Today, I will like to share my experience about applying to United States for Higher studies, MS and PhD. I hope this might me be helpful to a lot of readers.
I started the arduous process of applying to the graduate schools in the US back in 2004.
The following are the steps I took (some of which, I wish I had strictly followed):
Step 1: Contemplating US education. As an International applicant, one must start thinking and planning minimum 2 years in advance. Start discussing and preparing your family. This head start will put you in very happy state at the end. Also, look for seniors or peers who have gone through this process or are currently applying. Teamwork definitely made the process less daunting for me.
Step 2: What degree, program, school to choose? Since, no one in my nearest acquaintance dreamt of going to US and that too for a PhD, I had to decide myself and gamble my own way through this process. First, I took subscription to US news to get the official rankings of all the schools and programs in US.
I would suggest for you to make an excel sheet or Google drive document to tabulate all the information you collect/read/hear about a school/program pertinent to your interest. That will help you compare and contrast. Also, tabulate deadlines, application costs, departmental information, fees, cost of living, funding available, graduate assistantships, student resources, and qualifying GRE, TOEFL scores. I would tackle one school at a time. Sometimes it may take hours to maneuver a website and information can become overwhelming and redundant.
It will be great idea to contact current students in a particular school to get more information on the campus life, graduate assistantship, career services, etc.
It may take 6 months to a year for till you narrow down the number schools and programs you plan to apply. Other steps may overlap while you are researching for schools. Remember, this is an investment into your future and that too in a new country. So DO NOT PANIC and let your knowledge grow “organically.”
Step 3: GRE and TOEFL. GRE score is typically valid for 5 years and so you can plan to give the exam at any point during this process. You can either start preparing yourself or get external help in the form of coaching classes. It may cost some money for classes but they are certainly helpful especially if you have lost touch with basic Math and English.
TOEFL is typically valid for 2 years. You can start preparing for it along with GRE but finish with the TOEFL only 6 months in advance to the application deadline for the school of choice.
Step 4: What academic documents are required? You can start collecting these as soon as you have decided to apply to US for graduate school. Depending on your undergraduate and/or master’s college, it may anywhere from 1- 6 months to obtain these documents.
Required Documents are:
1. Results: for all the years of school after high school
2. Official College Transcripts: for all the years of education after high school
3. Degree Certificates: for all the degrees obtained after high school
4. Notarized copies (2-3) of all the above
NOTE: Ensure that you have 16 years of total education either completed or are in the process of completing in order to be considered for US grad school. Programs that you are planning to apply must have the required document information on their website.
Step 5: How many recommendation letters? The number of recommendation letters required should be mentioned on the departmental website of the school you are planning to apply. Usually, 3 recommendation letters are mandatory but more the better. Try to find recommenders from all the facets of your professional and personal life. You should come about to be a complete package. Don’t just focus on your degree professors. It could be somebody you helped build a project or some organization you are involved with or someone who can vouch for your character.
Step 6: Documents showing your interests other than education. It is very helpful to certificates/letters/membership documents that can prove that you have been involved in extracurricular activities that show your soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, interpersonal skills, etc. Some examples of these are:
1. Leadership: You may have been a chair of the college cultural event or the captain of your local rugby team
2. Teamwork: You may be involved in a local or national organizations
3. Professional or Technical Training: You may have taken some training classes or certificate courses outside your curriculum
NOTE: Such accomplishments go a long way in distinguishing you from other candidates.
Step 7: Financial documents. This is the most crucial step. “Figuring out your finances is always the first step.” You should start discussing finances and cost for US education with your family from the beginning. Although some people can fund themselves for higher education, you may still need support and back-up from your family. Most PhD students get a tuition waiver or some sort of stipend either in the form of Teaching assistantship or Research assistantship upon being accepted from the school.
For MS program students, however, this may be difficult to obtain upfront. But either ways, each student has to show ‘X’ amount of financial support from their end when sending applications (depending on the school). Programs that you are planning to apply must have financial information on their website. You can hope to get tuition waiver and assistantships but you will not know this until you have received an acceptance letter. You will use the same financial documents in the VISA step as well.
Following are some examples of financial documents:
1. Student loan statement from a Bank [Most common financial document].
2. Personal/ family asset evaluation certificates (Example: Property)
3. Personal/ family savings account statements
4. Personal/ family bonds, stocks (shares), Credit of Deposit (CDs), Fixed Deposit (FDs) certificates/statements
5. Personal/ parents Provident Fund Account (PFA), Public Provident Funds (PPF)
NOTE: You can use any combinations of documentation as long as you show funds for the term of education including, cost of boarding/housing and living. Specific financial requirements of each school should be present on their website.
Step 8: Visa documents? Congratulations! You have received an admission from a prospective University/School. Now what? Whether or not you will actually be able to go to US for your higher education will entirely depend on this last but the scariest of all steps- The VISA.
Before you start preparing for Visa, please make sure to finalize and accept admission from only 1 school. The school should then send you their official I-20 document (most important document for visa and US entry purposes).
Please look at the USCIS website when preparing for the Visa documents. Visa documents and requirements may differ depending on your country. But generally following the 3 main arms for visa documents:
1. Official school I-20 (it would display your unique SEVIS number, school information, fees, cost of living, number of years of schooling and such)
2. Acceptance letter from the school (should generally mention whether you have received any financial aid, scholarship or graduate assistantship. If so, that is great! You have won half the battle at getting Visa for your education. Showing surplus funds that will cover your education fees in addition to cost of boarding/housing and living is always the biggest hassle.
3. Financial documents (prepared already during the previous step)
NOTE: Visa documents and requirements may differ depending on your country. Please ensure to look at the USCIS website.
Finally, be prepared for unfortunate outcomes. You may have invested more than 2 years in securing an admission to graduate school in US but if your VISA does not come through in time, you may not be able to go. But do not lose the battle, not just yet. You can apply for Visa again. Generally schools hold your admissions for 2 semesters depending on your situation. I wish you all the very best. In my next blog, I shall write about- “You’ve got the VISA, now what? The next stage in your graduate life.” Stay tuned.