Are you prepping to apply for grad school in the States? The following tips are for International Students applying to Graduate Schools in the United States. If you are thinking about applying to graduate school in the United States, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information required and the hoops you need to jump through to submit your application. Unlike some other countries, where grades or exams alone are the basis of admissions, graduate schools in the states require a lot more information…even if they don’t use it! Among that information are your transcripts, letters of recommendation, test scores, essays, and possibly other materials, such as writing samples.
How to proceed? The first thing to do is to make sure your timeline is realistic. Find a good translator right away; if your documents are not in English, they will need to be translated, and this will take time. Discuss your deadlines and the materials with your translator. Keep in mind that you should order your transcripts early, as universities can take time producing them.
The same applies to letters of recommendation. Ask professors from your undergraduate program who liked you and respect your work. You may wish to provide them with a variety of sample letters or guidelines, particularly if there is a big cultural difference in your area with the United States; American letters of recommendation tend to be uniformly enthusiastic to the point that they seem over-the-top to teachers from other countries. Even writing something seemingly neutral, like “X was very punctual,” can be read by U.S. admissions committees as signifying that there was nothing better to say about this student—not a good sign! Negative statements should be avoided at all costs, though this can feel awkward to explain. In the United States, professors who do not feel that they can write positive letters generally refuse to write them at all.
Next, start your test preparation early. It is slightly bizarre, but you will most likely need to submit GRE scores for both sections (Quantitative and Verbal) no matter what your field is…although one score will most likely matter far more to your program. Some programs, such as those focused on art practices, only require GRE scores because the university, in general, requires them and will not use them as a factor in admission (but you still have to take them), while others weight them heavily. It depends on your field and program, so asking the admissions committee is a good idea.
If English is not your native language, you will have to show that you have a strong mastery of it by taking an English-language exam such as the IELTS. Start IELTS study early, as these tests can take time to master, and be sure to practice for the IELTS before the exam. If you do not get a perfect score, this is usually fine; different programs will have different cut-offs, and super-high scores will rarely make a difference after you meet the basic level of English required.
For those in humanities, social sciences, and the arts, essays will be particularly important—but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important if you’re studying science, engineering, or math! Make sure you have a native English-speaker proofread. For example, perhaps your translator will do this for a fee. Essay topics will vary significantly, but will most likely ask about your professional goals, interest in the program, and other related factors.
Applying to grad school in the U.S. can be frustrating, but many students find that it is worth it. Not only do many grad programs have great professors and courses, but they may also have funding opportunities that make it easier for you to study full-time. Just remember to start early, get a trusted professional to help translate, and know what to expect. Good luck!
Rachel Kapelke-Dale blogs about test prep and admissions for Magoosh. She has a BA from Brown University and did her own graduate work at the Université de Paris VII (Master Recherche) and University College London (Ph.D.). She has taught and written about test preparation and admissions practices for more than a decade.