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.

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