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How To Choose A US University: The Art Of Shortlisting

There are over 4500 universities and colleges in the US. Where should you even start looking? What is the difference between a Buckeye and a Hurricane*? Should you go to a university or a college? How can you ever choose which is the best fit for you?

Of course, if you are academically competitive,the Top Tier is a great place to start. But even if you expand your search to the Top 40, you are still looking in the Top 1% -- universities with outstanding reputations, extremely competitive admissions rates, and excellent academic programmes. Sifting through forty or fifty or four hundred universities is still a huge task.

Some important ‘first things’ to consider are your goals and your personal preferences.


Let’s start with the hard stuff first. Where do you see yourself?

Academic programmes. As you probably have a general idea of a subject area on which you plan to focus (or 'major', in the US system), try to ascertain which universities have the best options for you. Keep an eye out for practical components of programmes, international study opportunities, or esteemed academics in the department.

Professional plans. Although you might be fairly flexible with your plans for the future, it is still worth thinking about how and where you will begin to establish work history and a professional network. Many industries are global and it is completely feasible in the modern world to work almost anywhere in most industries. However, it is worth at least considering how you will develop professionally during university: Will you search for summer research opportunities Stateside or prefer to do placements in the UK or elsewhere? Will there be term-time opportunities local to campus? Where do you plan to live, work, or study after completing your undergraduate degree?

Personal preferences

This bit is probably a little easier. By now, you are probably aware of whether you perform better in seminar-style classes or lectures; whether you enjoy extreme snow or prefer sunshine and beaches; and whether you plan to join the debate, rugby, or Quidditch team – or all of the above. As the US is so diverse geographically and culturally, these are some things we recommend you think about:

  • Brand recognition - do people recognise the name of the university easily?
  • Student population
  • Urban, suburban, or rural setting
  • Climate
  • Financial requirements

Once you have sorted through these items, you probably have a very respectable ‘long list’ (the evolutionary precursor to your shortlist).

Being fans of compare-and-contrast, we find it useful to have our clients work through a personal analysis of pros and cons, including practical logistics, like costs, size, and location. We suggest assigning each factor on an importance scale of 1 to 5 and then ranking each institution’s provision on a scale of 1 to 5. At the end of this exercise, it should be pretty clear which universities ‘fit’ the best and are within your academic and financial expectations. You can use the downloadable US College Shortlisting Support Sheet (right) to help you.

* university mascots

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