The Five-Step Elimination

6 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.

Step 1: First Round

First, we want you to collect a list of 20–25 universities for your major based on information from various ranking sites, seniors, and general research on Q&A forums.

Go through the Requirements for each university and populate just those columns in the sheet wherever you can.

Once you’re done with that, eliminate all the universities where you don’t satisfy the requirements. It’s OK to keep two or three that you’ve dreamed of joining, but be sure to mark this appropriately in the Category column.

Step 2: Setting Priorities

Now, we’ve got a list of universities you have a shot at (with a few Dreams).

Let’s take a step back and think about the most important thing that you care about for each factor under the quadrants Academia, Career, and Miscellaneous. The table below gives you an example.

QuadrantFactorWhat Matters
AcademiaCoursesI want to study Computer Vision, Entrepreneurship, and Reinforcement Learning
AcademiaResearchI want to conduct research on human computer interaction (HCI)
CareerTop Career PathsI want to become a Product Manager at an AR/VR company
CareerAverage SalaryI want to earn $100,000+ so I can pay back my loan within three years
MiscRankingI want my department to be within top 20 in that major
MiscLocationI want to live in a metropolitan city

thinkYou don’t have to strictly adhere to the example above and have a requirement for each factor. You also don’t need to treat them all with equal importance. Think about which factor matters more to you.

For example, If you have always dreamt of living in Silicon Valley, it makes sense to place a higher weight on the location over the ranking.

So write down what matters most in each of the areas and then rank them according to your priorities. Once you’re done ranking them, assign appropriate weights in the row titled Weights in the Dream Tracker. We gave it all a weight of 1, but you should change it based on your preferences.

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Step 3: Second Round

Now use all the tools we mentioned in this chapter to gather the data you need. Look over the list of universities you have currently and remove the ones that don’t satisfy your requirement for each of the areas. For example, if taking a course and eventually specializing in human computer interaction is very important to you, then look at the course catalog and description of each university to eliminate the ones that don’t offer it.

If you end up having to eliminate almost all the universities, then revisit the factors and only use the top two or three to eliminate. At the end of this exercise, you should be left with a list of approximately ten universities, give or take two.

Step 4: Assigning Scores

Finally, you can begin assigning scores to all the universities under each column. This is part objective, part subjective.

Taking the example of courses once again, dive deeper into the catalog offered by each of the universities. Read the description, syllabus, and takeaways if present. If the university offers specializations, then look through them and find out the ones that resonate with you.

danger As you’re assigning the scores, here’s an important tip: stay away from 3. Generally, when a 1–5 scale is used, the most common response would be 3, since it’s an easy way out when you’re in a dilemma. However, it will also dilute your response. So, as much as possible, avoid assigning 3.

Step 5: Final Round

You have the pre-final list of universities, the weights, and the scores. What is left is for you to categorize each of the universities as Safe, Moderate or Dream. This should be assigned based on the requirement specified by the university along with its reputation and general knowledge. We all know MIT is better than Miami University.

Once the categorization is complete, pick the top six to eight universities with a split of 11 (or close) with the Safe, Moderate, and Dream tag. For example, if you wish to apply to seven universities, then apply to the top two Safe ones, top three Moderate ones, and top two Dream ones.

We recommend not applying to more than eight universities.


First, finishing an application takes a significant amount of time and effort. Having to do this amidst your already busy life should be taken into consideration. Second, if you picked your universities and chances right, you wouldn’t need to apply to more than a few to know that you will get into one. Picking fewer will also let you allocate more time per university. Finally, each application carries a fee between $50 to $100. That could add up to over $1000 if you don’t limit yourself in this step.

Yes, just one final note! Each university you apply to expects you to submit either two or three letters of recommendation. On average, professors don’t give out more than three letters. We will talk in detail about this in a later chapter, but keep in mind the number of letters you would need as you apply to more universities.

With that, we’ve reached the end of one of the longer chapters in the book. We will revisit some of the concepts you learned in this chapter once again later in the book when you’re tasked with making that final decision. You will then be immensely grateful to your past self for putting in the work right now. So begin the work needed to make the life of your future self a lot easier.

Final Thoughts on Narrowing Down Universities

Narrowing down the list of universities is difficult not because of a lack of information, but because of too much of it. This is why you need to follow the role of a satisficer, someone who settles for a good enough solution that meets a preset threshold. You can be a maximizer when the time comes to pick your dream university.

It is tempting to use ranking as a dealbreaker while choosing universities. But, it is not a good representation of your experience. There are a plethora of other factors to consider. First, we divided these into four quadrants: requirements, academia, career, and miscellaneous. Next, we gave you the resources needed to obtain information for all these quadrants. And finally, most importantly, we walked you through a five-step framework that you can use to do a pretty good job of narrowing down the universities from over 25 to under 8. The most important step here is to write down what matters the most to you in each of the factors and assign appropriate priority among them. This entire process should be thought of as one of elimination, rather than one of selection. We will revisit some of these concepts once again in a later chapter when you are tasked with picking your dream university.

With so many options out there, you will find it hard to reach a point when you feel the work is complete. That is why it’s important to begin with a threshold on the number of applications, either based on financial constraints or other personal factors. If you’ve followed the structure we’ve detailed in the chapter closely, we can assure you that you can’t go wrong.

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