Researching the Dream School or Program

Application Strategy

Researching the Dream School or Program

The task of picking schools to apply to is a daunting one. You’re literally trying to pick the place where you’re going to spend the next 4 years of your life (if you’re applying to college), or the next 2-4 years of your life (if you’re applying to masters or graduate programs). For most of us, this is the first time you’re getting a say in where and how you want to live, as well as the kind of people we want to surround ourselves with. And with this new power comes big questions, questions that can affect the quality of our lives for the next several years.

Honestly, I didn’t do a very good job of asking myself these questions when I applied to college. I didn’t think about whether I’d be happier studying in a city or in a college town. I didn’t think about whether I’d be happier I’d be happier in a student population of tens of thousands or only a couple thousand. I did think about the classes and majors available at each school, but I didn’t think too much about extracurriculars or about the “type” of people that would make up the student population. The concept of a dream school or program during the application season was less about my specific needs than about overarching questions of prestige, academics, and returns. 

Thankfully, I figured out a bunch of these things later on in the application process, when I was travelling around the US visiting the schools to which I'd been admitted. And, even better, I ended up at a college that fit me more than I could’ve imagined – the University of Chicago, a school that’s in a neighborhood of Chicago but not in the middle of downtown, giving a great balance of city and college town. A school that also had an undergraduate population of only 5,000 students (a good size for me). I ended up absolutely loving two aspects of University of Chicago that distinguished it from other schools: 1) its Core Curriculum, which exposed me to rigorous social science for the first time in my life and revolutionized the way I viewed the world, and 2) the intensely driven nature of its student body.

The kicker is – I almost didn’t apply to Chicago. And, I didn’t particularly prioritize it among the applications I sent out, because during the common app process, I hadn’t thought a lot about what I wanted from a school, about what would actually make me happy at a school

What if it’d come down to the application deadline on January 5th and I’d let my supplement essay slip by the wayside and I hadn’t applied to the University of Chicago? What if I’d lost my dream school because I hadn’t known that it was my dream school? There’s so much advertising involved with attracting competitive applicants to a university or a graduate program, but just because a school can produce glossy photos of its beautiful campus doesn’t mean it’s going to satisfy all the criteria that will make you happy for the next 2-4 years.

Thus, when I was applying to medical school, I was determined to learn from my first application cycle experience and do my research better, this time around.

And, in order to force myself to complete a comprehensive research process, I created my secret weapon – my “Med Schools for the win” spreadsheet. 

The Spreadsheet System

Have you ever seen an Excel spreadsheet? Open one up right now to help you visualize my process. You'll see a series of boxes marked by numbers and letters to differentiate rows and columns.  

  • In the first column, I listed all the schools I was thinking of applying to; again, these were just thoughts. 
  • In the first row, I listed all the criteria I was looking for, including student population size, whether the school has a pass/fail grading policy, whether the school has faculty working in global health, etc. I also included the school’s mission statement, as it would give some sense into the different cultures at different schools. And finally, I included important application timeline details such as deadlines for the application, letters of recommendation, etc.
  • And then I proceeded to fill out every blank cell with notes and links. 

Researching medical schools in a serious way takes 1-2 months. It took me 2 months’ worth of free time to fill out each cell in my cell. But at the end of those two months, I had an organized, comprehensive record of all my research, I knew exactly which schools were my dream schools and why, and this saved me hours upon hours while writing my secondary essays and answering the question, “Why is this school the right one for you?” 

This spreadsheet provided further returns when I prepared for my interviews. Before each interview, I’d go through the row of notes and links for that particular school, and at the end of my review I’d know exactly why I was passionate about that school and its program. This allowed me to speak with enthusiasm and conviction in all my interviews, a trait that did not go unnoticed (in spring of 2014, I was accepted into Harvard Medical School).

I can’t tell you what your own criteria for happiness are regarding your college or graduate education. But what I can tell you is that the 10 minutes it takes to think about those criteria and plop them into a spreadsheet will be the start of an incredible journey of research and self-discovery. Furthermore, that journey will not only provide exponential returns in your secondary applications and interviews, it will go far to ensure a large part of your happiness for the next 2-4 years!

Don’t skimp on your happiness. Start your research now and find your dream school(s)!