Program Selection Tools

Criteria for Selecting Grad Programs

Poza 4.13With over 2,000 universities offering graduate programs to choose from, it can be a real challenge to pick the study programs and U.S. universities that suit you best. There is no easy recipe for success, so when you make your choices you need to clarify your objectives and consider the factors that are important to you both in terms of education and lifestyle.  

 You may like to take into consideration the following criteria:

Program focus

Defining the current goals for your education and career will help you select the most appropriate graduate programs. In addition, it will also motivate you through the application process, especially when writing the statement of purpose which usually covers your plans for the future and how you envision them coming true in the department you are applying to.

Always look into the emphasis of the department you are considering, the research focus, and their overall relevance to your own interests. For instance, if you want to study population genetics you should apply to the biology department at Stanford, not to the biology department at University of Florida, which focuses on field ecology. Although at first contact both departments come under “Biology”, the professors and students there focus on very different issues.

Financial support for international students

Poza 4.14Check the section dedicated to international students on the university website to get a clear image of the funding available for international applicants. Can the financial aid available cover annual costs – that is tuition and living expenses – or just academic costs/tuition? More information in the Financial aid section.

Entrance difficulty

Graduate program websites include statistics on the number of applications they receive, as well as the number of students they admit. You will notice that very competitive departments generally receive significant numbers of applications, but accept a small percentage of them. In contrast, moderately competitive programs usually admit a higher percentage of their applicants. Visit departmental websites and check their student profiles. You will see the average GRE/GMAT scores of admitted students and be able to assess how competitive you are compared to past successful applicants. Based on our experience at the Fulbright Educational Advising Center, a good rule of thumb is to aim at scores at least 10% over the average in order to increase your chances of admission with generous financial aid. High scores will not by any means guarantee admissions, but they will help distinguish you in the pool of applicants.

Department size and location

As a rule, a large school/department will usually have more assistantships, both for teaching and research purposes. Also, in terms of competitiveness, schools on the East Coast and in California tend to attract larger numbers of applications than schools located in other parts of the USA.

Consider the size of the student population and the campus location. Will you enjoy the independence – and, sometimes, anonymity – of a large department on a huge campus with 50,000 students, or will you feel more at home in a more closely-knit environment where everybody knows everybody and is on a first name basis? Which option is best for you? Which environment will make you more productive in the long run?

Rankings and ratings

There is no official university ranking by the U.S. Government or the U.S. Department of Education, although rankings by the U.S. News & World Report and the like are widely used. The website offers access to a well-established college ranking which may provide a useful starting point for applicants. The rankings commonly list the top 20 or 50 programs in a field of study. That is why the best study program for you may lie outside the rankings.

Remember that rankings may involve a certain degree of bias and will differ depending on the specific criteria they take into consideration. Therefore use them with caution, although they may come in handy in the initial stages of your degree search. Think beyond the big names: there are lots of great graduate programs in the United States where you can get admissions and funding for an enriching graduate study experience. Consider your objectives and motivation first, research the programs carefully and find the institutions that are right for you.  

Tools for Degree Search
Below you will find a number of key sites and resources that we recommend for online graduate program search. They have proved helpful to Romanian applicants who worked closely with our Advising Center to secure admissions and funding for graduate study purposes in the USA. You too might find them invaluable in identifying the study programs and the departments that may be a good match for your interests and needs.


EducationUSA’s Financial Aid Updates:, see the “Graduate” section which will offer clear guidance and help.
Grad Schools: will help you find the programs that match your preferences in terms of focus, location, size, financial aid, and more.
The Princeton Review:, where the “Graduate” section will provide fine support.
Peterson's:, the “Grad School Bound” section.

Strategies for Smart Program Selection

State/Public Universities vs. Private Universities

Poza 4.15Since most international students will rely on a combination of departmental and professorial funds for covering the costs of their graduate studies, the type of university you will attend will not make, in most cases, the most significant difference in terms of financial aid. The following differences between state and private schools are worth noting, though.

State universities are funded by U.S. state governments to provide quality low-cost education to residents of those states. For example, California boasts a world-famous state university system, with UC Berkeley and UCLA as the gems in the crown. Public universities tend to be very large, with enrollments of 20,000 or more students.

Poza 4.16At a state university, tuition costs are usually lower than at private universities. Also, in-state residents – who live and pay taxes in that particular state – pay much lower tuition than out-of-state residents. As a rule, international students are considered out-of-state residents and do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions. A small number of institutions offer in-state tuition to international students through special agreements with international institutions.

Private institutionsPoza 4.17 are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state schools and there is no distinction between in-state and out-of-state residents. Generally, private universities have enrollments of fewer than 20,000 students and may have 2,000 or fewer students on campus.

Living costs vary widely across the USA and also depend on individual lifestyles. Living expenses are highest in large cities, in California, and in the Northeast. Costs can be much lower in the South, the Midwest, and other areas. University websites and catalogs are a good source for information on current living costs.

Within the total living expenses that universities quote, you will usually find an approximate breakdown of the costs for items such as room, board, books, medical insurance, and personal expenses. Annual living expenses on an Illinois campus can be as low as $8,000, for example, compared to around $15,000 for living in a residence hall on campus at a school in California.

According to the latest figures made available by the Institute of International Education in New York, Romanian students show a strong preference for universities in the states of New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and New Jersey. However, you may like to remember that the U.S. has good universities in all states and a lower international enrollment may increase your chances of securing a graduate assistantship.

Romanian Students and Faculty on Campus

Certain universities reveal a growing number of Romanian/East European students on campus. Why should this be of interest to you?

A large number of Romanian graduate students on campus or in your department suggest that the university offers generous financial aid and that the admissions office is acquainted with the Romanian educational system. As a result, they will have no problem in understanding your educational background and assessing your application. The reverse situation may also prove advantageous, because the university might be eager to build up its European/East European student population.
Poza 4.18It will never hurt to research the faculty in the department beyond their research interests. Whenever you come across a professor who may originally be from South-Eastern Europe, if not from Romania, you may like to look upon it as an extra benefit: chances are they will be familiar with educational standards in Romania and eager to cooperate with you. For example, the head of the Chemistry Department of a top university in Ohio is Romanian, fully aware of the quality of a Romanian undergraduate degree in Chemistry. As a result, awarding at least two doctorates per year to Romanian students has been a long-cherished tradition in his department. Another head of department we are familiar with is from Greece and very appreciative of the Romanian schooling in his field. Little surprise that he is always happy to welcome young doctoral students from Romania to his research programs. Such details make the difference in your search for a graduate program leading to a rewarding academic experience!

"One starting point for the school selection process is the graduate school ranking by the U.S. News & World Report Get ready to research, research, research a lot of university websites and online resources before you decide where to apply!
On the department website, get familiar with the faculty, especially the tenure track professors. Especially if you still have at least 2-3 months to go before the application deadline, this is the perfect moment to start working on the professorial link. Send emails to the profs that you would be interested in working with. Keep the introductory message brief and to the point and try to build a professional connection. This will help you figure out if and where you’d fit in in the department and also increase your chances of getting an assistantship.
Is the deadline upon you and you didn’t go through this step? That actually happened to me too and I still got into a great PhD. Don’t panic. You can always write to the professors as an applicant to the program."
Bogdan State, PhD in Sociology, Stanford University, CA

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