Choosing A US University

Choosing the actual university or college you will study at in the U.S is probably one of the most influential decisions you will make about this journey.

It is important that you choose an institution that fits you the best. You will spend a lot of time here and ultimately this experience will guide your career.

There are of course many factors that influence your decision.

You may have friends, family members etc. that have given you information about possible universities, but remember it is always an individual decision since you will be the student that has to have the experience there.

As you look at all the universities and colleges that appeal to you, think about the following:

1. Academic program

This really should be the number one focus since you are spending your time, energy and funds here. For example, if you are interested in engineering programs then choose a university that has a solid and prestigious engineering program.

Don’t just choose a university because it is a party school or has a cool campus - choose it based on academics.

Also, for example, if you are still a bit undecided about mechanical versus electrical engineering, but the university has a solid engineering program this is still a step in the right direction.

It is always possible to change your major, so you always want to look at academic programs as your base.

2. Cost

Cost is always an important point to keep in mind. How do you plan to fund your education?

You may have funding secured for your first year, but what about your subsequent years? It is important to be realistic about the challenges that cost can have. Yet, it is also important to weigh the advantages of the possible economic solutions.

Keep in mind, it is always possible to start your education at a university with a more inexpensive tuition rate and then transfer to a higher tuition university to save funds.

3. Location of campus

Is the campus near or far from your home town? In state or out of state? Are you comfortable with distance between you and your family and friends?

These are natural points to going to university, but really need to be considered. You may not have easy access to your loved ones while at university.

It is typical to get homesick, so discuss this with your family and chart out a plan to keep in touch. Also, will you have transportation? Will you have a car to move about the city or visit home if possible?

Try to attend an open event if possible, so you can take a look around, and see whether you like the area it is based in. It will also give you the chance to ask any questions you may have about the campus, and what's nearby.

4. City environment

This will now be your home away from home. It is natural to feel homesick, but soon you will adjust, as will your interests in the city environment.

Besides your school work, do you prefer a fast paced life style or slow paced life style?

Whether you realize it or not, you will become part of your new city and it will be an opportunity to become part of the community.

If you come from a small city and move to a big city or vice versa there will always be some element of culture shock.

Do some research on the city and what it has to offer. At some point you will have some free time to explore and in the city.

Again, try to go to an open event at the college if possible, as seeing it firsthand will give you a good idea of whether you will like studying there.

5. Type of university

Universities in America are either private, state, and local (state-owned).

The type depends on the cost of education for both local and foreign students. Generally, state university tuition is cheaper, but the larger private universities offer more scholarships.

Private US universities are often believed to be more prestigious than state-run institutions, but are still among some of the the leading universities in the country.

It's also important to remember the difference between universities and colleges. Universities will offer all levels of higher education and leading research activities. However, colleges will only teach Bachelor's and cover a narrower set of disciplines.

If you're looking for a career in academia, a university will provide with more options for pursuing this than a college. Also, research conducted by a university is generally considered more prestigious than that produced by a college.

6. Subject specialisation

Large research universities usually offer a wide range of disciplines at a highe level. However, it's important to look closely at the highly ranked universities and/or those you are considering applying to, and see whether they specialise in a particular area.

For example, Harvard is well-known for law, business and medicine, whereas MIT and Stanford are considered as leaders in Computer Science. UCB are great for environmental sciences and geography, and the University of Pennsylvania is a world leader in the field of Nursing.

Of course, this doesn't mean they don't excel in other academic areas, but it's wise to pay attention to those universities that are strong in your area of interest.

If you're looking at attending a college, rather than a university, remember that they will tend to only specialise in one or two areas, so it's important to check these match with the subject you are applying for, otherwise you may end up being disappointed.

7. Scholarships

Contrary to popular belief, scholarship opportunities in the U.S are not just for athletes. There are other types of undergraduate scholarships available out there, including subject, student and academic scholarships.

For each university or college you are considering applying to, check carefully whether they provide scholarships, and if so, what the conditions are and the application process you will need to follow.

If you're not sure what's on offer, call or email the instution directly, or use one of the free, online databases to search for scholarships. These include Study in the USA, Scholarship Positions, and

Remember that competition for scholarships will usually be heavy, so make sure you include all the required information on your application form, and set aside the time to put the effort into it. This way, you've got the best chance possible of succeeding.

8. Extracurricular activities

Universities in America are an avid supporter of extracurricular activities and offer the greatest opportunity for the development of skills, talents and personal potential of students.

Take a look at the university or college websites you are looking to apply to, where they will have a section on the student organisations available for you to join.

 You will find that they have much more influence on university life than you would think. For example, they are able to protest the increase in tuition fees or rent, to organise large-scale festivals and other events, as well as publishing campus newspapers, putting together music bands, etc.

9. Entry requirements

These usually involve holding minimum scores for standardized exams such as the SAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, or ACT (which assess your academic suitability), as well as a test of English proficiency via a TOEFL, IELTS, PTE Academic or C1 Advanced if you are a non-US student.

It's important to check with the university/college which of these tests will be accepted, as well as the minimum score they are looking for in applicants.

Look closely at the entry requirements on for each program you are considering applying for to ensure you can meet them, and send any questions you may have to the universities or colleges directly using the appropriate email address.

10. College rankings

Although it's tempting to only want to apply to the best colleges, try not to set too much store by the various college rankings you will find published around the internet.

Yes, while it is interesting to see what are considered the best places to study, they might not be the best places for you as an individual.

Applying to only the colleges in the top 10 might be unrealistic anyway, so it's best to do your research, and see which colleges fulfil the criteria above, rather than look at which ones are doing best in the league tables.

If you wish to know more, please see the 2022 College Rankings.

Once you've looked through the rankings, we recommend you pay most attention to the QS and THE rankings, as these are deemed the most reputable.

To assess the importance of an individual university's place in the rankings, you'll need to analyse which factors have been taken into account in the calculations. These often include:

  • Teaching (the learning environment)
  • Research (volume, income and reputation)
  • Citations (research influence)
  • International outlook (staff, students and research)
  • Industry income (knowledge transfer)
  • Employer reputation
  • Faculty/student ratio

Think about which of these are most important to you, and take them into account when making your final shortlist of universities.

11. Greek life

How important is it to you to be part of a Fraternity or Sorority? Has this always been your dream?

Realize that you may want to join one these societies, but they also have their own separate entry process. There is no guarantee that you will be asked to join one of them.

Don’t forget there is another financial aspect to joining one of these societies. Consider how you would feel still attending the school, but not being part of a direct part of Greek life.

Yet, there will still be a presence on campus and you will be able to support some Greek campus activities even if you are not a member of a Fraternity or Sorority.

Jot down some notes on all of the above points, and you'll be on your way to choosing the best colleges for you, or at the very least, reducing your options to a more manageable number.

12. Open Days

Attending an open day is another great to find out if the universities or colleges you are thinking of applying to are right for you. Most offer free tours to prospective students, so check their website(s) for more information to discover more first-hand.

This will also give you a chance to soak up the atmosphere, explore some of the buildings, and decide whether this might be somewhere you could feel at home for a few years.

Try to speak to some of the current students there about what it's like - what do they love about studying there? Is there anything they think should be improved upon?

Jot down any questions you may have before you set off, and if you don't get an opportunity to talk to the students, speak to the tutors instead. They should also be able to answer any queries about the course content, teaching methods, exam structure, etc.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to college, please see: