Step 3: Develop a List of Programs
Step 3: Develop a List of Programs

Deciding which institutions to apply to is one of the most important decisions you will make. Since there is a great deal of diversity in graduate programs, it is especially important to clearly articulate what it is you wish to accomplish and find out which institutions offer the kind of program you are seeking.
Identify Universities That Offer Your Field of Study

Your first and most important step is to identify institutions that offer your subject area and any specializations you wish to pursue within that subject area. Finding the right academic "match" between you, the department, and its faculty by using the various human, electronic, and printed resources below can be the key to a successful graduate experience in the United States.

Printed Directories

There are several general directories that list institutions by degree program and include helpful articles on graduate study (see the bibliography). Professional associations for different subject areas also publish directories of university departments in the United States, including information on different specializations and faculty research interests. University catalogs provide the most specific information about the institutions and their programs. You will find many of these directories and catalogs at EducationUSA information and advising centers and in some university libraries.


Discuss your plans with faculty members at your institution and with students who have studied in the United States. They are likely to have their own contacts in the United States and suggestions of universities to consider. Also, do not be afraid to contact universities in the United States directly with questions about their programs or to communicate with other international students in the department you're interested in.

"Talk to someone who has gone through the process. They can provide you with information you won't find in any school brochure."
— Medical student from Ghana

College Websites and E-Mail

The United States leads the world in using the World Wide Web. Almost every U.S. university and college has a website that offers information about degree programs, application procedures, academic departments, faculty members, facilities on campus, and other topics. In many cases, you will also find a copy of the college catalog that you can study online or download to read later. Don't forget that many sites also give e-mail addresses for current students, including international students, who often are happy to answer your questions about applying to the school and about campus life. Once you have narrowed down the colleges and universities you are interested in, you may wish to e-mail professors and admissions personnel to have specific questions answered before you finally decide where to apply.

College Searches on the Web

Some websites are independent of colleges and universities and allow you to search for institutions by the subject you are interested in studying, by geographic preference, or by a range of other criteria that you can specify. See 'Related Links' for websites offering university searches. Staff at U.S. educational information and advising centers can assist you in the use of search sites on the Internet and offer suggestions for locating information on specific programs.

"Contact universities so that you can be sure the program you are considering is exactly what you wish it to be."
— Logistics student from Portugal

Three additional sources of information are:

U.S. University Fairs and Visits

Representatives of U.S. universities may come to visit your country. Your information or advising center can tell you about upcoming U.S. university fairs or other types of visits where you can talk to admissions officers or faculty members face-to-face. Since many fairs and tours will take place in the spring or the fall of the year before you intend to start your studies, it is important to start your research early.

Visiting Campuses

If you are able to take a vacation to the United States, this could be a great opportunity to visit campuses that interest you. Many universities organize campus tours that are led by current students; check with the admissions office for further information. Visit the academic and housing facilities, the student union, and the library to get a good sense of the campus. Americans are famous for being friendly, so talk to the students to find out what U.S. university life is really like.

Educational Consultants and Recruiting Agents

In many parts of the world, private agents or agencies work to recruit international students into U.S. colleges. There are also private educational consultants who charge a fee for assisting you with the process of choosing U.S. universities and putting together your applications. Often these educational consultants and private agents are graduates of U.S. colleges or people who are dedicated to promoting the benefits and advantages of the U.S. education system. However, sometimes they are not, so it is important to check the credentials and past performance of educational consultants or agents before using their services.

If you have found a recruiting agent or a consultant who is helpful, well informed, and dependable, she or he may be very useful in helping you to select and apply to a university in the United States. Be careful, however, to look for verifiable signs of the agent or consultant's past success stories with students from your country. Ask the agent or consultant for a list of names and addresses of students presently studying in the United States who are there because of his or her help. Write, e-mail, or telephone some of these students to get their firsthand opinion of the college where they study and the services they received from the agent or consultant. Such precautions are especially important if the agent or consultant is asking for expensive fees for his or her services. Lastly, always check with an unbiased source (such as an EducationUSA information and advising center) to ensure the legitimacy and accreditation status of the university being represented to you.

"The Web is a vital tool as the USA is moving more and more across to this as their primary communication method."
— MBA student from Great Britain

Check Accreditation Status

One of the major indicators of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. It is important to check that all institutions you are considering are appropriately accredited. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central governmental body that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by nongovernmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards.

While almost all U.S. universities hold widely recognized forms of accreditation, it must be noted that accreditation in the United States is a complex area; there are different types of accreditation (institutional and programmatic) and a large number of accrediting bodies. There is also no legal requirement that degree-offering institutions be accredited or hold a particular form of accreditation. Because of this complexity, you should check carefully whether a degree from the institutions you are applying to will be recognized by your homecountry government and by any relevant professional associations, ministries, and employers. Also talk to graduates who have returned to your country to see if they have been successful in applying degrees earned from such institutions to their chosen professions.

EducationUSA information and advising centers can advise you regarding recognition of U.S. degrees in your country and tell you whether a particular U.S. degreeoffering institution is appropriately accredited. For more detailed information on the topic of accreditation see Short-term Study.

Other Considerations


There is no official list of the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 universities in the United States. The U.S. government does not rank universities. Rankings that you may come across are usually produced by journalists and are likely to be subjective. They generally are based on a wide range of criteria that do not necessarily include academic standards or general reputation as a primary factor. Be particularly wary of rankings that do not explain the criteria on which the ranking is based. The more established rankings may give you a starting point for your decision; however, the "best" college is the one that is right for you based on factors such as those suggested in this chapter.

Internship or Overseas Study Programs

Many U.S. universities have incorporated into their curriculum internship (voluntary or paid work placements) or overseas study ("study abroad") programs that may be of interest to you, particularly if you are undertaking a professional master's degree program.


Some institutions are small and offer degrees in one or two fields of study; some are very large and offer degrees in many fields. When choosing where to apply, you should consider the size of the institution, as well as the size of the department and degree program. A large institution may offer better academic facilities, while a small institution may offer more personal services. The same is true of the size of the degree program. A large program that has many students may not provide the individual attention you need; however, there may be more diversity within the faculty and student body, and more assistance may be available from other students. A small degree program may not expose you to as wide a range of views in your chosen field.

Student populations on U.S. campuses can range in size from 200 to 60,000 students. Some universities resemble small cities with their own post offices, grocery stores, and shopping centers. Other institutions may be in large, densely populated urban areas but have a very small enrollment. Determine what opportunities are important to you, and read the university catalogs closely with these in mind.


Universities are located in all parts of the United States, from major cities where many institutions may exist, to rural areas where one institution serves a large area. Urban campuses offer a variety of eating, entertainment, cultural, and shopping facilities. Cities are usually more diverse in their populations than rural areas and may have a significant number of residents from particular countries. However, cities may also be more expensive. A rural university may mean a quieter, more college-centered environment. Climate is another possible consideration. From the four seasons in the Northeast to the desert in Arizona and a sub-tropical climate in Florida, the variety is almost endless.

Student Services

U.S. universities offer students a variety of services such as international student advisers, campus orientation programs, counseling services, legal aid services, housing offices, day care facilities for students with families, varied meal plans, health centers, tutoring facilities, English as a Second Language programs, writing laboratories, career counseling, and more. Prospective students can compare facilities among universities to find services tailored to their specific needs.

Services for Students With Disabilities

If you have special needs, make sure that the university you choose can accommodate you. Allow plenty of time to correspond with colleges. It is advisable to begin your inquiries at least two years before you plan to leave for the United States. When you write for information from universities, give brief details of your disability and request information about assistance they offer to students like yourself. You may also want to contact the office on campus that deals with the special needs of students with disabilities to find out more about the services they provide. This may be a specific office, such as the Office of Disabled Student Services or the Office of Disability Services, or services may be housed within a general student services office on campus.

Some universities offer comprehensive programs for students with disabilities, while others make a number of special services available to such students. You should look at the services offered and compare them to your needs. Find out which services are provided automatically and free of charge and which services need to be prearranged and incur a charge. When you apply you will need to supply evidence to support the existence of your disability. A campus visit is recommended. If possible, try to contact a student at the college who has a similar disability to yours so you can gain a more personal perspective. Students with disabilities can, with proper documentation, request special facilities or extended time to take the graduate school admissions tests and any examinations during the academic year.