Thursday, October 3, 2013

How important is getting an internship while you're still a student?

Getting a college degree is still very important, and it doesn't matter much what you want to do when you graduate or even if you're still not sure what career to pursue. Unless you're the next Bill Gates, something tells me you should probably invest in a Bachelor's degree.

On the other hand, you should also be aware that just having a degree won't get you far. With the youth unemployment rate in the United States at 16.2%, there are 8.2 million young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 who can’t find full-time employment.

Also, there is a growing number of college educated people who work in positions that don't require a college degree. The truth is that we are taught that we should all go to college if we want to make something of our lives.

Although this is often true, there just aren't enough positions in the economy for all college graduates to fill them. So, naturally, there is an excess of potential employees that have to take up jobs that they went to college to avoid. Not to mention that these jobs don't pay enough for the expensive student loans to be paid off.

college, internships, jobs
No internships in their time, maybe it would have helped them
By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the situation as it is, the best thing to do is to think long and hard about whether you should go to college in the first place and if so, what kind of job you could get after you graduate. Think of college as an expensive school that will help you get educated so you can get a good job after you graduate, not just a place that will help you "understand yourself better".

However, in the real world, tough as it is, this won't be enough. You should definitely also explore the world of paid and (much more common) unpaid internships. It will give you some kind of experience when you come to your first real job interview (trust me, these things matter to HR people) and it will also give you the idea what kind of career you're suited for.

Some people thrive in a fast-paced environment and think they wasted their day if they don't get 200 emails every day. Others are better at doing research, hidden in some remote office at the end of the hall. It doesn't make them less important, it's just the kind of environment that makes them give 100% because that's what makes them feel comfortable.

Some people like to ask a lot of questions and like a boss that is more hands-on, others are irritated if someone micromanages too much.

You'll never know where you belong until you actually start interacting with other people in an office environment. I know most of us like to think of ourselves as mighty corporate executives in the making, but the truth is we are wired differently, and maybe interning can show you what kind of work environment (and potentially industry) you should steer clear from.

It's much better to learn in your second year of college that you're not that interested in working as a business analyst, then after you finish college and get your first job.

To sum it up, internships help you find out what you want and what you don't want to do in life.

But they also help you learn valuable stuff. Sure, you'll probably do some copying, editing, typing, and such (they probably won't ask you to make coffee, it's kind of the definition of exploiting young interns now and is frowned upon) but if you have a good boss and you do everything they ask you for, they'll be sure to throw you a bone or two and give you something that you can actually put on your resume.

For example, I published my first report as an intern!

This is a major thing and it will give you ammo next time someone asks you for a writing sample so you don't have to send some silly school paper feeling like a five-year old all of a sudden.

Lastly, doing an internship will give you an opportunity to get a mentor and will definitely help you get your first job, I've seen this happen many times. All these senior folks talk to each other and a recommendation from the right person can be more important than a Harvard degree at times.

So, don;t drag your feet and sacrifice a summer or two to get ahead of competition. Four years fly by fast and if you don't hit the ground running you might get that job at Burger King you once did as a teenager. Only this time you'll have a $200,000 loan to pay off.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Some college and graduate school rankings

I know one of the most interesting things for future college/grad students are school rankings.

There are so many different options out there and you want to find the right fit for your interests and affinities. Nothing wrong with that, it's what school rankings are for!

I've made a selection of rankings that I think a lot of you might find interesting but I understand that I can't cover everything here. Good sources for this kind of things are and where I found most of the stuff published here.

college rankings, university rankings, college, graduate school, rankings
University rankings from a couple of years ago

Colleges that have a relatively low cost:

1. Adrian College (Adrian, MI)
2. Drake University (Des Moines, IA)
3. Alfred University (Alfred, NY)
4. Hendrix College (Conway, AR)
5. Alverno College (Milwaukee, WI)
6. Mercer University (Macon, GA)
7. Prescott College (Prescott, AZ)
8. Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ)
9. St. John's University (Collegeville, MN)
10. Baldwin–Wallace College (Berea, OH)

Colleges that meet the financial needs of students:

100%: University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
100%: University of Richmond (University of Richmond, VA)
100%: University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)
100%: Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
100%: Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY)
100%: Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO)
100%: Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA)
100%: Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT)
100%: Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
100%: Yale University (New Haven, CT)

Note: The percentage listed represents the amount of need that was met for students who were awarded need-based aid.

Kiplinger's analyzed the unemployment rates and salaries for graduates of the 100 most popular college majors, and these are the ones that would give you the most fruitful career.

Kiplinger's 10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career:

1. Pharmacy and Pharmacology
2. Nursing
3. Transportation Sciences and Technology
4. Treatment Therapy Professions (respiratory, radiation, and recreational therapists)
5. Chemical Engineering
6. Electrical Engineering
7. Medical Technologies
8. Construction Services
9. Management Information Systems
10. Medical Assisting Services

Colleges that provide a large number of grants for good students, even if they don't qualify as needy:

1. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
2. Baylor University (Waco, TX)
3. Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH)
4. Davidson College (Davidson, NC)
5. Emory University (Atlanta, GA)
6. Franklin & Marshall College (Lancaster, PA)
7. Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA)
8. Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
9. Haverford College (Haverford, PA)
10. Lake Forest College (Lake Forest, IL)

Fine Business Programs at Small/Medium-Size Colleges:

1. Albertus Magnus College (New Haven, CT)
2. Albion College (Albion, MI)
3. Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH)
4. Alma College (Alma, MI)
5. American University (Washington, DC)
6. Fordham University (New York, NY)
7. Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
8. Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI)
9. Baker University (Baldwin City, KS)
10. Pacific University Oregon (Forest Grove, OR)

10 Cool Colleges for Entrepreneurs:

1. DePaul University (Chicago, IL)
2. Florida International University (Miami, FL)
3. Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
4. Howard University (Washington, DC)
5. Simmons College (Boston, MA)
6. Sitting Bull College (Fort Yates, ND)
7. The University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)
8. The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)
9. University of Colorado, Boulder (Boulder, CO)
10. University of Rochester (Rochester, NY)


Business schools (finance):

1. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
2. University of Chicago (Booth)
3. NYU (Stern)
4. Columbia University
5. Stanford University
6. MIT (Sloan)
7. Harvard University
8. University of California (Berkeley) (Haas)
9. Northwestern University (Kellogg)
10. University of California (Los Angeles) (Anderson)

Law schools:

1. Yale University
2. Harvard University
3. Stanford University
4. Columbia University
5. University of Chicago
6. NYU
7. University of Pennsylvania
8. University of Virginia
9. University of California (Berkeley)
10. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)

Medical schools:

1. Harvard University
2. Stanford University
3. Johns Hopkins University
4. University of California (San Francisco)
5. University of Pennsylvania (Perelman)
6. Washington University in St. Louis
7. Yale University
8. Columbia University
9. Duke University
10. Chicago University (Pritzker)


1. MIT
2. Stanford University
3. University of California (Berkeley)
4. California Institute of Technology
5. Carnegie Mellon University
6. Georgia Institute of Technology
7. University of Illinois–​Urbana-​Champaign
8. Purdue University–​West Lafayette
9. University of Michigan–​Ann Arbor
10. University of Southern California (Viterbi)

Fun facts for international students, especially if you're Chinese (I found this in the Washington Post):

723,277: The total number of international students in the United States last school year. That’s a 4.7-percent increase from the previous year when there were 690,923 international students.

32 percent: The growth in the number of international students in the past decade.

$21 billion: The amount of money international students spend in the United States on tuition, fees, housing and living expenses.

70 percent: The percentage of international students whose primary source of funding for college is from their personal funds, family, government and other foreign sources.

157,558: The number of students from China, a group that makes up 22 percent of all international students. (This group grew 23 percent in one year for all Chinese students and 43 percent for undergraduates.) Other popular countries of origin are: India with 103,895 students, South Korea with 73,351 and Canada with 27,546.

8,615: The number of international students at the University of Southern California, the most popular host school last year.

These are just some of the few rankings and stats you might find helpful. It's not a bad way to start!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

American higher education - basic concepts. Part 2.

Hi guys!

This post is meant to answer the questions I have been getting on facebook from a lot of you in the past couple of weeks.

I thought it would be enough to make a general overview in the beginning but now I understand I have to explain some basic terminology first before you can really understand any of the stuff I post here.

So, here is more on the American higher education system 101 (that means the most basic concept) from an international student's perspective.

education, college, graduate school, admissions, American higher education
By User:Kalan (Own work)
 via Wikimedia Commons

Financial aid

You can get more details on how to get financial assistance here but let's do a short overview.

Going to university (college or graduate school) in America is very expensive and could easily cost you more than $100,000. Americans usually "solve" this problem by taking out a federal student loan which is not offered to foreign citizens.

Don't think they have it easy. Most American students have a huge debt when they graduate college and they have to find a good job right after they get out of school to start paying off interest that has accumulated in the past four years.

This is a huge burden and they end up paying much more than what they borrowed under steep interest rates.

In other words, you're not missing out on anything good.

Now, let's see what you can do to pay high tuition fees at American universities. Note: these prices vary from one school to another and you should check the prices on the website of the universities you are interested in. The bigger the name the higher the price.

As I posted earlier you can find this money in by :
  • borrowing from a bank in your home country (depends on where you're from); 
  • getting a scholarship in your native country (maybe your government gives out scholarships to talented students on the condition you work for them for a number of years after you graduate); 
  • applying for scholarships in the US; 
  • asking the university for merit-based aid; or 
  • paying out of your parents' pocket.
Basically, what you might need help with is learning how to apply for merit-based aid and American scholarships.

Merit-based aid (as the name suggests) is the money you get from the university after they decide you will be accepted into the program you applied for. 

You usually send the application materials in the fall/winter and start getting replies in March and April. When they answer you they send you a letter saying if they invite you attend their university or not.

If the answer is yes, they might offer to give you some merit-based aid, which means they will forego part of the tuition you were supposed to pay them. This might be a couple of thousand dollars or even a full amount of your tuition (in which case you get to study for free).

To be able to get the full tuition off is very hard and you'd better be a genius if you hope to get that.

In any case, whatever they offer to give you, take it!

If they don't offer you any aid or if it covers only part of your tuition, don't despair. This is what most students get. You can always apply for scholarships available from your university or from other institutions.

First you need to get that acceptance letter, but when you do you become eligible for many scholarships offered by rich private individuals, corporations, foundations, trusts, etc. You should know that most of them have deadlines in March and plan accordingly. 

You can get a bunch of small amounts from different places and pay your tuition that way. $1,000 here, $5,000 there and you're already closer to your goal. 

Try creating a profile on these 3 websites and see if they can match you with some good sources of funding:
Another good source are universities themselves. If you are good at a sport and the school you are interested in has a team in that sport, you can apply for a sports scholarship. This is the easiest and cleanest way to get a free ride and it is available to everyone. Americans are crazy for college sports even after they graduate and the universities invest a lot of money into it. 

If you want to apply to graduate schools you will not be eligible to play on any of the teams (only open to college students) but maybe you can be an assistant coach. That pays well, too.

Admissions process

Like I mentioned above, the application process usually starts in the fall/winter and you get answers from universities in March/April.

That means if you want to start school in the fall of 2014 you should get your application material ready in the fall of 2013, basically a year in advance.

Part of your application will be the results of the tests you need to take, personal statement, your resume/CV, and any other documentation they ask you to submit. To find out what they want from you, visit the websites of the universities you want to apply to and go to the admissions page. 

To see how a page with this kind of information looks like, click here.

To see how you can start your search, click here.

Another important thing to know is that you should apply to more than one school, typically 4-5 will be enough. You are going through a lot of trouble to apply and you should have a back-up option or two.

Visa issues

There are a lot of swindlers out there so if someone tells you they can help you get a US visa, run the other way!

There is only one way to obtain a visa and that is in your local US embassy, nobody can interfere with that process in any way, legal or not. If someone tell you they have a connection that might help, that you can choose the type of visa and so on, know it's horseshit - they're trying to get money out of you.

The only fee you need to pay for the visa is the one you pay before your embassy interview, and you pay it to the embassy, there are no intermediaries there.

The visa you can get as a foreign student is called F-1. Another type of academic visa is J-1 and it is reserved for visiting scholars.

After you've received an acceptance letter from a university offering you to study there you should answer back saying you accept and they will send you an I-20 form. Then you make an appointment at the embassy and make note of everything they want you to bring to the interview.

Among other things, they will ask to see the I-20 form and the acceptance letter from the university, so don't throw it away! Another thing they might ask you to bring is a bank statement proving you can pay whatever you didn't receive in scholarships. If you have secured financial aid, bring the letters that confirm that, as well.

If everything is ok, you will be issued an F-1 visa for the duration of your studies.

You can travel internationally with this visa but to come back to the US you will have to present the I-20 form with your passport at the border every time. The I-20 form needs to be signed every 6 months by someone from your university (usually from the office that deals with international students) to keep it valid.

After your program is over you have the right to apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT).

This means you can work (at a company, for example) for at most one year on a student F-1 visa towards getting practical training to complement your field of studies.


  1. OPT must relate to your major or course of study.
  2. You can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level, (i.e., you may have 12 months of OPT at the bachelor’s level and another 12 months of OPT at the master’s level).
  3. Your DSO will provide you with a new Form I-20 that shows the DSO recommendation for this employment.
  4. You must apply for work authorization by electronically filing a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and paying a filing fee. USCIS will send you a Form I-766, “Employment Authorization Document,” (EAD) upon approving your Form I-765.
  5. Wait to start work until after you receive your EAD.
  6. While school is in session, you may only work 20 hours per week, after you finish school you can work 40 hours per week.

This is where a lot of confusion comes from. It is true that it is very hard to travel outside the US during your OPT and most people tend to not leave the country in this period but that only applies to OPT, not the whole duration of your studies!!! This is because your visa is technically expired but you are in the country legally as long as you have a valid I-20 form.

Ok, that's it for now. Join the group on facebook and keep sending me questions, I'll do my best to answer them here!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

American higher education - basic concepts. Part 1

Hi guys!

This post is meant to answer the questions I have been getting on facebook from a lot of you in the past week.

I thought it would be enough to make a general overview in the beginning but now I understand I have to explain some basic terminology first before you can really understand any of the stuff I post here.

So, here is the American higher education system 101 (that means the most basic concept) from an international student's perspective.

college, graduate school, basic information


I understand now that college and university can be two very different concepts depending on where you come from. Basically, college is (almost always) a four-year school you apply to after high school. This usually means you are 18-19 years old although there aren't any age limits there, it's just the average age of the kids who get in.

Going to college is the same as going to university in most countries. Colleges are basically schools within universities that specialize in different areas of study. That means that most universities have a number of colleges.

The degree you usually get when you graduate from college is Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and it is the equivalent of finishing university in most countries.

Now, universities have two types of students: undergraduates that go to college (what I just explained) and graduates that go to graduate school. I will explain what graduate school is later in the post.

Right now focus on the undergraduates (or undergrads) who go to college.

Major/Minor - specialization

When you go to college you are supposed to declare a major (class) that you want to pursue your degree in. Let's say you pick psychology. Since you get to pick classes you want to attend in American higher education system, you have to choose a number of classes that have to do with psychology (your major) to get a degree in it after 4 years of study.

You do not have to pick a major in your first year and you can drop one and take up another major during your studies but you have to fulfill the core program requirements to get the degree in the academic discipline you chose (you can't take only arts and literature classes and get a degree in psychology).

Another thing they let you choose is a minor, which is basically another area of study you should focus on, but significantly less than your major. It doesn't even have to have anything to do with your major. For example, you can get a B.A. degree in psychology (your major) with a minor in political science. Once you have this degree you are basically a psychologist (probably unemployed forever but what can you do).

Graduate studies

Once you have your B.A./B.S. degree you can choose to attend graduate school. In Great Britain this name is much more logical and they call it postgraduate studies. It means you attend university after graduation.

You can choose to spend some time in the workforce (highly recommended for most people pursuing Master's degree) before you apply but it is not necessary and you can start right after college.

The degrees you can aim for are Master of Arts (M.A.)/Master of Science (M.S.) - this usually requires two years of study - and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) - this usually takes 4-5 years and a thesis (which is basically the equivalent of writing a book about something).

Don't be confused by the "philosophy" in Ph.D., you can have a doctorate in mathematics, physics, literature, law, pretty much anything.

Also, many schools will let you get an M.A./M.S. while you're studying for Ph.D. as a kind of "on route" degree - you get it after two years in a Ph.D. program.

So, to sum it up, every university consists of colleges (for undergraduate students) and graduate schools (for graduate students).

While American colleges tend to be an opportunity to party a lot and choose a lot of different classes in search of your true calling, graduate studies are very serious and they require a lot of dedication and are highly focused on a narrow area of study.

In addition, Ph.D. students very often get scholarships and are expected to work as research assistants (RAs) doing research for their professors and/or teaching assistants (TAs) teaching undergraduate students.

Many professions require graduate degrees

In many countries, if you want to be a lawyer you go to law school right after high school; if you want to be a doctor you go to medical school when you're 18-19. This is not the case in America. You cannot become a doctor or a lawyer just by finishing college.

The rule is, first you finish college and then you are allowed to enter law school, medical school and many other specialized schools that last from 3 years (law school) to 5-6 years (med school, and with specialization it becomes even longer), etc.

Be aware of this fact when applying to American colleges. Those first 4 years tend to be much more general than in most other countries!!!

Stay tuned because I will cover some other basic aspects in part 2 of this story. Please send me your comments and questions here or on facebook so I know what kind of stuff you would like to know more about.

Also, share this post and the facebook page with your friends who might also be interested in finding out more about how to apply to American universities (now you know that includes both college and graduate school)!


Monday, August 12, 2013

How to get your hands on a university scholarship

According to Bloomberg, "former students are hobbled by a collective $1 trillion in education loans".

The universities are raising their costs every year claiming economic difficulties and young people are still willing to borrow vast amounts of money to get the most basic shot at success in life. 

Of course, it's hard to build a career, start a new business or get a normal-paying job when the first thought on your mind is how you'll pay this month's installment of your student loan.

It doesn't matter if you're gunning for college or graduate school, and it doesn't make much difference what you want to study, you have to explore the possibility of getting one or more scholarships.

scholarships, graduate school, college, financial aid, university, tuition
Not the best hairline but you want to have his attitude

If you're American you should obviously explore the possibility of getting a federal student loan. However, take a couple of days to see if you can get some of that future burden off by getting a scholarship or two along the way. Do some research and see if it's worth investing more of your time in it (answer: it is).

If you're an international student, you probably already know that you're not eligible for a federal student loan.

This means you can:

  • borrow money back home (depends on where you're from); 
  • try to get a scholarship in your native country (maybe your government gives out scholarships to talented students on the condition you work for them for a number of years after you graduate); 
  • apply for scholarships in the US competing with American students; 
  • ask the university for merit-based aid; or 
  • pay out of pocket in which case you should proceed to the top of the page and press the big letter X in the right-hand corner because you don't need to be reading this at all.

Now, if you do need the money, you want to apply for scholarships and don't know where to begin here is a simple way to start. Try creating a profile on these 3 websites and see if they can match you with some good sources of funding:

Do this way in advance and know that many of the deadlines are at the end of March every year.

See what kind of requirements they have and if your background fits the kind of people that won their awards in the past. 

Check out if there are any scholarships for students of your ethnicity or from your part of the world/US. You'd be surprised how many small scholarships you can find that are designed strictly for one group of people. 

Also, do some research on your school's website, see if they are offering any scholarships and what hoops you need to jump through to get some of that sweet green.

Money schools are willing to offer you, especially if you're a graduate student, should be a major incentive to add/drop a school from your wish list. Some of the really big schools, especially in urban environments like New York, DC, or San Francisco, will charge you up to $60 K/year. 

Add living expenses to that and you're in trouble. If you can't get any relief from them financially, it doesn't matter much if you get an early acceptance letter in March - you still won't get to go to that awesome school you chose!

Check out the ten most expensive colleges in the US!

Another way to save money is a sports scholarship. If you're good at a sport and you were/are on your high school team check to see if the university has a team and if you could apply to be on it. If you're a graduate student, you can't compete but you can assist the coach. 

Most of the time, if it's not a division 1 team, you can probably get in without much coaching experience although some experience as a player is a must. Seriously, try it, I know a lot of people who got a free ride/ticket to the US thanks to this.

If you're an international college applicant, make sure you mention all the extracurricular activities you've done in high school. It may look downright silly to you but this may help you a lot if you're going for a merit-based/academic scholarship. 

American schools value this kind of activity a lot, and if you can show that you have different interests, you're active and willing to be part of student clubs and organizations they will be more likely to offer you some kind of financial aid.

To find out more about the types of scholarships follow this link.

If you're interested in scholarships available to international students you can check out some of them here.

I almost forgot, just like with schools, don't forget to apply to more than one place. 

Maybe your university can give you a grant that will cover one part of your tuition, and then you can add two or three small scholarships to help ease the pain.

Don't just think that the really big awards are worth it, there are some smart kids out there who save a lot of money winning those small amounts most students don't pay attention to. 

Do it, the 30 year-old you will be eternally grateful, I promise!

As a bonus, here's a nice and short documentary about the student debt crisis in the United States.

P.S. Check out this group on facebook where you can get the newest info on schools and scholarships!

Monday, August 5, 2013

How to write a grad school personal statement

I was lying on the floor covered in blood gasping for air while my life was flashing before my eyes…

That got your attention didn’t it? Well, if you want to do a good job applying to grad schools you’ll start your personal statement with a “hook”, something that will grab the reader’s attention straight away. It doesn’t have to be as exciting as what I just wrote but it has to stand out from a bunch of other boring essays the admissions folks have to slog through during the day.

personal statement, graduate school, international students, postgraduate studies, United States, university
Preview of graduate school

So, what is your personal statement and how important is it? Think of it as your ID, the one thing that can make you stand out among the competition.

Sure, there will be lots of smart candidates with excellent grades but many of them will come from different countries and once you start comparing apples and oranges, i.e. different grading systems it all soon starts to look terribly complicated and it’s hard to remember even the people with perfect grades.

GRE scores are usually not very important, as long as they’re not horrible. Prepare well and try to do a good job when taking the test but know that the most important thing is not to raise any red flags with a bad score. More about that in my previous post.

The truth is, if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need a great resume and an awesome personal statement. Of the two, it is the latter that tells more about who you really are and why you want to go to that particular school (the one you’re applying to).

Does this mean you should write a different personal statement for every school? Yes, but you can use the same “hook” (described above) and basic paragraphs about yourself and change the part about the school and why you want to study in their program. If they even smell a mass-produced personal statement you sent out to a lot of different schools you can bet your life you won’t even be considered for the waiting list.

The essay should usually be around 500 words long and you should check the exact guidelines on the school’s website. Always adhere to them because they are not flexible about this.

 What should be included in your personal statement? First of all, that sentence that separates you from the rest of the herd. Try to grab their attention right away, shock them even, and then take it from there.
I cannot tell you how many lame essays begin with “It has always been a dream of mine to come to your school because you are the best…” They know they’re the best (or at least that’s what they want to believe), they don’t need your input, thankyouverymuch.

What they want to know are two things: who you are and how you can make their program better. The first part of your personal statement should answer the first question, the ”hook” is there to make them want to read more about you, where you come from, what your ambitions are. This sentence will then lead into the opening paragraph that sets the tone and theme for the entire essay. Try to be as analytical as possible when doing this.

The second part should deal with how you can contribute to their program. In other words, you need to tie in who you are and what you want to accomplish with what they offer in their curriculum.

You also need to show you’ve done your research on the school. This is where you drop the name(s) of the professor(s) you’ve been writing to about their work and why you think they could benefit from having you in their class.

Remember, just like any employer you’ll ever interview for, they don’t want to hear so much about why this is good for you (they’re great, get it?!) but why it will be beneficial for the program to have your input there.

Many of these graduate classes depend heavily on the input of students, some are even book clubs (especially if you choose to study humanities, for example) and you want to show that you will enrich the working environment in class by actively participating with your (very interesting and informed) point of view.

They should glimpse that point of view in your personal statement.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of trying to be too academic. Write in the way that comes natural to you, not the way you think will make you sound more intelligent. That’s how you'll end up using words and constructions that look unnatural and out of place.

Always proofread several times what you wrote and have a couple more people you trust do it, too. It’s amazing how many mistakes we can overlook when we write something ourselves, someone else might catch it right away.

Here’s a nice little set of instructions on how to write a personal statement.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

All you need to know about the GRE

If you’re thinking about applying for grad school, one of the first things you should plan for is taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). There are very few schools that won’t ask you to send them the results of this exam with the only exception that some might ask for GMAT – basically the same thing, only focused more on math than its competition, usually required by MBA programs. Check out the websites of the schools you want to apply to and see which test they want you to take and then start working on honing your test-taking skills!

Here are the answers to some of the most common question about the GRE.

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By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Tiffini M. Jones. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How important is the GRE in admissions process?

My wife used to be on a student advisory board of one of the most prestigious American universities as a student who reviewed graduate applications and recommended them to be admitted or not. So this is what she found.

There are so many applications that it is hard to keep track of everybody’s grades, test scores, personal statements, etc and what you want to do as an applicant are two things – not screw up a part of your application terribly (that immediately eliminates you) and somehow find a way to stand out from the crowd – this could be a stellar resume followed by a really good personal statement.

When it comes to GRE results, they can unfortunately do you more harm than good. Basically, if you have very bad results, that may raise a red flag, and if your results are really good, you might get a “Oh, nice” from the person reviewing your application. If they are just average (as, by definition, most of them are) nobody will look at them twice.

If you’re an international student, universities will tolerate lower verbal scores but don’t expect them to overlook your bad math results if you’re applying to an MBA program. In short, if you’re applying to a program in humanities or social sciences they won’t care much about math, the sciences/MBA programs will put less emphasis on the verbal part, and you want to at least get an average result on both not to raise any alarms about you application. Which brings me to the test structure.

What does the test look like?

The test is roughly divided into three parts – verbal skills, quantitative skills, and analytical writing. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details (and you should), you can find it here. As someone who took this test five years ago - and aced it, if I may add - I can tell you that it is quite difficult and you should take it seriously. Remember, it’s not the thing that will get you into the program but it might be the one eliminating you from further consideration.

The verbal part consists of multiple-choice questions that refer to academic-level texts about science, literature, art, etc. that you are supposed to answer in a very short time window. The articles are not simple and you need to be focused throughout to be able to answer the questions (the answers tend to look alike and they are designed that way to confuse you). Also, you’ll have to learn a lot of “big words” – they’ll ask you for synonyms, antonyms, logical reasoning (if A then B questions with long words in between), and stuff like that.

The quantitative section is basically a code for high-school math so I won’t dwell more on that. GMAT will require you to know this at an A level, so watch out! Also, these are also multiple-choice questions; they don’t care how you got the result or even if you guessed it! This may come as a surprise to many international students.

Analytical writing is just that. You’ll have to write two essays – one analyzing an argument, one analyzing an issue. More than form, you’re asked to show critical thinking and that you can demonstrate it in writing in a coherent manner. It doesn’t have to be perfect or very long, it’s not a term paper and they know it’s written in haste.

The test takes around 4 hours to complete and, depending on where you’ve registered, it can be paper-based or computer-based. It is administered by ETS or their affiliates which can differ greatly in their practices around the world. For example, I took the paper-based version (now almost extinct but still going strong in some countries) and in my experience it was easier to navigate and quicker to finish than the other one. I did a lot of practice on computer-based mock tests from previous years and the thing about them was that I had to answer every question before getting a chance to answer the next one. I think this has now changed  for more info check out the ETS website.

You can take the test quite often during the year (3-4 times in some countries), especially the computer-based version. The paper-based test is only administered in a few countries and they’re phasing it out, slowly but surely. Of course, if you’re already in the United States, only sky is the limit! Also, you can retake the test and choose to send only the results you pick. Check out what’s available in your location.

How do I prepare for the GRE?

Well, practice makes perfect. I did great on the test although I’m not a native English speaker, and what I did was get a lot of mock tests from my academic advisor and solve them, a few every week. You can find (or purchase) a lot of stuff to help you along the way but, honestly, I wouldn’t bother spending money. Just learn how to solve this particular type of test and make it a routine because you won’t have much time to think about the best test-taking strategies while you’re rushing from one question to another. You can also find some documents for free online, like Math Review or Practice Book for the Paper-Based GRE.

gre, test, exam, graduate school, admissions, scores, student, degree, postgraduate, ma, mba, phd
By Tbuckley89 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How long will it take to prepare for the test?

Very hard question to answer  This depends on where you are with math and if English is your first language. If it is and you are a college graduate, I would say from a couple of weeks to a month. If English is your second language you might be in it for a couple of months but it all depends on your individual circumstances. Here’s an interesting discussion about this.

How much does it cost and how are the results distributed?

This is a question usually asked by international students not familiar with standardized tests in the US. As of July 1, 2013 the price is $185. Why? Because they know you’ll pay anything, that’s why. The way this works is you do the test and they send you the scores by mail but you can also access them online. When you apply for the test you give the names of four schools where you want them to send your results. If you want to add more schools, you can do that, but that privilege will cost you additional $$$. The schools should get the results of the computer-based test within a couple of weeks and the paper-based one within six weeks.

What is the GRE Subject Test?

In addition to the general GRE test, students can take subject tests in specific areas: biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, English literature, math, physics and psychology.
These paper-based tests have their own fees and are offered only in October, November and April. Contact the schools you’re applying to in order to find out if you’re required to take a subject test.

Can I cheat?

You can try! I get this question sometimes from people, so that’s why I want to address it here. Honestly, if you’re taking the computer-based test I sincerely doubt you can even think about that but it is possible with the paper-based version. I did see some people copy their friend’s work when I was taking the test but I would definitely advise against it. Not only is it bad from the moral point of view but it is also something you can’t rely on. Just imagine if you get caught! The future of your academic career shouldn’t depend on your ability to get away with being a cheat… Oh, I almost forgot, there have been a lot of interesting stories coming out of Asia about unusually high scores for years now.

Ok, if you stuck around this long and you’re an international student, here’s a bonus section!

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

If you’re not a native speaker, and you haven’t spent a year studying in an English-speaking country (South Africa doesn’t count, for some reason) you’ll have to take this test. The universities want to make sure you can attend classes and write well in English.

In my experience, there are a lot of people who pass this test and get accepted to universities without being fluent in the lingo. I’ve had a few people in my classes during grad school who struggled quite a bit during the first semester but you could tell that by the end of the first year the progress was amazing. So, unless you want to study creative writing, you should be fine. Plus, if you’re good enough to do well on the GRE, TOEFL will be a walk in the park. Here’s some info on what’s a good TOEFL score.

One thing, though. It will still take you good 4 hours and about the same amount of money (it varies by country) you paid for the GRE to check this off your list. And yes, it’s the same company behind it. Another thing to have in mind is that you will be required to speak during the test, so do work on your accent a little (they just need to be able to understand you clearly). You won’t be talking to a live person but your answers will be recorded and reviewed by ETS people. Also, you should practice listening because they will require you to provide answers about something you just heard. Analytical writing (less difficult than the corresponding GRE section) is there, too. The test can be computer-based or internet-based, no paper version is available. Here, get some practice. Might want to do some listening, as well.

Also, check out how to do research and find a graduate program that suits you!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How do I pick the right college? The top 5 things you need to know

Since I covered exploring graduate programs in my previous post I thought I should now focus on what you should take into  account when choosing the right college. There are obviously many things you should know before you embark on this adventure and I suggest talking to your academic advisor about it first. Here is an overview of the top 5 things I think you should pay attention to when you explore colleges:

1. Academics
Whether you already have a potential major in mind or you want to spend the first year shopping around you should already know what kind of courses interest you in general. Explore the curriculum of schools that look interesting and check out rankings to see what programs would best suit your fancy. If the courses offered excite you and you feel that they challenge you intellectually and could lead to a career one day, put that college on your shortlist.

A word of advice here: college is the time and place to experiment, even when it comes to courses, but please don't forget how much this whole thing is costing your parents and that you will probably spend a good decade repaying pricey loans. Taking an interesting yet useless course here and there is fine but please don't make a habit of doing this, and four years later you get stuck with a BA in Art History and $150,000 in debt. I mean, if you are really in love with art history, are ready to do a Ph.D. in it, and this is what you always wanted to do in life - go right ahead! But if you have even a trace of doubt about whether you want to work in a museum or teach at a university you'd better sign up for some econ 101. That never hurt anyone's job prospects.

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
Pepperdine University

 2. Cost of school and financial aid available

Harvard does sound great but can you pay for it? Basically, what you need to pay attention to are two things: the cost of school and how much you can save through financial aid. Check out the school's website and see how much it costs to attend and then see if you qualify to receive some sort of discount.

 And if you're good at sports, use this to your advantage. I know plenty of people who got out of paying for college by getting a sports scholarship. You don't have to be the next Michael Jordan to play basketball in a division II team and there are lots of good schools out there that would be lucky to have you. I know this option is not available to most people but if there is any chance you could get even a small scholarship out of this, it is worth the time you spend researching school programs.

Also, if you are an international student, know that colleges like to be able to say that they have students from X number of countries. It makes them look better when they try to attract students and it may be your ticket in, especially if you're from a small country (if you're Chinese, the chances are there are many of your compatriots there already - one more or less doesn't mean that much to them).  You can also try to find scholarships available only to international students.

3. Internship opportunities

Is your future employer going to care where you went to school? Yes, but mostly when you apply for that first job out of school. Is the company going to care about your grades? Probably not. Do they think work experience is a must before getting a job there? You can bet everything you have (or owe) that the answer is YES. So where do you get this experience?

The answer is quite simple and it assumes you don't mind working for free. You know, that's when they ask you about the meaning of life in the interview and then you realize on your first day that you'll spend most of your time doing photocopies and retyping stuff. But hey, if you choose wisely and have a bit of luck maybe somewhere in between running errands for staff members you'll get to do something that will help you decide what you (don't) want to do once you graduate. Whatever it is, choose the school that will give you the opportunity to do internships, even if they don't immediately land you a full time job. Most of the time it's great hands-on experience and you literally can't get a job without it. Here is a nice inside scoop on what it's like to intern at some publications.

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Texas Legislative Internship Program: Class of 2013
By Texas Senate Media Services [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Career Center

You might want to check right away if the school has a good career center. This information shouldn't be too hard to find if you ask alumni about their experiences and how much help they received when they were looking for a job. See if they offer mock interview sessions, organize job fairs (and who the employers are), resume workshops, offer statistics on where their graduates find jobs and what their average income is, etc.

Another thing that is very important is the alumni network. You want to know if the school keeps in touch with its former students, if they are available for informational interviews and if they attend panels on how to find jobs in their industry. This can be of great help, there are companies out there with a lot of people from a handful of schools and this is no accident!

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
Alumni House, College of William and Mary
By Jrcla2 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5. Student clubs and organizations

This really depends on your interests but make sure you do get involved in the life on campus. For your college experience to be complete, you'll have to find a balance between studying and living one of the best periods of your life so try to find a school that can provide you both. Some schools will give you the opportunity to do (or follow) sports, some will let you find the artist in you and if you're into volunteering at a homeless shelter you can find a place for that, too. Whatever it is, find something fulfilling and it will make your college experience so much more worthwhile!

Stay tuned, next Wednesday I'll write about the GRE and TOEFL.

P.S. I couldn't help including the top 10 colleges where students work hard and party hard. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How do I explore graduate programs in my area of study?

So, you have your BA/BS degree in your pocket and hopefully a couple of years of work experience under your belt. In this day and age, if you want to be eligible for promotion in many companies or even if you just want to apply for a good position (often even an entry position) you need to have an MA. On the other hand, you need to be aware that not all graduate degrees pay off and that two additional years in school are a big investment that you should be able to cash in one day.

Another scenario is if you’re aiming for a Ph.D. If this is the case you should know that you are in for 4-5 years of serious work and if you don’t have a clear plan, even if it’s a couple of options instead of one – plans do change – for the love of god, don’t apply. Doing a doctorate is a serious thing, it usually involves working long hours as a research assistant/undergrad TA (teaching assistant) plus going to classes, doing homework, writing long essays and a thesis that will make everything else you’ve done in your life seem like a joke.

Student orientation
By Tulane Public Relations (Flickr: Student Orientation) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
On the other hand, if you’re completely in love with what you do, if you can see yourself working as a professor and/or researcher one day, and if the life of academics is the one for you, go for it! It’s a lot of work but it pays off at the end. Oh, and one more thing. Although you will probably get a scholarship from the university (accept nothing less, if you have to pay for it, they probably aren’t the right match for you anyway) do know that you will be as poor as a church mouse during your studies – the scholarships are very small and cover only the most basic stuff. 

Now, if after all this you’re still interested, let’s see what your first step towards applying could be.

The most important thing is to find schools that are the right fit for you, not the ones that would impress people when they ask you where you study. For example, when I was applying for grad schools in 2007 the example my academic advisor used was Harvard and its chemistry department – apparently they didn’t quite compare well against many universities you’ve never heard of that invested much more money (and effort) into this particular area of study. The point is, don’t go for the brand, look for the substance. People in your niche know what programs are good and when you apply for your first job after graduate school they might not be as impressed with a big university name as your friends and family might have been when you enrolled.

What you need to do is create a list of schools (programs) you are interested in and put them in order of preference – my first, second, third choice, etc. After you’ve done enough research this list will make itself, and may I suggest not opting for ten programs, 5-6 will do the trick. You should pick schools so that you are satisfied if any of them send you an acceptance letter and if they all reject you, well, it wouldn’t matter if you sent 100 applications.

By Ziko van Dijk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Another mistake I’ve seen people make is apply only to the schools that top the rankings. So, it’s Yale, Princeton, Harvard or nothing! This is definitely the wrong attitude. There are plenty of great schools out there and if you can get into the one that’s number one in your field of expertise that’s great, but know that you should have some reserve options. For example, if you’re applying to 6 schools, make 2 your absolute priorities, 2 more realistic options, and 2 your fallback plan. Of course, you should know yourself best and only you (should) know what is realistic for you. The best option is the same for most people. If the two overlap you have hit the jackpot!

But there are so many schools, how do I cut the list to only a few good ones? Easy. Find a good academic adviser, get a list of all schools with programs in your area of study and start digging. If you want to know about rankings, check out US World & News Report. They are the most credible source out there but know that many faculty members complain of them privately because they have very rigid guidelines and don’t take into consideration all aspects of academic life.

Once you’ve found the schools that might potentially look interesting (up to 20, 30 if you’re really clueless) you just need to go to their websites and start doing incredible amounts of tedious research. But hey, if you’re not into that, you might as well give up on going to grad school in the first place.

You’ll soon see how all these websites look alike and you’ll learn the keywords like academics (to see what courses they offer and who teaches them), financial aid (differentiate between what is available to Americans and what international students can hope for – the answer is a lot less), bios of faculty members, housing (usually off campus for graduate students but there are exceptions), cost of study (take into consideration the cost of living at the location, living in Iowa will not hurt your pocket as much as finding an apartment, or a shoe box more likely, in NYC).

After you narrowed down your list even more and know you have a much better idea what you could hope for, check out the professors who teach the courses you are most interested in within these programs. If you already know some names and are a fan, that’s fantastic. If not, try to search their names using googlescholar. Find what they have written, read as much as you can, get a feel for what their course is about and what it would be like to be in their class or even cooperate with them if you’re a Ph.D. candidate.

Graduating students
By Sasikiran 10 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Once you identify the professors that interest you most get in touch with them. It’s easy to find their profile on the faculty list section of the school website and that email address next to their name is there for a reason – use it! Get in touch, tell them what you’re interested in, mention some of their work and how it got you interested to join the program. You’ll definitely get a better feel for the school and it won’t hurt your chances in the admissions office once those faceless applications start pouring in. Some of these professors are on the admissions committees and they all talk to each other! Also, if you’re a Ph.D. candidate you’ll need a mentor and this is a great way to start working your way towards finding one.

Final thought, and this is especially important for international students who are not familiar with the way American universities work – make sure you note down all application deadlines way ahead of time. If you want to start school in the fall the application must be out the door usually in December or January and you won’t get an answer until at least early to mid March. Now, if you need to take the GRE/GMAT test (and you do) try to find the location nearest you where you can do this and please find a tutor or a good manual on how to prepare. But I’ll write about that in one of my next posts.

What’s coming up: how to find the right college. Stay tuned! Also, all you need to know about the GRE and TOEFL!