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Graduate School Admissions Part 1: Choosing a University

Graduate School Admissions Part 1: Choosing a University main image

Guest post: Dr Sridhar Pappu

Recently, I spoke with professors from a few US universities regarding what they look for in a potential graduate student while going through graduate school admissions application packages. While some had clear cut-offs for various criteria like GRE scores or undergraduate GPAs and others didn’t, all were very clear that it was the overall package that was more important than any individual criterion. Well, I guess we all knew that.

Given that there are multiple criteria for graduate school admissions – GRE scores, GPA (grade point average), letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, profile/résumé – it is an excruciatingly painful process for the admissions committees to go through all the applications and select the lucky few. All the more painful if there are far too many qualified candidates and very few available places, as one of the professors from a top university confided.

So, if you are competing with many others who are very similar to you, how do you get noticed by the graduate school admissions committee? While there is no magic recipe and no guarantees, there are certain golden rules you can follow to stand out from the crowd and get noticed. (For the purpose of the rest of this article, while general guidelines are applicable to universities globally, the specifics are stated with respect to US universities.)

Choosing a university to apply to

Many people falter at the very first hurdle: choosing a university (or universities) to apply to. But how do you know that the university you want will also want you? Simple answer… you don’t.  But that doesn’t mean you cannot improve your chances by “intelligently guessing” the universities that are most likely to want you. Considering that each university has its own criteria for selecting the “most suitable” candidates, here is a step-by-step approach to choosing a university to help you maximize your chances for getting admitted:

1. Identify 16 universities

Identify 16 universities. (Don’t worry! You will cut this into half eventually.) Of these, four should be your dream universities, eight that you feel are the perfect fit for your qualifications and profile, and four that you feel will be a cakewalk for you. (Don’t be surprised if your dream university accepts you and the so-called “cakewalk” rejects you.) But how can you check that these choices and assumptions are likely to be correct?

2. Check the university rankings

This is the time to use various university ranking systems such as the QS World University Rankings®.  You should use these rankings only as a guideline to quantify your gut “feeling” for classifying universities as “dream”, “perfect fit” and “cakewalk”. Different university ranking systems consider different criteria, and you may only be interested in a subset of those criteria, which can significantly alter the outcome of which is the right university for you.

3. Check your GRE scores

Assuming that your GRE scores reflect your general academic record to date, use the following table as a guideline to choose your 16 universities.

Your GRE score


(QS World University rank)

Perfect fit

(QS World University rank)


(QS World University rank)




















None (may be a few that have not been ranked among the top 800)


You are advised to retake and improve your GRE scores.

4. Research the academic faculty

Once you have picked four “dream”, eight “perfect fit” and four “cakewalk” universities, go to their websites and verify the minimum qualifications. Then do some research on the faculty members’ research activities using sites like Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Research and, in addition to the universities’ websites themselves. Often, the faculty members’ research and teaching reputation should take precedence over the university ranking. It would not be uncommon to find some of the best teachers in universities that are not even included in the rankings.

5. Create a shortlist

Shortlist eight universities from your initial 16, based on this additional research. (You can apply to fewer or more depending on how confident you feel about your choices.)

This approach should help you in choosing a university that is more likely to admit you. Of course, if you know of students who have been admitted to a particular university with a similar background to yours, that’s a sign that you should apply there irrespective of where it falls in the above table.  However, it is important to remind you again that academic record and test scores are not the sole criteria and universities look for a compelling all-round package.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss how you can put such a compelling application package together to make sure you really get noticed by the graduate school admissions committees.

Meet graduate school admissions tutors at the QS World Grad School Tour >

Dr Sridhar Pappu is Executive VP – Academics at the International School of Engineering in Hyderabad, India. He regularly advises students on higher education pursuits and how to choose the right university for them. Dr Pappu has extensive experience in academia, industry (both in Silicon Valley and India), Indian defence R&D and start-ups, and is actively working towards building a world-class higher education institute in India. Dr Pappu holds a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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