Coming to America 201: What universities should you consider applying to?

This is the second post in a series I am writing to share what I know about applying to American universities for an undergraduate degree.

It’s difficult to organize these posts because everything is so intertwined. So I chose to use a somewhat chronological approach. I have started with explaining if you still have time to go through with the application process and the major steps of the process.


Now,  I will  be answering the question of “What universities should I consider applying to?

In the previous post, I mentionned that when registering for the SAT or the TOEFL, (not sure about other standardized tests), you can list 4 universities that would receive your scores for free. In order to take advantage of that you should know what schools you want to apply to beforehand. Overall you want to apply to about 6 to 12 schools. 

So how do you do that when there are more than 3000 universities in the US? 

The quick answer is, through a process of elimination, you can come up with a list of 100 schools that you can potentially apply to. Now 100 schools is still nowhere near 12 or even 4. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to understand that picking what universities to apply to is an iterative process. You can’t do it in one sitting, you can’t do it once and for all. Your list will change with time, and that’s expected. 

The 100 schools list that you want to come up with is actually a list of well ranked schools that you can afford.

Now, the cost of college per year can be as “low” as $20,000 and as high as $60,000, even more. Does that mean that if you can only spend $30,000 a year on your education, you can only apply to universities that cost less? Not necessarily! 

You can apply to universities that cost more than 30,000 but that will offer you a scholarship.

So to put it simply, this post will allow you to narrow down the 3000 universities to a list of about a 100 good ones that you can afford or that will give you a scholarship. If you know for a fact that money is not an issue and you can pay for whatever university you like, feel free to skip this article. 

Once this 100 schools list is done, the next article will show you how to figure out which universities out of the 100 fit your personality, have a strong curriculum in your area of study, and so on, and hopefully you’ll be able to narrow it down to a list of 6-12 schools. My thinking is that if you stick to subjective criteria from the start and apply to schools that you ultimately won’t be able to afford, then really there is no point. I’ve seen it happen, believe me it’s not pretty. 

So as I mentioned, there are more than 3000 universities in the US. Most of them fall under one of these categories: :

A/ National Universities:                    
1) Public                    2) Private
B/ Liberal Arts Colleges  (all private)
C/ Community colleges

A and B are 4 year institutions, so when you graduate, you get a bachelor degree. 

C is a 2 year institution where you take some classes and transfer to an A or B school to finish you bachelor. This combination costs less than completing the 4 years at a type A or B university. 

Since Type A1 and C do not offer financial aid to international students,  I should focus solely on type A2 and B.  

This is the ranking for Nationals universities. (both public and private) 

This is the ranking for  Liberal arts colleges. As I mentionned, they are all private. 

So how do we get down to 100 from 3000? We first need initial selection criteria. 

I.  Criteria of elimination: 
A. Deciding on a cut off ranking:

You want to go to the United states to get a good education. I doubt that if you go below the 100th university in this ranking, that that would be the case. If you feel like 100 is too low for you, decide on a cut off value before you start. Maybe 50 is enough for you and you don’t think it’s worth it to apply to a university that has a lower ranking. 

B. Eliminating all the public schools from the list of National Universities:

As I explained earlier public universities do not offer scholarships to international students. So if you want to get a scholarship, you shouldn’t waste your time on public schools. 

C. Eliminating schools that won’t cover enough of your financial needs 

Among the private national universities and the liberal arts colleges there are many that will not cover your financial need. So why bother applying to them? How do you estimate if a school will give you a good scholarship of not? 

Luckily, USnews got you covered. 

Let’s compare 2 schools as an example. Wake Fortest VS NYU

Photographs of Wake Forest University. All rights reserved.

Wake Forest University is ranked 27th in the US. So it’s pretty good academically.

Now let’s look at whether or not you can afford it.

If you scroll all the way to the bottom, you can see that Wake Forest has these financial metrics. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 4.02.28 AM


The only important bars in this chart are “Need was fully met” and ” Average percent of need met”. Here’s why: 

 “Need was fully met” is the percentage of students whose need was fully covered. 

“Average percent of need met” is the percentage of need that is covered. 

Let’s say that you talked to your parents and they said, they can spend $20,000 on your education every year. 

If you apply to Wake Forest, your need would be approximated to $47,682-$20,000= $27,682. 

Will Wake Forest give you a $27,682 scholarship? Well the second bar tells us that  the percentage of students whose need was fully covered is 77.4%. There is a chance that you would be among these 77.4% and get a full scholarship of $27,682. But there is also a chance that you are among other 22.6% who got less than the exact amount they needed. 

So if you don’t get the full amount, how much would you get? Would you get $2,000 or 26,000 out of the$27,682  you need? Well the last bar tells us that the average of coverage is 99%. So you are likely to get 99%* $27,682= $27,405 . 

So you are likely to only lack $200. So Wake Forest, is potentially a pretty good school where you have a pretty good chance to get a scholarship. 


Now let’s look at NYU. 
This university is ranked 32nd. So it’s pretty comparable to Wake Forest. It costs $46,170 a year. So your need is estimated to $46,170-20000=$26,170. 

A comparable amount to what you would need for Wake Forest. 

Let’s look at NYU’s metrics. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 4.02.45 AM

The 2nd bar tells us that only 5.4% of students got all their need covered. So there is only a 5% chance that NYU would give you $26,170. That’s a pretty slim chance. 

How much are you likely to get? The last bar tells us you are likely to get 57.5% of what you need. So $26,170*57.5%= $15,047

So if you get into NYU you have to figure out how to pay for $26,170-$15,047= $11,123. 

That is a lot of money. If your parents can only afford $20,000. You can’t ask them to give you an extra $11,000. 

So after this case study, what metrics give you a good chance to have a good scholarship? The simple answer is that it’s up to you. 

When I applied for college, I only considered schools that gave more than 80% of the applicants the full amount that they needed or that covered more than 80% of their needs.  

You may find that 70% is enough. You may find that you don’t want to risk anything below 90%. It’s your call. 

Now that we have decided on the selection criteria, it can take a while to go over the rankings and select the right schools for you.  

So in order to come up with the 100 schools list quickly and efficiently, I suggest the following protocol. 

II. Protocol

The following diagram is an attempt to give you a systematic way for you to create your first wishlist of potential schools.

diagram how to select potential colleges (1)

Using the “protocol” above, I have started filling out this excel document with the first 35 national universities that pass the selection criteria we have decided on. I hope you will find the few comments I added useful. Feel free to download the spreadsheet and continue the work. If I gather enough interest, we can make it a public spreadsheet where everyone can contribute. Here’s how I did it: 

For the list of national universities, determine if the university is private or public. You can open the link of each school in a new tab and usually the first paragraph says if it is a public or private school. A quick cheat however is to directly check the tuition box in the listing. If there is a price for in-state students and a different one for out of state students then you know it is a public school. That way you won’t waste your time even opening the link. And you’ll know right away if it’s public or private. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 3.06.51 PM

If it’s a private university, open it in a new tab and directly scroll down to this table in the “cost and financial aid section.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.02.47 AM

Start with the “need was fully met ” bar:

  • If it’s 80 or above add the university to your excel spreadsheet and fill out the 2 columns with the percentages. 
  • If it is below 80, Check the “average % need met” bar.
    • if it’s below 80% drop the university and return to the USnews listing.  
    • if it’s above 80% add the university to your list. 

Continue this process until you reach your cut off ranking. 

Once you are done with the national universities, repeat the process with the Liberals Arts list. Only now you’d click on all of them because they are all private. And you would add the Liberal Arts colleges on a separate sheet on your excel file. 

This process will take a while. Notice that many universities share the same rank. In the screenshot above, for example, you can see that Vanderbilt and Wash U are both ranked 15th. And Rice and Notre Dame are both 18th. 

This is in a (rather big) nutshell how to go about refining the USnews rankings to an initial list that suits your needs.

III Additional Comments: 

Many questions arise from reading this article. 

You might be asking, why don’t all universities cover 100% of their students needs? The answer is funding. Private universities get funding from their alumni, and some companies who rely on the research that takes place in the university. The better the university (read the more academically challenging), the more funding they get.

That’s why the first 20 or so universities cover all their students needs.  

If you are an excellent student, you should apply to the IVY leagues and to all the top schools. 

If you are a good student but not quite “excellent”, you should try to find a sweet spot where a University is not too competitive (20-40ich) but still ranked high enough to get a lot of funding and be able to cover a high percentage of your need.

You will find that this sweet spot is larger in the liberal arts colleges than in national universities. Here is a graph that explains the trend I mean.


For national universities, usually, the more the ranking drops, the more quickly financial aid drops. So #1 offers 100% finaid and #50 offers 40%.

For liberal Arts however, the decrease in financial aid is not that fast with decreasing ranking. So maybe #1 offers 100% finaid and #50 offers 60%.

Keep in mind, this is a general trend and an approximation, so there are definitely exceptions.

I mentioned that if your parents can pay 20,000 and the school costs 50,000, your need is estimated to 30,000. Is it that simple? 

Not quite. You fill out a lot documents when you apply for financial aid. There are a lot of documents that you need your parents to help you with. In these documents you declare how much your parents make and how much they spend by year in different categories: How much you spend on food, how much you spend on leisure….pretty much everything. They also ask you to tell them how many siblings you have and whether or not they are in college and if so, how much your parents are paying to support them. Based on all this information, each university has it’s own algorithms that determine your need. So it’s not just a simple subtraction and not all universities will estimate your need the same way. 

If you have other questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

I am currently working on a 3rd article on how to boil down the 100 schools list we made here to 6-12 that you would apply to. I hope to put it up soon. 





    1. Thank you Manel. So the next post 202 deals with how to identify 8 to 10 universities that you would actually apply to. The next post I am working on right now will deal with the actual application process.
      For now, I can tell you that all the information you need is on the universities’ websites.


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