"How to choose universities?" This is the first question we come across when we apply for universities. I applied for Fall 2012 and I too faced the same question. These are the questions which came to my mind about selecting universities:
(1) How many universities I should apply?
(2) What should be the distribution according to ranking of universities?
(3) Which are safe universities?
(4) Should I apply to more public or private universities?
(5) Should I apply to only those universities from where I got a positive response from some professor?
I am an international student. My profile is good, my scores are fine, my LORs are excellent and I have some research experience too. But despite all this I got acceptance from only one place (I am fortunate that my first decision was an acceptance and it was from Cornell!) out of 9 places I applied.
I applied to University of Chicago. I was in contact with a professor there and he was quite willing to take me as a graduate student. After I got a rejection from U Chicago, I wrote to him about my rejection and acceptance in Cornell. This is what he replied, "congratulations to being accepted at Cornell. It is a very fine school. Graduate admission is a tricky business everywhere, including Chicago. Just do your best at Cornell, and you will do well!"
And now I feel that it's true, "Graduate admission is a tricky business". Anyway, according to my experience I will suggest the following things to future applicants ( I am writing this keeping in mind those students who have a more-than-average application):-
(1) Apply to at least 15 places. Some students are lucky enough to get an university out of only 4 places they apply. But not everyone has such a good luck. So, 15 seems to be a good number.
(2) The distribution of universities should be like this: 4 in top 10, 5 in 10-20, 4 in 20-30 and 2 in 30-40 (for ranking look at: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandr ... s-rankings
). For example, for a student interested in Analysis the following can be a good list: Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, UT Austin, U Penn, UIUC, U Maryland College Park, U Washington Seattle, Indiana, Ohio state Columbus, UIC.
(3) Previously I thought one should apply to some universities in ranking near 60s as commonly one thinks that having a good profile I can easily get there. But this is not the case. These universities have less funding and hence they take very few graduate students each year ( specially there is very less funding for international students). For example, I applied to NCSU considering it as a safe university ( and I was in contact with a professor there too) and they mailed me that they are ready to take me if I have some other source for funding as they have very less funds for international students. So don't think that low ranked universities are safe and if your profile is good enough you can very well apply under rank 50.
(4) I can't say anything about private and public universities. I don't have much idea but I feel that one should apply to less number of public universities.
(5) This is really important that one should start writing to professors in different universities a month ago before applying. It really works sometime. Write everywhere, you will hear back from very few but those few may help you to get to a good place.
I think it will be helpful to future applicants. Any comments are most welcome. All the best!