Once you receive the application forms, select about fifteen colleges in different categories, as described in the previous chapter, and file your applications, which will leave you with sufficient, or at least some, choice in the end.
The way in which you fill in your applications is as important as your academic records themselves. If you have a 2,200 in the GRE but are hopelessly untidy in filling out your graduate school applications, the admissions staff is not likely to take you seriously enough.
Tips, tricks and traps follow.
Tips, tricks & traps
Take care never to make contradicting statements in your application forms. Unlike the single-page applications you may be used to in your own country, the ones that the US universities will send you will be more like a small book, all of which has to be filled up.
Take care of how you put in your name, since in the American naming system; you are supposed to have a middle initial along with the last or family name and first name. The name is written in the reverse order, starting with the last name followed by the middle initial (MI) and then first name. So my name Amrit Bir Tiwana becomes: Tiwana B. Amrit.
You must note that I can’t write Bir as my middle name. It must be abbreviated to its first character, B. For that matter, Sunil Sharma will be Sharma Sunil with no MI (middle initial) added if it does not exist. However, Sunil Kumar Sharma will be Sharma K. Sunil. Same goes for dates. Dates are to be listed in month-day-year format. Thus, 11 May 1996 will become 05-11-96 and so on. Take care of this, as you will nearly always go wrong on at least one form!
Type it out
Please never try and save money on typing your application. Use an electric typewriter, computer and laser printer, or a good manual one with fresh ribbon, but don’t handwrite any part of the application, even the personal statement, unless the application specifically asks you to do so.
The example of the Northeastern State University Graduate Admission form duly filled in is shown at the end of this chapter (Annexure 1).
In the ethnic classification box, mark ‘Asian’ or ‘Pacific’.
In the temporary address box, write down the address at which you want to receive your mail. ZIP is the same as your post code or PIN in India (postal index number).
If you are trying for a Bachelor’s, write Bachelor’s’ in the program desired column, and if you want to pursue a Master’s degree, filling in Ph.D. instead will let you do your Master’s anyway and will also boost your chances of getting an assistantship.
In the standard tests section if you don’t have the scores available, write down the date you plan to take or took the test, instead.
Take the admission tests early enough so that you can let the universities and colleges you apply to have the scores as early as possible. For next year’s Fall admission, the tests must be taken not later than the previous October. If the test scores have not arrived when your application is being considered, it will be rejected straight-away.
If you have already taken your tests, you may send a photocopy of the score-sheet along with the main application to ensure early consideration, though you must have the scores sent through ETS as well. A Xerox copy of your scores is not considered official.
Prior educational background
In your prior educational background write in names of the institutions attended listing them in reverse order, i.e. beginning with the most recent one.
If you took Engineering for your Bachelor’s, it’s always good to have a one-page list of subjects and marks obtained and send a Xerox to the department concerned.
In the languages known section write down all the languages you know, including computer languages, since many colleges now specifically ask you to do so. If you have only reading or writing skills in some of the languages, you don’t really have to confess that here!
As you will note from the application forms, US universities ask you about any teaching experience you may have. Include just about any experience you may have gained, even if it was teaching the alphabet to tiny tots. The only thing they want to see is if you have faced the idea of being a teacher and dealt with that situation previously.
Academic honors, distinctions & publications
List any university ranks you’ve got, any memberships to professional societies and any publications, such as books, articles and papers to your credit in the field. Any such mention will surely enhance your chances of admission.
You must mention if you were involved in any other activities in your college life, like organising events, getting show sponsors, editing your college magazine, paper, etc., or any other activities like Ham radio operating, etc. All of these will enhance your prospects of getting selected.
Do extracurricular activities help?
While participation in most extra-curricular activities may have been scoffed at in your own country, you will be surprised to discover the value attached to these in the US colleges.
High school or test scores?
This is a frequently asked question. The answer is that the standardized test scores are much more important than your college and school scores, though the latter do make some difference. Since the SAT, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL and TSE are the only tests common to applicants all over the world; you are better judged by that score. Yes, it also means that if your high school scores were not exceptional or your college scores were less than simply superb, you can cover it up with a brilliant score on the standard tests, by no means an unachievable task!
Exceptional contribution in any extracurricular activity will give a big boost to your application acceptance prospects.
Be sure to list all your activities in your CV and attach it to your application; and also make a reference to them in your application.
Don’t alter scripts
Don’t try altering any mark-sheet, as universities normally have experts who check applications for:
- Added or deleted scores;
- Placing your name over someone else’s;
- Filling into a counterfeit certificate.
- If you are caught doing that, rejection letters reporting this incident will be sent to:
- Your school;
- National board of exams;
- US Immigration Department;
- US Department of Justice;
- Your embassy.
Letters of recommendation
When I applied years back, I made full use of my earlier correspondence with two Nobel Prize winners, C. Chandrasekhar and Abdus Salam by enclosing photocopies along with my applications to all the colleges I applied to, from Pennsylvania (Wharton), MIT, Stanford, Tufts, Florida to Butler. The point is that along with the recommendation, the recommending person is also important.
It will certainly make a difference if an internationally-known personality recommends you, even giving you fair instead of excellent rating.
Recommendations have to be made on a special form that comes along with your application. Usually most universities ask for three recommendation letters, as much like Annexures-2 and 3 reproduced at the end of this chapter. One recommending person could be the head of the last institution you attended. The other two should preferably be any major, or even minor, celebrities you can find, or even a controversial personality like Salman Rushdie! Use the very best of your contacts for your recommendations.
A recommendation form will have:
- A list of questions
- One write-up on the student
- A set of tick type boxes.
The professors or other persons who will be asked to write recommendations will need to usually highlight:
- Your writing skills;
- Your communication skills;
- Your interest in your pursuits;
- Your emotional stability;
- Your work relations;
- Your probability of success;
- Your general behavioral aspects.
Usually under US laws you are given an option to waive your right to ever see a recommendation letter. If you do so, it may possibly make the admissions staff take your recommendations more seriously. And you could probably have a good idea any way of knowing what is inside the letter!
It’s best to give a pre-written draft for the recommender to fill in, highlighting all your plus points, in order to get favorable recommendations.
Writing the personal statement
A personal statement is an essay that you write about yourself, highlighting your strengths and weaknesses. This needs a lot of thinking, as a wishy-washy, goody-goody statement can mar your chances, just as much as a bad one can. So you need to strike a more positive note. Mention your special abilities since admissions officers want variety in the freshman class.
- Don’t contradict facts in your main application forms;
- Be honest;
- Don’t be too negative or self critical;
- Be clear;
- Don’t be too modest flaunt your achievements;
- Type out after making final revisions. Don’t revise or make corrections on the main form! ;
- Handwrite only if specified, and use black ink in case you are writing by hand;
- Limit the length. Don’t go on and on;
- Mention any work experience;
- Mention any creative work done, any athletics, travel, recognitions, etc.
- Don’t write on routine topics, like how travel has broadened your horizons, or how you treasure your country’s culture and traditions, or how sports has helped build your body and mind.
Writing a Statement of Purpose
The Statement of Purpose is asked only of graduate applicants. In case you are a graduate school applicant, remember that:
- It will be considered as an important factor for admission.
- Be specific about your academic experience and objectives.
- Make a strong case for yourself. If you have had unusual experiences, describe them to ensure that they are not wrongly interpreted. If you have poor scores, don’t ignore the fact. Instead, explain them to your advantage with sufficient documentation.
- Don’t be too modest.
- Highlight how your interests match the faculty’s interests.
- Keep the statement from being boring to read!
- Revise it thrice before typing it out.
Certification of your financial capability
The different types of certification you may need to furnish regarding your financial capability include:
- Statement of financial responsibility
- Confidential statement on finances
- Declaration of finances
- Letter from guarantor
- Bank statement
- Copy of award from sponsoring agency
- Letter of award from university department.
The very first thing to decide is whether you can afford to pay your way for at least the first semester of study or whether you need financial aid straightaway. You must be clear about this before you begin applying and before you take the wrong approach only to later realize that all the thousands you spent on applications have gone down the drain without getting you anywhere!
In the financial certification section, you could sometimes, as discussed later, opt not to attach the finances certificate. In that case, the college will either immediately ask you to send one or will do so after offering you admission, conditional to your sending that certification. In that case you need to prove that you have the money you don’t actually have. The trick for this is revealed later in this chapter.
A typical middle-range college like the Northeastern State College requires around $12,000 p.a. as shown in Annexure 4. Some universities will not issue you and 1-20 Form against which you can get your visa unless you submit the financial statement form, a specimen of which is shown in Annexure 5 at the end of this chapter. You may show that you have the necessary finances and then later on arrival in the US, report a change in financial status and again apply for some assistance.
The University of Nebraska, Kearney, asks for your TOEFL score on the financial aid forms. If you think that no financial aid is forthcoming but you are willing to shell out one semester’s expenses, then you may categorize yourself as a self-supporting student.
Financial aid forms
How to look for financial aid is described at length in Chapter 9.
The financial part of the application forms will usually have an application for assistant- ship, like the one for University of South Dakota shown in Annexure 6. Also shown is another form for graduate assistantship in Kentucky State University (see Annexure 7). These forms require you to specify some references, so using well-known references will help. Also needed are your undergraduate GPAs and previous experience.
In case you are fortunate enough to be able to afford the expenses for the first semester (about Rs. 1 lakh), then it is better not to apply for any financial assistance. Instead, tick the option in your forms which says that you wish to enrolled as a self-financing student. This will considerably boost your chances of getting into a high ranking university. Most universities understandably prefer students who are able to pay for themselves and that’s a hard piece of chocolate you will have to digest!
However, it certainly doesn’t mean that you will have to end up paying for all the semesters. Once in America, you can file for a change of financial status and become eligible for all kinds of aid available to international students.
Applying for financial aid with admission the ‘big bucks’ strategy
If you are truly hard-pressed for cash and cannot put together sufficient funds even for the first semester of study in the US, then you have no choice but to fill in the financial aid request along with your applications for admission.
In such a case, to begin with it’s better to simply “miss out” sending the financial certification along with your applications for admission. If you are admitted and a financial award does come your way before you are actually issued the Form 1-20 for your visa, you will only be required to document the balance finances.
Alternately if there is no other way out, you could adopt the strategy outlined next, which shows how you can prove you have more money than you actually do.
How to prove you have the money you don’t actually have
When it comes to financing options for the whole project and showing proof of financial ability, you either have the option, as earlier mentioned, to ask for financial aid or to prove you have the money that you don’t have!
For this you have to seek help from either a financing company or from one of those ‘educational consultants’, to transfer a few lakhs of rupees into your account for a day. On that day get all the needed attestations and letters signed from your bank manager. The company may charge between half to one per cent of the amount borrowed.
Send everything together
It can be confusing if your application is received in parts, especially in a large university which receives thousands of mailing pieces every day. Make sure that the same name appears on each application document as on your main application form.
Ensure, too, that each mark-sheet you send is attested by a suitable officer, preferably a military or judicial officer.
Sending extra material
Sometimes you may have some cassettes, publications and other material to your credit. It is not advisable to send such material to the applications staff as they receive tons of it each year. Besides, invariably the clerks will separate the extra material from your file which will be reviewed by the admissions staff.
It is a much better idea to send such extra material to the head of the department to which you are applying, whether at the undergraduate or at the graduate level. Also, you must present it in a more-than-noticeable way. Wackiness can sometimes pay by getting you noticed! Make sure that you enclose a small note to the effect that you are seeking admission to that particular department and send your regards. Don’t write long letters!
Are consultants worth it?
There are several dozens of consulting firms that go around promising to get you into any college of your choice. In India, we checked up on one of these, posing as would-be-Master’s students, well past our prime! The ‘consultant’ offered to get us into a US university, by paying Rs. 2,000 in advance and the balance Rs. 8,000 after admission. Promising to return the next day with the money we beat a hasty retreat!
The fact is that the colleges which these consultants ‘select’ are some of the lousiest C- grade colleges where you can apply without ever needing to send any test scores as they will admit you regardless.
There are some US-based firms advertising in Asian papers and girlie magazines who ask you to send $60 for a list of sources that are guaranteed to give you financial aid. Beware; you will end up being the next sucker to add another $60 to the coffers of the proprietor of this con-game as he laughs all the way to his bank!
Some other consultants are somewhat better since most of them will only guide you rather than assure admissions.
It’s better to rely on your own judgment than on someone else’s. Similar ‘wonders’ in the name of student counselors also exist in some of the US educational foundations in Asian countries. We could surely end up teaching them a thing or two and bring them up-to-date on the latest facts and data instead of learning something from them.
Keeps aside sufficient time to study the actual forms shown here while filling in your financial aid applications? Remember not to handwrite them but type everything out. You can’t expect the financial aid officers to seriously take a dirty scribbled application that “asks for thousands of dollars in aid!
With some of these smart tips and tricks in your bag, you can greatly ease the other-wise tremendous financial burden of attending a US university; if not for free, then, too, for as little as $400 a year, if you plan things smartly and well enough in advance.
If you receive a wait-list status, you will possibly have to wait till they send you a confirmation regarding your admission, since the university already has too many qualifying candidates.
Letter of acceptance
A thick envelope from the university is usually an indication of selection as the university sends a lot of information on housing, the 1-20, transportation, orientation and health insurance along with the admission letter. A thin envelope means regret.
You can write a Yes to the university that you finally plan to enroll in. You will have to make this decision pretty fast as a deadline is specified in the admission letter. You must also write to the other universities that selected you, saying that you will not enroll there as you have joined another school, so that another waitlisted student can be taken in your place.