Admission to Graduate School in the U.S.
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The U.S. graduate school system offers unparalleled opportunities but successful application is a complicated and lengthy process. This wikibook aims to help you navigate the application process, especially if you are have not been educated in the US.
Why the U.S.
- Leadership in many scientific disciplines
- Top caliber academics with international exposure
- High national spending on research and development
- High caliber colleagues
- Hundreds of schools
- Freedom of thought, conscience and expression
- Competitive egalitarian society
- High standards of living and generous stipends
- Opportunity to form a network with future employers
Why not the U.S.
- Limitations on employment after graduation
- Expensive tuition in some types of programs
Picking the school and program
Several national and international organizations rank universities and even individual graduate programs:
- Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking
- Princeton Review
- Wikipedia - College and university rankings USA
- Wikipedia - Academic Ranking of World Universities
Such surveys are not always useful. Consider your own school: are the things that make it attractive to outsiders the same as the things that you yourself value? Probably sometimes these are actually different. A particular graduate program may be great to you because you have found a good adviser or are working on a uniquely interesting project. Rankings are attempts to quantify the qualities of education. The criteria and methodologies used to generate such rankings are often scientifically unreliable and statistically invalid.
Ingredients of a successful application
Admission committees in many programs face mountains of applications and a very limited number of spots. Thus, for an application to be successful it
- Must contain evidence that the applicant is a distinguished individual
- Demonstrate that the interests of the applicant nicely match the program he/she is applying to
- Not contain any obvious mistakes or exaggerations
- Be easily readable
Successful application must include high quality course grades, test grades, reference letters and a convincing personal statement. It is important that all of the above are of a high quality and none can be used to eliminate the application in a preliminary round. Probably the single most important factor is the reference letter, because members of the admission committee may know the author of the letter professionally. If so, and if the letter is of a high quality, the application would receive a strong boost. Course grades are least likely to be important because the admission committee may be skeptical of high grades: since it does not know how they were assigned, the grades can be inflated or unfair.
It is important to apply to more than one program even if you are the best because pure chance remains an important factor in the application's success especially when the program is very competitive. For example, your application might resemble the application of another candidate in the stack of applications, or the people you want to work with happen to be overburdened at the time of your application. It may also be useful to apply to several less competitive programs as a safety because the alternative is waiting a year before applying again.
High quality reference letters could be very valuable. A letter can
- Provide an account of your qualifications from a person whose authority the admission committee can recognize
- Praise you in ways that you cannot write yourself (you would be perceived as boastful and unobjective)
Although many people may be willing to write you a reference letter, it is important to select your references carefully: Admission committees have a great deal of experience reading between the lines.
The ideal reference is:
- Is a professor
- Has known you for a long time
- Has a record of internationally-recognized research
- Can communicate effectively in English
Admission committee members want to know as much objective information as possible so that they can tell for themselves. Therefore, do not ask a person who owes you a favor but knows little of your academic work because the letter is not likely to be believed. Likewise, ask your reference to explain in the letter why they are praising you (that is, objective facts), and not merely praise.
- Give plenty of time to write the letter
- Explain why you want to be admitted to each of the programs, so the letters can be customized
- Remind the writer about accomplishments that can be listed in the letter
- Follow up on your request with reminders about deadlines
Graduate programs typically make requirements of the students that are different from the requirements of undergraduate studies. Whereas undergraduates are typically asked to attend classes or do assignments, graduate students often face open problems and no clear deadlines, and are often required to teach. The difference in requirement means that students who have done well as undergrads find themselves under-prepared for the graduate student experience. Few things can be more frustrating to departments than seeing promising applicants become mediocre graduate students. As a result, admission committees actively seek applicants which document success in the kind of challenges graduate students face. This includes:
- Research experience
- Perseverance and focus
- Evidence for success in work on open problems
- Ability to communicate effectively in English
The above list includes some general personality attributes. Consequently, it is useful to mention in the application evidence for these, even if it does not directly relate to the field of study. For example, starting a yoga club may demonstrate initiative, even if the application is for a program in biology. However, beware: these activities should not occupy much of the application. Graduate studies require individuals who know what they want to do, and therefore excessive information about side activities could make you appear unfocused.
As a general rule, students in Ph.D. programs do not pay tuition and actually receive additional money sufficient for a modest living. Typically, funding is provided as long as the student maintains good grades, does work (as a teaching or research assistant) and completes the degree within a given time frame (usually 4-5 years). That said, it is important to look at the specific program details for more information: see if the department website or your admission letter says anything about guaranteed funding, and if so, for how long. Press them with specific questions. If you have an intended adviser, ask how would you be supported if the adviser abandons you in the middle of your degree.
In Master's or professional programs, the funding situation could be very different.
- Contact potential advisers in advance of your application. Contacting the faculty members is an extra opportunity to demonstrate that you are interested in the program. By expressing interest in working with a particular person, you can make your application stick out during the selection process, especially if the professor in question is in the selection committee. As well, in some universities, applications circulate between faculty members and the students are only admitted if there is a faculty member who selects the student's application. You may be surprised by the openness of professors to answer questions or to communicate with you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Why do applications ask about race of the applicant - is race a factor?
- A. No, or nearly so. The information is collected because publicly-funded universities are required by law to report the composition of their student body. That said, it is possible that race plays a small role in the application, due to affirmative action. Affirmative action is a policy of giving preferential admission to applicants from groups which are under-represented in the student body compared to the general population, increasing the diversity of the campus. Recent court ruling and laws have weakened such policies. In sum, race is not an important factor in success.
Q. I have been offered to pay for my program by working as a teaching or research assistant. Do I need to get a work visa?
- A. No. Work in the university which is related to your program of study does not require an additional visa beyond your student visa.
Q. I have heard that the US does not have health insurance. What happens if I get sick?
- A. Actually, in many if not the majority of schools, graduate students receive comprehensive health insurance from the university.