U.S. Graduate School Help for International Students

Executive Director of Enrollment; Director of International Students and Scholars; Queens College, City University of New York

Are you an international student considering a graduate degree in the United States? You’re in good company—and you’re about to get an inside look at how to achieve your goal.

Higher education knows few borders. Many Americans head overseas for graduate work, and many qualified international students pursue similar opportunities in the United States. Studying in America, international students find top-ranked programs offering a credential valued all over the world: a Western degree. Plus, the ancillary benefits of studying in the United States include improved English-language skills and an expanded professional network.

Choosing a program

Start by reviewing the options in your field of study, and remember that graduate programs differ from their undergrad counterparts. Undergraduate programs are much more about acquiring knowledge; graduate programs are about applying that knowledge in your field while also exploring more abstract ideas.

An institution’s overall ranking is significant to undergraduates, who usually take courses in multiple disciplines. But prospective graduate students should pay more attention to the program they want to attend. How long has the program been in operation? How big or small is the department, and which size do you prefer? Who are the professors? What are their areas of specialization, and where have they published their papers? What track record do they have in working with foreign students? Who are the program’s notable alumni?

Your budget is another consideration. Excellent programs exist at both public and private institutions in the United States. The former, which draw much of their funding from the states in which they are located, tend to be much cheaper, even for people paying out-of-state rates. To lower your costs, ask about scholarships in your home country. The governments of some nations cover tuition and living expenses for citizens who go abroad for graduate school. Clubs and professional associations may provide support as well.

Personal factors matter as much as financials. Research the time commitment entailed in finishing your degree and whether you need to spend the entire period overseas. You may be able to do some of your course work online in your home country. However, one way or another, you’ll likely have to live in the United States for a while, and you may want to attend a university that’s near a community of people from your background. Married graduate students and those with children should consider what their family members need in terms of housing, schools, and activities.  

Housing is another concern. Many universities have residence halls for foreign graduate students, but demand usually exceeds supply. If this option appeals to you, make inquiries as soon as you are accepted. If you prefer to live off campus, ask for referrals to reputable rental agents. Be sure to inspect the property in person before signing an agreement or making a payment.

An easily overlooked consideration is transportation. How will you get around? Lots of graduate students will want to get a car, especially in communities with limited public transit. Unlike visas, drivers’ licenses are issued at the state level, so it’s difficult to generalize about the required documentation. If you hope to drive in the United States, it might be worthwhile to get an international driver’s license before you leave home.

The application process

Meanwhile, applicants have to meet academic requirements. Scholastic demands vary not only with the university, but also among programs at a single institution. Be sure to contact the department directly for its specifics and deadlines. If material is being sent back and forth through the mail rather than online, allow extra weeks in each direction for delivery.

Wherever you apply, you can expect to be asked for proof of the degrees you earned, as well as their American equivalents. You’ll also be asked for your transcript in its original language, translated into English if necessary; scores on standardized tests, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), if you were educated in a language other than English; references; and perhaps an essay or personal statement. An otherwise strong candidate who falls short in English literacy or lacks a prerequisite course may receive conditional acceptance. In this situation, outstanding requirements must be satisfied before the student enters the graduate program.

Uncle Sam and state governments have requirements too. The first issue is entering the United States. After being admitted to a graduate program, full-time international students have to apply in their home country for an F-1 visa, which permits them to cross the U.S. border. The duration of the visa varies depending on the reciprocity treaty the United States has with a student’s country.

To qualify for the F-1 visa, applicants provide the university with statements from their financial sponsor; in return, the university supplies applicants with a federal I-20 Form documenting that they have sufficient funds to study and live here. Living expenses are calculated by the school. Then students submit their I-20, acceptance letter, and financial documents to the U.S. State Department, which issues visas. The spouse and children (known as dependents) of an F-1 visa holder need to apply for F-2 visas in order to travel in and out of the United States. If both halves of a couple are doing graduate work in the United States, each individual needs an F-1.

With all of these technical considerations, remember that most American universities are eager to help, and they have staff members and offices dedicated to students from overseas. You won’t have to figure out answers on your own.

Graduate study in the United States requires preparation and hard work. But in the end, it is worth it for thousands of students. With the right research and dedication, you may find it’s worth it to you as well. 

Grad school tips for international students

  • Know the requirements. From English-language proficiency to degree equivalency, make sure you know exactly what is required of you as an international graduate applicant and student.
  • Make research a priority. This isn’t about researching graduate programs to find the right one for your goals. Rather, you should have experience conducting vigorous formal research in your field, because expertise and demonstrated research are often key to acceptance into graduate programs and career advancement.
  • Schedule interviews. As soon as you have a graduate program in mind, look into scheduling your admission or
    informational interviews. And keep your relative time zones in mind as you do so!
  • Plan your finances. Monetary aid will likely be limited and competitive among graduate students in your program. If you need assistance, take steps to secure your finances well before your program starts. Seek out forms of aid like fellowships and assistantships offered through your graduate program, sponsorship through your country or company, or employment through your school (even if you are unable to work in the United States according to stipulations of your visa, you can still work in designated roles on campus). You also may be able to secure a graduate student loan if you have a U.S. cosigner.
  • Make an application checklist. Conduct research into all the application materials you need for each grad program you’re applying to. Then create a comprehensive list of what you need to submit for each one. And while you’re at it . . .
  • Update your calendar. Missing a deadline can cost you your offer of admission or financial aid. Make note of all deadlines well in advance, and keep track of them on the same calendar. Aim to send in your applications at least two weeks before they’re due. You can use your calendar to track admission or informational interviews as well.
    Ask thoughtful questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your international and/or graduate admission counselors for help if you need it. Just be mindful and respectful of their time. For example, if you do not receive a response from your admission counselor after a week, a follow-up call or e-mail is fine, but to do so further may be considered rude. You may have better luck contacting someone new. 
  • Check in on your application. After applying, you may be able to verify that all application materials have been received using an online admission portal. If that’s not possible, call the graduate admission office one to two weeks after submitting your application to follow up.
  • Network. Make an effort to build relationships with your professors and peers in your graduate program as well as any other students from your home country attending your school (just be wary of becoming too comfortable, surrounding yourself with the familiar). You can remain true to your values at networking events too; if you don’t drink alcohol, it is still perfectly acceptable to go to a cocktail party or bar with your classmates. Just order soda!
  • Familiarize yourself with cultural differences. For example, you may be accustomed to seeing anyone in a position of power, such as your graduate professors, as an unquestioned leader. Certainly, your professors will be experienced experts in their fields, but they will also encourage you to form your own opinions. You may even find yourself questioning or disagreeing with them some day—respectfully, of course. And that’s okay.
  • Arrive as early as your visa and finances allow. This will give you time to meet international counselors and other students in your cohort and explore campus and the surrounding area. There’s a lot to take in when you first arrive on campus, and the start of classes will be hectic enough.

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