Tips for (international) students applying to grad schools in the United States

Many people have asked me how I got into grad school in the U.S. Did you apply independently? How will you finance it all? Aren’t tuition fees impossible to cover? These are the most common questions. So here are some tips for anyone who is interested in applying. The application round for PhD studies starting in Fall 2017 closes in December. Maybe these tips will help!

  • Know why you are applying to the U.S. Prestige? Passion? Culture? There are tons of universities in the world and you could be applying to one in your home country or on your continent. Moving to the other side of the world costs money and is never easy. I had several reasons for applying to the U.S. Firstly, I am making a leap from natural sciences to social sciences and this move wouldn’t have been as easy in Finland, at least that is how I feel. I am looking for interdisciplinarity and this I found in many programs in the U.S. Secondly, my research topic deals with immigration and two different immigrant groups and what better place to study this topic than the melting pot of immigrants: the U.S. Thirdly, my sister lives in the U.S. and this mattered a lot too. She lives in a different state but knowing that I have family on the same continent warms my heart! Finally, the United States fascinates me. There are so many things I love about it and then others that I can’t accept or don’t understand. I am drawn to its diversity.
  • As a basis for everything, explain yourself what you want to study. Practice this by writing about your research interests, first by using key words, then maybe in one sentence, then in one chapter. Talk to people, discuss your topic. Be really sure about your interests. Yes, they might change further on, but at this stage you will have to feel sure. Only then are you ready for the application process.
  • Start early. Prepare at least one year for the applications process. You will have to complete the process independently, it involves a lot of research and you will be on your own. For me, the idea of doing a PhD on this topic emerged in the fall of 2014. I started researching schools in November-December that same year. I aimed for my studies to start in the fall 2016. If you are planning to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, you might want to start even earlier. For example in Finland the Fulbright deadline for studies starting in the fall is in May the previous year.
  • Become familiar with GradcafeIt is a great resource, an online forum where academics and those applying to grad schools exchange information. You can get great tips on how to polish your documents or what to highlight in your applications. If you are unsure about something, ask! In addition, there is a results forum where students post information once acceptance/rejection letters start pouring in. Try not to become too obsessed by it (I was). However, be critical about any information you find on discussion boards (well anything on the internet). You will find lots of statements and facts. Not all of them are true. Be critical. Find out what matters most to you.
  • Find the right schools for you. If you do like I did, which was to apply independently after spending 5 years in working life after graduation (I obtained my Master’s in 2010), you’ll have to do a lot of research in finding schools. I had no particular schools in mind, I was only aware of one programme which interested me, but otherwise I was on my own searching for departments and faculty members that would share my interests. Be clear about your motives: Maybe what matters most to you is to attend an Ivy League school? Or perhaps you definitely want to live in a coastal city? All these things matter. It will help you in filtering results (you get those results by searching online using your research interests as key words. Also some relevant publications might be worth gold). What matters the most is how you and the school you are applying to fit each other. This is easy to say in retrospect, but you do know when this fit is there. In my case, I had this idea that it would be beneficial to apply to some schools just in case, but this was unnecessary simply because I wasn’t the right applicant for them. Having a faculty member list ‘food’ as their research interest is not an indication of a fit for myself who is interested in the food security and food cultures of immigrants. Dig deeper, find out which aspects of these key words faculty members are interested in. Read their work. Your PhD topic is something unique, it is a big task to find that person who wants to work with you and shares that passion with you- consider this the most arduous yet most important part of your application period.
  • Email potential advisors. Now you have searched for schools and hopefully narrowed down those options into the ones you are planning to apply to. At this stage you should have 1-2 names from those schools. These are people who might be your potential advisors. You probably have familiarized yourself with their publications. Now approach them! There is nothing to lose here, the worst that can happen is that they never reply, but most likely they will. You will gain valuable information from these people – they might encourage you, they might share your interests, they might link you up with another faculty member, or they might inform you that they are currently not accepting students. Make your email informative and not too long: quickly introduce yourself and your background, then continue to briefly explaining your research interests and end your email with a few questions. This is how I wrote (with a subject line: Possible PhD in /your topic here/):

Dear Professor Dumbledore,

I am writing to you from Ethiopia where for the past two years I have worked as a junior monitoring & evaluation expert in a development aid programme. I’ve graduated from the University of Helsinki, Finland in 2010 (magna cum laude, major: agroecology, minor: development studies) and after spending 5 years in working life, I am now applying for a PhD in the United States.  I am planning to attend graduate school in anthropology with a focus on studying the factors behind dietary acculturation among the Ethiopian and Finnish diaspora in the United States. This will be a comparative study between two very different ethnic groups, allowing me for a North-South comparison of ethnic identities in an immigration setting through the lens of food.

The anthropology programme at the University of Yada Yada Bada is of particular interest to me. This is how I ran across your profile and wanted to ask you more about your current work. I am interested in the research you are doing on ethnicity and the African diaspora. How often do you intersect with the themes of foodways and food cultures in your work? Which/themes areas are you currently most interested in, especially related to the African diaspora?

And finally, what do you look for in prospective PhD students?

I know you are very busy so I truly appreciate any time you can give me. Thanks very much.


Your name and contacts here (links to publications can also be a good idea!).

  • Familiarize yourself with courses and facilities the schools provide. Ideally this is something you will do already while scanning schools. Are there relevant courses which will support your research? Which methodologies are you planning to use in your research, will there be teaching on those topics for you? What kind of support systems do schools provide for graduate students?
  • Pass those qualifying exams. I am not at all convinced that standardized tests are a universally functioning indication of intelligence, but these are tests you need to pass in order to even qualify to apply to grad school. International students need to take two exams, GRE and TOEFL, the first one being a combination of mathematics, logics, vocabulary and writing, and the second one testing your English skills in writing, listening, speaking and reading. These tests are expensive and the centers that organize them (they exist in virtually every capital in the world) have airport like security systems in order to make sure nobody is cheating. Register for these courses well in advance! Here are some specific tips for both of the tests.
  • GRE. Many U.S. applicants fear this exam and international ones maybe even more so, because not only do you need to study a lot for this exam, it is also a venture into a completely new vocabulary in the world of mathematics, for example. I loved mathematics in high school but I’ve never learned the basic concepts in English. Just getting over this language barrier was difficult for me. That being said, the GRE is no monster and it can be done, don’t worry. I took my exam in May and started studying for it in early February. I purchased this book and used Magoosh as my teacher. Starting from mid-March, I completed one practice exam every Saturday morning. I can’t stress how important it is to routinely complete those practice exams. That is the best way to prepare for taking the GRE.
  • TOEFL. I didn’t particularly study for the TOEFL exam. I read books, articles and news in English and that for me was enough to prepare for this exam. Also, the GRE requires an extensive vocabulary and studying that also prepares you for the TOEFL. However, your success in the TOEFL exam might affect your chances of getting for example a teaching assistantship in the case that you get accepted, so make it a habit to read, speak and write in English well before taking the exam. Listening to podcasts is a great way to practice too.
  • Statement of Purpose. The ‘SoP’ is the single most important document in your application. Prepare a couple of months for creating this document. If you have a clear vision of what you want to study, if you have familiarized yourself with the schools you are applying to, and if you are familiar with the most important publications related to your topic, you shouldn’t have too much trouble writing it. However, it is a document which you want to polish and polish and polish until it doesn’t get any better. You want to have it read by your friends (who are not familiar with the topic) and/or someone who already has completed a PhD in the U.S. (I got valuable comments from a friend like this). Usually this document is limited to two pages and it is, as its name suggests, a manifestation of your Purpose. Ideally the person who reads this paper will think: Yes, this is a match! I am very much interested in the same things and this person clearly has got experience and knowledge on this topic. We should work together. So do as writers are often adviced to do: show, don’t tell. Let your experience speak for itself and make your words come alive. If you are reading this and want to have more tips, email me and I can send you my SoP as an example.
  • Recommendation letters. You will need three, sometimes four letters of recommendation and most schools have a system which allows the recommender to upload them through an online system. It is polite and wise to contact your potential recommenders well in advance, 2-3 months before the deadline. Contact people who know you and can elaborate on your skills. I had been away from academia for five years so I only had one professor among my recommenders; the others were former colleagues. I am aware that if one applies to a very theoretical field or school, having all three recommenders come from academics might be necessary. Don’t forget to thank your recommenders and send them an update if you end up getting accepted.
  • Always have your CV up to date and available and in English. You will need it from this point on; make it a habit to update it. You can find sample CVs online, try and make it attractive to your reader. For example, you can check out the CVs of the faculty members in the school you are applying to and use a similar style on your own CV.
  • Think ahead – what if you get accepted? The application period takes so much energy, effort and focus that one often forgets to think about the outcome: what if you get accepted? This will hopefully be a very joyous moment, but it will also be a time for some serious pondering, mostly having to do with money. I set a goal to myself that I would not start my studies if I got accepted without funding. Luckily as a PhD student you have a good chance to get funded. This funding may come through a fellowship (no strings attached kind of funding), a TA (teaching assistantship) or a GA/RA (graduate assistantship / research assistantship). You are also eligible to apply for funding from various scholarships in the U.S. and in your home country, but the problem with these is that the money comes afterwards if you end up getting accepted, except for the Fulbright scholarship which you would apply for very early on. I ended up getting a TA with a tuition waiver which means I have only very small fees to pay and I will receive a salary for assisting in courses. In addition to this, I will use my savings and hopefully do some freelance writing during my years in the U.S. This will be an exercise in frugality and in exchange I get to do something I dreamed of for a very long time.

So all in all: the application process is tough and lengthy, but I guess it can also be considered as the first test you have to pass in order to make it as a PhD student. Maybe one day you will receive an email saying you have been accepted. That feeling is pretty great…

Good luck!

2 thoughts on “Tips for (international) students applying to grad schools in the United States

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s