The wide variety of colleges and grad schools in the U.S. can leave international students feeling lost when they begin searching for schools. I'm familiar with that feeling, considering there are nearly 4,500 total degree-granting schools in the U.S.
I was awarded a grant through the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, which meant I was able to choose my top five favorite colleges in the U.S. I had this great opportunity, but I also felt I was standing in front of a mountain of American colleges without knowing how to climb it.
If this rings a bell for you, don't worry: There are numerous methods to make your way to the top and find the best match for your academic and personal interests.
[Learn how to research the safety of U.S. college campuses.]
1. School websites: You probably already have a few American schools that have drawn your attention for different reasons, maybe for their academics, great overall reputation or geographic locations.
Start by looking those schools up online and seeing what they have to offer. Going through the different aspects of a school is a good way of checking for suitable majors and their contents, especially if you have not decided on a specific field of study or subject.
While researching schools' websites, take notes on aspects that are important or interesting to you, such as application deadlines and admissions requirements.
I suggest copying everything into a digital document that includes links for the pages where you found the information. This is important, as you will often have to click through a lot of different pages to find the information you need.
[Check out U.S. News' Best Colleges to find your college match.]
2. College search engines: Looking up schools one by one and making your way through their websites can be interesting, but also very time-consuming. Another, faster method of researching colleges is using online school search engines like collegeconfidential.com or cappex.com.
These sites allow you to enter criteria that are important to you – such as your desired major or degree, the geographic area and cost – and then give you a list of schools that match your search. Many also allow you to read reviews from other students, which will give you an inside look at schools from students who have already been.
There is a big variety of these search engines. When you look at the different websites, see if they offer the search criteria that are important for you. Some have a broader and more detailed range of criteria than others and provide more background information. Most will provide you with reliable information, but depending on the size of the site's database you will get a varying amount.
A good way to find out if a website is worth spending your time on is by running a very broad search. Plug in test criteria of a famous school, such as Stanford or Harvard, and see if the search engine gives you this school among their results. If you cannot find that school in the results list and none of the schools' names sounds familiar, you should probably move on to the next website.
3. School contacts: Look at the sites for the handful of schools you found through your search to find out more details, such as what the campus looks like and information about dorms, the cafeteria, the library and other amenities, as well as your desired major and program.
A lot of schools provide contact information on their websites for a representative from the department or program, so if you still have questions, establish contact with the school to find answers.
Schools may also offer more information on social networking sites such as Facebook, and groups often exist that allow you to exchange information with current students, alumni or employees from the international student office.
These search methods brought me to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where I applied after it appeared among my search engine results. Since I play basketball and love college basketball, I started by looking at the sites of schools with teams I liked. This gave me a feeling for how colleges' websites are set up and which schools offered what I was looking for and were suitable for further research.
I also searched for future graduate schools with a few criteria that were important to me. The school had to be a state institution, preferably an engineering school, in an urban area, with low tuition costs and fees. It also had to offer a master's degree in industrial engineering in two semesters.
These criteria are already very specific, so the number of schools I could choose from was very limited. That made it easy for me to accelerate through my search and find the best match for me.
Mirjam Milsch, from Germany, received a Master of Science degree in industrial engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology through a grant from the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. She previously studied at Fachhochschule Hannover in Germany.