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.

gre, test, exam, graduate school, admissions, scores, student, degree, postgraduate, ma, mba, phd
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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

When should I start and how?

Now. Yes, that’s right, now now. There is no time like the present and it is never too early to start finding out more about what’s in store for you, not just during the application process but beyond.

For me, it all started when a friend of mine came to class one day and said she had attended an info session at the local office of EducationUSA (I had never heard of them before) and that she heard some interesting stuff about studies in the US. She said she might pay them another visit if she felt like it. I guess she didn’t because I went to their next presentation without her and got hooked for life. Here I am, eight years later, living in America having changed my entire life in the meantime.

When I first started seriously gathering information on potential schools I was in my third year of college (out of four) and I still had to take a year off after graduation to take all necessary exams and send off my application on time. For a foreigner with no experience this is usually a long process and it is never too early to start. In my case, from listening to that first info session to actually starting school it took a little less than three years. Don’t think it can’t be done in less if you have a good idea what you want to study and have a general knowledge of schools you would like to apply to but if you are as clueless as I was in the beginning it may take you a looong time.   

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
By Marchmain05 at en.wikipedia. (Taken by Marchmain05.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are some tips on how to get started. Try to find out if there are any NGOs that are loosely affiliated with the local US embassy (EducationUSA did the trick for me; I believe they have offices in most countries around the globe). They could help you find out more about the application process. Be sure to scour the embassy’s website, maybe they have participated in projects that would involve presentations from US universities – study abroad fairs are not uncommon but our usually poorly advertised outside the academic community. In addition, try to find out if your school has any ties to an American university, maybe one of your professors or teachers went to school there and that personal touch from someone who knows you well could make all the difference.

In my opinion, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to study. If you’re still in high school this is much easier. Unless you’re a math whizz and want to go to MIT (which makes it even easier to choose the right school) there is an abundance of good liberal arts colleges across America where you can explore your different interests before deciding on a major (the main focus of your study, for example it might be psychology or political science). If you’re gunning for graduate school like I did, you should be very specific about what you want. That means you should have a general idea what kind of career you might hope for after you get your (expensive) degree, how it complements your BA/BS in the job market, and whether you want to do an MA degree or pursue a Ph.D. (in 99 percent of the cases I would recommend this for those in search for a university career).

To sum it up, try to find an academic advisor that will explain to you what are the best schools in your area of interest. You will usually find them in nonprofit organizations that you can get in touch with either through your friends and professors or directly through the US embassy. These guys advise students for a living and they know good schools in most popular areas of study. Even if they don’t (my case), they must have access to publications that contain the names and rankings of schools in particular disciplines, usually with a short description of the program/school/college and contact information. Once you have this very basic information you’re ready for the next step.

 In the next post, I’ll write about how to do research on universities that meet your starting criteria and why it is important to get in touch with faculty members right away.

Why should I study in America?

“I feel like I’ve tried everything and I still see only one path ahead. There has to be something new, different, something that would open up new possibilities I can’t even imagine now. I’m not willing to settle for the mediocre, I want more from life, even if I’m not sure what it is.” The guy sitting across the table from me just said what I had been feeling for a while and didn’t quite know how to express it. Right there and then I decided that I would do everything in my power to get into a good graduate program in America and from that point on I never felt I was unsure if my motives were right.

The truth is, there are many reasons to come study in the US and I think I’ve heard most of them from my friends – maybe you want to get better education; you have a dream job in mind in America or elsewhere and this is the way to start working on getting closer to your goal; you want to have an adventure; learn English properly (especially if you’re in a language program); see things from a different angle; you want to change your life completely, etc.

Whatever it is, you should be aware that this is a massive investment of your time and money. My advice to you is do what I did – talk to others who have already gone through the whole process and ask them about the pros and cons. It is a rocky road but definitely worth it. Just think about it, some of the world’s best universities are here. You’ve all heard of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and others and there’s a reason why so many successful people have gone to one or more of these places even if these particular schools are not your personal fit. There are many more and one of my posts will deal with how to avoid the trap of only applying to schools with great names. Still, there is something for everyone, you just need to dig deep enough and you’ll find your match.

Aside from the obvious fact that studying in America opens a door to staying there and finding a good job you could also take advantage of many available internship opportunities. I don’t care if you’re into metallurgy or creative writing, computer science or international relations, there are many amazing internships out there for folks like you. Yes, you’ll work for free and some openings might be reserved only for US citizens and/or green card holders but these days you can’t get a job anywhere without experience! The problem that many young people face is that nobody wants to give them the opportunity to get that experience so you start feeling like a hamster on a wheel. That’s where internships kick in, they are basically the initiation process for the future workforce. You’re going to have to do it anyway, just think how much more impressive an internship with some American institution will look on your resume back home! On the other hand, if you want to stay in America, no one will hire you without some previous US experience, so…  

Not to exaggerate the cultural side of it but a change like this will definitely transform your life forever. For example, it is during my grad studies that I met my wife and some of the most interesting friends I’ve ever had. Many people use this time to meet new people, explore new cultures, find love. You can also travel around the country during holidays, make some American friends and have your first Thanksgiving dinner, maybe watch some football (not to be confused with soccer) and figure out what that’s all about – you know, all that stuff you’ve been watching on TV your whole life but never quite understood. I know that your main focus should be your studies but there is no way you won’t appreciate the life-changing effect this new experience will have on you. It will literally make you a better, more open-minded person wherever you come from.

You know, it’s true that getting into a US university is hard but that’s good news – your motivation and patience will be tested many times – because it will weed out those interested in a long vacation and with enough money to see it through. If after a couple of years of planning and hard work you’re left standing with a student visa, inevitable I-20 form and an acceptance letter from a university it probably means you’ve made the right choice.

My next post will talk about when and how you can start searching for that perfect fit – the institution you really want to get into and whose programs you admire. It’s not worth it if you’re not after that big white whale!   

Hi guys!

I'd like to welcome you to my new blog about opportunities for international students in the United States. Since I've been through the process myself and I found it to be one of the best experiences in my life and I know there is a lot of people out there that would like to find out more about how to apply to universities in America I've decided to create this blog. I plan to write about my experiences applying to universities and my life in the US, share experiences with other international students and answer questions of all of you who are thinking of maybe applying to one of US schools.

Also, I'll be writing under an alias and I won't tell you what country I'm from because I want everyone to feel welcome here and I don't want to have any posts or comments in my native language or for people to think I can't relate to them just because we are not from the same part of the world. I will say that I am 29, I live in Washington, DC and I have attended the George Washington University where I received my master's degree in international relations.

To sum it up, this is a blog for all of you who are thinking of applying to US universities (college or graduate school), and all those who are or have been international students in America. Your comments are more than welcome and I am looking forward to talking to you, giving you advice and learning from you here. Please feel free to share your experiences and views, I'm sure I don't know everything and you guys can help each other a lot as well.

Oh, and I'll try to post something new twice a week (Saturdays and Wednesdays) and go from there.

Ok, let's start!