Which Schools? Choosing the Right Schools to Apply to in the US


This article is adapted from a post in a blog by SMAK 1 Penabur alumni aimed to help SMAK 1 students apply to schools in the US. It is co-authored by Jordan Kho, a PhD candidate in Developmental Biology at the Baylor College of Medicine.

There are many great schools in the U.S. When you narrow down your choices, the quality of education should be your most important criterion. While there isn’t a perfect way to measure a school’s quality of education, there are some rankings out there that can give you a rough idea of how good a school is. Each ranking has different methodology, so keep in mind that they can be very different from each other. Here are some rankings that we believe are quite reliable.

National Rankings:
1. U.S. News
2. Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index (no longer updated)

International Rankings:
1. The Times Higher Education
2. Academic Rankings of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University
3. Newsweek and the Daily Beast

How should I use the rankings? 

  • First of all, do not take these rankings too seriously. They are there to give you a general idea about a school’s academic strength, but you shouldn’t think of them as the absolute standard everyone uses. Keep in mind, for instance, that a school that is ranked third may not be that different from the school that is ranked fifth, and the school that is ranked 10th is not necessarily twice better than the school that is ranked 20th. The important thing is to treat this ranking just as any other guide; you’ll find school names you haven’t heard of before and you can find out more about them.
  • We would suggest you to check out multiple rankings instead of just one. Even the famous U.S. News has some flaws in its methodology.
  • If available, try to look up rankings that are specific to your program/major. The quality of the program is more important than quality of the school as a whole. If you want to major in engineering, for instance, check the schools that have great reputation in engineering such as MIT or Stanford. The top-ranked liberal arts schools like Harvard might not be the right school for you in this case. For instance, Harvard’s 2008 overall rank is #1 and Georgia Tech #35, but Harvard engineering ranking is #33, far below Georgia Tech’s #5. Some schools outside of US News’ top 10 national universities also have very good programs in certain majors. University of Texas at Austin, for instance, is ranked #47 nationally but was #1 in business-accounting program.
  • If undergraduate rankings for your specific programs are not available, try looking for the ranks of graduate programs. The quality of the graduate program and the undergraduate program in the same department tend to be similar, since both programs share the same faculty. For example, you won’t find any undergraduate ranking for biology-related majors in U.S. News. It does, however, have rankings for graduate schools in biological sciences that you can use as a reference.
How many schools should I apply to?

There is no right or wrong answer to this. The common wisdom is to apply to nine different schools: three schools that you’re sure you can get into (“safety” schools), three schools you think you can get into, and three first-choice or dream schools (schools that you really want but are the hardest to get into). For your sanity, 15 is probably overdoing it. The more important issue is not the number of schools, but which schools. Be aware of your own capacity—dream high but assess as accurately as possible which schools are your best matches. As quoted from Asher’s Graduate School Admission Essays, “It is perhaps human nature to have a first-choice school on your list, but smart students avoid locking in on any one school or program. Select a wide range of schools, make your best application to each of the schools on your list, and let the process take its course.”

Finally, understand that getting rejected is not the end of the world. A school is a place to learn—it’s not everything. Getting into school #20 doesn’t mean your life will be significantly worse than getting into school #3. The most important thing is your own motivation to learn. If you’re motivated, it doesn’t matter which school you get into, you’ll still find good opportunities.

Photo credit: Microsoft.