If you have found a recruiting agent or a consultant who is helpful, well informed, and dependable, she or he may be very useful in helping you to select and apply to a university in the United States. Be careful, however, to look for verifiable signs of the agent or consultant's past success stories with students from your country. Ask the agent or consultant for a list of names and addresses of students presently studying in the United States who are there because of his or her help. Write, e-mail, or telephone some of these students to get their firsthand opinion of the college where they study and the services they received from the agent or consultant. Such precautions are especially important if the agent or consultant is asking for expensive fees for his or her services. Lastly, always check with an unbiased source (such as an EducationUSA information and advising center) to ensure the legitimacy and accreditation status of the university being represented to you.
"The Web is a vital tool as the USA is moving more and more across to this as their primary communication method."
— MBA student from Great Britain
Check Accreditation Status
One of the major indicators of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. It is important to check that all institutions you are considering are appropriately accredited. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central governmental body that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by nongovernmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards.
While almost all U.S. universities hold widely recognized forms of accreditation, it must be noted that accreditation in the United States is a complex area; there are different types of accreditation (institutional and programmatic) and a large number of accrediting bodies. There is also no legal requirement that degree-offering institutions be accredited or hold a particular form of accreditation. Because of this complexity, you should check carefully whether a degree from the institutions you are applying to will be recognized by your homecountry government and by any relevant professional associations, ministries, and employers. Also talk to graduates who have returned to your country to see if they have been successful in applying degrees earned from such institutions to their chosen professions.
EducationUSA information and advising centers can advise you regarding recognition of U.S. degrees in your country and tell you whether a particular U.S. degreeoffering institution is appropriately accredited. For more detailed information on the topic of accreditation see Short-term Study.
Rankings: There is no official list of the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 universities in the United States. The U.S. government does not rank universities. Rankings that you may come across are usually produced by journalists and are likely to be subjective. They generally are based on a wide range of criteria that do not necessarily include academic standards or general reputation as a primary factor. Be particularly wary of rankings that do not explain the criteria on which the ranking is based. The more established rankings may give you a starting point for your decision; however, the "best" college is the one that is right for you based on factors such as those suggested in this chapter.
Internship or Overseas Study Programs: Many U.S. universities have incorporated into their curriculum internship (voluntary or paid work placements) or overseas study ("study abroad") programs that may be of interest to you, particularly if you are undertaking a professional master's degree program.
Size: Some institutions are small and offer degrees in one or two fields of study; some are very large and offer degrees in many fields. When choosing where to apply, you should consider the size of the institution, as well as the size of the department and degree program. A large institution may offer better academic facilities, while a small institution may offer more personal services. The same is true of the size of the degree program. A large program that has many students may not provide the individual attention you need; however, there may be more diversity within the faculty and student body, and more assistance may be available from other students. A small degree program may not expose you to as wide a range of views in your chosen field.
Student populations on U.S. campuses can range in size from 200 to 60,000 students. Some universities resemble small cities with their own post offices, grocery stores, and shopping centers. Other institutions may be in large, densely populated urban areas but have a very small enrollment. Determine what opportunities are important to you, and read the university catalogs closely with these in mind.
Location: Universities are located in all parts of the United States, from major cities where many institutions may exist, to rural areas where one institution serves a large area. Urban campuses offer a variety of eating, entertainment, cultural, and shopping facilities. Cities are usually more diverse in their populations than rural areas and may have a significant number of residents from particular countries. However, cities may also be more expensive. A rural university may mean a quieter, more college-centered environment. Climate is another possible consideration. From the four seasons in the Northeast to the desert in Arizona and a sub-tropical climate in Florida, the variety is almost endless.
Student Services: U.S. universities offer students a varietyof services such as international student advisers,campus orientation programs, counseling services, legalaid services, housing offices, day care facilities for studentswith families, varied meal plans, health centers,tutoring facilities, English as a Second Language programs,writing laboratories, career counseling, and more. Prospective students can compare facilities among universities to find services tailored to their specific needs.
Services for Students With Disabilities: If you have special needs, make sure that the university you choose can accommodate you. Allow plenty of time to correspond with colleges. It is advisable to begin your inquiries at least two years before you plan to leave for the United States. When you write for information from universities, give brief details of your disability and request information about assistance they offer to students like yourself. You may also want to contact the office on campus that deals with the special needs of students with disabilities to find out more about the services they provide. This may be a specific office, such as the Office of Disabled Student Services or the Office of Disability Services, or services may be housed within a general student services office on campus.
Some universities offer comprehensive programs for students with disabilities, while others make a number of special services available to such students. You should look at the services offered and compare them to your needs. Find out which services are provided automatically and free of charge and which services need to be prearranged and incur a charge. When you apply you will need to supply evidence to support the existence of your disability. A campus visit is recommended. If possible, try to contact a student at the college who has a similar disability to yours so you can gain a more personal perspective. Students with disabilities can, with proper documentation, request special facilities or extended time to take the graduate school admissions tests and any examinations during the academic year.
STEP 4: Decide Where to Apply
Once you have narrowed down your list to 10 to 20 accredited institutions that offer your field of study and any relevant specializations, you will need to compare the objective data among these institutions. Do not rely solely on rankings or ratings of institutions to do this; there is more to choosing the right department than choosing the most well-known or selective university. For any particular discipline there will be at least five or six schools that have excellent reputations. Keep in mind that a department's reputation relies heavily on the reputation of its faculty. Sometimes it is more important to study under a particular person than it is to study at a university with a prestigious name. Remember too that assistantships and fellowships are often based on the right "match" between student and faculty research interests. Good advance research can help you find the schools whose departments and faculty meet your academic and professional goals, and it may enhance your chances for obtaining financial assistance.
Make a comparison chart listing the differences among universities with respect to:
- research programs and facilities, including libraries and computer facilities;
- size of department (students and faculty) and size of institution;
- qualifications of the faculty;
- accreditation of the institution and, if applicable, the department or program;
- course and thesis requirements;
- length of time required to complete the degree;
- academic admission requirements, including required test scores (see "Testing" for further information), degrees, and undergraduate grade average required;
- cost of tuition, fees, books, etc.;
- availability of financial assistance (see Financial Aid for further information);
- location, housing options, campus setting, climate, and cost of living;
- international student services and other needed services available on campus.
Eliminate those institutions that you cannot afford and that do not offer financial aid for which you qualify, that do not meet your individual needs, or that have admissions requirements that do not match your qualifications. Narrow your choices to those that meet your personal and professional needs, that you can afford to attend, and for which you are qualified for admission. Develop a final short list of four to seven institutions to which you plan to apply. See "Preparing Successful Applications," for further guidelines