Coming to America 202: What universities should you actually apply to?

This post is the part III of an ongoing series about applying to American universities from outside the US. if you haven’t yet, do check the first 2 parts here:

Coming to America 101: Can you still apply and should you bother?

Coming to America 202: What universities should you consider applying to?

The last post shows how to come up with a list of 100 potential universities and colleges where you are eligible to get a scholarship as an international student. Now you want to boil down this list to no more than 10 universities. Here’s how:

You need to create a list of the criteria that are most important to you. And eliminate the universities that don’t fit your requirements

Here are the criteria that were most important to me when I was applying and what I think about them now that I have some perspective:

The university shouldn’t require application fees: $$$

For me this was important because I wasn’t willing to spend more on what I thought was just a gamble.

-> I think this wasn’t such a great idea. A lot of really good schools that I think I had a good shot at, I didn’t apply to because they required an application fee. But given my state of mind back then it makes sense. If you’ve been planning this for a while then definitely consider investing some more for the universities that you like. If you joined the party late and you’re kind of winging it, it’s probably not worth it.

The university needs to have a median SAT score close to mine:

This is to make sure that the university is not too much out of my league and that I have a good chance to get in.

-> Honestly I don’t know if this is such a good criterion. Mostly because universities know that different education systems focus very little on standardized testing and that it’s not a good indicator of a student’s performance. Then again, I might be wrong. Because a lot of the international kids work *very* *very* hard to get almost perfect scores on the tests and take them as many times as needed. So maybe the universities are actually used to receiving very high scores from international students. Either way, the ideal situation you want to be in is the situation where your scores are *perfect* and you don’t even have to check the median score of the school you want to apply to. If you start the process early enough this is a perfectly attainable goal.

The university has some of the majors I am considering:

I was really surprised that a lot of schools don’t offer engineering classes. I can only imagine what it must be like for other less common majors. So if you know for a fact that you need to major in Communication, make sure the schools you are applying to offer it. If you do not know what major you want to pick. Then know that there is a risk that you may not find the major you want. BTW shameless plug: Check out my advice on how to figure out what major to pick.

With these 3 criteria, I boiled down the 100 universities to these 8 schools:


Grinnell College, Smith College, Wellesley College, Saint Olaf College


Carleton College, Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College

And my alma mater:


Notice that at no point did I check what the schools tuition was. Because remember that is already taken care of. All the schools in the list we are choosing from are already filtered and offer merit based scholarships.

Notice also how all except for Case are liberal arts colleges. And that’s something I really regret because I didn’t take into account many criteria that are actually important for me and I only realized that they were important after I sent my applications.

The university should be close to a city:

I can’t live in the woods. I just can’t. I need an airport and a mall nearby.

-> Most liberal arts schools, and the ones I applied to in particular are actually in the middle of nowhere. So that’s a big no no.

You might feel differently about this. Maybe you would feel frustrated in an urban setting and would much rather prefer to study in an environment that makes you feel like you’re on the set of the next Jane Austen adaptation. It’s matter of opinion, and you should make sure to apply to universities where you would be most comfortable.

I don’t want to go to a girls only school:

American girls are still a mystery to me.

Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard are girls only. My logic applying there was. 1) It cuts off half of the population. 2) I can play the “Arab-Muslim-strong-independent-girl” card. But I really do not think they were good fits for my personality and how I identify myself.

That’s my experience, but there are plenty more other criteria that are equally as important. For instance:

The college size:

Do you want a to be in a college that has only as many students as a standard high school? Or do you want to be in a huge university with 3 campuses. (it’s unlikely that any huge university would be on your list, because most big schools are public and as we said in the previous post, they don’t offer scholarships to international students). That being said there are some private universities that are quite big and that might not be the perfect fit for you if you want to be in a more closely knit environment.

The weather:

If you were raised on sand and salt, then you probably wouldn’t thrive in Alaska even if you get into the best university there. You would be amazed how the weather affects your mood. So if you know that vitamin D is vital for you stick with schools in the sunnier states.


Universities have close ties with other universities and with key players in the industry. If you know for a fact that you absolutely want to spend a semester as an exchange student at say Polytechnique in France, then make sure to apply to universities that have exchange programs with Polytechnique.

Same applies for the industry. If you know for a fact that your dream job is to work for P&G, then definitely apply to CWRU. Because it’s one of the biggest doners to the university and they finance a lot of the research programs and they hire a lot of the students.

The same also applies to research opportunities. If the major you chose is biomedical engineering, then you probably want to go to Georgia tech, where the undergraduate program is very strong and where there are a lot of research centers around the university.

Admission rate /  Graduation rate / Freshmen Retention Rate: 

You don’t want to be in a C level school. Some universities have a lot of money to offer but don’t necessarily have the best conditions for you. Since you are probably not very familiar with the different universities and their reputations, a good way to gauge if a university is attractive is checking how selective it is. And checking that those who get accepted stick around and don’t transfer by the end of the first year. So freshmen retention rate is a good indicator if students enjoy their time at the university or not. Graduation rate is also good to check. Another way, believe it or not, is to look up the school on Urban Dictionary. It’s a great tool to understand the main stereotypes of the students that attend. But always take it with a grain of salt. Most of the hate comments are from students that are bitter because they didn’t do well and had to transfer.


Some other criteria you might consider include Greek life, Campus housing, Meal plan options…

Hopefully all these filters will help you boil down your list from a 100 to about 8 to 12.

The key is to ask yourself the right questions and to do your research. The earlier you start the process, the better.

As always, if you have any question, comments or suggestions, let me know in the comments.


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