The View From Campus: Researching U.S. master’s and doctoral programs

Over the past twenty months, many international students seeking to study in the United States have had their dreams put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The uncertainty surrounding whether universities would be open has caused many students to either defer enrollment for a year or begin their studies online from their home countries. But as travel restrictions loosen, changes to admission requirements happen, and the guarantee of vaccinations being available to new international students on arrival, the United States is seeing a significant spike in student interest this year. 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.

Start early

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 1100 colleges and universities that offer master’s and doctoral programs.

Define 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.

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.  

Because this year, like the last one, there really are no in-person college fairs and events where direct representatives have not been able to connect with you in your home country, 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.

Find your right 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.

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 are 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. More recently, over 85% of the graduate degree programs at the University of California, Berkeley (one of the top 25 U.S. national universities) decided to make the GRE optional for all applicants.

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