help you to acquire work experience during your studies. All of these opportunities will help you to strengthen your CV and gain future employment.

Location and Campus Setting/Size

"I'd very much recommend thinking about the area of the States that you would want to live in, as geographic regions vary dramatically. I chose the Northeast because I felt I'd fit in there culturally. Also, don't be afraid to talk to current graduate students. They're likely to be happy to answer any questions you have, and this can give you a feel for what each place is like before you apply." - Marc, University of Pennsylvania

The U.S. spans over six time zones, offering a wide range of geographic and cultural diversity, climates and ways of life. Location should be considered seriously because the U.S. is a continent-sized country, over three times the size of India.

Generally speaking, the East Coast has a temperate, cool climate, similar to parts of northern India. Expect mild summers and cold winters in the Northeast, snowfall in varying degrees. In the South, expect hot and humid summers with mild winters. The South and Midwest are known for their more laidback lifestyle, friendly atmosphere and lower cost of living than the Northeast and the West Coast. The West Coast is famous for its carefree and more liberal lifestyle. The region also generally boasts nice weather and beautiful outdoor scenery.

You should also consider the campus setting (urban, suburban or rural) and size: some universities are small (with as few as 1,000 students) while others are large (with as many as 30,000 students or more). Some students prefer the close-knit feel of a small university, whereas others appreciate the diversity of students and opportunities provided by a larger campus. Keep in mind that if you go to a smaller sized school you may need to invest in some form of transportation on your own. On the other hand, in a larger campus setting, it is likely that you will get greater access to some public transport. Explore these factors while short-listing universities so that you can maintain a certain quality of life while in graduate school.

Additionally, you may wish to consider the impact of the location in terms of your academic field. Some areas tend to be centres of excellence for particular fields and may therefore increase your options for completing off-campus internships and Optional Practical Training (OPT). You may also be more likely to meet professors who have industry experience and contacts. For example, Washington DC and New York City tend to be centres for non-profit, international and government organizations, while Silicon Valley in California and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina tend to be centres for technology, science and engineering related fields. Texas is another noteworthy area of the U.S. with varying economic opportunities and higher investments in education.

Competitiveness of Admission

Some departments at top-tier U.S. universities have low admissions rates. To ensure you receive several offers of admission ensure that you have  a well-rounded list of universities. Most departments will post their admissions rate online. We recommend applying to a maximum of 2-3 highly-competitive universities and pairing these selections with 2-3 universities at which you fall on the upper end of the average admissions exam scores and GPAs of last year's admitted students. This information should be published on the university website.

If you require university funding in order to be able to attend university in the U.S., you will want to read the section below. Most university funding is merit-based and will be reserved for top applicants and so consider applying to 1-2 highly-competitive universities and pairing these selections with 3-4 universities at which you fall on the upper end of the average admissions exam scores and GPAs of last year's admitted students.

Costs and Availability of Funding

Tuition and fees rates can vary significantly from university to university. There are no standard fees. The cost of living can vary drastically as well, by location. If college affordability is a key consideration for your university selections, you may wish to try some of these strategies for choosing universities:

  • Consider public universities to minimize the initial tuition and fees rates charged.
  • Choose universities at which there is a lower cost of living, such as universities in suburban or rural areas or in the South and Midwest.
  • Choose universities at which you will be a top student as university funding is often awarded on the basis of academic merit and may be used as a recruitment tool.

Accreditation and Reputation

If you have any questions about the reputation of a U.S. university, you should verify that the university is accredited by an accreditation body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation ( You can verify accreditation by using either the CHEA or U.S. Department of Education ( database of accredited programs and institutions.

As you conduct your search, keep in mind that there is no centralized, authoritative ranking system of U.S. universities. Unofficial rankings, such as those periodically published by U.S. News and World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger's, the Washington Monthly, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, The Times' Higher Education-QS World University, to name but a few, will give you a general idea of the academic reputation and relative prestige of a university. However, it is important to realize that a top 20, or even top 100, list of universities covers only a small percentage of the universities available. Further, you should read the fine print on how rankings are determined. Rankings are not always based upon factors that could impact your quality of education most, such as class size, teaching quality, student advising, faculty access and opportunities for research, internships and so forth.

For any query on U.S. higher education, call us on our EdUSA toll-free hotline 1800-103-1231 between 2pm and 5pm (Monday-Friday)