Getting Into a Master’s School In USA - The Complete Guide
Answers to most of the questions that students have regarding the admission process of any American university.
October 6th, 2018
Disclaimer: All the website names, companies, books, authors mentioned in this post are not for advertising purpose. I am just sharing my personal experience with them and their role in my admission process. All the advises and inferences I share in this post are my personal opinion and it may differ with someone else’s.
Hi! Last year, like you I was also surfing the internet searching for that one comprehensive blog post which will give a clear picture of the whole admission process. So, as I have been through this whole process I will share my experience detailing the dos and don’ts. To be precise, I will be discussing the complete admission process for the universities in the USA and will be answering the most common questions of the students.
The admission process of universities in the US is absolutely different from the one we have in India. They are not completely merit-based. They expect that student’s overall profile should resonate with the degree program in which he/she wants to get enrolled. From the overall profile, I mean the academic score of the previous degree, extra-curricular activities, internships, work experience, research work (if required by the course), projects, volunteer roles, certifications, online courses, Statement of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation and the scores of competitive exams (GRE, TOEFL etc.)
You might be thinking, When is the right time to start preparing your profile?
As you can observe, all these factors which contribute to your overall profile cannot be earned in a span of a few months. So, the right time to start preparing your profile is as early as possible. Though there are times when one strong part of your profile compensates the weaker part. But why regret later if something like this doesn’t happen. Give your best throughout your undergrad and keep bolstering your profile as and when you get the chance.
Whether or not you need any external assistance or a counselor for helping you with the admission process?
Before answering this question, let me explain to you what services a counselor provides. They start from the basic step of reviewing your profile and give you a feedback on the areas which you can improve. Next comes the university shortlisting process. Since they are in this business from a long time they have the stats to get you into the best possible university. Next comes the documentation part. They will provide you with a writer who will help you in preparing your documents i.e. SOP, LOR, Resume etc. Once you are done with these, they will help you in filling out the application forms. The last thing left is the VISA counselling-reviewing your documents and preparing you for the interview process.
Now, coming back to the main question. Do you need one? Simple answer, Not Really! All the things a counsellor does for you can be done by you on your own but It requires a little input from your side. If you are unwilling to put that extra effort or you cannot devote time for this process then getting a counsellor is not a bad deal. Let me explain each and every part in detail and tell you how you can manage that part on your own.
1. Profile Review & University Shortlisting:
This process is rather easy than it seems. There’s a website called Yocket
which offers tools to find the best universities based on your profile and other tools which help you throughout the admission process. For the shortlisting part, log into the Yocket account and fill up your information. Try the Grad School Finder
tool. Based on your profile, it will suggest you the universities divided into 3 categories; Ambitious, Moderate and Safe. Don’t blindly follow this list. If you are not happy with the results, try tweaking your information; like entering a higher GPA or GRE score etc. and then compute the results again. If you are happy with the results then this tweaked profile is your target profile. Work hard to achieve that target so that you improve your chances to get an admit from your desired university(s).
Another thing that you can do is open the Admit/Reject Section
on Yocket. Search for your desired university and check its sample admit/reject profiles. You will get an idea of the level of the university you are looking for.
Preparing documents for your application is the most important and the most tedious task. But as it seems, it must come from you and you only. It will be unique if it comes from you. So, try drafting the documents on your own and enhance them by taking feedback from your close friends and family members. Then, if you need a writer you should go for it. There are many freelance writers available which have an idea of writing SOP and LORs.
3. Filling the Application
Filling the application is not a big deal. They are generally very descriptive and provide hints for every field. But still, if you face any issue then you can either google it, ask the university or post your doubt in this Facebook group
4. VISA Counselling
By the time you reach this step, you will be a part of some WhatsApp groups of people with admits from your university. In those groups, people keep asking their doubts and posting help documents explaining the whole process. So, it won’t be an issue for you.
Now before I start with the detailed process, Let’s discuss the total expense of the complete admission process.
Assuming that you applied for ’n’ universities, took GRE and TOEFL only once, opted for GRE/TOEFL coaching and admission counselling.
I have taken 80 USD/university as the average application fees. This fees can range from 55 USD or even less in some cases to even 125 USD per university.
Assuming 1 USD = 73 INR for all the calculations.
Now, Let’s discuss the admission process in detail.
There are basically 4 steps involved in the admission process:
1. Building the Ideal Profile
2. Competitive Exam Preparation
3. University Shortlisting
4. Preparing SOP & LORs
5. Filling the application form
Step 1. Building the Ideal Profile
Before starting the whole process you must take some time to evaluate your overall profile. Your overall profile is a combination of both the curricular and extra-curricular activities. Let me list down everything that is included in your overall profile.
1. CGPA/GPA — This is the most important part of your profile. It acts as proof of your dexterity in your desired field. A person with a high GPA and with a low GRE score can easily bag a better admit as compared to a person with a high GRE score and a low GPA.
2. Research Papers
3. Internship & Work Experience
5. Verified Certifications (Ex. Oracle Certified Developer, AWS Certified Solutions Architect etc.)
6. Industrial Training
7. Awards & Recognitions
8. Positions of Responsibility in University Clubs
9. Any other Relevant Experience
Profile building is an ongoing process and one must work on improving his/her profile as and when he/she gets the chance.
Step 2. Competitive Exam Preparation
Which exams should you take for your degree program?
There are four different exams depending upon the degree program and university:
1. GRE General Test stands for Graduate Record Examination. It is a standardized eligibility test created and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). This test needs to be cleared in order to get admission in most of the graduate schools in the USA. This entrance exam is basically to test your verbal and quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills.
2. GMAT stands for Graduate Management Admission Test. It is designed to test certain analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in written English. In order to take admission in American Universities for MBA, you have to clear GMAT. GMAT tests problem-solving abilities, it also tests addressing data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills. It plays an important role in business and management success. GMAT is a registered trademark of the Graduate Management Admission Council.
3. TOEFL stands for Test Of English as a Foreign Language. This test is conducted to test the English proficiency of the candidate to study in English-speaking countries. This exam measures how well the person uses listening, reading, writing and speaking skills during the academic year. This test is accepted by more than 7,500 colleges, universities, and agencies in more than 130 countries.
4. IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. It is an eligibility entrance exam for testing the English proficiency of the candidates whose native language is not English. IELTS exam format is divided into four sections; listening, reading, writing, and speaking. There are two versions of the IELTS: the Academic Version and the General Training Version. The Academic Version is for those who want to enrol in universities and other institutions of higher education and for medical professionals like nurses and doctors to study and practice the profession. The General Training Version is intended for those planning to undertake non-academic training or to gain work experience, or for immigration purposes.
To find out the degree requirement, you must log in to the website of the universities you are aiming for and check the admission section.
Note: Since I took the GRE and TOEFL, the next sections of this post would be based on my experience with these exams only.
How to prepare for these exams?
The first thing that may have come across your mind is that whether you should take coaching for these exams? In my opinion, it really depends from person to person. Different people have different proficiency in Quantitative and Verbal section. People going for MS in Biotechnology may not be in touch with the mathematics and may need assistance. Similarly, there will be students who require assistance in the verbal section. If I tell you mine, I took coaching and it really helped me. I was given tips for how to approach a question, how to manage the time etc.
However, there are many websites which can help you with the tutorials and can provide you study material. I will link the websites below in the important links section. Additionally, ETS(For GRE, TOEFL & GMAT) offers a wide variety of books and online tutorials from which you can prepare.
For GRE, you must start in the following manner:
1. Get accustomed to the paper pattern. Review all the sections and all the different kinds of questions that are asked in the GRE.
2. Start learning the vocabulary from the first day itself as it takes the maximum time. GRE doesn’t require that you learn the exact meaning of the words, it uses the words in a particular sense, that is all you need to learn. For preparing the vocabulary, try leaning the words in groups. I referred to the Simplified GRE Vocabulary App by Jamboree Education
. This app is more than sufficient in solving all the vocab related questions.
3. Practice the quant section as much as you can. Even if you are too good at mathematics, don’t leave practice until the last day before your exam date as it will affect your problem-solving speed.
4. Buy test series and take as many tests as you can. The number of questions you are exposed to, the higher are the chances of scoring well as the questions asked by ETS are not concept-based but trick-based. Every question has its answer hidden in the question itself. Practice more and you would be able to crack it easily.
For TOEFL, you must start in the following manner:
1. Get accustomed to the paper pattern. Review all the sections and all the different kinds of questions that are asked in the TOEFL.
2. Practice by timing your responses. TOEFL is relatively very easy as compared to the GRE. It’s all about how you manage your time.
When is the right time to take these exams?
Let’s say you are preparing for the fall session i.e. August 2019 then you must be done with your GRE and TOEFL by September 2018 i.e. at least 12 months before the term you are aiming for. There are three reasons for that:
1. Before September, the test centers would be less crowdy. It will help you to concentrate better during the test. On crowdy days, there would be the noise of people typing, mouse clicking, people speaking(during TOEFL) which will affect your concentration, however, headphones are provided at the test centers to minimize the background noise.
2. Tests before September are a little easier than the later ones. It is my experience and may differ from someone else’s. (Avoid taking exams from Oct-Dec)
3. Most of the universities will open their applications in September (for the Fall Session). As soon as you are done with the exams you will be writing your SOP which takes nearly 2 weeks. So, it would be beneficial for you if you take the exams early.
Step 3: University Shortlisting
Which factors you should consider while shortlisting the universities?
For shortlisting the universities, you can use the following factors:
1. Your planned budget for the MS
2. University Ranking
3. Research Opportunities (Optional)
4. The curriculum of your desired degree program
5. Location of the industry you wish to work in (For ex. California for Computer Science Engineers)
6. Weather — Some places in the US have extreme temperatures as compared to India’s moderate climate.
7. Whether the university is GPA Centric or GRE Centric.
What are GPA-centric & GRE-centric universities?
GPA centric universities are those universities which give the highest weightage to GPA/CGPA as compared to other parts of your profile. Similarly, GRE centric universities give the highest weightage to the GRE score while evaluating your profile.
How many universities you should apply to?
There are three categories of universities based on the person’s profile; Ambitious, Moderate, Safe. There is no bound on the number of universities you should apply to. Generally, students apply to 8–10 universities: 2–3 Ambitious, 4 Moderate, 2–3 Safe.
Which 4 universities you should opt during GRE & TOEFL?
When you take GRE and TOEFL, ETS offers you to send your scores to 4 universities at no extra cost. You must utilize this opportunity judiciously so that you can minimize the cost incurred on your application process.
As the universities in which you will be applying to will depend on your GRE and TOEFL scores, you must shortlist some universities before taking the exams in which you will be applying no matter what your scores are.
Step 4: Preparing SOP & LORs
What is an SOP and how to write one?
SOP stands for Statement of Purpose. This is the most important part of your application. It is an essay which states your interest area, your arguments of choosing this field, your achievements etc.
This was the procedure that I followed:
1. Follow this blog by CrunchPrep
to get a clear picture of what an SOP is and what does a reviewer looks for in an SOP.
2. Refer to some sample SOPs that are freely available on the internet to know how people showcase their strengths, weakness, experiences etc.
3. Start with your first draft. For that, note down all the points you wish to include in your SOP.
4. Remove all the extraneous information and frame paragraphs.
5. Frame a story out of these paragraphs so that everything is in sync with the overall theme of the essay
6. Ask your friends, family members to read it as an anonymous person. Ask them what picture of you do they get after reading it. Take their feedback and enhance your SOP.
What is a LOR and how many LORs do you need?
LOR stands for Letter of Recommendation. It comes from the person recommending you. Generally, three LORs are needed. I suggest that you take 2 academic LORs from your professors and 1 professional LOR from any of your employer (internship or job). All these three persons would be required to upload the LOR on the portal whose link will be sent to their professional email id by the university.
Step 5: Filling the application form
Explain the exact process of applying to a university?
1. Choose your preferred degree program based on the curriculum and your interest area.
2. Create an account on the university admission portal. (Try to submit the application before the priority deadline)
3. Fill the application
4. Upload the required documents
5. Review the application before submitting
6. Submit application
7. Check if GRE and TOEFL scores need to be sent. If yes, then log in to your ETS account and send the scores. It takes 4–5 days for the scores to reach the university.
8. Send the transcripts if needed. Avail the student discount offered by the major courier services.
9. Track your transcripts, GRE & TOEFL scores.
10. Your application is complete
What documents do you need before you begin filling the application form?
You will need the following documents before you begin your application:
3. Credit/Debit Card
5. Marksheet/Grade Sheet of individual semesters
6. Degree (if you are a pass out)
7. Passport (required by some universities)
9. GRE Report
10. TOEFL Report
11. Name, Email ID, Phone of your recommenders
12. You may be required to write a few more essays depending on the university requirement