Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

5 Steps to Creating a Great College List for US Undergraduate Admissions

POSTED ON 03/25/2020 BY The Red Pen

5 Steps to Creating a Great College List for US Admissions | The Red Pen

A crucial step in your journey to college in the US is creating an effective list of colleges to which you want to apply. Considering there are 2,000 universities in the US offering undergraduate courses, how do you narrow down your choice?

Here are five things to keep in mind as you craft your US college list:

1) Size, location and private or public:

Typically, colleges are categorised as ‘small’ (fewer than 5,000 students), ‘medium’ (between 5,000 to 15,000 students) and ‘large’ (up to 40,000+ students). If you are looking for a campus that is easy to get around, has a close-knit community and where you can form close relationships with professors, then a small college may work well for you. Medium and large universities, on the other hand, may offer a broader range of activities, a diverse student community and ample academic and research opportunities.

How important is the location?

Colleges are located in rural, urban and suburban centres. Each location has its merit:

  • Urban campus:

    A college campus that’s located in an urban, bustling metropolis will offer plenty of opportunities to explore its culture while providing access to internships and work opportunities. Colleges such as Columbia University, New York University, University of Chicago and Georgetown University are examples of universities with urban campuses.

  • Rural/small town campus:

    College campuses in smaller towns may offer expansive space, with a wide range of outdoor activities. For example, Bowdoin College is highly ranked, but compared to New York University, it is a small college in a very remote town, with the nearest international airport a two-hour drive away. Would this environment stimulate you or does the buzz of downtown Manhattan appeal more? Also, consider the cost of living. Grinnell College in Iowa is cheaper than most colleges in Boston.

  • Suburban campus:

    You may decide that a suburban campus works best for you as it combines the best of both worlds. For instance, Santa Clara University located in Santa Clara, California is a beautiful suburban campus in the heart of Silicon Valley. Students flourish in this location being in close proximity to a thriving industry, easy access to public transportation to take them to San Francisco and a busy international airport with multiple flights to India. All this is available without the hustle and bustle and distraction of a large metropolis.

  • Distance to airport and weather:

    Proximity to the airport is important, especially if you are travelling from India. After two long-haul flights, you may not want to travel another 3-4 hours to reach your college campus. Also, the role of the weather in your experience cannot be underestimated. An extreme cold climate may not suit you and a moderate climate might allow you to take advantage of more year-round opportunities.

Private or public colleges:

Public colleges are funded primarily by the state in which they are located. The University of California, for instance, is mostly funded by the state of California, thus the four-year tuition and fees for the majority of students who are California residents, are significantly lower (approx $53,765) than for out-of-state or international students (approx $180,625). Private colleges, however, are not mandated to admit only local, in-state students, which opens up access for all students equally.

2) Rankings, departments and admit rates:

While rank tables are usually the starting point for college searches, they are not a Holy Grail. The US News & World Report, for example, bases its rankings on a variety of factors, including employment outcomes of graduating students, retention, faculty degrees and publications, admitted student data and much more. Interestingly, rank tables are not necessarily based on the quality of undergraduate teaching, so they might not impact you directly.

When looking at rank tables, keep these other factors in mind:

  • Fit:

    Search the university’s website to find its vision and mission and reflect on how this relates to you and what you are looking for in a college. Also, deep dive into the academic requirements of the majors that interest you. Compare these requirements between your top choice colleges to understand their differences and similarities and also why you prefer certain elements of the curriculum. Investigate faculty profiles to understand their research areas and find those that connect to your interests.  Check out undergraduate research and internship opportunities to understand what is available and the depth of the project options.

  • Student body composition:

    Student body composition is an important factor as well. Many universities, such as Boston University, have an international student population of 21 percent, which is very large. If you are the kind of learner who hopes to mingle with a large international student community and take advantage of a diverse, multi-cultural urban environment, this might be a perfect college for you. Or maybe you seek the all-American college experience with big sporting events and a pulsing school spirit. All this and everything in between is available.

  • Selectivity:

    Admissions rates for “highly selective” colleges are going down every year. Even for students with the best data points (grades, standardised test scores and extracurricular activities), these colleges are a “dream.” So it is important to have a sufficient number of “target” and “safety” schools on your list. Be sure that you would be happy attending one of your target or safety colleges. Research these programmes and their environment as thoroughly as you would for your dream schools.

3) Internships, co-ops, study abroad and job opportunities:

Your choice of college must also take into account these factors:

  • Internships and co-ops:

    Most colleges offer co-op and internship opportunities. While co-ops tend to provide in-depth work experience over a semester, internships are for a few weeks or they are part-time over a longer period. Students typically try out a couple of internships over the course of a bachelor’s degree, which helps them identify areas in which they are most interested.

  • Study abroad:

    Many colleges offer study abroad programmes. This is a good way to see the world while studying in a different culture and ethos.

  • Job opportunities:

    After graduation, your goal is to find a job. However, if you are not a US citizen, once you graduate, you get 60 days to either enrol in another college programme or enrol in an Optional Practical Training or OPT programme. The OPT allows you to extend your F-1 student visa status for a year while you work, train, or intern.

Keep in mind that international students studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) majors at the undergraduate level are allowed to stay in the US and work for up to three years after graduation. Interestingly, other subjects may also qualify for the STEM tag. So, while economics is not considered part of STEM, econometrics and quantitative economics are STEM majors as they rely heavily on mathematics. Do keep this in mind while shortlisting colleges if a longer post-study work period is an important criterion for you.

4) Financial aid and merit scholarships:

In the US, colleges typically identify themselves as ‘need-aware’ and ‘need-blind’. Need-aware signifies that as the colleges make admissions decisions, they are balancing their ability to offer financial awards. ‘Need-blind’ means the college doesn’t take into account a student’s financial need. Merit-based scholarships are usually college-specific and can be awarded to anyone who meets the criteria.

5) Other sources:

How do you research colleges beyond their websites? One good way is to visit the campus. An alternative is to attend college fairs when college admissions representatives visit your school or city. During these interactions, you can learn about a college, while also making a personal connection with the admissions representative. This opens the door for you to have further conversations over email if you have more questions. Attending webinars of colleges also helps. Additionally, try and speak to current students or alumni from that college. Finally, don’t forget to follow colleges on social media! You can learn a lot about what’s happening on campus on a regular basis, which gives you a dynamic understanding that goes beyond the static web pages.

There are a lot of factors to consider when crafting a college list. If you require any assistance when deciding what colleges to apply to, get in touch with us.