The American Admission Process – An Insider’s View

Monday, July 20, 2015 Life

A detailed analysis of how to get enrolled into some of the best universities in the United States

The decision to pursue one’s education on foreign soil is never an easy one. There are numerous steps involved and unless each is executed with a kind of ruthless efficiency, one might find oneself bleeding both money and resources. As such, the primary purpose of this article is to attempt a delineation of this process, and provide a down-to-earth account of the challenges a possible aspirant might face when he/she decides to pursue such a goal. It is also essentially intended for those eyeing a graduate engineering degree program in the United States. Please remember that the term ‘graduate’ (‘postgraduate’ in India) is what the US calls its Master’s or doctoral program.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is usually the first step in the admission process. The test provides a reasonable measure of a person’s calibre in the areas of quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and analytical writing (informally speaking, it gauges your skills in math, English and the ability to write meaningful essays with limited data). To some extent, it indicates if you’re qualified enough to apply to top tier universities or if you’d be better off focusing your resources on less competitive ones. Generally, any score above 320 (out of 340) means that you’ve crossed the cut-off and would be justified in aiming for the best. However, it is by no means conclusive. Even if you score only in the 315-320 range (please don’t go below 315!), but perform spectacularly in other admission criteria, you still have a very good chance of making it!!

Considering that many US universities throw open their admissions from October to January – the winter phase - as well as from February to April - the spring phase - this provides a fair amount of preparation time. It’s usually best to take the GRE during the vacation preceding one’s final year at college (i.e. before the seventh semester), since that affords time to focus on the remainder of the application for the rest of the year. It’s also fine to attempt it somewhere between the fifth semester, but that may cause a little bit of inconvenience for those wishing to pursue a business degree in the future. This is because the test scores are only valid for five years and nowadays most foreign universities are willing to accept GRE/GMAT scores for admission to their MBA programs (in the past they used to consider only GMAT). So supposing you finished your Master’s degree in two years, you’d definitely have to work for a minimum of three years before thinking of applying to a decent business school. By that time, you’d most likely find your GRE scores invalidated and would be forced to sit for the exam again or else prepare for GMAT. It’s also worth noting that the test costs about $195 (Rs 12000) per sitting, so you may not want to repeat it multiple times!!!

Generally, students from CBSE/ICSE backgrounds who have at least prepared for one competitive entrance exam, tend to find the math section relatively easy. It’s verbal reasoning that stumbles the majority. This section requires that test-takers have a really good grip on the proper usage of the English language. It’s not enough that you know the meaning of a particular word, but when given words of similar meaning, you should be able to pick out the most appropriate one to be used in a particular sentence. As such, it would be wise to engage in the study of sentence structures to gain competence here. The Harry Potter books are most definitely a good way to prepare for this section!!! Now the silver lining is that aspirants, as long as they secure 160 or above (out of 170) in math, can have a fair hope that they won’t be judged too harshly for the verbal section (again out of 170) by the admissions committee since it’s quantitative reasoning that most often carries the day in engineering. After taking the test, you have the option of sending out your scores (you get them instantly once you’re done!!) to five different institutions for free. So it can prove economical to decide on a few universities before sitting for the test.  Apart from GRE, one is also required to take either the TOEFL or IELTS exams as proof of one’s English proficiency. These tests, which gauge the taker’s speaking, listening, reading and writing skills, are generally easy and prove useful when the student wishes to secure part time teaching jobs at their respective universities (which pays roughly around Rs 24,000 a month).

As mentioned before, the GRE is important but it’s not decisive. The most essential ingredient to an outstanding application is very often the Personal Statement or better called the Statement of Purpose (SOP). The SOP is indeed a potent, if not THE MOST potent weapon in your arsenal. It can make or break your whole application. It is usually one of the first things that an evaluator goes through when he/she looks at a student’s profile. From the very beginning, the SOP should be able to bring out a picture of the individual that cannot be captured anywhere else in the application. In a race where thousands of candidates have the same GRE scores, the same academic qualifications and really good letters of recommendation, the SOP is the one place where YOU get to tell the admissions officer why you’re a cut above the rest. As soon as you think you’ve written down a good one, read it well, then re-read it, then re-reread it all the while making whatever changes you deem are necessary. Keep doing this every day for a week and then send it out to as many people as possible and get their feedback. Remember, it takes time to craft a good SOP. A first-rate one easily takes up a month, so keep at it!!

A golden rule while writing the Statement is that the first paragraph should always be an eye-catcher. It should evoke the reader’s interest and compel them to go through the rest. A good Statement always brings out the motivation behind you choosing a particular discipline, then merges it with the work you’re doing now or have done in the past and blends it with what you expect you’ll be doing in graduate school. It should also address the reason why you’re aiming for a particular college. Remember, graduate school is a place of research and deep study, so you’ll have to really explain why you want to get in, why you aren’t just contented with a Bachelor’s degree, what work is it that you’ve done to merit a seat in their institution and how it is that you would contribute to their growth. Published research work (which can even be your Bachelor’s thesis) is a good way to score points with the admissions committee since it shows an aptitude towards scientific investigation, a strong trait in graduate school. It also goes a long way to show that you’ve held leadership positions in college or have participated in extra-curricular activities or even have founded a start-up!! These things prove that you aren’t just a nerd who’s only good at his academics. You must display how you stand out.  Contrary to popular belief, work experience is not a requisite for graduate studies (but only when it comes to engineering of course!!). Always conclude the Statement by thanking the admissions committee. Make them feel appreciated. Show them that you have the sophistication and grace to be a valued addition to their ranks.

Now whereas the Personal Statement tells the reader whatever YOU want them to know about yourself, the LOR’s (Letters of Recommendation) allow them to see a side of you as can only be seen from people you have interacted with or have made a mark upon. Universities most often request two to three LOR’s per candidate, the standard being three. Now, these Letters may be drafted by professors or the Head of Department or the Director or even by the Vice-Chancellor himself. In fact, it’s better to get them (whenever possible) from someone higher up than your professors, since this automatically proves that you’re not just limited to the classroom. It shows that you’ve a good standing in the college. So, nurture these relationships while you can. Go out of your way to help out faculty members, be respectful to the administration and offer them your services whenever you can. You’d find that they’d be really keen to return the favour. When someone agrees to write you an LOR, send them your resume, remind them of the work you’ve done in the past and keep them updated on your current performance. Remember, you’re applying to a number of universities and you’ll need their help each time. So, show your gratitude!!!

Apart from these, the application forms ask for academic transcripts (which you’ll have to get from the Controller of Examinations or a similar college authority) to be uploaded online as well as sent via post to the institute. So, in case you’re applying to nine universities, get at least twelve transcripts (since some colleges ask for two transcripts to be mailed to them). Interestingly, apart from the IIT’s, US universities generally tend to regard all other Indian colleges on an equal footing. So, if you have good grades, then your chances of making it are pretty fair. Sometimes (but not always) you may also be asked to write short essays about your experiences. This is simply to ensure that the students they admit contribute to campus diversity. Finally, in case you haven’t done so, you’ll also be asked to mail in your GRE and TOEFL/IELTS scores. You can do so (for a fee!!) through the accounts you would have created while registering for the tests.

When selecting colleges, try not to exceed twelve. In this way, you get to apply to four top ones, four medium ones and four safe ones (these are the ones you know you’ll get into!!). Not only does this help marshal your resources but it also helps save time. Besides, the application fee for each college averages around $75 (~Rs 5000). So choose wisely. Also remember that public universities can be more economical than private ones. Private ones tend to cost about $60,000/year (38 lakhs) while an equally good public one may only amount to a little more than one-third of that.

Now life in an American university is completely different from that of an Indian one. But first things first. Because of the much higher price tag on these colleges, it’s worth your while to find a job as soon as you get there. In fact, if you’re aiming for a Teaching Assistantship (TA) (which means that you help the professor grade papers, conduct exams, help out with lab work and at times step in to deliver lectures in case the professor has some emergency. The last one doesn’t happen too often, so don’t worry!!!) or a Research Assistantship (RA) (here you only help out with the professor’s research), you can expect fair remuneration. In fact, sometimes these jobs can pay for your whole education. So always be on the lookout for such posts. Another good source of employment would be the university’s dining services. Here, in addition to getting paid, you get to have free meals which means you won’t have to cook or buy food from anywhere else!!! Also, this would be your best chance to get familiar with American cuisine. So, don’t waste it. There are various other jobs depending on the type of college you get into. In case you plan to work in the US after graduation, it would be wise to get a credit card and start building up a credit history as soon as possible. This history becomes important when you wish to take out loans later on.

Academics is another affair altogether. Graduate students need only take two or three subjects per semester (they’ll be pretty challenging though!!) and can expect weekly assignments. Exams come in three patterns: Closed notes, open notes and take home. The first one’s the same as the Indian exam system while open notes allows you to bring your class notes to the exam hall. For the last one, you get to take the test at home with a time limit ranging anywhere between twenty four to seventy two hours. However, the questions posed in the last two patterns would be application based. But still, you get the luxury of thinking leisurely, at your own pace without the fear that normally grips students when taking an exam and which makes it difficult to remember things.  Those that are accepted to a Ph.D. program (after their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree) can expect full funding (you don’t have to spend anything at all!!!). These programs take about five to six years to complete and (if they don’t have it already) the student can also obtain a Master’s degree along the way. If they feel like it, doctoral candidates also have the option of dropping out once they obtain their Master’s degree (however the policies may vary among different universities).

To conclude, investing in an American education is never a bad choice. It improves your self-image, boosts your confidence and gives you the courage to use English as strongly as if it were your first language. You also get a chance to properly develop the expertise and necessary resources to sharpen your skills and be a credit to your chosen profession. So aim for it, it’s a big world out there. Might as well explore it, right?