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I chose an international affairs programme in Washington DC to be at the heart of global debates on foreign policy, and to interact with leading practitioners and academics in the field....
Meet Mark Bailey
at Georgetown University
As there are so many universities in the US, we suggest students think about their expectations and goals for university study, as well as priorities for selecting a university, and then use university search engines. Your goal should be to narrow down your list to 4-6 universities that will help you meet these goals and expectations.
After selecting 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.
"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 else 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 doing work in your specific area. This will ensure you have support for your research as a student and a great Rolodex of contacts when you job search. You may wish to consult the downloadable guide to fields of study from EducationUSA.
Electives, concentrations, joint degree programmes
For students on professional degrees, the key is finding a programme you can tailor to your interests or future career plans. Look into elective courses both within and outside your department, concentrations and joint degree programmes, 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
Postgraduate programmes can feel quite insular, as you will likely spend most of your time studying and socialising with members of your department. The atmosphere of a department can greatly impact your experience. You may want to consider what type of experience you’re looking for – an academically rigorous experience in which you’re 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 organisations for students to get involved and socialise, 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. Often departments will put this data on their website. They 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.
Relationships between students and faculty
You may also want to enquire about the opportunities to work with faculty and 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 programme. Often you can assess this criterion by contacting a current student or faculty member. Have a look at the faculty members' webpages as well. Are they allowing students to co-author papers or attend conferences with them?
Additional opportunities on offer
You will also want to take into account the opportunities to gain teaching or research experience through university assistantships or attend professional conferences. Some professional degree programmes will also include internship or work placements. These types of experiences can set you apart when applying for further study or jobs after graduation.
"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 US spans over six time zones, offering a wide range of geographic and cultural diversity, climates, ways of life, etc. It is important to take into account the location of a university, as it could be the place you live for the next four years.
Generally speaking, the East Coast may seem the most familiar (socially and culturally) to the UK. In terms of the weather, expect hot and humid summers with mild winters in the South, but mild summers and cold winters in the Northeast. The South and Midwest are known for their more laidback lifestyle, friendly atmosphere and lower cost of living than the Northeast and 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 will also want to consider the campus setting (urban, suburban or rural) and size, some universities are as small as 1,000 students and some are larger than 30,000. 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.
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, gaining professional contacts if you participate in the OPT scheme and/or the likelihood your professors will have industry experience and contacts. For example, Washington DC and New York City tend to be centres for non-profit, international and government organisations, while Silicon Valley in California and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina tend to be centres for technology, science and engineering related fields.
Please note it is also possible to obtain a postgraduate degree following a US curriculum at an institution located outside the US. Visit our page on US universities abroad for more information.
We would be remiss if we did not point out that some departments at the top-tier US universities have low admissions rates. Therefore, to help ensure you receive several admissions offers from which to choose, you will want to select a well-rounded list of universities. Most departments will give students an indication of 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 US, you will want to read the section below. As most university funding is merit-based and will be reserved for top applicants, 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.
View the article Before They Were Titans, Moguls and Newsmakers, These People Were...Rejected (featured in the Wall Street Journal) as it discusses finding the university that is the "best fit".
Tuition and fees rates can vary significantly from university to university, as there are no standard government set fees as in the UK. The cost of living can vary drastically as well, by location. For more information on funding options and expenses, please see the finances section.
If college affordability is a key consideration for your university selections, you may wish to try some of these strategies for choosing universities:
If you have any questions about the reputation of a US university, you want to at a minimum ensure the university is accredited by a regional accreditation body recognised by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or in the US Department of Education's Database of Accredited Programs and Institutions.
As you conduct your search, keep in mind that there is no centralised, authoritative ranking system of US universities. Unofficial rankings, such as US News and World Report and Forbes' Top Colleges list will give you a general idea of the academic reputation and relative prestige of a university. However, it is important to realise 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, etc.
If you are looking to do graduate study in the US, you can find US News and World Report's rankings of top institutions broken down by subject matter:
Please note, the Fulbright Commission does not endorse any product or service. Bear in mind data used in ranking universities for these organisations may not be the factors that are most important to you. While a university may not be in the top rankings, it may be an institution of academic interest to your pursuits and could be the perfect fit for you! To find out more about the ranking system, visit US News and World Report's website here.
You may wish to use the university search engines on any of the following websites: