Applying to USA in 2018 - My Experience

          Shital Babu Rijal, Kansas State University.
    Graduate Student, Batch of Fall 2018
Applying to US universities is physically, emotionally and financially a challenging job. You need to stay in front of your computer for lots of hours, days and months in the application process. Visiting several times to different places for courier services, attestations, recommendations, official transcripts, payments etc. is a pain in the neck. Emotionally, I know how it feels when every single person we meet asks us when we are heading to the USA?
Paying in dollars is tough. In addition to preparation and Examination fees for TOEFL, General GRE, and Physics GRE, you will have the following additional expenses:
Application Fees: $80(Average) [In some cases you can email your department to waive the application fees]
WES (World Education Service) Evaluation: $205 [Not all universities require this, but some do] [Converts % to GPA]
Sending official Test scores to University: [rates can be found through ETS and WES websites]
Courier of Official Transcripts and Documents: NRs. 1750 [DHL courier from NAEE services, Pulchowk, Lalitpur]
Preparing Official Transcripts (Attested copies in Sealed envelope): NRs. 150

Session for application:
Most of the universities in US accept students only for fall semester, i.e. August. But some universities may take for spring semester as well i.e. January, but it is not recommended to apply for spring, since they may take a very few students and availability of scholarships and assistantships can’t be ensured. So here on, I will talk based on fall semester applications.

Proficiency Tests:
As an English proficiency test, you have two options - TOEFL and IELTS. Give your preference to TOEFL because not all universities in USA accept IELTS. If you think you can’t get good scores on TOEFL then you may opt for IELTS. Also remember that these tests are valid for 2 years.

General GRE is a must for any university in US. Some universities have made the Subject GRE compulsory and some quote it as optional or highly recommended. But, if you want a sure shot at getting into US university in the first attempt, go for subject GRE. Subject GRE also helps you to rule out your lower scores (if any) in your TOEFL and GRE. So subject GRE is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, and I personally suggest taking this exam at first, whilst you are still fresh with the subject matter. GRE scores are valid for 5 years.
Note: For all these (TOEFL, GRE, Subject GRE) you should already have a passport to schedule a test.

Selection of University:
Within this test preparation period, you can search for universities. Choose universities on the following basis:
i.              Comparison of Eligibility and University Requirements with your academic scores and expected test scores
ii.             Your interest of research
iii.             Acceptance rate
iv.            Enrollment of Nepalese students in the past years
v.             Ranking of University (USnews)

·         You may consult with your seniors, teachers, and friends for university suggestions.
·         It is a good idea to select universities of different ranks. Don’t go only for higher rank universities based on your higher scores. Mix-up the universities between 1-50, 50-100, 100-150 and 150-200.
·         While looking up for ranks in, it’s smarter to look for the ranking of physics department and not the overall ranking of the university.
·         Select a greater number of universities than you intend to apply because you may have to leave some universities based on your test scores or other reasons.
·         Prepare an Excel database of Universities with Name, Rank, Minimum Requirements, and Application period.

Timing for Application:
Timing is one of the important aspects while applying to US universities, as most of the universities have strict deadline. It’s better to not wait for the deadline because I have seen cases where applicants have been admitted before the deadline date for application. Most of the universities take applications between November - 15 to January - 15. And a few may have deadlines till March but again, it’s highly recommended, DO NOT WAIT FOR THE DEADLINE.

Writing a good SOP:
I believe an SOP is one of the crucial documents required for application. Statement of Purpose is a document that allows you to directly express your words to the admission committee. Here are some key points to remember about SOP:
i.              Make it simple, short and effective - Admission committee will already be tired of reading several SOP’s since many years. Try not to make it more than 2 pages.
ii.             Difficult vocabs and a lot of background won’t help you. Just express naturally as if you are talking to them. Make that look real.
iii.             Never praise yourself directly. Just mention some tasks you have done and let them decide whether you are praiseworthy. E.g. Don’t directly write that you are very talented and a hard-working student. Instead write, you loved to work in labs even in holidays and off hours. You loved helping friends to solve lab issues and other problems in class.
iv.            Always praise your past institution and faculties. Admission Committee know that they are going to take that place later.
v.             Research in depth about the university and the school you are applying to. Find out some researches and professors you like. Mention those in a paragraph and link them to any preparation you had done in your MSc such as your choice of thesis, choice of electives, participation in seminars, presentations etc.
vi.            But don’t be too specific about a topic or a field or a professor; keep yourself open to several researches being done in that university.
vii.           SOP is not written in a day. Take at least 4 to 5 days to prepare SOP. Many paragraphs can be similar for different universities but the presentation of your academics and interests should be always based on point no. v.
viii.           Give your SOP to some friends who are good in English for proof reading. This is a must.
ix.            Write in brief about your prospects after you complete PhD.
x.             Do not try to emotionally blackmail stating your problems. If you want to express that, again go the indirect way. E.g. “Because of having a poor economic background, I had to do a lot of struggle to reach here. Following my deep interest in M.Sc. Physics, I worked very hard to earn money for my livelihood. It became even more difficult when I had to support my family back in village”.  This looks very emotional but sounds creepy. This can be simply replaced by – “It was a tough time for me around my M.Sc., since I had to work in a café daily for 10 hours and appear for Lectures and Exams in between.” This replacement indirectly lets them know how hard working you are, your poor economic backgrounds and your desire and dedication to study.

Contacting the University:
It’s not mandatory that you should contact the university. You can just apply through the graduate school. This is because it’s very rare nowadays that a professor will take you into his research group just by seeing your academics and test scores. Unless you show some proven facts such as Journal papers and publications, they’re not going to sign you up for a Research assistantship (RA). You are joining the university most often as a Teaching Assistant (TA).
But in some cases, like you want to apply an extra filter to find out which universities you apply, you can contact to the graduate chair regarding your probability of getting admission.
Or sometimes when your thesis matches to the research of a professor or you are well exposed to some papers related to the research, or you know something about the research, you can contact them. You should also remember not to email more than one professor from the same university. They are connected most of the times.
DO NOT write long emails with multiple paragraphs. You need not tell them “Nepal is poor country, I was born in village. I went to government school. I struggled to reach here etc.” These things have no impact at all. Most of the professors who are reading your emails are doing it as an extra volunteer duty. They are kind of obliged to do it as per university policy. So, they want to get that done very fast. If your email is long, they will simply read the first paragraph and stop reading the rest or delete your email right there.

§   An example of email sent to the graduate admission chair:

Subject: Application to PhD
Dear Dr. (Last Name),

I am glad to find that the researches going on University of **** match my interest to a larger extent. I have ****** score in TOEFL (R-*, W-*, L-*, S-*) and ***** score in GRE (VR-*, QA-*). My Physics GRE score is ***.  I have *** % in my Masters (and GPA as per WES evaluation is ***).
 I would be obliged if you could have a glance at my CV and suggest if I have a good chance of getting admitted to your institution. Sending application fees and official TOEFL and GRE score cost around $150, which is about half of my monthly income. Hence, I do not want to go ahead with application procedure unless I have a high probability of being selected. I am hoping for a positive response from you.
Please find attached my CV that should be helpful for preliminary evaluation.

(Don't forget to attach your CV)

§   An example of email sent to a professor you are interested in:

Subject: Joining your research group
Dear Dr. (Last name),

I am very glad to find that you are working on the topic of my interest. I have ****** score in TOEFL (R-*, W-*, L-*, S-*) and ***** score in GRE (VR-*, QA-*). My Physics GRE score is ***.  I have *** % in my Masters (and GPA as per WES evaluation is ***).

(Something about the research, show how it matches your interest, how you have been preparing for that research)

I am wondering if I could get an opportunity to learn under you and foster in this field. Expecting to hear a positive response from you.
Please find attached my CV that should give you a glimpse of my academics and other activities.

(Don't forget to attach your CV)

Frequently asked Questions:

Frequently Asked Questions:
1) Here is my TOEFL and GRE scores. Which universities are appropriate for me?
This is the most common question I have come across and the answer is not easy. Here are few things that I feel, and would like to share with you. Just for the sake of convenience I would like to categorize US universities into three categories:
§   Universities that look at TOEFL/GRE scores only, don’t care about your M.Sc. Percent
§   Universities that look at M.Sc. percentage, and require minimum TOEFL and GRE scores
§   Universities that look at both, TOEFL/GRE scores and M.Sc. percentage.
Now, it is up to you to find out which one is suitable for you. The best way to find out is to see where your seniors went, and what their TOEFL/GRE score and M.Sc. percentage was.

2) OK. I found 15 universities that I think is suitable for me but I want to apply to 8 of them. How to choose which ones?
The most logical way would be to look at the ranking of those universities and then choose, 2 top ones, 3 medium ones and 3 low ones. One other criteria would also be to find whether the campus has M.S program only or has PhD program as well. Below is the link to find the college rating.

3) Which are the universities that do not require application fee?
Above is the link. I cannot assure its validity, but nothing wrong in trying.

4) What is a GPA? My M.Sc. percentage is 72, What is my GPA?
GPA is an acronym for Grade Point Average.
When you come to USA for Masters/PhD, you need to enroll in at least 9 credit hours per semester to be in status. This means during each semester, you need to be taking 9 hours of classes each week. For example, I took 3 credit hour each of Quantum, Mathematical physics, and Electrodynamics to complete my 9 credit hour and stay in status. How much credit hour a course carries is decided by the university.
Now, for each course, at the end of the semester, the professor assigns a grade (A = more than 90 % marks, B= between 80 and 90% marks, C= between 70 and 80% mark, or F= fail).  So, A = 4 GPA, B = 3 GPA, C= 2 GPA. Now over the entire period as a graduate student, you find the average GPA of all the courses you have taken, and this will give you your overall GPA. Obviously, the maximum GPA a student can have is 4.0.
There is no hard and fast rule to convert the TU Percent based system to a GPA system. World Education Service (WES) is the authorized agency for conversion of your percentage into GPA. But only a very few universities require this.
Do not even attempt to convert your percentage to GPA using free sites and report that as your GPA! Just tell them your M.Sc. percentage.

5) Who is the best person to email in the University?
Professors who are also listed in the website as “Admission Committee” member would be the first one, “Graduate Advisor” will be the second one. If you do not see either of this words, then department head would be the best person to send emails to. If you send to a random professor instead, that email might not get forwarded to appropriate person at all, but, the department chief would definitely forward it to the appropriate person.

This is work in progress. Although we might be unable to answer all your queries in a timely manner, we will update this page in a regular manner such that frequently asked questions are answered.
Thank you,

1 comment:

  1. Great work! [info] If you request for the fee waiver before submitting your application, University of Notre Dame waives the application fee for all international students.