For most international students hoping to come to the United States for a master’s or doctoral degree, one of the most significant challenges they face is writing the statement of purpose (or SOP). If that’s you, let us spend some time covering what you need to know.
Graduate statement of purpose
What is important to remember in applying to U.S. graduate programs is that each department within a university may have different things it looks for in what prospective students write in their application statement of purpose. As a result, we strongly encourage applicants to focus on the department they are applying to more than the university when composing their thoughts. Oftentimes the graduate departments that require statements of purpose have the final say as to which applicants are admitted to their programs.
Tips for graduate applicants
There are many suggestions out there for writing an acceptable statement of purpose. Four tips have consistently shown to be reliable as international students approach this important writing assignment.
Find the right academic program
Investigate the specifics of each program
Get to know the faculty and their research
Be careful – one SOP does not fit all
There are many experts out there who offer advice on this writing process. The Princeton Review has put together a useful article with suggestions on how to proceed. If you are searching for what examples of good SOP look like, this site provides good samples of successful statements.
As you begin this process, we have some final words of advice. Remember this:
Nothing is perfect the first time.
Don’t be afraid to start over.
Be honest, specific, and concrete.
Have others read your drafts.
In the end, your SOP should reflect who you are, why you are applying, and what this degree will help you achieve in life.
For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from March 2021. Good luck!
Let’s face it, the last year has not been easy. With a global pandemic affecting every part of our daily lives in almost every country on earth, we’d be forgiven for thinking things may never be the same again. In many ways that may be true, but for many international students seeking to study in the United States there are and will continue to be several important parts of academic life that will remain.
While many courses have been taught online and those taught in-person having significant physical changes to the classroom space, the following areas remain consistent.
What surprises most international students when they get into their first classes at U.S. colleges is how professors can be so friendly. You may be used to a very formal relationship between students and faculty members in your educational institutions in your home country. For many professors in the United States, the opportunities to help students become what they hope to be is a calling. Faculty members are routinely required to have a set number of hours each week that they are available outside of class periods for students to schedule appointments about topics in class that need clarification or even drop by to have a conversation. International students often develop close relationships with faculty members in their academic program who serve as mentors for students as they progress through their degree program.
Typically, the first time each class meets, all students in the room receive what is called a syllabus. This document serves as an informal contract between students and the professor. The syllabus outlines all requirements for the duration the class meets, what textbooks or other resources will be studied, when assignments or papers would be due as well as the dates of quizzes, tests, and/or exams. Oftentimes, the syllabus breaks down all content that will be covered as well as how grades will be determined. Quizzes might be worth 10%, a mid-term test 25%, a paper 20%, final exam 30%, and classroom participation 15%. That’s right, you read that last part of the preceding sentence correctly – how well you participate in class can count as a significant portion of your academic grade for a course!
While you take a minute to digest that last part, let us explain that whether it’s simply asking questions to demonstrate you are engaged in the conversation or need explanations of certain topics, the expectation is that students participate. Speaking with new international students over the years, I have found that while they can usually adapt to the informality of relationships with professors, the real challenge is in changing the way they approach class. Faculty members, in general (certainly not all), encourage debate and discussions on the issues that the topics of the day’s class cover.
The realities of the differences in how classrooms operate here compared to your home country may take you some time to become comfortable with them. But one area of how U.S. classrooms operate on college campuses that must be understood immediately after classes begin is academic integrity. In effect, this means there are university policies that require students to practice academic honesty and not engage in plagiarism or other forms of cheating while enrolled.
In the end, you’ll need to prepare for the academic transition to a U.S. college. For additional resources on these topics and more, check out this video playlist from our colleagues at EducationUSA that answers questions on the different facets of the classroom experience in U.S. colleges and universities.
If you are wondering what international students currently in the United States have been experiencing over the past nine months while studying on college campuses, you are not alone. Life for most of the world has changed as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic in more ways than we would have ever imagined. On campus in the United States, whether at a small rural college, a suburban mid-size institution, or a big city university, life is dramatically different for all students. So, what’s the story?
How Campuses Re-Opened
While no one was really prepared for what happened in March last year when most all U.S. colleges’ and universities’ courses went online, as the new academic year began in August and September, many institutions thought long and hard about what the “new normal” would be. While there was not one way that every college approached how to respond to the pandemic’s impact on the day-to-day lives of students, faculty, administrators, and visitors to campus, each one made decisions that were best for their communities. Some university systems like the California State University’s 23 campuses made the decision early on to be fully online for the fall 2020 semester, others like Purdue University in Indiana decided to have a largely in-person academic year.
From regular testing, health screening for temperatures upon entry of buildings/classrooms, quarantine procedures, to mandatory mask and social distancing policies, U.S. colleges introduced a wide range of health and safety measures to protect their campuses. For new students arriving for the first time, most all universities held virtual orientation sessions to limit unnecessary exposure. In the end, there were successes and issues colleges faced, particularly for international students. A recent Twitter chat around this theme addressed what the major challenges were for overseas students on college campuses.
No one could realistically expect a perfect response from colleges to the pandemic as there simply have been so unexpected variables that have impacted life on campus. From recent national polling of U.S. college students, the general sense was of satisfaction with the education received. There were difference in levels of satisfaction depending on how classes were taught on campus. For those who had all in-person education this fall 85% rated their experiences as “excellent” or “very good” while for students who classes were completely online 71% indicated similar feelings.
Care for International Students
There are many ways U.S. colleges have met the various needs of international students during the pandemic. Calvin University in Michigan realized early on that a large group of new international students would not be able to make it to campus to begin studies. As a result, 65 students from overseas were offered a virtual semester put together by faculty and staff to provide a customized academic and personal experience.
More than anything else, we all prefer getting more regular communication than too few messages in times of uncertainty. Purdue, as well as other institutions, dedicated pages on their website specifically for resources for international students on Counseling Center services available to help students cope with the very different environment they faced on campus. Other colleges like the University of Louisville saw its international student and scholars services staff feel even more responsible to ensure every international student was attended to at various points during the academic term.
Each college has its own way of responding to the concerns of students. So, as you explore your different options for U.S. colleges and universities, it is critical to hear from currently enrolled students like this article from Penn State University, especially international students like you, to learn how campus life might be for you. Whether that be live chats held by current students, blog articles they write, or emails they send, you need to ask colleges you are considering for ways to hear from current students before you make a final decision.
The decision to pursue a post-secondary education outside your home country may be a simple one or may be one that requires a lot of courage. Finding the right U.S. college may well take some time, with most experts suggesting students start the process between 12-18 months in advance of when they might wish to start their studies.
How can you best approach the U.S. college search?
Ask important self-discovery questions
For starters, before you pick colleges, take a few minutes to ask yourself the kinds of questions that will help you find a college or university that will be the best fit for what you want and need. Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s global network of 400+ advising centers in 170 countries, have put together a useful worksheet that is well worth trying called “Define Your Priorities.” By determining your answers to meaningful questions like why do you want to study in the U.S., what are your short- and long-term goals by studying there, as well as preferences for living in a city, suburb, or more rural area, or whether you want to be on a large campus with 20,000+ students, something smaller with under 2,000, or somewhere in between, you can begin to codify what’s important to you in this search.
Learn about different college types
Of course, understanding the kinds of colleges that exist in the United States is equally important. What you’ll find there is likely very different than what you have available in your home country. With over 4,000 accredited U.S. colleges and universities, there are many different types of institutions from which you can select: public v. private, college v. university v. institute, two-year v. four-year colleges, liberal arts colleges v. state universities, speciality institutions v. comprehensive universities. As you do your research on what those differences are keep in mind that there will be terms that might sound familiar to what you know, but may have different meanings. There is a very useful FAQ on the EducationUSA site that helps explain many of these terms.
Use search engines to narrow your choices
Perhaps the most daunting task you will face in your search is narrowing your list of possible college options down to a manageable number. There are several college search engines out there to help you in this process. The two that many students use are College Navigator (owned by the U.S. Department of Education) and Big Future (part of the College Board). Each has a variety of factors you can choose from to select institutions including:
Location by state (can select multiple states)
Institution type (2-yr./4 yr., public/private, academic program/majors offered)
Selectivity of the institution (how hard is it to be admitted)
Sports and activities available
Types of campus housing
Diversity of the student body
By using all of these various criteria (based on answers you may have given to the “Define Your Priorities” questions), you should be able to put together an appropriate list of colleges that match your wants and needs at least on a surface level. From a list of perhaps 10-20 institutions, the next step will be to investigate each of those colleges online to learn more about how close of a fit each may be for you.
Prepare for standardized tests
If there’s one area that has changed considerably in the college search this year it is the role of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. As we shared in December’s The View From Campus post, over two-thirds of four year (and all of the two-year) colleges either do not require (test-optional) or won’t consider (test-blind) SAT or ACT scores for applicants for admissions intakes in 2021. Be sure, when you start to further narrow your choices down, to check what tests beyond IELTS would be needed to apply to the U.S. colleges on your list.
More on applying to U.S. colleges in the months to come!
While many will look back on 2020 as a tumultuous year where a global pandemic wreaked havoc on the world, it has also been a year of significant change in U.S. higher education. Since March and April many students have been unable to take the standardized tests that most colleges and universities require for admissions. As a result, U.S. institutions of higher education have begun to change the testing policies for students.
Let’s take a quick look at what’s happened. For most international students considering the United States as a destination for studies, there are two types of tests normally required:
English proficiency tests
Academic ability or aptitude tests
English proficiency tests
As you well know, studying in an English language education system requires a certain level of familiarity with the language. That’s why you’ve either already taken IELTS or will soon be. By far, IELTS is nearly universally accepted by US colleges. IELTS is, in fact, accepted by more than 3400 U.S. institutions.
Academic ability tests
If you are seeking an undergraduate (bachelor’s degree), in past years most U.S. colleges required international students to take either an SAT or an ACT test. Designed initially to test U.S. students’ academic skills in verbal and quantitative reasoning, mathematics, writing, and, in the case of the ACT, science, these two exams have been seen as a reliable standard of measuring those abilities for years.
If you are considering a master’s or doctoral program, the two tests most commonly required are the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) or GMAT (General Management Admissions Test). Graduate/post-graduate business schools in the U.S. have in the past relied on the GMAT to assess applicant’s general preparedness for programs like the MBA. Some have also begun to accept the GRE as well.
If you are thinking about professional programs in the U.S., like medical, dental, or pharmacy school (as well as other doctoral level studies) that require a professional license to practice in the United States, there are a different set of exams required: MCAT (medical doctor), DAT (dentist), PCAT (pharmacist), etc.
The rise of test-optional policies
One of the few bright spots that has emerged out of the pandemic regarding U.S. university admissions is the increased popularity of test-optional policies. Because many testing centers overseas (and in the United States) have not been able to offer academic ability tests where all who want to take the exams can, many colleges and universities have decided, in the interests of equity and access, to not penalize students who could not take these exams, and have become test-optional.
For this current 2021 admissions year, over two-thirds of all U.S. four-year (bachelor’s degree) universities are test-optional or test-blind. Most major state university systems have made the shift in the past few months mostly in response to the lack of availability of the SAT and ACT for prospective students due to the pandemic. Here’s a list of 915+ “top tier” U.S. colleges that are not requiring the SAT or ACT for the coming admissions intakes.
In the end, while these academic ability tests have become increasingly optional this year, English proficiency tests are still needed. The most significant reason for this is that U.S. immigration regulations require that to start a degree program (associates, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral) international students must have the required English language proficiency. Tests like IELTS are the primary way, at present, for U.S. colleges to assess English ability.
If your scores aren’t at the minimum levels for degree studies from the outset, that doesn’t mean your dream is over! Many U.S. colleges offer conditional admissions and/or full-time intensive English or pathway programs that give you the opportunity to settle in to the country while improving your English ability before you start your degree program.
This year, 2020, will be one most people would rather soon forget, right? Over the last few months, students who might have been thinking about studying abroad have been forced to reconsider their options due to travel restrictions, changes to admission requirements, and the economic impact of the global pandemic on personal finances. When it comes to researching master’s and doctoral degree programs in the United States, while the process is largely the same, there are some important changes to keep in mind.
Be flexible, things may change
When should you begin your search? Most U.S. experts now say you should start at least 12-24 months ahead of when you wish to start studies. With the quickly moving landscape on which countries are even open to accept international students, it can be hard to plan effectively for what your future might look like, let alone where you may be studying. However, in the United States there are over 1000 colleges and universities that offer master’s and doctoral programs.
What are your priorities?
As part of your search, before you go looking for academic programs that meet your needs, a necessary first step should be to ask yourself defining questions as to what’s most important to you. Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s global network of advising centers in 170+ countries, have prepared a great resource on researching graduate study options to assist students. One of those tools to consider using is the Define Your Priorities worksheet. Some of those self-discovery questions to ask include:
Why do you want to study in the United States?
What are your short-term and long-term goals?
How will you pay for your graduate program in the United States?
What are your academic grades?
What are your English test scores?
What size institution do you like?
Would you like to attend a private or public institution?
Do you prefer living in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
Would you like to live on campus or off campus?
Once you have identified those answers, you will have the most valuable criteria you need to begin you search in a more circumspect manner.
How can you narrow your options?
EducationUSA lists four search engines you can use to begin to find a possible list of the academic programs, locations, institutions that meet your needs. Those search sites will only give you so much information about the colleges and universities that match some of the broad strokes of what you need. Once you have identified those programs, to get much closer to what you need to know about each institution, you will need to review each school’s website where the real details are you need to know on costs, deadlines, tests, and admissions process.
Especially this year when there really are no in-person college fairs and events happening, it is more important than ever to connect virtually with the U.S. colleges that you’re considering. Whether that be in a virtual university fair, a live chat with representatives from your top choices, a webinar with other international students who may already be attending those institutions, and/or a visit to a local EducationUSA advising center for more specific resources, you have several ways to narrow your options.
What’s a good fit?
In the end, there may be several schools/programs that you research that you can see yourself attending. At this stage it’s time to do deep look at the institutions involved, the strength of the program, and the quality and areas of research conducted by the faculty. Only after getting this next level details will you be able to make the decisions on where you wish to apply.
How to prepare for tests?
And, finally, before physically applying to these programs, it is essential to know which tests might be required. Certainly, rest assured that for most all quality master’s and doctoral program in the U.S. will accept an IELTS score toward meeting the English proficiency standards set by each program. The question will be whether any other academic standardized tests like the GRE or GMAT are required. Because of the pandemic, there is an increasingly large number of programs that are test-optional this year when it comes to GRE or GMAT requirements. Even top business schools in the United States are, for this current 2021 recruitment cycle, not requiring GRE or GMAT scores.
This time of year on U.S. college campuses there is a rush of excitement and anticipation for the start of a new academic year. This year, however, presents international students looking forward to starting a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree a different set of circumstances that the typical fall new student orientation.
Adjust to your new environment
More than anything else, once your arrive in the United States for studies, getting over jet lag (travel fatigue) is priority one. There are many strategies out there, but one that seems to work well is on your first day, to go to sleep at a time (in your new time zone) when you would normally do so. By any measure, getting yourself on a schedule is an important first step. The climate may also be very different that what you know, so your body clock may take some time in making that adjustment.
One item that may very well be in place at your U.S. college or university is for new international students coming direct from overseas, is a mandatory quarantine period. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) no longer requires or recommends this 14-day long period, some states, counties, or college campuses may still have a required quarantine time. Typically, this would mean staying in either university housing for a short period before you would be able to join in regular activities.
Get Settled on campus
Many new international student orientations this fall have gone virtual. Check out these two from the University of Cincinnati and Kent State University in Ohio that are self-guided online orientation programs that can be taken at your own speed. These virtual orientations may mean that initial movements on campus will be limited as facilities are re-opened slowly or in phases to further limit the spread of Covid-19.
One way to get to know your campus, if you haven’t already done a “virtual tour” of campus, is to get a virtual map of your college or university (from the website or college’s mobile app) on your phone and/or tablet and wander around campus to find the buildings you will be using most often.
Learn the rules
As a new international student on campus, one of the most important sessions you will need to attend is on immigration regulations. While not always the most exciting topic, pay attention to the requirements your college sets out in this session when it comes to maintaining your student status. Besides immigration rules, health insurance also ranks up there as a critical component that you may not know well. The U.S. system of health care relies on primarily private insurance to cover the costs involved. Most all U.S. colleges now require students purchase such coverage while they are in the country.
Other than immigration and health care, the most significant area of rules that can directly impact international students are the academic policies of your institution. From Issues of classroom attendance, the course syllabus, exam policies, plagiarism, to academic integrity violations, knowing these guidelines will ensure a smooth passage through your academic career.
Make lifelong friends
What really makes your time at a U.S. college memorable are the people you interact with on a regular basis. For many international students, there fondest early memories of being on campus are the shared experiences they had with other students from overseas. Yet, for many, the relationships you get to establish with your U.S. classmates are the most impactful. Not only will you get a chance to make American friends, but you will get to share your culture, your history, your experiences with them as they learn about the world outside their own borders.
Broadening your horizons at a U.S. college will be much easier than you think. Especially if you choose to get involved in clubs and organizations on campus, you will find multiple opportunities to make your experiences at your college more fulfilling than you might ever have expect. So, even if you’re a bit shy or worried about your English ability, take the chance, get involved!
Whichever way your U.S. college or university is starting its academic year, make the most of this time. Getting off to a good start makes all the difference in how successful you will be in your classes, on campus, and in the community. Good luck!
The last six months have thrown the world as we know it into a state of disarray. Covid-19 has impacted every corner of the planet in ways we never thought imaginable. As a result, things in everyday life for students seeking higher education outside their home country have changed substantially. If you’ve been planning to study in the United States and have been admitted for study, gotten your visa, and are now ready to go, what do you need to know?
Get your documents in order
Now more than ever, because of recent changes in immigration regulations in the United States due to the pandemic, having your documents in order matters most. From your I-20, to your passport and F-1 student visa, to your admissions letter, academic and financial documents, everything must reflect who you are and what your institution’s plan is for classes this coming academic year. While the new rules do allow for new international students to participate in a mix of in-person and online courses (called a hybrid program), if your intended college has recently made the decision to go completely online, you may not be allowed in the country.
Communicate with your university regularly
Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of educational advising centers in 170 countries, traditionally hold pre-departure orientations for international students before they head to the United States for study. While most of these sessions have gone virtual due to the pandemic, they are still happening and can be great resources for students like yourself trying to make sense of a very confusing time in our world. As you get ready to begin your U.S. study journey, the most important people you need to maintain regular communication with are the international student office staff at your college or university. For many U.S. higher education institutions, the past few months have been ones that have been dramatically disrupted, like much of the world, by this global pandemic. Plans these colleges made in April for how the next academic year would look like for new students may very well have changed. As a result it is essential for you to be aware of what those plans are and know what you should do.
Know the immigration and airline rules
Entering the United States as an international student is a fairly straightforward process in normal times if you’ve taken all the required steps and are well-prepared for this last step of your journey to U.S. study. However, these are not normal times. You must know what the current procedures both for the airlines you may be flying into the United States and the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) division that handles immigration control at the borders. There have been reports that some airlines want passengers to have had a negative Covid-19 test before flying internationally. Depending on where you live you may need to look into getting a test before you fly.
Moreover, when entering the United States, the officials at CBP who interview each person seeking entry have to ask questions about your intended studies when you present your documents at the immigration checkpoint at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security which oversees CBP has put together important resources in its Study in the States site that discusses the current regulations. Be sure to review this guidance before you leave.
It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year many would rather soon forget. But if you have been planning for months if not years of leaving your home country for a higher education experience abroad, this year represents a truly unique time. This fall, U.S. colleges across the country are making plans for several different versions of what the new normal of instruction and campus life will be. From your destination college or university, to an in-country pre-departure orientation, to the required immigration documents recommended by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the resources exist to help you travel to the U.S. like a pro.
Connect with college international office staff
I asked several U.S. institutional representatives about how they are responding to the impact of Covid-19 for international students hoping to study at their colleges, and here are a couple of the responses:
Cathy Knudson, East Carolina University, North Carolina “We have a standard communication plan explaining basic remaining steps and arrival guidance; however, it mostly directs them to contact us to discuss their situation. We are doing a lot of individual outreach via WhatsApp to explain the options students have for enrollment and what steps to take. A lot of attempts to ease anxiety.”
Kara Wagner, Calvin University, Michigan “We have created emails and a website with arrival information for incoming students. We are also holding an option of online or on campus for those that can get a visa in time or are in the States currently. We have asked students to arrive on campus August 14 for August 22 orientation but are prepared to work with them on arrival dates. We do not have many students who are able to arrive on campus this fall.”
No one can provide you, as a new incoming international student, all the details you will need to know about getting ready for life at your college as well as the international student office can. It is vital that you maintain close contact with your university in the weeks leading up to arrival and orientation.
Consult local pre-departure experts
While your U.S. college knows everything you need to know about what to bring for your studies, how to get to campus, and what to do once you arrive, others closer to you can assist you in getting ready mentally for your journey. The U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network of over 400 advising centers in 170+ countries provides pre-departure workshops for international students preparing for their arrival. These sessions are all virtual meetings at present and may attract between 20 and 300 people getting ready to travel.
Comprehend required immigration documents
By now you realize the most significant step to realizing your study abroad dream in the United States is the last one: immigration control.
Before you arrive, make sure to review the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s useful Study in the States site, in particular the Preparing For Your Trip to the United States page. On this site, the team at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol outline all the relevant documents (and where to keep them) as you travel to the United States. The best advice recommends that you carry with you on the plane the most essential documents you will need: academic transcripts, passport, I-20, admission letter, financial documents, contact information for the international student office at your college, and any medicines you need.
In the end, your success shortly after you arrive at your college or university will depend on how well you have prepared.
Over the last five months the world has come to grips with a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way we live. From the simple act of washing our hands or getting food to complex tasks of travel and work, how we interact with others outside our immediate families is dramatically different than in was in 2019.
For students seeking study opportunities in the United States for the next academic year, you likely have many questions. While we don’t have all the answers, we do hope to at least point you in the right directions for the information you seek.
College social media and website
While never a substitute for physically visiting campus or interacting with an admissions officers, faculty, or alumni from a college or university you are interested in, institutional websites and social media accounts can provide useful information to assist you in making informed decisions. Here are a few examples of what you can access to get what you need.
Reviewing Facebook pages and groups for important updates on changes and announcements.
Watching YouTube videos of current students explaining how they are experiencing life on campus during the pandemic.
Checking out Instagram posts about what’s happening at the college.
Visiting Covid-19 web pages, like this one from the University of Oregon.
Particularly if you are looking for admissions information, these university sites that have specific details about any changes to the application process in terms of tests required, alternatives available, and changes in deadlines or deposits.
Virtual tours and events online
One unintended consequence of the impact of Covid-19 is how U.S. colleges increasingly connect with their prospective students through digital means like offering virtual tours to their campuses and events. These resources will help you in:
Seeing campus through online videos and self-guided tours gives you a window into what life would look like for you at colleges you are considering.
Hearing student experiences about everything from arrival on campus, attending class, studying, participating in activities and events paints an important picture.
Learning process/procedures related to applying for admission, funding your studies, getting your visa and more.
Attending student pre-departure events to make sure you are ready for your journey to campus.
These virtual connections will be essential as you ensure you are making the right choice for your higher education options in the United States.
Chats with current international students
In the end, nothing means more for prospective students like yourself to have conversations with currently enrolled students at the colleges and universities you are considering. That insight from a fellow international student, maybe even someone from your country, is invaluable to get the full perspective you need about where you will spend the next two to four years (or more).
Asking questions directly
Connecting with students from your country
Dispelling rumors about what’s happening
As you narrow down your list of colleges you may apply to, be sure to ask the international admissions office about opportunities to chat with their international students. To hear some of the discussion around this topic, check out a recent Facebook Live Chat we did that shares some useful insights. Good luck!
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