Preparing successful applications

You should now have a short list of degree programs that match your needs, interests, and abilities. You should also feel confident that you have the minimum entrance requirements for studying in the United States, and that you can meet the costs of a U.S. graduate education. Now it’s time to start putting together your applications. This section gives practical information and advice to help you prepare successful applications to the programs of your choice.

The entire application process, from obtaining initial information to applying for your student visa, should begin 12 to 18 months before you wish to start studying in the United States.

Because of the work, and the costs, involved in putting together a good application, most students limit their applications to between four and seven programs. However, you can request information from as many universities as you like, keeping in mind any postage costs and charges for university materials that you may have to pay. You may have a clear idea of exactly which schools you will be applying to and request information only from those. Or you may prefer to request information from 10 or more schools that you believe meet your needs, and then narrow down your list once you have read through the catalog, application form, and other information you receive. If you have access to the Internet, you will find that many U.S. universities put their catalogs on their Web sites, and some have even stopped printing paper copies.

If you plan to apply to highly competitive institutions or to seek financial assistance, send your first inquiry 18 months before you plan to enroll. In other cases, send your first inquiry 12 months before you plan to enroll. Give yourself sufficient time for possible delays in international mail, especially if you are posting applications or requesting information in November or December when the high volume of holiday mail will often double the length of time mail takes to reach its destination. Be sure to send any letters by international airmail because surface mail can take several months to arrive.

Address your inquiry to the Director of Graduate Admissions, using the address for the university given in the reference books. Send a separate inquiry to the Department Chair or Departmental Graduate Admissions Committee Chair requesting information about study and research in the department, and advise the department that you have also been in touch with the Graduate Admissions Office of that school. Make sure you clearly write the name of the appropriate office or department on the envelope. Also be sure to include the full zip (postal) code for the institution on the envelope to ensure that your letter reaches its destination as quickly as possible. You may also send these inquiries by e-mail.

Your application form should be neat and clear to create a good impression. Unless it specifically asks you to complete the forms by hand, use a typewriter or word processor. You should fit your information into the application form provided and only use additional pages where necessary. Keep your personal information consistent and always spell your name the same way on all documents. This will help schools keep track of your application materials more easily. Remember that large U.S. universities handle thousands of student records annually.

Almost all universities charge a nonrefundable application fee that covers the cost of processing your application. It must be paid in U.S. dollars either by a dollar cashier’s check drawn on a U.S. bank or by an international money order.

Each university will specify the types of official records it requires to document past education. In American terms, these are called transcripts and include a list of courses that students have taken, when they were taken, and grades received for each course. Usually, the university will require your entire scholastic record from secondary school and/or university sources in a similar manner.

Test Score Reporting When you apply to take the GRE, GMAT, MAT, TOEFL, or other examinations, you should know which universities you wish to apply to. In this way, you will be able to specify at that time that you wish your scores sent to those universities. You will save time and money by sending the scores at test time rather than requesting separate scores at a later date. When you submit an application, also include a photocopy of your test score reports, if possible. The admissions office can more easily match the official scores with your application and, in some instances, they may begin processing your application with only the photocopy.

Almost all graduate programs ask applicants to submit a personal statement, or statement of purpose, as part of the application process. The personal statement gives universities a chance to get a glimpse of you as an individual, an insight that is not possible in the grades and numbers that make up the rest of your application. The goal is to write a clear, concise, and persuasive statement that sincerely reflects your views and aspirations. The admissions committee that reviews applications wants to see if there is a good match between you and the department or school and whether the degree program can meet your needs.

You will usually be asked for at least two recommendations. Your recommenders (or references or referees) must be able to write about your work and be able to assess your potential to do well in graduate school. Ideally, they should be written by professors who have taught you in the past, if you are applying for an academic degree program; however, if you are not a recent graduate, one recommendation can be from an employer. For professional programs, references from employers and professors are acceptable.

Most universities include a form called a Declaration and Certification of Finances or Affidavit of Financial Support in their application packets. This document must be signed by whoever is meeting your university expenses. It may also have to be certified by a bank or lawyer. Keep a copy of this form since you may also need it to apply for your student visa. Schools usually need to know that you have sufficient funds to cover at least the first year’s expenses, although many may also ask you to indicate your source of income for the entire period of study. If you know when you apply that you will need some form of assistance from the university or other sources, such as scholarship programs, indicate how much you plan to request or apply for. Please note, however, that the university will issue the relevant certificate of eligibility for a student visa only if you are able to document fully your source(s) of income.

Each graduate department within a university sets its own deadline date, and it is usually firm about not accepting applications after that time, particularly if a program is very popular. For the fall semester, which begins in late August or early September, deadlines are usually between January and March, although they can be as early as November or as late as June or July. If, however, an institution indicates that it operates “rolling admissions,” late applicants may still have a fair chance of acceptance. In this case, a university will admit and reject candidates until the program is filled. It is nonetheless a good idea to submit your application as early as possible.

No uniform procedure exists for graduate admissions in the United States. The graduate admissions office almost always shares the responsibility for admissions with the academic departments, and most commonly there is a graduate admissions committee for each department made up of faculty members and graduate admissions office staff. However, the roles and the relative authority of the graduate admissions office and the academic departments, as well as the relationship between them, vary markedly from institution to institution. To make your admissions experience more positive, it is a good idea from the beginning of the process to network with both the graduate admissions office and your specific department of interest. Develop a clear understanding of the institution’s general admission requirements and the department’s academic and research objectives to see if they match your personal and professional goals.

If you plan to begin studies in September, you should hear from the universities you applied to by mid-April of that year. They will probably put a limitation on how long they will keep the place open for you, and may ask you to send a deposit if you wish to accept their offer. If you receive more than one offer of acceptance, write to the universities you turn down so that they can make offers to those students still on waiting lists. It is also recommended that you return unused student visa Certificates of Eligibility to those schools. Universities usually send information on housing, health insurance, and orientation at this point.

Each university will specify the types of official records it requires to document past education. In American terms, these are called transcripts and include a list of courses that students have taken, when they were taken, and grades received for each course. Usually, the university will require your entire scholastic record from secondary school and/or university sources in a similar manner. No uniform procedure exists for graduate admissions in the United States. The graduate admissions office almost always shares the responsibility for admissions with the academic departments, and most commonly there is a graduate admissions committee for each department made up of faculty members and graduate admissions office staff. However, the roles and the relative authority of the graduate admissions office and the academic departments, as well as the relationship between them, vary markedly from institution to institution. To make your admissions experience more positive, it is a good idea from the beginning of the process to network with both the graduate admissions office and your specific department of interest. Develop a clear understanding of the institution’s general admission requirements and the department’s academic and research objectives to see if they match your personal and professional goals.