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How to Choose a Graduate School

Choosing universities is an important step of the application process. I would argue for quality over quantity. That is choose 5-10 universities if you are a top student and 8-15 universities if you are an average student. Choosing more than 15 universities makes no sense because you won't be able to apply personal approach to each university (by that I mean correspondence with secretaries and faculty members, adjustment of your statement, preparation of specific documents which only some universities ask for, etc).

First, taking into account your level choose 20-30 universities in which you might be interested (you will later select fewer of them) and ask all of them to send you application materials (see Sample Letter). Select most of the universities with ranks corresponding to your level, add 3-4 better ones and 3-4 sure-shots (the ones which are definitely below your level and readily accept students from MIPT, MSU, etc). Top students usually apply to the top ten universities, and add such sure-shuts as Stony Brook, Rochester, Rutgers, etc. if we are talking about PhD in Physics. Average students choose 3-4 from the top ten universities and select most universities in the 10th-30th range. (In 1997 I applied to 12 universities mostly 20th-30th; in 2000 I applied to 7 universities: 6 - top ten + UC Davis).

You might want to make your final choice of the universities after you know your test scores, though usually one can approximate his knowledge level quite well beforehand. When making the final choice keep in mind that filling out application materials is quite time-consuming and painful, so please think about quality.

Another comment, when choosing universities besides ranks do consider location, this is an extremely important factor, you will definitely understand that when you come to US. Preference for location is a very personal thing. But generally the following is true: Middle states are more conservative, more traditional, family oriented and usually more boring. Southern states are generally friendlier, but I can't think of the reasonable incentive which will make me choose the university in Texas or Arizona (just think about melting pavement in summer... :-) But that's me, some of my friends live there and are quite happy (you can drive in air-conditioned car, stay in air-conditioned buildings and go outside at night). My favorite states (and quite many Russians will agree with me) are the most Eastern and Western states, I mean California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. These states are the most culturally diverse once, people are more educated, you will see less "average Americans" around, women dress better, more cultural attractions, and many more advantages. Also, think about the city where the university is located. Some universities are located in small towns in the middle of nowhere others near or in the big cities. Both of these have its advantages and disadvantages and is mostly the matter of personal preferences. My first choice would be either San Francisco or Boston.


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