College List: Setting Some Criteria for Choosing Universities in the United States

Having hundreds of options with respect to college education in the United States may sound great for many international students. However, choosing the “best match schools” for college applications is a challenging procedure.  Being unfamiliar with the overall educational, social, and cultural systems of another country makes application procedures more complicated and creates stress for students and parents. Narrowing down the college lists for application procedures is essential and with an appropriate approach, students can receive acceptance letters from the best possible colleges that match with their profiles and expectations. With carefully filtered college lists, students also save a lot of money by receiving need- or merit-based scholarships. In this blog, I would like to focus on how to approach and evaluate schools in order to create the best possible college lists for applications.

There are over 4,500 higher education institutions in the United States, and the majority of these institutions offer a high quality of education for their students. These institutions can be categorized in several ways, such as whether a school is public or private, or whether a school is a liberal arts college or a research university. You can also add expensive versus affordable, and large school versus small school, to such a list of categories. For many students, narrowing down the names of schools is a challenge since they usually do not have valid and reliable criteria. The schools’ reputations may be convincing; however, those schools with the greatest reputations have competitive acceptance rates and they may not be suitable for everyone.  A student should set some criteria, and those criteria should align with the student’s academic background and financial conditions, as well as his/her future plans and expectations. Of course, college evaluation and narrowing down the list of schools should be completed with an expert consultant for the most effective decisions that will save time and money. However, let us list some criteria for those who would like to narrow down the college names for their college applications in the United States.

Although a majority of the colleges offer a very high quality of education, I always prioritize the college rankings set by independent organizations like US News & World Report or Times Higher Education. Those institutions set similar criteria while they analyze and rank the schools. Such criteria include several factors. For example, the endowment assets or the money that is shared for the research. Other factors include but are not limited to (1) the ratio of international and domestic student populations, (2) the quality of research and its contribution to productivity, and (3) the ratio of doctorate students and undergraduate students. Further, those institutions prepare many different ranking lists, like best graduate colleges, best psychology programs, best national universities, and best liberal art colleges, as well as most secure campuses and best colleges for veterans. Those rankings are extremely helpful for good brainstorming to finalize an effective decision process. I always use the US News & World Report rankings for national universities and for specific programs (e.g., computer science, international relations, etc.) for our students. They rank almost 400 universities in the United States and share some brief information about those schools. Princeton and Harvard universities are usually occupying the first two places and their names switch often without either school leaving these top two positions. Top ten national universities usually include Yale, Stanford, MIT, UPenn, University of Chicago, Columbia, Duke and Caltech. This list is a good starting point to evaluate the schools. If you pay for this site you can get more information about the schools, including accepted students’ SAT, ACT and GPA averages and the schools’ acceptance rates. However, that information is already available publicly and you can find it easily on other websites for free. On the other hand, I always narrow down my research options with respect to specific programs. For instance, I always filter my search for college majors, since some colleges may have better rankings for some specific programs. Carnegie Melon University is ranked 26 in the National Universities category; however, its computer science program is ranked number 1 by US News & World Report. On the other hand, University of California, Berkley is ranked 22 in the National University category; however, its psychology program is ranked number 1.

After evaluating the rankings, I always check out the previous year’s SAT (or ACT) averages, which are usually around 1500/1600 for the top ten schools in the United States. For graduate school (master or PhD) applications, I search for the GRE or GMAT score averages if the specific program requires one of them. Although the schools do not require a minimum score for any programs, there are unwritten rules about the test scores. For instance, if your SAT score is 1000/1600 you will never receive an acceptance letter from Princeton University. If your GRE score is not placing you in top 5 percent among the test takers, you will not receive acceptance from any graduate schools at Harvard University. Here are the average SAT Scores of top 25 schools from 2021.

SAT Scores of top 25 schools

SAT Scores of top 25 schools

You can also check out the average GPA of accepted students for those schools. However, you should know that average GPA might be calculated in a slightly different way at those schools. High school or college GPAs are clearly shown on transcripts; however, during the application evaluation process, colleges may ignore some classes to calculate the students’ GPAs. For instance, gym classes or many elective classes may not be added for final GPA of the applicants.

Tuition and fees are other criteria for finalizing the college list. However, without a complete application you never know how much scholarship support you will get. Of course, an impressive application package may bring you extra money. You may search the most generous colleges online. The tuition rates can sound scary, especially for the colleges in northern states. For instance, Harvard University’s tuition is around $55,000. However, you should know that if they accept you and if you really cannot afford this amount, you will pay nothing. Each university has its own financial policy and especially big schools have a significant amount of money for their students.

One of the other most important criteria to finalize the college list for applications is the location criteria. People may not recognize the importance of location while compiling their list of schools; however, students should always remember that they will spend years in a specific geography, climate, and culture. There are different types of cities in the United States, and students should prioritize many location-related factors, including but not limited to security, transportation, weather, culture, and social life. If you do not like the cold weather, I do not recommend northern states. If you prefer cosmopolitan cities, colleges near New York City should be added in your final list. My personal recommendation for location criteria for any type of activity including college education will be California and Florida. Incredible weather and beautiful beaches attract me more than snowy winters and rainy springs. Since each state in the US has many colleges, you will have a good flexibility with respect to location criteria.

I can list the personal preferences criteria as the last factor to be considered when people finalize their college list. Many parents and students must consider the easiest and smoothest transition to college, and such comfort can be obtained with some personal connections. For instance, a student who has a relative who can provide room and board might prefer only a couple of schools close to this relative’s address since he will save a lot of money that would otherwise be spent on rent and many other expenses. This relative may also provide good guidance overall about the social and cultural life of the region and guidance on adapting to the new environment. Parents, on the other hand, would feel more comfortable since they know the person closely and the mutual trust would lower their stress considerably.  Other examples may include the student’s friends who are currently studying at a college where this new student may apply. Those friends can make the transition and even the application procedures easy for this newcomer. I always respect those decisions, since I believe that education cannot be considered alone without consideration of human psychology and financial realities, especially in the United States.

The college lists for applications are extremely important, and I always recommend consulting with an expert for the best possible brainstorming. Establishing some criteria will be extremely helpful. Although the school numbers for applications can change from person to person, I recommend applying to at least 10 schools, including identified “best match” schools and “safe schools”. Our record for the highest number of college application was 35, and this student received 34 acceptance letters.

Erkan Acar, PhD

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