The whole process of applying to an American university consists of four basic stages which you have to go through:

Stage-1: Initial information requests, prelimi­nary application forms.

Stage-2: Taking various entrance tests.

Stage-3: Sending completed application forms and documents along with the application fee.

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Stage-4: Applying for a visa on receipt of your acceptance letter from the university along with Form 1-20 which is issued by the representative of the US De­partment of Justice in your prospec­tive university. It must be presented to the local embassy in exchange for your visa. (J-1 category visa will be issued after they have scrutinized your visa application).

We now describe in detail the appropriate timetable for targeting admission to the Fall Semester.

Application timetable

Unlike most universities in India, Singapore and Hong Kong, where students are taken in only once a year, American universities admit students twice a year, i.e. once in each semester, and sometimes even thrice! You may seek ad­mission either in the Fall Semester beginning in August or September of each year, or in Febru­ary when the Spring Semester begins.

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However, as an international student it is better to apply only for the Fall Semester ad­mission, mainly for three reasons:

Firstly, financial aid is relatively more easily available in the Fall Semester than in the Spring Semester (remember fall means September and spring means February!). Of course, as we’ve noted earlier, US universi­ties are increasingly reluctant to offer finan­cial assistantships right at the time of ad­mission. So this reason doesn’t hold all too strongly, but will certainly help a little.

The second reason, though not perhaps as important, is that February is one of the coldest months in many parts of the US. It is, therefore, not a particularly good time to have your first stint with snow especially if you are not a native of the Himala­yan Mountains or the icy Leh valley of India!

Finally, more students are admitted in the Fall Semester than in the Spring Semester, so naturally your chances of getting in are greater.

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Timing your moves correctly while applying to a US university is a most crucial factor. Ap­plying for aid when the university has no aid available and writing for application forms when it has just finished with the current year’s admissions won’t help much.

If you plan to join in the fall, that is Sep­tember of the forthcoming year, the best time is to begin the process at least fifteen months in advance.

Suppose you are planning to enroll in Sep­tember 2000, you must follow the following timetable:

June – August ’99

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1. Select the universities which interest you and begin writing to them on the Preliminary Ap­plication Forms. Select at least forty to sixty of them so that you have a reasonable choice while finally applying. This will help, especially in case you are seeking a research assistantship at the Master’s level; since you will be in a better po­sition to identify areas and colleges where your interests, abilities and talents can be developed and nurtured.

2. Apply for the tests you need to take; you need to do so two months before the scheduled test dates. It is better to write to the universities early in June so that by July you know if at all you need to take any special tests.

July – December ’99

Appear for the tests which you need to take.

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It is important to take the tests as soon as possible, so that your scores get reported early and you can make use of any early decision programs offered anywhere.

To how many universities should I apply?

We recommend that you write for application forms to a large number of universities, pref­erably at least forty and better still, close to a hundred. Write on an Aerogramme or interna­tional postcard which will considerably reduce the whole expense. The College Profiles sec­tion at the end of this book will make your se­lections much easier. It will give you enough data to select the colleges and their ad­dresses, but the details of current research and other recent developments can be sourced only by writing directly to the respective colleges.

Doing the whole work with proper coordina­tion and timing each step correctly is abso­lutely essential for getting admission into a good college.

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Preliminary application forms (PAFs)

Though the local useful or American Educa­tional Services office in your country usually sells forms called PAFs which is the standard preliminary application format used to present your basic background information, you may opt not to use it.

You may instead prefer to photocopy the PAF given at the end of this chapter and send it out. The best idea would be to fill it up and then photocopy it and mail it to each university. You will save a lot of money if you photocopy the form on to an Aerogramme and mail it out. This can be done on a conventional Xerox ma­chine. Sending aerogramme from India, for example, costs only Rs. 6.50 as against Rs. 11 for a letter.

The early bird gets the admission and the money

Some colleges, including MIT, allow candidates to apply in what they call an early decision application program, which is meant for stu­dents who have already finished their stan­dardized testing routines and have scored rea­sonably well.

Under such early decision programs, you can apply before the opening date for regular admissions and be given a priority considera­tion for admission into the course that is in case you think you are sufficiently highly quali­fied.

Maximum financial aid is given to early ap­plicants since that is the time when the year’s treasure chest of financial aid is opened.

The other advantage is that you will be con­sidered for admission twice instead of once. In case you fail to qualify in the early application round, you will again be considered in the regular decision session as well to determine your admission to the course.

The early decision deadlines usually close around the third week of November of the year previous to that of entry, so in case you are planning to apply for a particular program, you must take the tests early enough for the scores to be out by that time.

October ’99 – January 2000

Start short-listing the universities to which you will apply. Many universities demand that as an international student, you submit your com­pleted application forms as early as possible usually before December of the previous year.

Select, finally, ten out of the fifty-odd uni­versities from whom you may have received responses. Remember that the application sea­son is the time when the admissions staff receives mail by the ton. Literally. So some uni­versities may simply end up not replying to you. Some Californian universities, including Berkeley, will demand that you send them $ 11 by way of demand draft for the mailing and printing cost of the application form, while a majority will send the forms for free.

In Chapter 6 we shall divulge some ‘insider’ secrets on how to sensibly go about selecting the right colleges.

January – April 2000

University decisions and packets of mail will start arriving. A thin packet is invariably a re­jection while a fat packet means that you’re selected!

April – May 2000

Finally select the final college you want to en­roll in.

April – August 2000

Make preparations for your visa interviews and draw up your old brown bag of tricks to fight it out with the hell-bent visa officials!

May – July 2000

Make travel arrangements and plan your flight schedules to co-ordinate with the opening dates of your college.

June 2000

Indulge in your big shopping-spree at home, so that you arrive well-armed in the United States and not go broke straightway in having to pay larger amounts for cheaper things. Take along books, clothes and other items that are cheaper at home and are on duty-livable.

End-August 2000

Bid your farewells and take-off for America!

Application fees

Application fees are to be paid only to those universities where you will finally and formally apply. This money is to be sent in the form of an International Dollar Draft, which again, in some countries can be a real pain in the neck to procure.

If you have some relatives living in the US, ask them to send you ten cheques of the appli­cation amounts and you can put in the same money into their local account here. That will save you a lot of running around to banks try­ing to get foreign exchange.

Depending on the university, the application fees will range from nothing to $100 up to $175 for normal programs. For Music and Dance programs it is much higher. The higher range usually applies to Ivy League colleges, which average, or even above average, students are better advised to ignore, since financial aid is severely limited. Even though it exists, they just won’t give it!

Application fee waivers

It is noteworthy that some colleges waive appli­cation fees even for international students. Sur­prisingly, MIT, the so-called need-blind college is not one of them! The college literature and bulletin you receive may give details, and if such a possibility does exist, they will request a letter from the last institution head regarding your inability to pay. If you can get such a let­ter, you may end up saving a few dollars.

Admission glossary

Since admissions staff is beginning to use more arcane terminology, it’s essential that you be aware of the terms they normally use in their correspondence.

Academic adviser:

Member of the faculty who helps and advises the student on academic matters. He or she may also assist the student during the registration process.

Academic year:

The period of formal aca­demic instruction, usually extending from September to June. Depending on the institu­tion, it may be divided into terms of varying lengths semesters, trimesters or quarters.

Admit-deny:

The practice of admitting needy students but refusing to give them any financial aid.

Advanced placement or advanced standing:

A waiver of some of the studies normally re­quired for an undergraduate degree, granted to a student on the basis of prior study or experi­ence (often as indicated by the student’s per­formance on special examinations.)

Baccalaureate degree:

The degree of “bachelor” conferred upon graduates of most US colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s degree:

Degree conferred by an institution of higher learning after the student has accumulated a certain number of under­graduate credits. Usually a bachelor’s degree takes four years to earn, and it is a prerequisite for studies in a graduate program.

Campus:

The land on which the buildings of a college or university are located.

College catalog:

An official publication of a college or university giving information about academic programs, facilities (such as laborato­ries, dormitories etc.), entrance requirements and student life.

Course:

Regularly scheduled class sessions of one to five (or more) hours per week during a term. A degree program is made up of a speci­fied number of required and elective courses and varies from institution to institution. The courses offered by an institution are usually assigned a name and number (“Mathematics 101,” for example) for identification purposes.

Credits:

Units institutions use to record the completion of courses of instruction (with passing or higher grades) that are required for an academic degree. The catalog of a college or university defines the amounts and kinds of credits that are required for its degrees and states the value in terms of degree credit or “credit hours” or “credit points “of each course offered.

Dean:

Director or highest authority within a certain professional school or college of a uni­versity.

Department:

Administrative subdivision of a school, college or university through which in­struction in a certain field of study is given (such as English department, history department).

Early action:

A program offered by Ivy League schools like MIT and Stanford where the applicant can apply in advance of the normal application date to have an earlier decision. Usually such admissions carry the maximum financial aid.

Early admission:

A program allowing excep­tional students to skip their twelfth year at school after completion of the eleventh year and allowing them to join in directly after the eleventh year in school. Not often offered to international students.

Early decision:

A program in which a stu­dent applies before the normal application date and agrees to attend if financial aid is accept­able.

Enrollment management:

The research ap­proach used by enrollment managers to analyse enrollment statistics.

Foreign student adviser:

The person associ­ated with a school, college or university who is in charge of providing information and guid­ance to foreign students in such areas as US government regulations, student visas, aca­demic regulations, social customs, language, financial or housing problems, travel plans, insurance and certain legal matters.

Liberal arts:

A term referring to academic studies of subjects in the humanities (language, literature, philosophy, the arts), the social sci­ences (economics, sociology, anthropology, history, political science) and the sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry). Also called “liberal arts and sciences,” or “arts and sciences.

Need blind:

Admission based solely on the applicant’s academic merit and nothing else not even his ability to pay. If the student is worthy of admission, the financial difference is automatically made up by the college. MIT is one of the very few institutions which still follow this policy.

Yield:

The ratio of students admitted to stu­dents enrolled. Admitted to Enrolled student ratios.

Now that you are sufficiently familiar with the terminology (also a great way to impress your less-informed colleagues!), the next thing you need to work out is your action time frames!