Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My not-so-short guide to MS in US



Ever since I landed in US about a year ago, a lot of people have got in touch with me asking how to go about the process of getting admitted to a MS program in US. There is a lot of info about the general procedure available online but the sheer number of queries Ive got shows there is still a scope for yet another post on the topic. If nothing else, it will save me the effort of repeating the same answers multiple times. So if you are thinking of applying to US universities, this blog post is for you. Fair warning though- This was my experience when I went through the process. Follow the advice using your best judgement.

Before you Start 
There are a few things you should know before you start on this long path. First and foremost, its an expensive option. Right from the moment you start answering the entrance exams, you are going to pay through your nose. So make sure you have some money set aside. Ideally, you will be spending around Rs.50,000 to 1,00,000 just for the application process. So it helps if you have been working for a year or so, or have parents who can fund that. 

While the MS program itself is going to be expensive, fees can be paid through educational loans. The loans are granted pretty easily, provided you have the needed collateral. As such, when starting the process, the only money you should worry about is the one needed to fund the application process and your tickets to US.

Secondly, although you don't need a stellar academic record, the better your academic record, higher will be the reputation of the university you can aim for. Just like in India, there are universities abroad too which will admit students with any academic record. More often than not, the lower ranked ones offer little value except the foreign-educated tag. Personally, i do not think its worth joining institutes ranked below 50 nationally with respect to your chosen discipline in the country you are going to. 

Most universities in US admit students twice a year- Spring semester starting in January every year and Fall semester starting in August. The major intake generally happens in Fall. Ideally, that is the semester you should look for, unless you don't have an option. International students in US cannot join Internships unless they have completed a year of studying. Since most internships are offered in Summer, the students admitted into Fall semester can readily apply for internships after 2 sems while the Spring admits have to finish 3.

The application process should start 12-14 months before your intended semester of joining. So If you are planning to join in August 2015, you would start the entire process in May-June 2014.

A lot of people increase their costs manyfold by approaching expensive 'Consultants' and 'advisors' to guide them through the process. The fact that this process is daunting and long intimidates people into shelling out the money. But I personally believe you can save that money. I did not hire any consultants. In today's day and age, there are countless sources online that will guide you through each step. You just need to be patient and search the relevant info. Its an exhilarating process and a prelude of your life in a US university. Go through the process  on your own and you will love yourself for it. And save A LOT of money in the process.

Instead, Join Edulix.com. This one site can replace the entire consultant change, to guide from Answering exams to buying you plane ticket. Its forums are a rich source of info on every part of the process and I highly recommend spending as much time on it as possible.

Also find out other around you who are applying for MS. It helps tremendously at every step.

The entrance exams
Most universities abroad need you to answer the GRE and TOEFL exams for their MS programs. Of course, some universities don't need either of them, but most good universities do. Universities in UK accept IELTS scores instead of TOEFL. GRE tests your analytical as well as verbal skills while TOEFL tests your English language skills. The details and score structure of each exam can be found on their respective websites. 

Both exams can be answered anytime throughout the year. The ideal time to answer the exams would be in July-August-September timeframe, preferably in August of the year before your intended joining. This also happens to be the most busiest month for the test organizers. As such, its best to book your slot 3-4 months in advance to get a centre and slot of your choice.

Both these exams are also costly. Although the fees change often, you are generally looking at Rs.20,000 for single attempts of both the tests. 

The no.1 question i get asked is whether one needs to join coaching classes. Short answer : No. I did not join any classes and scored 325/340 in GRE and 118/120 in TOEFL. Both of these scores fall in the topmost score bracket and I managed them without spending any money on coaching classes or expensive books. For GRE, i used the Official Guide to GRE published by ETS and for TOEFL, i used the Barron's book. These books and online info was more than enough to do a reasonably good preparation for the tests. GRE and TOEFL are both inherently easy tests. And in a way, they do test how you have been as a person over your entire life and not on the last minute mugging. I have been an avid reader all my life and that helped me a lot in the Vocabulary section of GRE as well as in TOEFL. I did have to learn a lot of new words, but the reading experience helped. This is where most people need to work harder. Personally, I feel classes have little impact on scores. There's only so much someone can make you learn.

University Selection
Ideally this process should be done before you answer the tests. Both GRE and TOEFL allow you to send your scores to up to 4 universities free of charge. Beyond this, you have to pay for each additional university and the cost adds up. But the selection process does not end till the moment you send your applications. 

My process was as follows. Once you have chosen the country or countries you want to attend, find a ranking of the best universities for your chosen field. Rankings are not definitive and change from source to source. But they do give you a rough idea of where universities stand. Next, take the trouble of going through the websites of as many universities as possible. This task will seem very daunting when you start but over time, you develop a sense of navigating these sites for the info you are looking for. Go through the research happening in your chosen domain at a university and see what interests you. Make a Note of the concerned professors. You might even discover new concentrations within a field that you were not aware of. Many people hire consultants to tell them which university is best for them. The suggestions are solely based on your scores. But when you do this process on your own, you will discover so many things the consultant could never tell you. In the long run, this will benefit you. 

Decide the number of universities you want to apply to. Considering the cost of sending tests scores, application fee and sometimes courier charges, you are looking at about Rs. 5000 per university. Decide the number of universities based on your budget. Most people select 10, although 5-8 is a good compromise. I personally applied to just 4. In hindsight, i wish i had applied to a few more. 

You should select a few ambitious unis, few safe ones and many moderately ranked ones. For example, if you are applying to 8 unis, you may select 2 highly ranked ones, 2 low ranked ones, and 4 moderately ranked. Change this proportion based on how good your profile is. There are many websites online which can suggest you which unis are suitable for you. www.stupidsid.com and MSinUS.com for example. 

Also, edulix has posts from people in the past who report which unis they got admits to and their profile. This can help you make an informed choice.

Once you have decided the universities that you are going to apply to, make a spreadsheet of the application deadlines of each uni, the required info and what interests you about each of them.  

Once you have got answered your tests and selected your unis, its time for the application stage. 


The Applications 

Although exact procedures change from uni to uni, most unis will need you to write a Statement of Purpose and need around 3 Letters of recommendation. Again, you will find a lot of helpful articles on this online. One common fallacy people make is to write down a list of their achievements and why they deserve an admit. Instead, you should focus on what your purpose is, what you want to do with your degree. This is where it helps to know what research is happening at each uni. The more you can convince a university you wrote the State of purpose specially for them, the more favorably it will work for you. 

Most recommenders will also ask you to write a draft of the letters of recommendations. Avoid writing all hyperboles for yourself. The admission officers are experienced enough to know which students are 'exceptional' or 'one in a million'. Instead choose people who have had a personal relationship with you and who can genuinely tell something about you. 

You will also need to obtain a transcript from your undergraduate university. The transcripts are given to you in a sealed envelop. some unis need you to submit the transcript online but most need you to send the transcripts physically. 

Finally, start filling the online application forms well before the deadline. Filling each form takes time and you will likely need to apply one uni at a time. So do not procrastinate.

Most deadlines are between November to February for the following Fall semester. The deadlines change from program to program for each university so make sure you note down the correct one. 

Once you have submitted all the applications, sit back, try to relax and wait for the results. 

I-20 & Vaccination 
The results start coming in between March to May. Once you receive an admit, celebrate! You are halfway on your way to US! The next thing you want to do is carefully go through your admit letter and the instructions that arrived with it. Most unis will need you to accept or reject the offer or ask for some more documents. They will also ask you to submit proof, or undergo some vaccination. Unis will also ask for proof of finances for an amount equal to one year's worth of fees plus their estimation of living expenses. This amount changes from uni to change, so does the documents a uni acceots as proof. Some unis accept mutual funds and house valuation as proof of finances while others need you to show liquid cash equal to the amount. Its best to confirm from your university what is admissible. You might need to borrow cash short term to furnish this proof. Complete this procedure. The university will then send you an I-20, also known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status, which is one of the most important documents you'll possess while in US. 

Bank Loan & Visa
As soon as you receive your admit, you should start speaking with your bank. Once you receive your i20, you can apply for an educational loan. From my research, SBI seemed to offer the lowest interest rate and no processing fee. Hence, I decided to go with them.  

You should ideally complete this process by June, or 2 months before your departure. As this nears completion, apply for a VISA interview. An excellent guide to the entire VISA process can be found on Edulix here.

Another question i get is about how to carry cash initially to US. Personally I had carried half cash and half the amount on a SBI Vishwa Yatra Foreign Travel card, which is the common practice amongst students. In hindsight, i could've skipped the foreign travel card entirely. The only benefit it offers is security of not having to carry a lot of cash physically. But airports are fairly safe. I opened a local bank account on the second day of my arrival here and deposited all the cash in that account anyway. I hardly used my foreign travel card. 

Bask in the glow!
Thats it! You have an admit and your Visa and you are ready for your MS in US! Make sure you book your flight tickets at least 3 months before your departure as tickets go really fast and prices skyrocket in a matter of days. (Side Tip: Whichever airline you choose, sign up for their frequent flyer program. A single international journey is worth A LOT of points.)

In the last few days, meet all your family members, eat all the street food you can get and visit every place you want to. You will miss all of it very soon. 


You can read about my first week in US here 



3 comments:

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  2. Thanks for sharing your Tips.To get the Desired university, one should take Dedicated GRE Test Preparation.Isn't it?

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