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!

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