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Higher Education Facilitation Center

Graduate Education

Getting Started

Applying to a U.S. graduate school is a time-consuming, but fair and rewarding process. A few general points should be emphasized as you get started in this process

Allow yourself enough time for this process. Taking standardized tests, organizing letters of recommendation, getting mark sheets and credentials, and writing (and re-writing) application essays is a time-consuming process. Allow between 12-15 months for this entire process.

Do not underestimate the importance of essays. Admissions officers take the application essays and Statement of Purpose (SoP) essays very seriously. Working hard to craft, proof-read and edit these essays many times over is an effort that will pay rich dividends.

Shortlist universities with a larger plan in mind. While nothing is impossible, ensure that you apply to a range of institutions that you would like to attend within your academic reach. Also you may want to keep in mind factors such as the university's proximity to relatives or friends, geographical location, scholarships, climate and cost of living, as well as factors such as entertainment, rural or urban setting and so forth.

Application Timelines

Ideally, the process of applying for graduate studies in the U.S. should begin 12 to 18 months before enrolment. If you are late getting started in this process, you can still consider applying, but you may need to work at a faster pace! The following timeline is useful for a typical fall session applicant but the same logic will apply to a student who may want to go to the U.S. for a spring session as well.

12 to 18 months before enrolment

Decide if the U.S. is the right destination for your career and educational goals. Investigate and begin researching and short listing the universities to which you will apply.

10-12 months prior to enrolment (summer/early autumn)

Determine whether you are required to take a standardized test, such as the GRE or GMAT. If so, register for the exam and begin studying. Take advantage of USIEF library resources to prepare for these exams.

Finalize your ion of 4-7 universities. Visit university websites and note application requirements, deadlines, and funding options and make a personalized application timeline.

8-10 Months before enrolment

Begin by downloading admissions brochures and forms from the university websites. Start working on these admission forms and applications. Prioritize the areas you have least control over, such as arranging for reference letters or an academic mark sheet or certificate. Search for and begin applying for external scholarships.

Submit your university admissions applications. Most deadlines will fall between mid-December and early January. However, deadlines will vary from program to program and may include an early and regular admission deadline. If you can do so, we recommend applying by the early deadline, especially if you are interested in applying for university funding. Financial aid deadlines generally fall early.

Please note that applications for MBA programs usually have three rounds (Round One: October-November Round Two: December-February Round Three: March-April). We recommend students apply no later than by Round Two.

Lead up to Enrolment

Between February and April, you should receive admissions decisions by post or e-mail. Some degree programs, including certain PhD programs and competitive MBA programs, may request a phone interview before offering admission.

Depending on the deadline, you will need to notify the universities of your decision, pay a non-refundable deposit, and apply for your F-1 student visa. Apply for the F-1 visa appointment as soon as possible.

Standardized Tests

Most but not all U.S. graduate programs will require you take a standardized admissions exam. These standardized tests provide U.S. universities with an objective standard by which they can assess your academic potential. No matter how well prepared you are, never underestimate the time that you need to prepare for standardized tests.

The most commonly required tests are the following

GRE General Test

If you are planning to apply to a Master's or PhD program in a field other than medicine or law, you will most likely be required to take the GRE General Test. The new format of the GRE test was rolled out on August 1, 2011. This three hour, 45 minute computer-based exam includes sections on Quantitative Analysis, Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing.

GRE Subject Tests

Some graduate programs may require GRE Subject Tests in addition to the General Test. Check with the academic department or graduate admission office of the university to which you're applying to confirm


Most students applying for an MBA program will be required to take the GMAT. However, some business programs are now accepting the GRE as well. The GMAT is a computer-based test with sections in Analytical Writing (30 minutes), Quantitative (75 minutes) and Verbal Section (75 minutes).

English Proficiency Exams

International students whose native language is not English may be required to take a test to establish their English language proficiency. Students should visit individual college websites for more information. Options include:

  • TOEFL(Test of English as a Foreign Language)
  • IELTS(International English Language Testing System)
  • PTE Academic (Pearson Test of English Academic)
  • If you are unsure which test you need to take, consult official university websites for more information. Pay very close attention to the university's application deadline and plan your exam schedule accordingly.

    Shortlisting Universities

    Short-listing graduate or PhD programs can be a challenge because of enormous variety of available programs. Researching the 1,700 or more U.S. higher education institutions that offer Master's and PhD programs is not a simple task and we suggest narrowing your search using the following tips.

    The key to short-listing universities is to begin by setting your own priorities. After you set your priorities, use a university search engine or print guide to narrow your search to 10-20 universities meeting your criteria. The most up-to-date information about a university will be on its official website. Thoroughly review university websites using these steps:

  • Begin with the international admissions page for information on the university's selection criteria, application process and deadlines.

  • Read the financial aid page for information on costs and university-funded scholarship, fellowships, or assistantships.
  • Research external funding opportunities from private foundations, businesses, and other organizations.
  • Review the department website to learn about the academic environment and the intellectual resources of the faculty and the facilities you can expect to access at the department.
  • Read the student services and international student pages for information about campus life and activities. Each university tends to have a unique "campus culture."

    Consulting alumni of American universities and current university students, conducting campus visits, and speaking to EducationUSA advisers at USIEF can also help you narrow your search and chose 4-6 universities to which you will apply.

    After deciding the type of degree you would like to complete, begin by researching the academic fit and suitability of departments. Make this your top consideration. Then, take into account location and campus setting/size, competitiveness of admission, cost of attendance and funding and accreditation and reputation.

    Academic Fit and Suitability of the Department

    "I like the fact that the department has an academic advisory committee that works closely with students, providing advice on your choices of classes, your general progress and areas for improvement." - Laura, Indiana University at Bloomington

    Your academic fit within the department should be your top consideration, before location, brand name of the university and pretty much anything you can think of! It is essential to research the department to find the right 'academic home' for you. Consider the following factors:

    Areas of faculty expertise

    For research students, faculty members' interests and backgrounds will dictate the electives and research assistantships/projects available for students. It is important to find a department with faculty conducting research in your specific area of interest. This will ensure you have support for your research as a student and a great number of useful contacts when you search for jobs.

    Electives, concentrations, joint degree programs

    For students on professional degrees, the key is finding a program you can tailor to your interests or future career plans. Look into elective courses both within and outside your department, concentrations and joint degree programs, through which a student can earn two degrees in a shorter time than completing the degrees separately. Popular joint degrees include the JD/MBA or MD/PhD.

    Size and atmosphere

    Graduate programs can sometimes feel quite insular and you will likely spend most of your time studying and socializing with members of your department. The atmosphere of a department can greatly impact your experience. Consider what type of experience you're looking for – an academically rigorous experience in which you are constantly challenged and kept on your toes or more of a balance between your academic demands and extracurricular interests? Do you want a close-knit, small department? Do you want a competitive environment? Will you have support from fellow students and faculty? Would you benefit from a university with a strong graduate student associations or professional organizations for students to get involved and socialize, as well as special events throughout the year – social activities, lectures, poster competitions, etc.? As you consider a department, you may want to enquire about the size of the department and type of students it attracts to determine whether it would be a good fit. Departments will put this data on their website. The university may be willing to put you in touch by email with a current student who could be a good resource in determining what it is like to study there. Many departments have a link on their home page to the email addresses and the web pages of current graduate students. This is a great way for you to directly contact graduate students and pose questions about the department and the program.

    Relationships between students and faculty

    Ask about the opportunities to work with faculty and the type of support you can expect, particularly if you will be writing a thesis. Face-time with faculty to discuss your research and a supportive network of faculty are essential to ensuring a smooth progression through a research-focused master's or doctoral program. Often you can assess this criterion by contacting a current student or faculty member. Have a look at the faculty members' webpages. Are they allowing students to co-author papers or attend conferences with them? What kinds of projects are faculty members working on at present? Which grants and funds have they won for their own research? These factors will help you identify the resources and opportunities you can expect from the department.

    Getting socialized into the academic profession through various opportunities

    Opportunities to gain teaching or research experience are available through university assistantships. Some professional degree programs will also include internship or work placements. These types of experiences can set you apart when applying for further study or jobs after graduation. Attending professional conferences across the sub-fields of the discipline and in your major field of study will provide you with an opportunity to meet other professors, researchers, and potential employers. Serving as a teaching, research or graduate assistant will make you stand out in the job market and help you to acquire work experience during your studies. All of these opportunities will help you to strengthen your CV and gain future employment.

    Location and Campus Setting/Size

    "I'd very much recommend thinking about the area of the States that you would want to live in, as geographic regions vary dramatically. I chose the Northeast because I felt I'd fit in there culturally. Also, don't be afraid to talk to current graduate students. They're likely to be happy to answer any questions you have, and this can give you a feel for what each place is like before you apply." - Marc, University of Pennsylvania

    The U.S. spans over six time zones, offering a wide range of geographic and cultural diversity, climates and ways of life. Location should be considered seriously because the U.S. is a continent-sized country, over three times the size of India.

    Generally speaking, the East Coast has a temperate, cool climate, similar to parts of northern India. Expect mild summers and cold winters in the Northeast, snowfall in varying degrees. In the South, expect hot and humid summers with mild winters. The South and Midwest are known for their more laidback lifestyle, friendly atmosphere and lower cost of living than the Northeast and the West Coast. The West Coast is famous for its carefree and more liberal lifestyle. The region also generally boasts nice weather and beautiful outdoor scenery.

    You should also consider the campus setting (urban, suburban or rural) and size: some universities are small (with as few as 1,000 students) while others are large (with as many as 30,000 students or more). Some students prefer the close-knit feel of a small university, whereas others appreciate the diversity of students and opportunities provided by a larger campus. Keep in mind that if you go to a smaller sized school you may need to invest in some form of transportation on your own. On the other hand, in a larger campus setting, it is likely that you will get greater access to some public transport. Explore these factors while short-listing universities so that you can maintain a certain quality of life while in graduate school.

    Additionally, you may wish to consider the impact of the location in terms of your academic field. Some areas tend to be centres of excellence for particular fields and may therefore increase your options for completing off-campus internships and Optional Practical Training (OPT). You may also be more likely to meet professors who have industry experience and contacts. For example, Washington DC and New York City tend to be centres for non-profit, international and government organizations, while Silicon Valley in California and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina tend to be centres for technology, science and engineering related fields. Texas is another noteworthy area of the U.S. with varying economic opportunities and higher investments in education.

    Competitiveness of Admission

    Some departments at top-tier U.S. universities have low admissions rates. To ensure you receive several offers of admission ensure that you have a well-rounded list of universities. Most departments will post their admissions rate online. We recommend applying to a maximum of 2-3 highly-competitive universities and pairing these selections with 2-3 universities at which you fall on the upper end of the average admissions exam scores and GPAs of last year's admitted students. This information should be published on the university website.

    If you require university funding in order to be able to attend university in the U.S., you will want to read the section below. Most university funding is merit-based and will be reserved for top applicants and so consider applying to 1-2 highly-competitive universities and pairing these selections with 3-4 universities at which you fall on the upper end of the average admissions exam scores and GPAs of last year's admitted students.

    Costs and Availability of Funding

    Tuition and fees rates can vary significantly from university to university. There are no standard fees. The cost of living can vary drastically as well, by location. If college affordability is a key consideration for your university selections, you may wish to try some of these strategies for choosing universities:

  • Consider public universities to minimize the initial tuition and fees rates charged.
  • Choose universities at which there is a lower cost of living, such as universities in suburban or rural areas or in the South and Midwest.
  • Choose universities at which you will be a top student as university funding is often awarded on the basis of academic merit and may be used as a recruitment tool.
  • Accreditation and Reputation

    If you have any questions about the reputation of a U.S. university, you should verify that the university is accredited by an accreditation body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org). You can verify accreditation by using either the CHEA or U.S. Department of Education (ope.ed.gov/accreditation) database of accredited programs and institutions.

    As you conduct your search, keep in mind that there is no centralized, authoritative ranking system of U.S. universities. Unofficial rankings, such as those periodically published by U.S. News and World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger's, the Washington Monthly, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, The Times' Higher Education-QS World University, to name but a few, will give you a general idea of the academic reputation and relative prestige of a university. However, it is important to realize that a top 20, or even top 100, list of universities covers only a small percentage of the universities available. Further, you should read the fine print on how rankings are determined. Rankings are not always based upon factors that could impact your quality of education most, such as class size, teaching quality, student advising, faculty access and opportunities for research, internships and so forth.

    Applying to U.S. universities

    Students need to submit separate applications to each U.S. graduate program that they want to apply to. Students can apply to as many universities as they wish, though for time and cost purposes we recommend you choose 4-6 universities. Each university will set its own deadlines, applications requirements, etc. Fortunately, most applications will follow a similar format, and you'll be able to re-use or adapt the materials you prepare for each application.

    Most applications will include:

  • Online Application form
  • Standardized test scores
  • Transcripts
  • Personal statement - which is also called the Statement of Purpose essay or SoP
  • Separate research statement (sometimes required– describing your research interests and plans)
  • 2-3 Recommendation Letters
  • CV (sometimes required) listing your professional and extracurricular accomplishments
  • Arts students may also submit a portfolio of work, while students applying for research-focused degrees may be asked to submit a writing sample
  • Application fee of approximately $50-100 per application

    Selection of U.S. colleges/universities: Ideally, you should start the pre-application process about 14-18 months before you plan to begin your studies in the U.S. It is advisable to select as many as 20-30 universities, although your final shortlist could be anywhere from 8 to 10 or more schools. Several factors should be taken into consideration while selecting universities. A comparison chart listing the differences among departments of universities with respect to field of study, area of research quality and areas of faculty interest, the thrust of the program, accreditation, student requirements, selectivity or level of competitiveness, costs, financial aid possibilities, geographic locations and so forth. will help you to shortlist your choice of university. Since not all factors are equally important, each student should list his or her priorities at the time of short-listing graduate programs.

    Register for standardized admission tests: it is best to take the required standardized tests by October or November of the year before the Fall semester. If you are applying for the Spring semester, take the tests before June of the previous year.

    Complete and send in application forms:You can either use the on-line applications or those that are mailed by colleges/ universities. Read the website carefully at the time of accessing online application forms. Almost all U.S. institutions charge a non-refundable application fee anywhere between U.S.$ 50 and U.S.$ 250. Application deadlines vary with competitive/selective institutions usually having early deadlines. Others vary from January to March and beyond. Some schools have rolling admissions with no fixed deadlines. Generally speaking, all parts of your application should have reached the university before the deadline as applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

    You need to submit official records of your academic work called transcripts. Besides mark sheets, foreign students should ask their school to provide a list of the subjects they studied each year for their last four years of study along with the duration of the program. Detailed break-ups, if available, indicating the number of times the class met per semester should be included with the examination results. Ensure that official copies are procured from your academic institution in a sealed envelope. USIEF also attests academic documents for a fee.

    Most colleges and universities include a Declaration and Certification of Finances form in their application packets. This must be signed by your parents, or whoever is meeting your college/ university expenses, and must be supported by a bank letter signed by the manager.

    Most graduate institutions require a Statement of Purpose essay which is a narrative about your interests and academic goals. This may be about a page or two long, describing your background and achievements and further plans. This provides you the opportunity to communicate positive factors to offset any weaknesses and discuss your areas of interest and any educational or career goals. Some colleges or universities specify essay topics

    Institutions generally ask for two to three letters of recommendation. A member of the faculty, head of the department, a project guide or your supervisor at work, may write these.

    Send supplementary materials as appropriate.

    Financial aid: Graduate financial aid is given on the basis of academic ability and merit. It is intended to supplement the amount provided by the student's family and other sources. Students and their families will be expected to provide detailed information regarding their finances. Students with a greater chance of obtaining financial assistance must therefore demonstrate: high academic achievement, high scores on standardized tests, exceptional talent or a record of meaningful involvement in co-curricular activities relating to the intended field of study, Individualized letters of recommendation enumerating his or her abilities, or strong professional background (if required as part of the admissions requirement) will help.

    Finally, keep in mind that your application will be reviewed with respect to several strong applications received from all over the world. Everyone cannot be given admission. All colleges and universities have a set of institutional values and needs impacting admissions decisions each year. The process of getting into an American university or a college involves several factors, indicators and characteristics about you as an individual weighed against the goals and priorities set by each school and its respective departments. So, find the right match by selecting a university or a college well suited to your own needs and work hard on your applications.

    When you receive a letter of acceptance, you are required to confirm your admission. A simple email confirming your acceptance should be fine. Some schools may require a deposit to confirm your admission. The International Student Office will later send you the I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility), which is required for you to apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy.

    Paying for U.S. Education

    The good news is that every year international students receive significant amounts of financial assistance toward their studies in the U.S. The most recent report produced by NAFSA: The Association of International Educators estimates that $7.223 billion was received by over 690,000 international students studying in the U.S. in 2009-10.

    Since U.S. education can be expensive, you should research and consider financial matters. It is important for you to know what costs to expect and to develop a plan to cover these.

    Generally speaking, there are four types of funding for study in the U.S.:

  • Personal/family savings
  • Educational loans
  • Funding from U.S. universities
  • Scholarships from external funding bodies.

    After assessing your personal and family savings, your best resource for funding will likely be from a U.S. university. The good news is that two thirds of students in the sciences and engineering and half of students in the humanities report receiving significant funding from their university. How do you become one of them? Read our handout on (http://www.iie.org/en/Students/Tabs/International/Funding-for-U.S.-Study)

  • International Education Financial Aid (http://www.iefa.org/)
  • eduPASS (http://www.edupass.org/finaid/)
  • World Bank - www.worldbank.org/wbi/scholarships
  • PEO International - http://www.peointernational.org/
  • American Association of University Women- http://www.aauw.org/learn/fellows_directory/