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How to: Find and choose the right study abroad program

You know you want to study abroad. But WHERE should you apply?

Some of your friends may be applying to Harvard, Stanford or Columbia. Others - to the University of Florida in Miami. Others are applying to MIT or Georgia Tech. Where should YOU apply? How do you even start approaching this question? Here are three steps that will help you narrow your search, take the right factors into consideration, make sure you are making the best choice, and even save some money in the process! The first two steps provide you with some guiding questions to consider, and the third provides a formula that will help you prioritize your application portfolio.

The first step to narrow your search is to decide what field you want to study. Most of the time, that’s the easy part: if you know you want to be a lawyer, you know you want to go to law school. And if you want to be a literature scholar, you probably don’t need a PhD in Linear Algebra.
Sometimes, though, the question of what to study can be less straightforward. This usually happens when your field of interest is interdisciplinary or borderline - thus falls into more than one field of study or is defined differently in different schools (for example – Music Therapy could be in the Music Department or in the Psychology department or in both, or in some cases will not even be a full degree program).

Our best advice for you for this stage is to consult with people who studied or are currently studying the field you are considering - to help you choose. Consulting with people who are a few years down the road, or learning about their career paths from credible sources (such as in the GradTrain community), can give you a lot of valuable information.
Make sure you take a broad view of the matter, and try to choose between your options based on short and long-term factors, such as - what are your chances of acceptance to each degree? What is the probability to get scholarships in each of them? Is there a difference in salaries when you enter the job market depending on the degree you pursued? What career paths do these degrees lead to in your home country or in the country where  you plan to study? What doors do these degrees open, and what doors do they close?

Again, the best way to answer these questions is to consult with people who have gone through this process and can guide you.

The second step is to know WHERE you would like to study. This is where you begin to grasp how big the world is, if you haven’t already. You can, for example, study in the US or in Canada; in the UK or in France; in China or in Israel and in many other countries.

If you don’t have a specific inclination, then there are many considerations here. What languages do you know? How do you feel about snow? And hot weather? Do you need an Indian / Chinese / Jewish / Muslim / LGBT community around you? A specific church? Direct flights home? A cheaper place to live? Affordable tuition? Do you plan to test the option of immigrating to the country where you will study? Need a place that can allow you to convert a student visa into immigration status? Do you have family members who will come with you? Are you limited geographically because of your spouse’s professional plans?
Answering these questions will help you narrow your options according to geographical considerations and will make the list of universities that are actually relevant to you all the more manageable.

After choosing an area on the globe, you need to compose a list of universities to apply to. This point is highly important. A recommended approach is to view your application like an investment portfolio. This will help you spread the risks in your portfolio and will help you leverage offers from lower priority schools when you apply to your top choice schools. Compose a list of schools from three categories:

1.     Reach schools. Schools where you have lower chances of getting accepted to, but you will be much happier if you do get in.

2.     Match schools - where you have a reasonable chance of acceptance and would be happy if you got in.

3.     Safety schools - where you have a very high chance of getting in, but a lower desire to study there.

How do you build such a portfolio?
1 - First, check out the ranking of the schools. Generally speaking, the higher the ranking is – the less likely you are to get accepted.

2 - Check out schools’ requirements. Determine what GPA (average score) you need to get in and what exams you need in order to qualify (GMAT, GRE. TOEFL, LSAT etc.). Then choose schools where you are slightly below their acceptance threshold requirement as REACH schools, schools where you meet their criteria as MATCH schools, and schools where you are above their criteria as SAFETY schools. And hey! No self-deceit here. Be honest with yourself about your chances and don’t over-estimate your chances. What feeds your ego can kill your application!
To make your life easier – use an acceptance predictor. At GradTrain, we created a predictor that will tell you what your chances of acceptance are for all Engineering and Business schools in the United States. This is a useful tool to help you narrow down your portfolio of schools and not waste time and money on schools that are way out of your range. We will add additional fields of study into the predictor over time.

Following these three steps – choosing the field of study, the geography and creating a program portfolio, will help you focus your efforts (and your spending – remember – each application costs money!) in the process of applying to graduate school abroad. You are taking a brave and big step by choosing to study abroad – this is your chance to do it right and make the most of this experience.