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Study US: The why, what and how of university selection
Aman Bansal,
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March 19, 2008

Varun, a GRE aspirant from Ludhiana, visits his guide at and consults the university application advisor about the universities he should apply to for a Masters degree in industrial engineering.

When asked about his present specialisation, the advisor finds out that he has completed his BE in Mechanical engineering instead. On further probing and counseling he attempts to translate his fears -- "My seniors said it is very difficult to do Masters in Mechanical Engineering from the US".

How many times do we dare ask ourselves -- "What do I really want to do -- follow or lead?"

The answer is ambiguous for many of us who, in the pursuit of learning about ourselves, ultimately end up knowing everything about the success curve of a senior or classmate. The worst part is that we do not even bother to think about his strengths, academic interests, and other conditions that actually affected his decisions.

The result: everyone wants to go abroad for higher education, everyone wants to do engineering and, not surprisingly, everyone wants to lead but ends up following others. It is quite common in our country to follow the herd.

Even the fundamental decisions related to education are taken under the influence of the peer group. We do not evaluate and get trapped in myths that are created most of the time by people with different perceptions. Experts from explain the 'why, what and how' of university selection for studying abroad.

It is very important to understand that education abroad is just not a 'higher studies' decision but a direction we give to our entire career and to the future of coming generations. One must understand why university selection is really important.

There are a number of decision-making tools (Grid Analysis is one) that can help us reach a good and probably never-thought-of decision. There are innumerable cases where a student returns to his/her home country after only one month of stay abroad. Reason: home-sickness or lack of a sense of security.

No two people are identical and this holds true in the case of our choice of careers as well. It is evident that everyone pursuing higher education abroad should spend a lot of time answering the following questions before taking a firm decision:

Once you have answered all these questions you are in a more favourable state of making an appropriate decision for yourself and your family.

Once you have answered these questions you will need to consider the following factors that will help in shortlisting universities:

University/ department ranking
Thousands of students are currently deliberating over 'what university to attend next year'. It is very important and logical that one should see the university rankings for the same.

However, having access to different ranking systems and organisations is an even better idea. There are many websites that release university-rankings eg, and Gourman Rankings, to name a few.

For management-oriented programmes, one may consult rankings given by,, and

However, this is not all there is to university selection. The next important step is to have a look at the departmental rankings as well. There are many surprises to be found eg the University of Tulsa and Colorado School of Mines, that do not figure in the Top 100 list are in the Top 10 for Petroleum Engineering. So it is easier to get misguided if departmental rankings are ignored.

These rankings take in account hundreds of factors to reach to this data so it is pertinent that one should understand where those factors stand in relation to the ones that are crucial in making a decision (these are the ones that you came across when you  did introspection as explained above).

Quantum of aid available
Overseas education is very expensive, so students should spend some time in learning about the kind of aid available. There are various kinds of financial aid available in form of scholarships, teaching/ research assistantships (TA/RA), loans etc.

Many universities have a liberal system of giving financial aid and if one makes it to these universities, it proves financially rewarding. For eg, the Mechanical Engineering department of the University of Virginia funds almost all its MS & PhD candidates; USC's Electrical Engineering department employs 60 TAs and 200 RAs every year and the University of Washington pays a monthly stipend of $1,500 to a TA and $1,900 to an RA and takes 140 TAs and 100 RAs in its Electrical Engineering department.

Although financial aid is very competitive at the time of admission, chances of getting this are quite high after reaching to these universities.

Research areas
While choosing the university, the next important factor is the research area. One must explore the university website thoroughly for the specialisations available, the ongoing research, research facilities, credentials of the faculty, and future projects.

After knowing the required details one should map the same with his own interests to reach an admission decision. There is a lot of research going on in the USA on the minutest of problems. For instance, research is being conducted to generate statistics on the demographic profile of the population who get psychologically disturbed by the ticking of the clock through the day.

Locational advantage
It is extremely important that a student should be aware of industrial distribution of the destination country. One should thoroughly research for geographical areas where the intensity and quantum of research in the intended field is going on.

This not only ensures maximum employment opportunities but also opportunities for getting RAs as well.

In the USA, California, Texas, New York and New Jersey states, having many large electronics firms, employ nearly one-third of all electrical and electronics engineers of the US. Silicon Valley in San Jose, California is a research and employment power house for computer engineers. Similarly mechanical engineers prefer Detroit that is the operating location of many automobile giants. 

A student should always look for accreditation from a body like ABET because it assures that a chosen programme meets all the required standards for a particular profession.

To employers, graduate schools, licensure, certification, and registration boards, graduation from an accredited programme signifies adequate preparation for entry into the profession. In fact, many of these groups require graduation from an accredited program as a minimum qualification.

Some certification boards and agencies are the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, Construction Manager Certification Institute, Board of Certified Safety Professionals, Council on Certification of Health, Environmental, and Safety Technologists, Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering among many others.

Tuition fee/ cost of living
For an international student, this is a factor worth researching. Many areas are very expensive to live in and the tuition fee is also very high. So, timely and thorough research may help in identifying the areas where both the factors are at manageable levels. Every country issues a report on such factors. For instance, the US Department of State issues one such report every quarter.

University selection is not just one step in the overall admission process, it is rather the only step that decides the direction of further research in the area. It is therefore important to consider the given steps before making a decision.

However, the need to begin from the introspection is the only sure-way to eliminate the possibilities of any deviations from the ultimate aim.

The author is an international admissions expert with Top Careers & You. Visit for innumerable inputs related to US-Admissions.

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