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Applying to U.S. Grad School: An International Student's Beginners Guide

If you’re an international student, applying to grad school in the United States can be a little confusing and intimidating. In addition to all of the things U.S. citizens have to think about (GRE scores, the application, the application essays, résumés, and more), there are many other things you also need to consider: The compatibility of your degree, where you’ll take the GRE (since it is not offered in all cities or even all countries), and how you’ll finance grad school, among many others.

This Beginners Guide will give you the general background you need to start the grad school application process, and will also cover some essential topics that apply specifically to international students.

How is the grad school application process different for international applicants?

We’ll cover the basics of the application process in just a bit—but first, let’s begin by talking about points that concern international students in particular:

  • Your international status: Do U.S. grad schools accept international students?
  • Your immigration status: How will you study in the U.S.?
  • The GRE: Your study options, and where you can take it.
  • The TOEFL: Some schools require you take it.
  • Your undergraduate (college) performance: How your degree and grades stack up.
  • Submitting your application: How international students submit their materials.
  • Paying for grad school: Providing proof of funding, and getting help to pay for it.
  • Using your degree outside of the U.S.: The international usefulness of an American degree.

In our discussion, we will use some acronyms. Here is what they mean:

Test of English as a Foreign Language. This is a test that international students are often required to take in order to demonstrate their proficiency in the English language. It is scored on a scale from 200 to 800. You can read more about the TOEFL here.

Graduate Record Examination, often simply referred to as “GRE” or “GRE General Test.” This is the test that applicants to most U.S. grad schools must take. The GRE allows schools to compare applicants’ mathematics and verbal skills, which are considered necessary for successful academic performance. The GRE is comprised of three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. The Verbal and Quantitative sections are graded from 130 to 170, in one-point increments. The Writing section is scored from 0-6, in half-point increments. You can read more about the GRE here.

Educational Testing Services. ETS creates and administers the GRE and the TOEFL, as well as many others. You can access ETS’s website here.

Abbreviation for Master of Arts, a common post-graduate degree denomination. It is the most basic academic post-graduate degree you can obtain, and it typically takes 1-2 years of study. It is usually awarded in the humanities or liberal arts.

M.S. (or M. Sci., M.Sc.)
Abbreviation for Master of Science, a common post-graduate degree denomination. Along with the M.A., it is the most basic academic post-graduate degree you can obtain, and it typically takes 1-2 year of study. It is usually awarded in the sciences.

For more information on American M.A. and M.S. degrees, check out this publication written by the U.S. Department of Education: Structure of the U.S. Education System: Master’s Degrees

Philosophiae Doctor. Translated to Doctor of Philosophy, it is the highest academic degree awarded in the U.S. educational system. It does not have a set time frame in which it is obtained, and can sometimes take many years to complete. It is important to note that the Ph.D. degree is primarily a research degree, meaning that original research must be done in order to obtain it; in addition, the degree itself is not awarded upon completion of the research, but rather upon a successful presentation and defense of the research report, or dissertation, in which it results.

For more information on the American Ph.D. degree, check out this publication written by the U.S. Department of Education: Structure of the U.S. Education System: Research Doctorate Degrees.

Now, let’s answer some of the most common questions international students have about applying to grad school in the United States:

Do U.S. grad schools accept international students?
Yes, they do. In fact, many grad schools pride themselves on attracting the best and brightest from around the world!

Will grad schools help you get permission from the U.S. government to study in the country?
Yes, they will. In fact, you can only get a student visa through a U.S. educational institution. Once you are admitted, you will be contacted by the school with the paperwork you need to complete in order to apply and obtain your official student visa.

What is the TOEFL, and why do grad schools want it?
The TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is created and administered by Educational Testing Services (ETS). The TOEFL is used to measure your English language writing, reading, and speaking abilities. Some schools require it because they want to ensure that you have the verbal skills necessary to succeed at their institution. Make sure to check with each school you are considering to see if they require you to submit TOEFL results, since not all schools do. You can learn more about the TOEFL here.

How can you study for the GRE if you don’t live in the U.S.?
First things first: We definitely want to underscore the importance of studying for the GRE. It’s a test on which you can improve drastically if you study. However, for many international students, finding a way to study for the GRE can be daunting, since many of the U.S. test prep companies do not have physical locations in foreign countries, and most foreign countries do not have companies that can help you prepare for the GRE. However, this is not a problem: You can still study for the GRE by using GRE prep books, or participating in an online class (such as our Live Online GRE Course, which is available worldwide, and taught live by our Senior GRE Instructors. Even better, if you only need help in one of the two areas tested, you can get only math help, or only verbal help!). Making time to study for the GRE should be high on your list of priorities—in order to be competitive in the grad school application process, you need to have a high GRE score.

Where can you take the GRE if you don’t live in the U.S.?
Depending on the country where you live, you may not have a designated testing center, or you may only be able to take the test in certain cities. If you choose to take the computer-based GRE, there are many more locations and options available to you. Iif you are in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Korea, check out page 7 of this publication. If you prefer to take the paper-based GRE, there is a much more limited number of testing centers where you can take it. To see if there is the option of taking the GRE paper-based test in your country, go here. If there is no testing center listed for your country, you may have to travel to a neighboring country to take it; schools will typically not make an exception on the GRE requirement, even if it is not offered in your country.

Is your undergraduate (post-high school) degree acceptable?
Not all post-high school international degrees are recognized as sufficient by American grad schools. All U.S. grad schools require a college degree or its equivalent from their applicants. One of the first things you should do is contact the grad schools you are interested in, and inquire regarding the validity of your undergraduate degree as it applies to your grad school application.

How do your grades compare to those of U.S. students?
Often, the grading rubrics for international students are different than those used by American institutions (for example, you may be graded on a scale of 1 to 20, or 60 to 100, where most American students are graded on a letter scale of A through F, or a number scale of 0 to 100). However, you should not worry that your grades will be interpreted incorrectly—most admissions officers at U.S. grad schools are well aware of the potential differences between U.S. and international transcripts. It is a good idea, however, to also consider including a brief explanation with your application if your school uses a grading scale unlike those of American schools. In this explanation, you can discuss how the grading scale works, and what your class rank was, ensuring that schools receiving your transcripts are fully informed on the intricacies and interpretations of your grades, and how you compared to your classmates.

How you do submit your materials to grad schools?
Most schools will require you to submit your materials over the internet through online application systems. Some may give you the option of submitting materials via regular mail, but may express a preference for an online submission; wherever a preference for online submission is stated, it is in your best interest to comply. It is typical that the main application form, statement of purpose, résumé/CV, and letter(s) of recommendation are to be submitted directly to the school by the student either online or via paper mail. GRE and TOEFL test scores should be sent directly from ETS to the school(s) to which you are applying, and transcripts (i.e., the official record of your academic performance during your undergraduate/post-high school education) should be sent directly from your undergraduate institution to the grad school(s) to which you are applying. Some schools allow you to submit unofficial transcripts with your application, but will still require official ones sent directly to them from your undergraduate institution before your file can be considered complete and ready for review.

How will you pay for school? Can you get financial help from your grad school?
Most U.S. grad schools have no or limited financial aid funds for international students. In fact, many U.S. grad schools may require you to submit, along with your application, proof of availability of funds to pay for the entirety of your graduate education. In addition, international students do not qualify for educational loans from the U.S. government, which is how many American students pay for their graduate education. As you consider whether you would like to pursue a graduate degree at an American institution, also take a moment to consider how you will pay for it. In addition, contact each of the grad schools you are interested in, and inquire about their financial aid policies for international students; they may have institutional funds (i.e., monies that are available through the school) that you can apply for. As a side note, although many graduate students often have research assistanceships or teaching fellowships as they undertake their masters or doctorate program, international students are often restricted in the jobs they can take either on or off campus, based on their visa status. Make sure to contact the International Students’ Office at the school(s) you are considering to see if on or off-campus work is an option for you.

How useful will an American graduate degree be to you?
American graduate degrees are very versatile, and will likely translate well into your chosen career path once you are back in your home country. If you have questions about how useful an American graduate degree will be for you, contact potential employers in your home country and inquire as to how an American graduate degree will increase your employability.

Applying to grad school in the United States

Now that we’ve talked about the specific considerations international applicants should make when considering and applying to American graduate schools, let’s talk about the application process itself. It is important to make sure you understand how the application process works for you, and what you will need to do to be successful at it.

The grad school application process can be broken down into four steps:

  • Taking the GRE
  • Picking grad schools
  • Working on your applications
  • Submitting your documents to each school

We’ll talk about each of them in more detail below.

Step One: Taking the GRE

Begin by checking out our GRE Free Help Area. It has many detailed articles on the GRE, the scoring scale, the differences between the paper and computer versions of the test, and advice on when you should take it. That will give you a solid introduction to what you need to know about the test. Then, select the date on which you will take the test. If you are taking the computer-based GRE, you can schedule an appointment year-round at the test center nearest you. If you are taking the paper-based GRE, you will have less flexibility on your test date, since it is administered no more than three times a year. You can see more information registering for the GRE, and which test format is available in your area, here. As a general rule, try to schedule your test at least a year in advance of your grad school’s application deadlines if possible, so that you can give yourself plenty of time after your test to work on all the elements of your application.

Once you have selected a test date, you’ll need to decide how you want to study for the test. You can choose to take a class, or you can choose to self-study using GRE preparation books and free materials.

It is extremely important that you study thoroughly and diligently for the GRE. Your GRE score is a very important part of your application, just as important as your undergraduate performance, essays, letters of recommendation, and résumé. Grad schools consider the GRE as an indicator of your academic potential at a U.S. institution; a poor score tells them that you may not have the academic abilities required to succeed in their program.

Are international applicants given more leeway in their GRE scores?

No. Graduate schools expect all their students to excel at both the GRE and their undergraduate performance. They will not make exceptions for low GRE scores for international applicants or non-native English speakers, just as they do not make exceptions for American applicants.

Step Two: Picking Grad Schools

Start by reading this article (“Why go to graduate school and how to choose a program”) on our website. Taking the time to thoroughly think about why you want to go to grad school and which schools you would like to attend is important for two reasons:

  • It lets you think about what you consider important in a grad school and a graduate program.
  • It will give you an idea of where your GRE score should be (since different schools typically look for different score ranges in their applicants).

Your potential grad school list should be filled with institutions that you have researched thoroughly, that you know will fulfill your academic needs, and you know will make you happy for as long as you are there.

Take a hands-on approach to the selection process, and spend as much time picking schools as they will spend picking you. This research is particularly important as an international student, since you won’t only be attending a new institution, you will also be doing it in a foreign country, on your own. You need to look for institutions that will not only fulfill your academic goals, but will also give you the guidance and support system you will need as you acclimate to a completely new culture. Spending time determining your own preferences and thoroughly investigating schools will help to ensure your overall happiness with your choices.

Do not just limit yourself to reading school websites. Also think about what you want, and how that ties in with what you are looking for from the schools you are considering. Do the following:

Conduct a Self-Evaluation

Take a long, hard look at what your priorities are in regards to academics, what your desires are regarding employment post-graduation, what living conditions will make you happy, and what is important to you as a person.

Answer the following questions:

  1. When you think about your future career, what do you see?
  2. What are your interests? Is being able to continue your involvement with these interests important to you? It is important that you be able to continue them while in grad school?
  3. How do you learn best? Do you prefer a laid-back environment, or do you thrive on competition and pressure? Are you somewhere in between? What’s been your most productive academic environment?
  4. Do you care about rankings? Is the “pedigree” of your school and your degree important to you?
  5. How important is the social aspect of a school to you? Is it important that you attend a school with a close-knit student body that is bonded together through multiple social avenues? Do you prefer a larger school where you can focus on your studies and not worry about the social aspect of things?
  6. Where do you want to live? Can you abide icy cold winters? Do you hate humid climates? Do you prefer big cities, or smaller suburban or rural areas?
  7. What are your career goals? What do you hope to accomplish with your degree and your career? Where do you want to work: In your home country, or in the United States?

By answering these questions, you will get a good idea of where you want your professional career to take you, and what is important to you in a graduate school.

Create a Rough List

After you’ve thought about what you want in a school, the next step is to create your initial “long list” of schools you are considering.

Using your answers from the questions above, start creating a list of schools that meet your criteria for any or all of the following aspects:

  1. Academic program (what you’d like to study)
  2. Degree level you wish to achieve (Masters, Ph.D., etc)
  3. Geographic preferences
  4. School size and social environment
  5. Academic environment
  6. Career preferences
  7. Career aspirations and personal goals
  8. Work opportunities during school and post-graduation
  9. Personal skill sets

Starting from the top aspect (academic program) and working your way down the list will allow you to narrow down schools based on your own preferences, ensuring that you are keeping with your ultimate, must-have needs.

Get Down to Specifics

Once you have created a rough list (usually anywhere from 20-25 schools, depending on academic program, geographic location, and your numerical indicators), it is time to pare your choices down further. This will require investigation and research into each of the potential schools.

You should now consider the following:

  • What type of learning environment do you prefer?
  • Where do you want to work post-graduation?

This will allow you to shorten your list based on two very important fields: Academics and future career plans. A huge part of selecting a school is not only focusing on the years you will spend earning your degree, but also on the many years after school, when you will start, build, and focus on a career. The school you attend needs to be a launching pad for your future career aspirations.

Make the Final Decisions

Once all the information has been gathered, it is time to make the final decisions. Most candidates end up applying to 4-6 programs, although some send applications to as many as 10, 12, or even 15 schools.

Your final list should look like this:

  • A few “definite” schools — These are the programs where you are almost sure to get in, based on numbers, credentials, and selectivity.
  • A number of “likely” schools — These are the programs where your numbers fall around the median for the GRE score and GPA that schools look for, and where you feel fairly confident in your ability to gain acceptance, provided the “soft” aspects of the application (essays, résumé/CV, letters of recommendation, etc.) are also well done. The bulk of your list should consist of “likely” schools.
  • Some “maybe” schools — Here, your numerical credentials may not be quite up to what each school is looking for, and you do not feel very confident about your admissions chances. “Maybe schools” form part of the final application list in order to avoid missing out on a potential opportunity. Every year, unlikely candidates are offered admission to programs where their credentials did not give them a strong chance of admittance—why miss out on the possibility by not applying?

Step Three: Working On Your Applications

Schools typically make their graduate applications available in the late summer and early fall. Although many give you the option of printing off a paper application and mailing it in, most prefer or require that you submit your applications electronically over the internet, and many have specific programs they like you to use (which will be available through the school’s website).

Work on your applications after you have made your school selections. You can do this even if the current year’s applications are not yet available, because almost all applications will ask for the same things, year after year:

  • The basic application form itself (mostly comprised of biographical information)
  • An application essay (sometimes referred to as a statement of intent or statement of purpose)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcript(s)
  • GRE score(s)
  • A résumé/CV
  • Additional optional essay(s) and addenda (if applicable)
  • Additional materials

Let’s talk about each component a little more in depth:

  • The application: This is the basic application form; it is completed by you. It asks all the typical application questions: Biographical, academic, extracurricular, and conduct information.
  • The application essay: This is required by almost all grad schools. The topic will vary from school to school, but it usually deals with why you want to attend grad school, why you are focused on a particular program, and/or why you feel that a particular school/program will be a good fit for you. Sometimes, schools have specific topics outside of these they’d like you to address, and will list those in the application instructions. If a school wants to hear about a particular topic, make sure your essay addresses it.
  • The letter(s) of recommendation: Most schools ask for multiple letters, although some may just want one (or none), and some may give you the option to submit as many as you want. You will request these from your professors or employers. These recommenders, after writing the letters, typically send them directly to the schools via paper mail, or upload them directly to the school’s application website. Usually, you cannot upload these on your own; make sure to carefully read the application instructions so that you know the protocol these letters must follow.
  • Transcript(s): You request these from all undergraduate and graduate institutions you have attended. The institution submits them directly to the grad school(s) to which you are applying. Although some schools will accept unofficial transcripts (for example, a transcript that you can print out yourself from your college or university’s website), most will also require that an official transcript be submitted before an official review of your application or offer of admission can occur.
  • GRE score(s): From the ETS/GRE website: “Your test fee entitles you to request that scores be sent to as many as four graduate institutions or fellowship sponsors. For the computer-based GRE® revised General Test, you will be asked to designate your score recipients at the test center. For the paper-based GRE revised General Test, you will be asked to designate your score recipients during registration or on your admission ticket correction stub. You will be required to pay US$23 per recipient to have scores sent at a later date. ETS sends official score reports directly to all authorized score recipients you designate.”
  • Résumé/CV: You write it and either upload it to the online application or mail it in with the rest of your application materials.
  • Additional optional essay(s) and addenda (if applicable): These are essays a school requests in addition to the application essay, or explanations needed due to problems in your past (usually academic or professional). You write these based on the requirements of each school, and submit them with the rest of your application.
  • Additional materials: Many schools request that you submit theses, research papers, articles or books you have had published, etc. These materials are typically mailed in to each school, and become part of your application once they are received by the school.

Step Four: Sending Your Application to Grad Schools

Once all of the elements of your application have been completed, requested, and submitted, it is time to send your applications to grad schools. You will do this either by submitting your applications electronically, or by mailing them in.

Try to send in your applications as early as possible. Grad schools usually follow a practice called rolling admissions—this means that applications are considered as they “roll in,” rather than all at once after the application deadline. What does this mean for you? That by submitting your applications well before the application deadline, you will be competing with much fewer applicants for a much greater number of seats. Although this will not significantly increase your chances of admission, it may give you a slight edge.

After you have submitted your materials, all you have to do is wait for response letters from your schools. After you get all of your responses, carefully consider which one you would like to attend, send in your seat deposit to hold your spot in the class, and get ready to attend grad school!