Picking Your Dream University

25 minutes


Updated June 8, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

story“…Everything happens for a reason, so wipe that tear off your face and move on. You are strong. You can do it. You will get through this.”

I came across a short letter I had written to myself after I received my first admit result. It was 12:52 a.m. on February 17, 2017, when I received an email from the Chemical Engineering department’s co-chair at MIT. It began with the all-too-familiar I’m truly sorry to inform you. I remember crying silently into my pillow that night. The second blow came within a week on February 23, from HEC Paris, for their Master’s in Management program. I had attended an interview for this program, which I thought went very well. I guess I was mistaken. And within the next two days, the third rejection came from Yale. In hindsight, I can see I had a next-to-impossible shot with the Yale Silver Scholars program—which is an accelerated MBA program for students to join right after their undergrad—given my research background. Nevertheless, the blow hit hard back then. Yale was my dream university.

Those three rejections, within seven days of each other, deeply affected my mental state. On the outside, I maintained a posture of humility and kept reciting how I had low expectations. However, my mind screamed with optimism. Around that time a year earlier, in 2016, I had obtained all the three scholarships I had applied to for the summer. That made me complacent, and arrogant. I assumed I had a good shot with all these universities. That week changed it all, and reset my expectations.

Just as I obtained a slew of rejections in a week, I also obtained admits from Cornell, Columbia, and Dartmouth within ten days. Every selection email I received was a momentous occasion. I would first call my parents, then let my brother know, followed by a few close friends. And every time, someone would post about it on a WhatsApp group and I would eagerly respond to those who congratulated me.

Some choose to keep it private, others gain satisfaction from sharing it with those close to them.

Whichever side you belong to, record some of those moments.

If you’ve managed to bag an admit, or multiple admits, we could not be more thrilled for you. Congratulations! We want you to take a screenshot of your selection (and rejection) emails. Write a brief letter to yourself to metaphorically give yourself a pat on the back. Go out for a walk and eat your favorite dish. Throw a modest party for your closest friends who helped you before, during, and after your admission cycle. You’ve put in an incredible amount of work to get here, and you deserve to celebrate it how you see fit.

If you do not (or did not) get your dream admits, on the other hand, it is OK to feel dejected. It is an indication that you put in a lot of effort. You are entitled to shed a few tears and shield yourself from the world for a little while. However, after that, you have to move on. There’s no other option.

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Many students tend to receive more than one admit (side note: Sai received admits from all seven universities he applied to!*). Specifically, if you followed our guidance from the chapter Choosing the Universities and picked your universities right, there’s a good chance you have a few admits in your bag right now. So, you’re in a dilemma on making the final choice.

There are good problems and bad problems in the world.

What you have right now is a fantastic problem.

It is still a problem, though, since you probably have less than two weeks to make an important decision. Let’s see how we can help you make that choice!

Satisficer and Maximizer, Revisited

You may remember Herbert Simon coined the term satisfice to strike a distinction between classical and behavioral economics. Classical economics posits that we are all maximizers who strive to get the very best out of every decision we make. However, this assumes that we are rational and armed with the information needed to make that optimal choice. Simon proposed that this is rarely, if ever, the case, due to the limits of human cognition. Rather, he suggests an alternative route wherein the decision maker can be a satisficer by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world.

In both cases, the satisficer is happy to walk away with a good enough solution that meets the threshold set by them, as opposed to the best possible one.

You were a satisficer when you were trying to pick the universities to apply to.

Now, we want you to be a maximizer.

Let’s revisit the example of purchasing a house. At first, you were browsing dozens of listings to eliminate the ones that did not fit your minimum requirements and applied to the top ten that did. Guess what? Your bid got accepted in three places! Now, you have to go inspect each of them in person and create a bigger list of factors that will affect your everyday experience of living there. Is there an HOA fee? How much will it cost to fix the roof? What are the neighbors like? Until you got your bid picked, all these questions were reserved for the imagination. Now, they have become very real, and we want you to be a maximizer since the stakes are high.

The good news is, as the need to optimize increased, your world also became much more simplified with limited choices for you to choose from. At first, you were trying to select from hundreds of universities. And now, it is just a handful.

Until you received those selection emails from the universities, the ball was in their court.

Not anymore.

The Quadrant Framework, Revisited

Time to open your Dream Tracker again.

actionNavigate to the Choosing Universities sheet where you have a trove of information on each university already. We told you earlier that you would make your future self’s life a lot easier by doing all the research diligently. If you did, thank your past self now. If you didn’t, that’s OK too. Re-read the chapter Choosing the Universities once again and apply the quadrant and framework we gave you for just the universities you got an admit from.

In fact, let’s revisit the quadrant once again.

The Quadrant Framework

Three things need to be fixed above:

  • First, the Requirements quadrant isn’t needed anymore, now that you’ve been selected.

  • Second, we need to add a few more factors that you can look at now, since your world has been simplified.

  • Finally, since you saw this for the first time, a lot might have changed in your life. Maybe a university gave you a scholarship, or you obtained one from external sources. Maybe you got a response from a professor in one of the universities who agreed to be your supervisor. Or, something happened in your personal life that needs to be taken into account. Whatever it is, it has to be incorporated here.

The Quadrant Framework

That’s more like it.

When you were choosing the universities to apply to, your mind was primed to think about elimination.

Now, approach this problem from the standpoint of selection.

Learn From the T

There is a famous saying when it comes to hiring: look for someone with T-shaped skills.*

The T here is a metaphor that conveys that companies want someone with both breadth-wise and depth-wise skills, indicated by the horizontal and vertical bar of the symbol T. Think of the T-shaped person as a “jack of many trades and master of one (or a few)”. The earliest reference of this goes all the way back to a paper published in 1978.* Since then, it has been referenced in various articles* as a way to encourage people to acquire skills across varied fields.

We will now use this mental model* to help you make the final choice.

The Vertical

When you were eliminating universities to apply to in the chapter Choosing the Universities, you were using just a few factors on the surface level. You might have used some hard requirements you set for courses, research, and location to do the elimination. Now, you have the luxury to go deeper into all the factors that you deemed to be important back then. We will specifically talk about Academia and Career.

Academia: Your Opportunities

Courses and research are still the most important factors that will define your experience. You already spent some time looking at the course catalog, research areas, and professors’ pages in the beginning. Now, we need you to dive deeper into these areas and get more questions answered.

Courses: Revisit the work you had already done in the Choosing Universities sheet and go over the course website once more for the universities. Back then, we asked you to think about the single most important factor that mattered to you with regards to courses. Most of you might have had something on the lines of, I want to study x, y, and z topics during my graduate school.

thinkNow, how can you go a layer deeper? The following are a few examples:

  • I want to have flexibility in choosing at least one course from the business school and journalism school, respectively.

  • I want to take a course that lets me work on a project in interdisciplinary teams.

  • I want my department to provide specialization tracks so I can pick the one on Integrated Devices.

Write down a few of these use cases and begin your hunt to find out if the universities satisfy them. Like before, rank these so you don’t treat them all with the same priority.

Research: There is a good chance you heard back from a few of the professors you wrote to in the past few months. If you followed the guidance in Choosing the Universities, all the universities you got an admit from must at least have the opportunity for you to pursue research in your area of interest.

thinkThe following are a few examples:

  • I want to work in a research lab that has published papers in the ICML conference before.

  • I want to have access to a cyclotron to conduct my research.

  • I want my supervisor to provide me with a research assistantship that will fully waive my tuition.

Career: Your Prospects

In the chapter Choosing the Universities, we asked you to look at the placement statistics, top career paths that alumni chose, and a salary range. Unlike Academia, it isn’t easy or straightforward to dig deeper here.

So, you need to turn to a qualitative but high quality resource: current and past students.

You can find them either by going to the department’s student directory* or by using the filters on LinkedIn.* They have lived through it all: attended career fairs, networking events, and career center workshops. They can attest to the level of support provided by the university in securing internships and jobs.

thinkBefore you send out a dozen LinkedIn requests asking to schedule a call, spend some time thinking about the questions you want answered.

Having been through the process, we recommend you focus on the following topics:

  • In retrospect, what helped you most in securing your internship? How much of a role did the career counselor and department play?

  • What career path did you think you would end up in when you joined, and is that different from what you do now? What made you change?

  • What was something surprising about the recruitment process, both good and bad?

Like you, there would be a dozen others reaching out to them. So, ask yourself how you can use that knowledge to your advantage. Our suggestion would be to acknowledge that you value their time and propose multiple options through which they can help you. The following is an example message:

Hi Siya,

I am excited to let you know that I received an admit from the Energy Engineering department at Duke University. I have two weeks to make a decision between Duke, Cornell, and UW. Given the peak season of getting admits, I understand you must be approached by others as well. I wanted to ask you a few critical questions related to the assistance Duke provided in getting your job (congratulations, by the way!). To be respectful of your time, I’m proposing a few alternatives below. Let me know what the most efficient way for you would be.

  • If you already responded to someone else who asked a question on this topic, please feel free to copy and paste the response.

  • If you prefer to type the responses at your own convenience, here [link] is a Google Doc with the questions I wanted to ask. Feel free to add hyperlinks to resources there.

  • If you prefer to have a 20-minute call to field the questions, here is a Calendly link [link] you can use to book a slot. If none of those times work for you, let me know, and I can accommodate to your liking. Or, send me your Calendly link if you have one.

I’m sure you know, this is an important decision in life. I’ve learned from experience that the best way forward is to talk to a few people who’ve walked the path before. Thank you so much in advance!

The example message above is specific to asking questions about your career, but you can use this template for any topic.

The Horizontal

While narrowing down universities, you looked at a few factors at the horizontal level and selected your top universities. The T-shape was more like a “—” back then.

In the previous section, we asked that you paint the vertical bar of the T by going deeper into a few critical factors.

You need to complete the T-shape by considering a few factors we disregarded before, breadth-wise.

Academia: We looked at courses, research, and STEM certification in the chapter Choosing the Universities. The second layer of research here involves spending some time searching for factors such as possible industry partnerships and assistantships available, which we covered in the chapter Applying for Scholarships.

Career: If you were able to speak to a few past students, then you might have covered this already. However, beyond looking at the top career paths and placement statistics, take time to go over a few other resources provided by the university for your job search: the events calendar of your department,* resources provided by the career development center,* and in general all forms of content from your alumni.

storyI wrote an article for every month of my graduate school and made it a series with its own catchy title.* Every article was a mini-diary entry from the past month on something new that I learned. I have been told by my juniors that reading the series gave them a good idea of what is to come.

Although mine was more general than job specific, look out for alumni from your school and major who did something similar, in the form of a blog or video. With YouTubers such as Harnoor, Yudi, Parth, Nitin, and more, there is no dearth of information out there.*

Miscellaneous: Now is a good time to take into account a lot of the extraneous, miscellaneous factors such as the living expenses, sport facilities, and student clubs that you didn’t look at before.

storyI realized after joining Columbia that they did not have a dedicated badminton court. The basketball court was used to play badminton on Tuesday and Thursday nights. For an intermediate player like me, it wasn’t a big deal. However, if you are a state or national champion, I’m sure it matters a lot to you.

We listed some factors based on our experience, but this is a highly subjective quadrant, so we recommend you add more factors that matter to you.

Back to the Sheet

At the end of all this T-talk, go back to your best buddy, the Dream Tracker, who has kept track of all your work so far.

actionFor the vertical bar where you dived deeper, keep track of your findings and modify the scores for each of the columns accordingly. You also don’t need to resort to using just numbers. Add a new column to record the qualitative feedback and information you obtained from your research.

For the horizontal bar where you looked at newer factors, create new columns once again to record your feedback.

Finally, add the relevant information from the What’s New? quadrant for each of the universities, if any.

With that, you are armed with everything you need to make that decision.

The Final Element

We all build our own frameworks to get to the solution here. The way I chose a university to study at is different from the way Sai, or anyone else, did.

storySai told me that he loved the four years he spent in Trichy, even if he didn’t put a lot of thought into choosing to study there. When he got admits from all seven universities he applied to, he took the opportunity to dive deeper into each to find the optimal one. He made a list of the five most important factors that will affect his experience, based on research, and asked his seniors and mentors to rank their importance. The five were: curriculum, reputation, tuition, weather, and proximity to the industry. He chose Dartmouth in the end due to the flexibility of coursework, reputation as an Ivy League, and scholarship offered to offset the tuition.

On the other hand, I certainly did not love Trichy, but I loved the limited freedom and independence I had. From my viewpoint, Trichy was a city with too many temples, sparsely populated restaurants, and a single theater (at least in my time). Even before I sat down to evaluate the admits from Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth, a part of me knew I would choose Columbia. Maybe I chose Columbia for its reputation and course curriculum, which let me work as a student consultant for startups in New York. But maybe, a small part of me chose Columbia for New York. Maybe I wanted to get away from the austere environment for a while and immerse myself in one that was chaotic and exhilarating. It’s hard to tell the difference.

We tried our best to quantify this process for you with spreadsheets and scores. However, we can’t ignore the human element amongst it all.

Use all the information you consumed to educate yourself. And then make the decision with that human element.

Final Thoughts on Choosing Your Dream School

Here ends a very long journey of yours. We don’t remember a lot of things that happen in our lives, but there are these key moments that are impossible to forget. Receiving Congratulations! emails from your dream universities are definitely up there on that list. These moments are precious, so do your best to record them in your head as a mental picture, or better yet, take a screenshot of the email and celebrate with your loved ones in the way you see fit. If you didn’t meet your expectations, on the other hand, know that it is OK to feel dejected.

That just shows how much effort you put into this venture. But with time, you will learn to move on to the next. There’s no other option.

We revisited the concept of satisficers and maximizers once again. Earlier in this journey, you learned to be a satisficer. You learned to find a satisfactory solution for a complex world by using limited, critical factors to eliminate the universities to apply to. Now, we need you to do the opposite. Be a maximizer. Your world has been greatly simplified. You only have a few choices in front of you and enough resources to dive deep and find a near-optimal solution. To help you with this process, we spoke about the T-shaped mental model.

The T-shaped model, generally quoted during a hiring process, can be used to dive deeply and explore widely. Dive deep into the factors you had used previously while you eliminated the universities. Write down more use cases for Academia and Career. Reach out to the alumni to learn about their job search. Tease out the other factors that will matter to you, ranging from sport facilities to research assistantships. At the same time, look at a few more factors that you did not consider a few months ago, and collect information on them. Everything you learn must go into the Dream Tracker, so you can make a well-informed decision in the end.

However well-informed, though, the human element will (and should) come into play somehow.

A Little Reflection on The Final Decision

thinkWhat is a miscellaneous factor that you did not consider when you were choosing universities to apply to?

If you had to guess, what’s the human element that helped you make the final decision?

What is something you want your future self to know right now?

Passing On the Gratitude6 minutes

There was a story that I read when I was in ninth grade that has stuck with me throughout the years. You may have read it too. It was titled The Bishop’s Candlesticks and was one of the chapters in my English textbook.* The play’s protagonist is an incredibly generous man, almost too generous to a fault, who goes by the title Bishop. The entire play occurs in the Bishop’s cottage, where an escaped convict breaks in to demand food. The Bishop treats the convict as his friend, feeds him, and gives him a place to stay. In turn, the convict steals the Bishop’s beloved candlesticks, only to be caught by the police as he tries to escape.

The final minutes of The Bishop’s Candlesticks is a powerful reminder of what generosity can do to a damaged soul.

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