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You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

March 18, 2008

School Selection: Where to apply? Where to go?

Updated on March 21, 201-.

This is the first in series of posts on school selection for both those in the process of selecting where to apply to and those deciding where to attend. See my other related posts on academic fit,
ranking, location, financing your education, and prestige.

From my perspective, when deciding where you are going to spend one, two, or in the case of PhD, three to five or more years of your life, it is worth going through a formal process of analyzing your options.

I view school selection as the foundation for a successful admissions strategy. Honestly, there are times, when I, as an admissions consultant, have basically been put in the position of helping a client try to execute a school selection strategy that I have had serious doubts about. I have always expressed these doubts, but I have respected the decisions of my clients to make their own choices.

For those doing initial school selection, I have tried in this post to provide you with a core strategy for selecting schools.

For admitted applicants what follows in this post really applies only if you are not happy with where you have been admitted to. For admits making the happy choice between programs they like, please see the rest of the posts in this series.

You need to be both ambitious and realistic about your application strategy. Being ambitious means applying to where you really want to go, while being realistic means defining for yourself how much risk of total rejection you want to take. For example, if you apply to the “only school you really want to go to,” you meet the admissions criteria, and it happens to have a 15% chance of admission and you are wiling to take on an 85% chance of rejection, you are being both realistic and ambitious. If your GPA and/or test scores are below the average, if you don’t exactly meet the typical criteria for admission, or there is some other factor that on objective level makes you look weaker than the statistical average, assume your chances for admissions are less than 15%. In the latter situation, I still think it may be worth applying, but just be aware of what your chances are.

Related to my first point, I think you should objectively evaluate your chances of admission against a program’s stated quantitative and qualitative criteria to determine whether it is worth applying. Admissions offices generally have a holistic approach to the process of selecting candidates, so you should have a holistic approach to selecting schools.

I don’t believe in the utility of applying to any school that you would not want to attend unless you simply must get in; in other words, I don’t like the concept of backup schools. Clearly those who are company-sponsored often must get in somewhere, but for most other people this is not the case. If you will be unhappy going to a school, unless you have no other options, why do so? You should define your overall minimum requirements and apply only to programs that meet or exceed that standard. For some applicants that might mean only applying to the top programs in their field, but for others it might mean applying to a very wide range of programs

I think you need to build a portfolio of options for yourself so that your chances of admission are maximized. Depending on the degree and the schools you are applying to, there maybe very good information on rates of admission or perhaps none at all. For MBA applicants to US schools, the admissions data is easy to obtain. For non-US schools, the actual rates of acceptance and yield (percentage of admitted applicants who attend may not be reported. For LL.M. admissions numbers, see my previous post. Regardless of the type of graduate degree program you are applying to, if you can’t find any information on admissions rates, but you seem to meet the criteria for admission, assume your chances are about 10%-15% for a top ten program in your field, 15%-25% for a top 25 program, 25%-50% for a top 50, and 50% for a top 100. This is only an approximation and no perfect substitute for real numbers, but is a good indicator of why the safety strategy involves a mixed portfolio of schools. I have worked with applicants who have applied to only 1 school and some have applied to 10 or more. Both strategies are viable and, under the right conditions, reasonable.

You should be able to have a “Plan B”
in event that you are not admitted anywhere. There a few reasons to do this. First, it is simply a practical consideration. Second, it is a useful mental exercise that will help you really understand what your minimum school requirements are. Third, it is simply a viable strategy to be ready to make reapplication.

"Reapplication" is not a dirty word
. If time is on your side, knowing that you may fail initially is really nothing to worry about. For many top MBA programs, re-applicants typically have higher rates of admission than the overall pool of admits. Therefore, if initial failure is option that you can live with, you might initially aim high to see how it goes. Finding some school to go to is usually never the issue, going where you want to often is. For more about reapplication, see here.

Finally, no matter whether you are deciding where to apply to or where to attend, you have to make comparisons.
All the questions in the posts in this series should ultimately be looked at in that context. Using the criteria in the posts that follow, identify which criteria matter to you and make your decisions accordingly.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. If you are planning to apply for an MBA, LL.M., Ph.D., or a Masters and would like to learn more about my consulting services, please visit http://adammarkus.com/. I offer a free initial consultation.

-Adam Markus
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