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DO NOTs - When Applying for Graduate Studies in the USA !

The decision to apply for master’s or doctoral level studies – termed “graduate” studies – in the United States is a big one.One that involves time, effort, money, and the willingness to travel halfway through the world for a life-changing academic and cultural experience. In applying to U.S. graduate schools, many Nepalese students encounter pitfalls.  Here are some common ones to avoid.

Don’t do it unless you really want to
Graduate study in the U.S. involves intensive research and coursework, as well as a lot of self-directed study. It is an investment of time and great energy, one that will only really pay off, if you are motivated, academically prepared, and a hard worker. Master’s degrees are typically two-year programs, while doctoral programs are generally four to eight years beyond the bachelor’s degree.
Don’t do it unless you’re sure about what you want to study
One of the advantages of graduate education in the U.S. is the large selection of subject areas and specializations. Graduate study is for students who have narrowed down their academic interests, and have considered the benefit of a specific program on their future careers. It is not for students who are still trying to figure out what they would like to study, or for students receiving external pressure to enroll into a program. Only truly interested and committed students will gain the most from a graduate degree.

Don’t take a year off to apply
USEF sees a great many graduate applicants who take a year out of their lives just to apply to U.S. universities. This is completely unnecessary, and is usually counter-productive. Rather than taking a year off, a student who is able to balance a job, and other activities with university search and GRE/ GMAT test preparation will strengthen their time management skills, as well as have a more robust CV upon application. Students who take a year off will simply have lost the opportunity for an extra year of work experience (and income), and will have a gaping hole on their CV. Better yet, for students applying to graduate programs which do not require work experience, USEF recommends to start the U.S.

university application process by the start of the final year in their four-year bachelor’s program so as not to have a wasted year.

Don’t go after rankings
In searching for graduate school, the strength of the department is more important than how well known the university is. Some universities that you may never have heard of may actually have the strongest programs in your particular field of study. Though university and program rankings listed in magazines like US News & World Report might be tempting, use them with caution and read carefully the criteria upon which the rankings are based (they may surprise you). Essentially, you want to find a program that is the “best fit” for you in terms of academic programs, professors, and affordability.

Don’t avoid the standardized tests
Yes, it is a pain to prepare for standardized tests, especially the difficult ones like the GRE/GMAT, but consider the preparation, a good investment. GRE (or GMAT, if one is applying for business school) is required by majority of the departments, and is integral when one is applying to a competitive program, and for an assistantship or fellowship. USEF encounters many students who are looking for universities which do not require the GRE/ GMAT.  By doing so, these students automatically eliminate themselves from applying to a number of great institutions, and thereby do themselves a disservice. Preparing for GRE/GMAT may have the additional advantage of giving applicants who have been out of college for several years the opportunity to practice studying again, preparing them in part, for the world of academics that awaits them at graduate school.

Don’t email your whole life history
It is a clever idea to reach out to professors in the department you wish to apply, specifically those with similar research interests as yours. Professors are usually the people who control assistantship and fellowship awards, so it is in your best interest to find a professor who is interested in possibly working with you. Professors, however, are very busy, and many will not have the time or desire to read though longwinded and circuitous emails, let alone reply. So make your emails straightforward and concise. Read some of the professor’s publications before you communicate, and make references to these publications in your email, specifically mentioning the overlap with your interests. Finally, ask specific questions whose answers cannot be found on the department’s or admissions office’s websites.

Don’t send the same SOPs to different universities
Many graduate applicants fall into the trap of making minor modifications to their Statement of Purpose (SOP), an integral part of the application to graduate school, and sending these versions off to multiple programs. Generic essays are not going to get you into the graduate program of your choice. The readers on the other end, usually professors in the particular department, are looking for reasons that you would be a “best fit” candidate for the program. Why do you want to study at this specific department at a particular university? How will attending this specific program benefit you, and how will you benefit the program? How do your research and academic interests fit in to this program? Making mention of specific professors and specific research that you would like to contribute to, can make a world of difference.

Don’t rush
Allow plenty of time for the graduate admissions process, ideally a year to eighteen months. Many students are in a rush to join the closest available semester, which in some cases may be spring semester (January) instead of fall (August). As the bulk of graduate programs do not accept students in the spring semester, the student will have slim pickings in universities. Competitive programs usually have very early application deadlines, some as many as nine months in advance of the start of studies. Don’t rush the university search and application processes, as the university you ultimately study at, can play a large role in your future.

Avoiding these common pitfalls will make your graduate school application process much less stressful. Contact USEF for further information and advice on graduate studies in the United States.