e0.1.0Updated June 8, 2022
Since the first edition was published in August 2020, Admitted has been read by thousands of students, and I have received hundreds of personal notes from passionate readers who connected deeply with the book.
Among all the notes, there was one that really stood out. It came from someone named Sumanth Reddy.
In May 2018, I had a CGPA of 5.2 on 10. I failed in six classes. I had no internship experience, nor had I worked on any projects or published papers. My friend circle was filled with people who were toxic. And mentally, I was exhausted.
Yet, today, on January 26, 2021, I received my first admit from Temple University to pursue my master’s in engineering management.
This would not have happened without Admitted.
I hit the lowest point in my life towards the end of my second year in college, around May 2018. It got to the point where the head of my department met with my parents to inform them that I needed to repeat my second year given my poor grades and attendance. Through some stroke of grace, I was able to plead with him to give me a second chance.
Since then, I managed to turn my life around: I began taking online courses, built go-karts to take part in Baja events, became the head of the volleyball team, organized and conducted workshops, and learned to believe more in myself.
While I had a story to tell by the time I graduated, I didn’t know how to do it. I needed help in writing my SOP, crafting my resume, and getting recommendation letters. The help I needed came in the form of your book.
Aside from helping me build my application, Admitted told me the things no one else did. I learned about scholarships I can apply to, learned how to choose the right location for my university, and really understood how the admissions committee thinks. On top of this, I got to meet so many aspirants like me through the Slack community.
Thank you so, so much. I sincerely hope more people read your book and get into their dream universities.
— Sumanth Reddy
Sumanth eventually ended up getting admits from three more universities: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, George Washington University, and Stevens Institute of Technology.
His story stuck with me because it was a story of incredible transformation. It gives hope to the thousands of students out there who have a dream to study abroad but don’t yet fully believe in themselves, either because of poor grades or bad outcomes. Or something else entirely.
While grades and scores are important, what is more important is to share an honest and compelling story.
Whether you have a CGPA of 10 out of 10 or 5 out of 10, whether you are from a famous school or one that no one has heard of, whether you have published papers or not: it comes down to first accepting where you stand, believing in yourself, and telling your true story in a compelling way through your application.
And my aim with Admitted is to help you do just that.
Admitted began as a one-week project in January 2020 when I wanted to create a short guide to help students who wanted to study abroad.
I approached Saikishore, one of the collaborators on the book, and we began working together. Soon enough, though, it became clear that there was a need for a comprehensive guide on this topic. There were no guides in the market that covered the end-to-end process in sufficient detail to help students make an informed decision. So after eight months of working with a small team of collaborators, designers, editors, and marketers for over 2,000 hours, Admitted’s first edition was published in August 2020 in India.
I first came across Holloway in the same month I began working on Admitted: January 2020. I loved the idea behind Holloway and the way it was executed with a beautiful, native web-reader. It wasn’t until the end of 2020 that I got a chance to have a call with Josh, the CEO and founder. We connected quickly on the call and by the end, we both had a vision of publishing Admitted on Holloway. I cannot overstate how thrilled I am to finally see this vision come true.
The Holloway Edition of this guide is a full revision of the first edition, with many improvements, corrections, and adaptations to a digital format. It is packaged with additional digital resources for online readers, including access to future updates.
Although this book is my brainchild, I worked with a strong team without whom this would not have been possible. Hence, I have used the pronoun we within the book to denote that this was a team effort.
The primary audience for this book is international students who wish to pursue their graduate studies in the United States, since that is where we have personal expertise. But many of the frameworks in the book will be useful and relevant for students from anywhere who are applying for both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Canada, Europe, the U.K., and elsewhere. We would just advise you to use this as a supplementary resource to something that is targeted to you.
Along with the digital book, you also get access to a community with 1000+ dreamers like yourself and an external drive with essential resources.
After purchase, you will receive an email from Holloway.com with instructions on how to get access to the additional digital resources and private Slack community.
If you experience any issues accessing these resources, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The #Slack community was created to serve as a place for readers to learn from each other and not go through this journey alone. By joining, you’ll also get to hear about announcements and events for the community of Admitted readers.
The Resources folder was created to serve as a hub of external resources that would come in handy while crafting your application and preparing to study abroad.
The Google folder contains the following resources (with more resources added periodically):
Sample resumes, sample statements of purpose (SOPs), and other useful information about loans and visas.
A curated list of 30 scholarships to apply to, along with resources to find more yourself.
Think of this book as your companion and helper—somewhere in between loved ones who want the best for you but aren’t holding your hand at each step of the process, and the education consulting firms that do all your work in exchange for quite a lot of money.
We won’t tell you how to structure your statement of purpose down to each word. We also won’t let you go with a simple you can do it! vote of confidence. We like to stay in the middle.
The book will help and guide you in five key areas:
Applications: Resources and the right dose of guidance needed to finish each part of your application: crafting a resume, writing your statement of purpose, getting your recommendations, making a video proposal, and preparing for interviews.
To improve your reading experience, we have added five icons throughout the book to signify different kinds of information:
danger Blocks like this are warnings and things to watch out for.
statsBlocks like this show facts, data, and statistics.
storyBlocks like this are personal stories.
Before you use this guide, please be aware of two things:
First, none of the advice present in this book related to immigration and visas should be taken as legal advice. We are not attorneys. We have only given advice based on our personal experiences. Please consult a lawyer if you need professional advice. The author and publisher expressly disclaim all liability in respect of any actions taken or not taken based on any contents of this guide or any associated content.
Second, given how rapidly things are changing due to the pandemic, please use the official government website for the latest news and updates related to immigration and visas. The information present in the book is up-to-date only at the time of writing.
A major life decision is never a choice but rather a realization that the decision has already been made.Doug Cooper
Can you think back to the moment you made the decision to study abroad?
I remember a lot of trivial moments from my life. The first time I had gelato, I was in a yellow and black checkered shirt roaming the streets of downtown Seattle at night. I remember the neon sign outside the store, the name of the store owner, and even the witty comments he made. However, I don’t remember the moment I decided to study abroad. It feels as though I have always wanted to. Now it’s hard to imagine a moment when studying abroad was not my aim.
There are many reasons to pursue graduate studies abroad. You might want to earn a lot of money, learn new concepts, settle down over there, or just meet a diverse set of people. Whatever the reason might be, it all comes down to the following question: are you prepared to face the other side of the coin?
We’ll go through a few reasons where it’s worth pointing out the other side, and make you think harder about your decision.
We all seek prosperity in our career; for good reason. There are various studies* that draw the correlation between money and happiness. A study conducted at Princeton University* broke happiness down into two parts: emotional well-being and life evaluation. The former refers to the quality of someone’s daily life—a measure of how often one experienced joy, anger, stress, and affection the previous day. The latter alludes to a more zoomed out perspective of how one evaluates their whole life when asked how satisfied they were. The results found a strong correlation between money and emotional well-being until a threshold of US$75,000* is hit. Beyond that, more annual income did not necessarily equate to more day-to-day happiness. However, there was still a correlation between money and overall life satisfaction.
The H-1B is a type of nonimmigrant visa awarded to those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher and end up in specialty occupations in fields such as engineering, medicine, architecture, science, accounting, and more. Every fiscal year, the U.S. makes 85,000 such visas available. However, since the year 2013, the number of applications has exceeded the number of slots,* leading to a lottery system where the chance of your name getting picked is decided by mathematics. In the year 2020, over 275,000 applications were received for the 85,000 slots.
Not exactly. These 85,000 slots are split into 65,000 and 20,000. The advantage for master’s and doctoral candidates is that the 20,000 pool is reserved only for them, and cannot be consumed by those who graduated with a bachelor’s.
One piece of good news came from the Department of Homeland Security on January 31, 2019,* when they announced that the order of the names getting picked would be reversed. Previously, applicants with an advanced degree were picked first for the 20,000 pool and those who did not get picked were added with the rest of the bachelor’s applicants to be picked in the 65,000 pool. Now, everyone is entered into the pool for the 65,000 slots first. Among those not picked, applicants with an advanced degree get a second chance in the 20,000 pool.
Understanding the root cause of unhappiness has been the topic of countless articles around the internet,* so reading a few will begin to give you an idea not of the answer, but rather the questions you can ask yourself to arrive at the right answer. Famous computer scientist Alan Kay said it best: “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”
The most serious mistakes are not made as a result of wrong answers. Rather, they are a consequence of asking the wrong questions.
One of the more influential books I’ve read in my life is Flow* by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high cheek-sent-me-high), a renowned Hungarian-American psychologist who invented the concept of flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
storyThe first day I landed in New York was probably one of my saddest days at Columbia University. I landed at 9 a.m. in the John F. Kennedy airport, after a 25-hour-long flight with a moderate fever. I was traveling internationally for the second time in my life. The first time was when I came to the U.S. through a summer scholarship. I had spoken to a lot of people that I was about to meet during the day over WhatsApp, in the two months leading up to this day. We had, as I’m sure you will soon, a lively group where questions were asked and answered every few hours. We also had a separate group just to engage in innocent chitchat. As soon as I entered my apartment, which in itself was difficult to find at first, I was greeted by my two roommates who had arrived earlier. We met through WhatsApp. Within the next hour, I was whisked off after a quick bite to spend the entire day outdoors with a dozen others, traveling to Staten Island, Times Square, and more places that I don’t remember now.
It was a strange feeling. Being an introvert, speaking to someone over text messages was something I had mastered. However, meeting them in person and spending an entire day with a group of people who I had known for two months, yet did not really know at all, was really hard. I felt completely out of place and wanted to get home quickly. After roaming for ten hours, I decided to give in to my intense fatigue and return home sooner, and left the group to travel by myself through the subway at 11 p.m.. Even on a good day, I wasn’t good with directions. So you can imagine it was only likely that I ended up at the wrong destination, many blocks away from my home, in a location called Harlem. A location popular for its crime rate.
Add to this a dead phone and chilly night. With only a vague knowledge of my address, I began running in a direction that seemed right, constantly keeping an eye out for muggers and rogues. There seemed to be many that night, thanks to my vivid imagination. Fortunately, I finally reached home a little past midnight and spent the next two hours sobbing uncontrollably, wishing I had never come to this strange new country.
Of course, if that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t be writing this book right now, enthusiastically helping you to study abroad. I only say this so you can be prepared for such experiences; experiences that push you so far out of your comfort zone that your comfort zone’s radius increases. If I move forward sixteen months to the last day I spent at Columbia, I was still sobbing uncontrollably, but for all the right reasons. Many of those that I met on the first day went on to become my friends, along with others I met in the period in between. I had a lot of firsts at Columbia, and in New York. Apart from finding my passion in becoming a product manager and writer, I also learned to be more fearless and outgoing from my time as a graduate student.
Since this book is aimed at educating you on how you can become more educated, it felt fitting that we share a story on the quest for education before we dive into the crux of it. I read this short story in the summer of 2019, when I was devouring many books on creative non-fiction. In a true story titled The Ballad of Old Man Peters,* Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, recounts the life of an old man named Wilk Peters, who spent his life chasing knowledge and fleeing ignorance.
Wilk was born in 1900 in Trinity County, Texas, to John and Martha Peters. The 1900s were a period when racism plagued America. At the age of eight, he had six other siblings to take care of, and was an agricultural laborer walking a plow mule. Yet, he knew he wanted more.
His parents, though not educated beyond grammar school, knew the path to emancipation was through education.
Wilk’s gift from his father was not a worn out tractor or a five acre farm; it was the dream that Wilk would become a doctor someday. He clutched onto that dream, intangible at times, and it kept him going when his father passed away, followed by his youngest sister. When he turned 18, he decided to finally move away from his family towards his quest for education.
Re-read this chapter if you can. Spending a few more minutes now will save you heaps of time later when you look back with troubling doubts. Many of the students who leave their home country to pursue education abroad do not return, at least for a period of 5–10 years. That’s more than enough time for a lot of significant changes to take place in your life. If you were planning to leave your home country and study abroad primarily because you wanted to earn more, obtain a better social status, or dislike your current job (and situation), we ask you to think again.
There are struggles associated with the transition that cannot be anticipated until you get here (or wherever you go). You will be put in situations that ask you to act against your natural instincts. A lot of the social concepts you learned previously might seem irrelevant. The solution is not to abandon them all and adopt new ones. In fact, there is no right answer. It varies from one situation to another. But suffice to say, it’s not all rosy.
As long as you are aware of that, and are ready to face new challenges and opportunities, we are rooting for you. Take a page from the story of the old man Wilk Peters to appreciate the opportunities you have around you. It’s a wonderful time to be alive. If you have a curious mind and discipline to support that, there’s nothing stopping you from getting what you want!
Every chapter will have a few questions at the end for you to reflect upon. Don’t skip over them.
thinkWhy do you want to study abroad?
What is lacking in your life right now that you believe higher education will have a solution to?
What are you most grateful for in your life right now?
I will never forget how Richard Feynman described the instance he first encountered the cyclotron, a particle accelerator, at Princeton University.
MIT had built a new cyclotron while I was a student there, and it was just beautiful! The cyclotron itself was in one room, with the controls in another room. It was beautifully engineered. The wires ran from the control room to the cyclotron underneath in conduits, and there was a whole console of buttons and meters. It was what I would call a gold-plated cyclotron.
Now I had read a lot of papers on cyclotron experiments, and there weren’t many from MIT. Maybe they were just starting. But there were lots of results from places like Cornell, and Berkeley, and above all, Princeton. Therefore what I really wanted to see, what I was looking forward to, was the PRINCETON CYCLOTRON. That must be something!
So first thing on Monday, I go into the physics building and ask, “Where is the cyclotron—which building?”
“It’s downstairs, in the basement—at the end of the hall.”
In the basement? It was an old building. There was no room in the basement for a cyclotron. I walked down to the end of the hall, went through the door, and in ten seconds I learned why Princeton was right for me—the best place for me to go to school. In this room there were wires strung all over the place! Switches were hanging from the wires, cooling water was dripping from the valves, the room was full of stuff, all out in the open. Tables piled with tools were everywhere; it was the most god awful mess you ever saw. The whole cyclotron was there in one room, and it was complete, absolute chaos!
It reminded me of my lab at home.
Like all good jokes, the punch line of that story is at the end, when Feynman compares the god-awful mess to the laboratory he set up at his home, at the age of seven, to tinker with and fix broken radios.
If you’re lucky, you might feel the same about your field. You might already have a strong opinion of what you want to study and research on. If you do, feel free to skip this chapter. A lot of students do end up pursuing their graduate school in the same domain they pursued their bachelor’s in. From our personal experience, though, we know that is not always the case.
I graduated with a master’s in Management Science and Engineering, after completing my undergraduate in Chemical Engineering. Sai switched from Mechanical Engineering to Engineering Management. It’s a good story to share with people and motivate them to trust their gut feeling, now. However, when we were actively undergoing that conundrum, it was far from easy.
storyI spent months wandering the basketball court and empty roads inside NIT Trichy wondering if I was making the right choice. My parents certainly didn’t think so, but they supported me anyway, for which I’m eternally grateful.
I had spent two summers and a winter working inside laboratories at various universities (IIT-Madras, Indian Institute of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison) on research related to renewable energy. I was also doing very well inside the class, securing the top rank consistently. This isn’t to flaunt; rather to show you just how confused I felt when what seemed to be the logical next step didn’t seem like the right one.
Dan Buettner,* a three-time Guinness World Record holder and best-selling author, conducted a long experiment to find out how people who live to be more than 100 years old, called centenarians, manage to do it. His team spoke to the centenarians from four Blue Zones, areas where they found the most number of people who lived the longest.* One of the zones included the northern part of Okinawa, a prefecture in Japan made up of 161 islands. Aside from a plant-based diet and a tight-knit community, he found out that what set them apart was their practice of ikigai.*
Ikigai* (pronounced ee-key-guy) is a Japanese word that loosely means the reason you get up in the morning. It encompasses the idea that happiness is more than money and titles. According to a book written on this concept by Hector Garcia and Albert Liebermann,* “The origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Clinical psychologist and avid expert of the ikigai evolution, Akihiro Hasegawa released a research paper in 2001 where he wrote that the word ‘gai’ comes from the word ‘kai’ which translates to ‘shell’ in Japanese. During the Heian period, shells were extremely valuable, so the association of value is still inherently seen in this word.”
This intangible ideology is what gives you the sense of purpose and meaning that most people search for their entire life. It makes your life worthwhile, happy, and satisfactory.
But how do you find it?
Have you ever realized how our incredibly complex brain makes it hard to follow a singular line of thought? We Homo sapiens underwent a mutation in the wiring of our brain about 70,000 years ago that gave us the ability to think. We didn’t just care about hunting for the next meal anymore. We didn’t restrict ourselves to the land we occupied. Nor did we stick to primitive tools to hunt down animals. Below is a passage taken from the best-seller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.*
Beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began doing very special things. They drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia—a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, and bows and arrows and needles. The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification. This constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it?
We’re not sure.
We have many theories, but no conclusive proof yet. The point, however, is that we slowly developed the neocortex in our brain, which gave us the ability to reason, make complex decisions, develop language, believe in fiction, and sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term gains.* It also gave us the ability to hold competing thoughts in our head and make hundreds of decisions every single day. This is why finding your ikigai is not a simple exercise.
Tim Urban, a famous long-form blogger,* captures this chaos well with what he calls The Yearning Octopus (which is really a pentapus, but we’re not complaining).*
actionComing back to our ikigai Venn diagram, begin filling in the quadrants. Take your time. It doesn’t have to be completed in an hour. Have a first stab at it, and come back again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until you feel you have a stable, final version of it.
You will begin to see correlations and new possibilities between the various quadrants. Like me, you might have thought you were supposed to become a researcher, but all your thoughts on paper say otherwise. Whatever you come up with, find out the closest major that will get you there eventually. Your ikigai should be thought of as a north star. You might never reach there, but as long as you are tending towards it, all is well.
You aren’t right or wrong in picking one major over the other.
Even if you don’t end up picking the most optimal one (assuming it is possible to quantify this process), you know you picked one after careful thought. That already puts you in a better position than most people who live their life on autopilot.
We all know someone who derives pure joy from what they do. One of my best friends works 12 hours a day, including the weekends, at a healthtech startup in New York. Yet he enjoys his work deeply. If you’re lucky, you might feel this way about the domain that you’re in already. However, from personal experience, we know that’s not always the case. Sometimes we find ourselves following a path because we were good at it or because someone else thought it was the right path for us. You need to shrug off all those preconceptions and start from scratch.
Enter ikigai. An ideology that originated in Japan and percolated in the rest of the world over the past two decades. Ikigai is the sweet spot that resides at the intersection of what you are good at, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you love. We posed a few questions for each of the quadrants that will help you figure out the answers to these. You don’t need to write down the answers right away. Take your time. This is not a simple problem.
At its core, ikigai requires you to introspect. That is not something we all enjoy because when we begin to introspect, we begin to find a lot of imposters in the basement of our mind. Even though we are in a constant five-way tug-of-war between the various tentacles of the Yearning Octopus, one always takes the upper hand. To find out the motivation behind these creatures, you need to be alone with your thoughts.
There really is no optimal choice of major here. However, if you did all the above, you’re in a better position than most others who never cared to scratch the surface.
thinkWhat were you reminded of, if anything, about yourself, when you read the story of Richard Feynman?
Did you identify any blind spots after you asked your close friends about your strengths?
When were you last in a state of flow?
Did you find any imposters in the basement during your introspection?
We’re back to decisions again. Think back to the most recent decision you made in your life. It doesn’t have to be a significant one. It can even be a trivial decision of purchasing a Classmate Octane Premium gel pen over a Pilot Retractable Premium gel pen. How much thought did you put into making this decision? Did you consider all possible factors: the tip type, material, color, grip type, weight, price, popularity? Did you assign weights to each factor and pick the pen that was mathematically the more optimal one? Unless you were conducting extensive research on developing a new pen for your company, or writing a thesis on the effects of one over the other, chances are you calculated a few pros and cons in your mind, such as cost and comfort, and picked the one that satisficed you.
That word is not a typo.
Not only is satisficed not a typo, it will be the guiding principle as you go through the ordeal of choosing universities.
The term satisfice, a linguistic blend of “satisfy” and “suffice,” was coined by Herbert Simon** in 1956. Simon coined the term to strike a distinction between classical and behavioral economics.
Classical economics posits that we are all maximizers who strive to get the very best out of every decision we make. However, this assumes that we are rational and armed with the information needed to make that optimal choice. Simon proposed that this is rarely, if ever, the case, due to the limits of human cognition.*
Rather, he suggests an alternative route wherein the “decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world.” In both cases, the satisficer is happy to walk away with a good enough solution that meets a certain threshold set by them, as opposed to the best possible one. And research* has shown that the satisficer is also happier on average than the maximizer, especially in situations where the available options are abundant and personal freedom is championed.
Why is this important?
Let’s peek behind the curtains of each rankings site.
This is an annual publication by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British publication. According to Alexa Internet, an American web traffic tracking company, it is the most widely viewed university ranking worldwide.* QS partners with Elsevier to provide the rankings across 48 subjects and also across regional areas such as Asia, Latin America, Europe, and more.
statsQS collects feedback from over 100,000 academicians, who are all asked to nominate the top 30 universities (and cannot vote for their own).* This subjective feedback is given a weightage of 40%. The other performance indicators include the faculty-student ratio, citations per faculty, employer review, international student ratio, and international staff ratio.
When you’re purchasing a new house, you don’t just look at the price of the house. You also look at the location, mortgage, down payment, number of bedrooms, quality of furniture, and more. All of these factors will affect your experience after you move into the house. Your graduate school follows the same analogy.
Although it is easier to choose a university solely based on its rank, that is not an indicator of your experience, good or bad, once you join.
Below is a table with all the factors that we thought you should be looking at while evaluating the universities to apply to.
The information on scores and tuition will be present in the department’s website, although in different formats. Consider the following example: the Computer Science department at Purdue University clearly states that the past admits all had a “GPA of at least 3.5/4 or 85/100 or 8.5/10, and total TOEFL scores of at least 100 and subsection scores of at least 22, or IELTS scores of at least 7.5”*. On the other hand, the Computer Science department at Stanford University states that they expect the applicants to have “good English skills,” without specifying the minimum required scores.*
For situations like this, we have another solution for you: admits.fyi.
Two 2015 graduates from BITS Pilani, Pranav,* and Abdul* used their coding expertise and curious minds to build admits.fyi* with more than 350,000 data points from past admits and rejects. They spent weeks gathering this data from various sources, cleaning it, and building an intuitive user interface for everyone to consume.* Every admit and reject has details on undergraduate school, graduate school, CGPA, GRE score, TOEFL score, major, and more. In the absence of a baseline on the department’s website, use this as a sanity check if there are enough data points (>50). However, know that outliers are always possible.
Under Academia, we have courses, research, and STEM certification.
Fortunately, every department has a course catalog which lists all the courses you can potentially take during your graduate school. Apart from providing the course titles, most universities will supplement that with one-paragraph descriptions, instructor names, duration, offered semester, and number of credits. Similar to the admission requirements, this changes based on the university.
For example, Texas A&M lists all its mechanical engineering graduate courses with just a one-paragraph description on its site.* University of Washington goes further to create a separate page for each course—detailing your takeaways, syllabus, homework deadlines and more—from its list of courses.* Columbia University on the other hand provides you a flowchart of the courses you can take based on the specialization you are interested in.* Bottom line?
In an ideal world, universities would publish information on every alumni’s job role, company, and salary in a massive database that can be queried. But in reality, this information is not available to the extent you would want, since universities that don’t have a great history tend to obfuscate this with less important data. For example, the Management Science and Engineering department at Columbia University does a reasonably good job of giving you all the numbers you need.* On the other hand, we couldn’t find the data at all for the Computer Science department at Virginia Tech.* Nevertheless, your first layer of research should once again begin with your department’s website.
Apart from spending time on the department site, we recommend resorting to platforms that pool this information. The professional networking site LinkedIn is your best bet here. We will detail best practices in creating a LinkedIn profile in a later chapter, but for now, use it to collect data on the alumni.
LinkedIn lets you look at the alumni of any institution and glean some basic categorical information on where they live, what they do, and what they majored in, and more.* You can also filter these fields to, say, look for students who majored in economics at Stanford University and are currently working at Apple in the U.S.*
Using LinkedIn, you can reasonably answer the question: What are some of the common career paths a student follows after graduating from [university] with a degree in [major]?
This could mean anything, but the most common factors we recommend you look at are the ranking, location, and living expenses.
Ranking, as we saw before, is not the best metric to measure your experience. However, it would be naive on our part to suggest not looking at it. We recommend triaging your information by looking through the multiple ranking sites mentioned before: QS World Rankings, Times Higher Education Rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. Rather than looking at the overall ranking of a university, search for the ranks pertaining to your department wherever available.
Location is an important part of your experience. If you’re used to living in the city all your life, filled with bustling restaurants and theaters, it would be a difficult transition to study at a university that is situated deep in a rural area, such as Dartmouth College. On the flip side, someone who cherishes peace and quiet would be unnerved with the city that never sleeps, a.k.a. New York.
danger Another good reason to check the location would be to understand the weather. The weather can go to extremes during winter in the U.S., as seen in the map below for the month of December, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.* Note that the temperatures are in Fahrenheit, not Celsius.
For all the quadrants above, the best way to get qualitative data is to reach out to your seniors and friends who’ve taken this path already. While reaching out to these individuals, always be respectful of their time. Rather than sending a LinkedIn invite and asking for a 30-minute phone call out of the blue, create a Google Doc with the list of questions you want to ask them and send over the link after they agree to help you out. This way, you get your questions answered at a time of their convenience without going through the hassle of scheduling a call (not to mention the ordeal of different time zones).
Because you want to be a satisficer, talk to no more than two current or past students per university at this point.
Another less personal but more time-saving option is to comb through answers on Quora* and Reddit,* which have dedicated spaces for past students to write about their experiences.
Your best friend throughout this journey is not this book. Rather, it is a Google Sheet titled Dream Tracker that resides in the Resources folder we gave you access to. You will be using this sheet a lot as you read these chapters, so now is a good time to open it and explore the different components inside.
We know it gets chaotic very soon as you begin this process. To alleviate some of that, we built a tracker that you can use for various parts of your application: keeping track of applications, letters of recommendation, finances, scholarships, networking, estimating the loan amount, and choosing your universities.
actionIf you open the Choosing Universities sheet in there, you will see a lot of columns with pre-populated numbers. We pretty much created a column for all the factors we went through so far in the chapter and assigned some dummy values. Now, your job is to turn these dummy values into meaningful scores that will help you make the decision.
First, we want you to collect a list of 20–25 universities for your major based on information from various ranking sites, seniors, and general research on Q&A forums.
Go through the Requirements for each university and populate just those columns in the sheet wherever you can.
Once you’re done with that, eliminate all the universities where you don’t satisfy the requirements. It’s OK to keep two or three that you’ve dreamed of joining, but be sure to mark this appropriately in the Category column.
Narrowing down the list of universities is difficult not because of a lack of information, but because of too much of it. This is why you need to follow the role of a satisficer, someone who settles for a good enough solution that meets a preset threshold. You can be a maximizer when the time comes to pick your dream university.
It is tempting to use ranking as a dealbreaker while choosing universities. But, it is not a good representation of your experience. There are a plethora of other factors to consider. First, we divided these into four quadrants: requirements, academia, career, and miscellaneous. Next, we gave you the resources needed to obtain information for all these quadrants. And finally, most importantly, we walked you through a five-step framework that you can use to do a pretty good job of narrowing down the universities from over 25 to under 8. The most important step here is to write down what matters the most to you in each of the factors and assign appropriate priority among them. This entire process should be thought of as one of elimination, rather than one of selection. We will revisit some of these concepts once again in a later chapter when you are tasked with picking your dream university.
With so many options out there, you will find it hard to reach a point when you feel the work is complete. That is why it’s important to begin with a threshold on the number of applications, either based on financial constraints or other personal factors. If you’ve followed the structure we’ve detailed in the chapter closely, we can assure you that you can’t go wrong.
thinkWhen was the last time you were a maximizer? A satisficer?
What are the top three factors that matter the most to you during your graduate school experience?
What are the top three factors that matter the least to you during your graduate school experience?
Who are five seniors you can reach out to from different universities to get valuable insights?
Mise en place.
It is French for putting in place.
Dr. Quentin D. Atkinson,* a professor at the School of Psychology in the University of Auckland, New Zealand, posited an interesting theory in 2011 that the origin of modern human language occurred in Africa, and then percolated to the rest of the world slowly alongside human migration.* He used statistical models to look at the number of phonemes across 504 languages in the world.
Think of a phoneme as the smallest unit of sound in a word that distinguishes it from another. Pat is different from cat because the phoneme p replaces c.
He found that some languages spoken in Africa had over a hundred of these. On the other hand, English has 44 phonemes, and languages spoken in New Zealand, argued to be the final leg of human migration out of Africa, have just 13.*
We cannot cover all the exams, since that would require a separate book in itself. To balance providing guidance while keeping the book within scope, we will use this chapter to walk through the resources needed, approaches to be taken, and techniques to remember what you read for the GRE and TOEFL exams. Both of these are administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is the world’s largest private non-profit of its kind.*
The GRE began as an experiment concocted by the deans from four Ivy League universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1936.* Over the next decade, it was used by a few universities in the U.S. before getting adopted officially by the ETS as a standard assessment in 1949. However, we would need to wait until 1965 for the birth of TOEFL, which began as another experiment by an applied linguistics professor at Stanford University.*
statsToday, the GRE is requested by and accepted by more than 4,500 institutions just in the U.S.* If you weren’t aware, over 1,200 business schools also accept GRE scores as an alternative to GMAT.*
However, if you choose to pursue your MBA abroad, we recommend taking the GMAT since it is specifically targeted at that degree and helps with your job search if you have a commendable score. It is also the exam taken by more than 90% of business school aspirants.*
The GRE is an exhausting test that spans almost four hours and has six parts, with a ten-minute break after the third part. It’s made up of two verbal reasoning sections (30 minutes each), two quantitative reasoning sections (35 minutes each), and two analytical writing sections (30 minutes each). The verbal reasoning section has three sub-categories: reading comprehension, sentence equivalence, and text completion.* The quantitative reasoning section tests you on basic mathematical knowledge and your ability to reason with that.
Both the verbal and quant sections score you on a scale of 130 to 170, which is then added up at the end to give you a total score out of 340. Analytical Writing Assessment, or AWA, scores you on a scale of 1–6 with half-point increments.
danger Did you notice that the six sections only add up to three hours and ten minutes? If you did, you’re right to be confused. There is a seventh section in the GRE, which could either be verbal or quantitative reasoning, depending on your luck that day. This is known as the experimental section.
❖ = Official Resource
❖ ETS Official POWERPREP Practice Tests
Manhattan Prep: 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems
Kaplan GRE Practice Tests*
Apps: Ready4GRE, ManhattanPrep
❖ ETS GRE Verbal Reasoning
Kaplan’s GRE Verbal Workbook
Apps (Vocabulary Building Flashcards): Pixnary, Magoosh, Quizlet
Reading Comprehension: Scientific American (Science), The Economist (Business), Arts & Letters Daily (Op-ed)
❖ ETS GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice
❖ ETS Math Review*
❖ ETS Mathematical Conventions*
Kaplan’s GRE Math Workbook
Khan Academy Videos (recommended by ETS)*
App: GRE Prep by Varsity Tutors*
At this point, you might wonder what a good score is. It is impossible to objectively state that, but it is very possible to make some sweeping generalizations based on past admits.
First off, this image created by Magoosh is a bird’s-eye view of the average GRE scores for the ten most sought-after graduate programs.*
People say practice makes perfect. Not true. We say everyday practice makes perfect. This is thanks to two phenomena that happen in your brain: myelination and slow-wave sleep. Let’s take a small detour into the world of neuroscience.
Some people treat their brain as this mysterious, magical three-pound black box that takes in information from the world and spits out thoughts and words. That was a fair estimate maybe a few hundred years ago, but not anymore. We have learned enough about the brain in the past two centuries to develop treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, insomnia, certain brain tumors, ADHD, and more.* We know enough about the brain to decipher what song someone is listening to by simply using non-invasive devices.* And we also know enough to see what exactly happens when we learn a new piece of information.*
Every thought you’re having right now is being electrochemically powered by almost 100 billion neurons that are firing chemicals called neurotransmitters. You have probably heard about the neurotransmitter dopamine.
When you listen to your favorite song or eat food that you crave, dopamine gets released in your brain and makes you feel rewarded enough to seek out that activity once more.* Like dopamine, your brain has over 200 identified neurotransmitters.
We know there is a lot to remember with these types of exams. Guess what though? We also know a lot about how our brain works, which can be used to our advantage. Enter, mnemonic systems.*
A mnemonic (m is silent) device, or a memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information.
The oldest known mnemonic technique is called the method of loci* (pronounced low-sigh), where loci is the plural of the word locus, meaning place. You might have heard of this as the mind palace technique if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.
The method of loci posits that to remember a series of abstract words, you need to attach them to different spaces inside a location that you are very familiar with.
Now, you must be thinking, how will I know when I’m about to forget something? You don’t. That’s where technology can help.
There is a software called Anki* that lets you create flashcards and displays them to you at intervals set by the algorithm (following the spaced repetition technique). When you review a flashcard, you can choose options such as hard, good, and easy, which sends the app feedback to show you at the right intervals. If that is too much work for you, you can always use ready-made flashcards by apps such as Quizlet and Chegg that contain the word and meaning, but don’t necessarily implement the spaced repetition technique.
danger For the AWA and writing sections, pick one of the 200 questions provided by ETS and time yourself to write the response once every few days. Unless you’re a frequent blogger, it’s not natural or easy for someone to write a cohesive response to a question without practice. Among all the new words and concepts you’re learning and practicing every day, don’t lose sight of the writing (and speaking) sections.
This goes without saying. Practicing without testing is akin to wandering in a maze with no idea as to where you’re going.
You can’t improve something you can’t measure.
If you have one month before your exam, you should take a test every five days, or at least once a week. This is so you can monitor your progress and get acquainted with the act of sitting in the same location for four hours and thinking critically.
actionFirst, even before you begin your practice, create a list of links with all the free practice tests you can find online for GRE* and TOEFL.*
As you and your peers begin to prepare and write these tests, it is easy to be bogged into a mindset where you constantly compare yourself with others. She got 335 on her practice test, why am I not able to? However, she might not have had to stay up late every night to finish her final semester project. She might not be spending hours as the head of the rotary club. Be kind to yourself. No one else is wearing your shoes, except you.
Your only competitor should be the past version of yourself.
This isn’t me preaching. I’m talking from past experience.
storyIt was February 12, 2016. I remember my heart beating fast, and loudly, inside my head, as I clicked the final button before my score popped in front of my screen. 321. 166. 155. 5. I stared at it for a few minutes before it finally sunk in. Somehow, I had managed to score 10 points less than the scores obtained in all the mock tests taken just days before. I walked in with a goal of 330, and a perfect quant score, but ended up quite far off from it. I was extremely disappointed with myself. I walked out to face my father, waiting in expectation. I muttered it under my breath and walked away. I remember spending that day in my bed, tossing and turning as I thought about the money I wasted. One thing was clear though, I had to take the test again.
I made complete use of the official material by ETS: from their books to sample questions to the mock tests. Aside from that, I used the Manhattan 5 lb. book and two mobile apps—Quizlet and Magoosh—for building my vocabulary. Finally, I also read The New York Times and other fiction novels I liked.
The bulk of my preparation was during my third-year summer internship, where I prepared one section every morning, alternating between quant and verbal. I timed my sessions and tracked my accuracy. I spent more time on the questions I didn’t get right, detecting patterns and improving one cluster at a time. I realized I was struggling with reading comprehension, so I practiced more of it from the Manhattan 5 lb. book. For AWA, I only practiced the questions specified on the ETS website and timed myself every time I wrote an essay.
I simulated the exam environment and took six mock tests to ensure that my body was used to sitting down and thinking for 4 hours. Apart from the ones provided by ETS, I also took other free tests from the Princeton review, Kaplan, and Magoosh.
—Anirudh Swaminathan, University of California, San Diego
If you want to take the TOEFL, it is very important to first get familiar with the TOEFL format. An excellent resource to familiarize yourself with the exam is Magoosh. The video lessons and practice tests helped me devise strategies, particularly for the writing and speaking sections of the exam. Here, a person’s performance greatly benefits from having a good idea of the exam structure and various expectations, in addition to being generally good with the language.
Specifically, in the writing section, Magoosh helped me avoid wrong answer traps and the numerous practice tests honed my approach towards the tasks. I had ample time to complete the listening and reading sections. The reading section tests our comprehension skills and critical thinking. To do our best on test day, it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with these types of questions so that we can decide more quickly what information to look at and how to interpret it.
—Sidhaarth V, Virginia Tech
Language is one of the most complex and essential of human inventions. Standardized tests like the GRE and TOEFL give you an opportunity to deepen your mastery of this invention. Think of these tests as invisible enablers that push you to prepare and help you acclimate to an English-speaking environment. In this chapter, we spoke specifically about the GRE and TOEFL, both administered by the non-profit ETS.
Before beginning your preparation, it’s important to know where you stand. Take a diagnostic test first. Use the various tables from the chapter, and more you can find online, to understand where you stand and set a goal for yourself. You have to begin with the end in mind. Once you do that, collect all the resources you need over the next few weeks or months to prepare. Don’t just stop with official text books. Take advantage of the free mobile apps out there that have pre-built materials.
We didn’t prescribe a day-by-day plan for you here because no two people are built the same. Rather, we want you to follow some best practices that will set you apart. First, practice every single day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. Science has proven time and again that this is the key to mastery. Use mnemonic techniques to remember abstract facts and concepts. Correlate words with images. Combine similar sounding words together. Read scientific journals. Find ways to retain what you read using the proven technique of spaced repetition.
Most importantly, keep testing yourself. You can’t improve something you can’t measure. Take inspiration from Aamir Khan and meticulously pore over your test results to find your Achilles’ heel. Spend the following week improving in that area. You will greatly increase the probability of getting your dream score with these best practices. However, even the best of the best cannot escape the tiny possibility of messing up. It’s OK. I know it feels soul-crushing, but you have the option to take it a second or third time. Just balance that with the time and money you have at your disposal.
thinkDid you take a mock test?
What measures are you taking to improve your sleep?
Which memory technique seems most helpful to you?
How can you make preparation for the exam more fun?
A resume needs to be a living, breathing document of who you are, what you’ve done, and what you hope to do. We know, that’s a lot of pressure. That is why, in this chapter, we will be guiding you through the process of constructing a resume step-by-step.
Both the formats have their pros and cons. A one-column resume is more ATS-friendly (which we’ll get to soon), suffers less distortion when converted into a PDF, and is considered the more acceptable format. However, it is not optimized for space, contains long sentences, and is not appealing to the eye. The two-column resume is newer and more reading-friendly. It lets you separate the less space-consuming sections such as Education and Skills from the more verbose Experience sections. However, it is less likely to be ATS compatible.
An applicant tracking system (or ATS) is a tool used by companies, and more specifically recruiters, to manage the thousands of resumes that come into their pipeline, by parsing the resume content of resumes for relevant keywords followed by sorting and ranking them into different categories.*
If you were applying for a data science role that specifically states that you need a background in Python, R, and machine learning, it’s pretty obvious that the recruiter would only want to look at the resumes that had them. However, instead of having to skim through all of them manually, they let the software do its magic, which then provides them with a ranking of applicants (based on a plethora of indicators).
The ATS is a quintessential example of the phrase necessity is the mother of invention.
Let’s begin constructing a two-column resume from scratch. If you choose to go for a one-column resume, you can still use all the best practices provided below, since the difference between the two is more structural than functional. We’re going to pick a two-column resume format created by Debarghya Das* and taken from Overleaf, a website that lets you use ready-made templates and customize them in LaTeX (pronounced lay-tech).
LaTeX* is a document preparation system that is generally used for technical or scientific documentation writing. Unlike a word processor, it lets you focus more on the content of a document and less on its appearance, which is taken care of by it by assigning default values.
You can either pick the template we chose, or pick something else to your liking, and follow along. The following are the five major sections of the resume.
Given how pervasive ATS software has become, it’s highly recommended that you follow the do’s and don’ts laid out below:*
Do have long-form and acronym versions of keywords (e.g., Master of Science [MS] or Machine Learning (ML] for maximum searchability).
Do use traditional resume fonts such as Helvetica, Arial, or Georgia.
Do use standard resume section headings (e.g., Work Experience, Education, Leadership Experience, etc.).
Now, if you’re wondering, is there not a tool that does part of the work for me?
The answer is a resounding yes!
Although we recommend crafting the resume yourself to get experience with LaTeX, you can use a tool that will simply take the input and spit out an ATS-friendly, good-looking resume. One such tool is ResumePuppy.* It was founded by Saiman Shetty,* an Einstein Visa recipient and a veteran product manager from Tesla and Lyft, and Anish Hegde,* another product expert from Yahoo and Signeasy. ResumePuppy is similar to Overleaf in its functionality, but has a more user-friendly interface.
Instead of letting you edit a LaTeX template, it lets you input content into pre-set fields under various sections of a resume. As of now, there is only one standard ATS-friendly template you can use for building your resume, but they are growing rapidly and have plans to add more features soon.
A resume is the first document that showcases your designing and organizing abilities. I created my resume in Photoshop. I believe using non-traditional software like Photoshop to create a resume showcases uniqueness in thought process and can be useful, especially if you’re looking to work in the domain of design.
I found many pros to using Photoshop:
a) you can create a color palette that brings out the kind of person you are (for example, blue equates to calmness)
b) you can create guidelines and highlight the content you want on the page
c) you can create layers such that edits can be made to parts of the resume without impacting the rest of the content.
Overall, there are many commands that can be useful in showcasing your experiences and skills.
—Vishal Kothari, The University of Texas at Arlington
I read a few sample resumes oriented towards graduate studies online. I stuck to using only two bullet points under each of my experiences, mentioned the courses that seemed directly relevant to the program, and kept the length to a single page. I also focused on the sentence structures for each bullet point so that every word counted.
What really helped was sitting with a friend of mine who was also applying for his master’s degree and editing our resumes together. Having more than one person review it goes a long way.
—Om Vaghasia, Columbia University
Resumes have certainly had a long history. Beginning with Leonardo da Vinci, they have gone through various stages: a lunchtime hobby on a scrap of paper, a typewritten document with unnecessary personal information, and now a highly customizable marketing tool. It is one of the first things that is considered by the admissions committee and contains all your details put forth in a lucid manner. In this chapter, we took you through the process of creating one from scratch.
First, choose between the one-column and two-column format. One-column is more ATS friendly and two-column is more reading friendly. The Contact section should have a clean email address, LinkedIn profile link, and preferably a personal website. The Education section should portray your academic caliber and relevant coursework. The Experience section, which takes around 30-40% of the space, should condense your internships and projects. Skills is best used to talk about your knowledge of various software, programming languages, and unique skills. (Are you a tennis state champion? Be sure to add that!)
Coming to the more fun sections, Extracurriculars is for you to show your involvement in organizations and societies. This section signifies your ability to be a team player and a valuable social member. Finally, there is the optional Awards section, where it would be a good idea to include the number of participants and the level of locality of the award.
Once you’re done creating your resume, use the ATS best practices to ensure you outsmart the software and the design best practices to make it look good. If you don’t feel like creating your resume from scratch, use a website like Overleaf, and customize one of their preset templates. It’s also a good way for you to learn LaTeX. Now go ahead and create an eye-catching one-page marketing tool.
thinkWhich template did you go with? What made you choose that?
Which was the hardest section to write in this resume? Why so?
If you only had three lines to summarize your career objective, what would those be?
Are you happy with the final product?
Peter Wason,* a renowned cognitive psychologist, conducted an experiment in the 1960s, now popularly known as the Wason Rule Discovery Test.
At the beginning of the experiment, the participants were told that the experimenter had a rule in mind which applied to number triplets (for example, the rule could be prime numbers, in which case an example triplet is 3-11-17, or 79-139-191). The experimenter gave the example 2-4-6 as a triplet that followed this rule. The participants then had to correctly guess what the rule was by proposing their own triplets and getting feedback on whether or not those followed the rule. There was no limit on the number of triplets the participants could propose to get feedback on.
Take a moment and think about what triplets you would have proposed if you were a participant.
Confirmation bias is one of the cognitive biases.
In the millions of years that our brain developed to become the powerful machine it is today, we fell prey to a lot of cognitive biases that helped us survive a particular period of time. The negativity bias, for example, helped our ancestors be vigilant to the dangers they faced during the hunter-gatherer era.* Although some of them are not needed anymore, they still persist and are hard to escape.
Wikipedia lists over 175 cognitive biases* that plague us, ranging from confirmation bias to lesser known ones such as hyperbolic discounting effect,* a tendency to have stronger preference for immediate payoffs over future payoffs.
Answering this question takes a non-trivial amount of effort.
danger Here are two things to avoid while answering this question: First, don’t assume it is obvious to the admissions committee that you are pursuing a graduate degree in computer science because your undergraduate degree was in computer science. Second, don’t search for the most recently published paper on the department’s website and include that as the reason you wish to pick the university.
Making the above errors indicate that you are lethargic and put little thought into this.
You should not try to answer this question alone. You should start off by collecting research guides (or brochures or summaries) from the different departments where you will apply. You’ll look through these things and you’ll find summaries of ongoing research in the different areas that [that school] offers. You’ll find a few projects (and possible faculty advisors) that interest you, and you will ask yourself this question: ‘If I worked in this [area], and if I worked on chunks of these projects, what would I try to do on my own?’ The answer to this question should form about a third of your Personal Statement.Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology*
Graduate school is not easy, to put it mildly. You are putting yourself through financial debt, cultural transformation, grueling hours of schoolwork, and possibly developing imposter syndrome.* All in the hopes of getting a job that will pay off for all your hard work.
thinkWhat is it that motivates you to go through this?
What questions are you trying to answer?
What ideas have constantly knocked on your mind imploring you to explore further?
The nail in the coffin for the two questions above is your response to this one. Expressing your interest in a topic that is being worked on by the university would bear no fruit if you don’t have some relevant experience already in the said topic. A best-selling author does not start out asking publishing houses to look at her manuscript without spending years conducting painful research and writing relentlessly.
You need to show tangible work you did, along with the results.
We have admitted some students because of projects they talk about in the SOP, but we want to see results (publications, etc.) and what the faculty letter-writers have to say about it. The SOP itself is not driving this evaluation, but may help to put what you have done into context for us. The SOP is your chance to tell us what you want to do (at this point) and why, and to put all the other information in the application into some sort of contextual or narrative framework that helps us make sense of what you have been doing.Professor Emeritus, CMU
We understand that not everything you have worked on in the past might be relevant to your future, at least not directly. That’s completely fine, as you can see from my own story. The admissions committee understands that students like to explore their interests and dabble during their undergraduate degree to find their passion(s), so to speak. While they’re OK with a student not having multiple relevant experiences, they do want to see someone who has taken things to the finish line before.
This is a crucial question to answer, because this is not answered anywhere else in your application. While your grades and scores talk solely about outcomes, this question gives you an opportunity to justify them. This question can be used to explain anomalies in your application (such as a very low CGPA or test score) and/or walk them through your thought process during the moments you took an important decision in your career, such as choosing to work on a niche topic under a professor.
Understanding the reasons that led to something, accepting it gracefully and striving hard to get better, are all the signs of maturity, and top programs hunt for mature people. For something as basic as failing an exam, a mature person will always realize where (s)he is at fault. More than the ‘situation’ itself, the admissions committee is interested in the experience of it, how you overcame it and what you learned from the entire experience.Overseas Education Specialist at MINDLER*
If something changed the course of your career path, or you faced a hardship that influenced your future goals, this is the place to address that. Sai and I changed our course of careers after undergraduation. We studied core engineering (mechanical and chemical respectively) but then switched to a degree in engineering management which led to a career in product management. We understand the difficulty in writing a cogent essay, hoping the admissions committee will see where you’re coming from without having met you.
The best way to do that is to be honest in addressing your transformation.
We know you have grand dreams you wish to realize one day. Show the committee that studying at their institution is the right means to achieve them. This goes back to the point of having questions that you want answered through your graduate school experience. If you’re hoping to become a biomedical engineer who wants to help paraplegics walk again, you need to find out the questions that your graduate school experience can answer for you: Can we use technique A to improve somatosensory reflexes by x%? What are the main causes of symptom B? What research has been conducted thus far at the university on topic C? Once you lay out your thoughts on the topic, don’t be shy in speaking in detail about your goals.
Each of us wants to leave this world better than we entered it. Why am I writing this book?
To bridge the gap between those who seek out quality education and those who can offer it.
To democratize valuable information so everyone who needs it has access to it.
This is a lot harder to explain than any of the previous questions.
Identifying a disingenuous essay is like seeing through clear water.
Don’t forget that those who read your essay have years of experience reading thousands of such documents. They know when they’re listening to a student talk about a topic they have little knowledge on. They know if you’re faking an illness to justify a bad outcome. We cannot stress the importance of sincerity while writing this essay.
Graduate school is a dream come true for thousands of students every year; but truly reaping the reward from the experience won’t happen if you begin the journey with an inaccurate portrayal of yourself.
We talked a lot about the questions you need to answer, but just as important is how you answer them. As you write your essay now, keep the following two writing principles in mind.
There is a famous quote attributed to one of the greatest writers of fiction short stories, Anton Chekhov.**
Don’t tell me that the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.
We want you to read that quote once again. It has a powerful meaning.
Too often, students clutter their essays with bombastic adjectives: hardworking, disciplined, driven, passionate, empathetic. Rather than telling them that you are a hard worker, show them that you are a hard worker by talking about how you used to spend every weekend volunteering at the local food shelter.
A core tenet of writing is clarity of thought.
I’m always excited by the rare applicant who clearly has thought through a research area, and has some ideas and real thoughts about problems he/she wants to tackle. It’s fine if the ideas are not likely to succeed, or if the thoughts are not realistic for current research. What matters is that the student showed their logical reasoning skills, and their passion for research at the same time.Professor, University of Chicago*
William Zinsser, a renowned non-fiction writer and one of my inspirations, has said that writing is thinking on paper with clarity.*
As long as you can think clearly, you should be able to write clearly.
While those two core principles are most important, here are a few more suggestions:
Use a formal and conversational tone. Convey enthusiasm and interest without coming across as sarcastic. Jokes can easily be misunderstood.
Stick to the specified word limit. If no limit is mentioned, write 750 to 1000 words in a 12 point font with a 1–2 single space between the lines.
Avoid using acronyms which will be unfamiliar outside your home country. It’s also wise to avoid non standard punctuation or formatting, such as heavy use of italics, quotations, em dashes (—), or semicolons (;).
Writing a stellar essay requires reading dozens of stellar essays. You can start with the Resources folder, where we’ve added a few samples. Beyond that, there are many publicly posted samples out there that will stimulate your thinking.*
actionWhen you find a sample that catches your attention, open it in a document format, where you can begin adding highlights and comments. In fact, we would even recommend printing out these essays and doing it the old-fashioned way, using a highlighter. Write down the parts you liked about the essay, and why you think you liked them. Was it the choice of words? Was it the depth that the candidate went into while describing a concept? Was it an interesting life experience? Write it down and go back to your essay to find ways to incorporate the same.
This refers to your seniors and mentors who are currently in or were in the position you aspire to reach, working in your domain of interest.
danger Before you send out the emails to them, spend some time wording it carefully. The people you reach out to are probably in graduate school themselves, working 60 hours a week. And yours would also not be the only email request they receive.
So, take the time to do the first few reviews yourself (or with the help of a close friend) before reaching out. In your email, the following topics should be conveyed clearly: interest in studying abroad, relevant past experiences, and the request. Below is a sample template:
How are you? I’m sure you must be drowning in classes and assignments. What is something you learned recently? I would love to know. I recently came across your article on the day in the life of a graduate student, and devoured it! You probably know, but I’m applying for a Master’s in Electrical Engineering myself now and couldn’t have read it at a better time.
I knew I wanted to study abroad within the first ten days of my summer internship at University of Waterloo, Canada. The stereotypes that I un-learned and people I met will always have a lasting impact on me. But choosing the universities to apply to and nailing down my specialization took more time than I thought. I’m sure you must have gone through something similar.
I spent a week writing the first draft of my SOP; writing for 30 minutes every day. I also spent the next two weeks editing it by reading through some amazing samples online. However, to truly make it insightful and strong, I need help from seniors like you that I look up to, who also specialize in a similar field.
I know you’re busy, and really want to respect that. Let me know if any of the following options work for you:
Sending me your SOP so I can use that as a guide
Sharing some important guidelines in writing one
(Most preferable!) Reviewing mine and adding your comments as feedback. If I’m being overly ambitious, it could even be all three :)
You can follow a similar process as before here, except the kind of input you receive from a good writer would be different from the kind of input you receive from a subject-matter expert. You need an essay that conveys your purpose and portrays your written skill. When you reach out, mention that you specifically want them to critique the diction of your essay.
danger Finally, don’t reach out to everyone you know at once. Assess the quality of feedback the other person can provide first. Are they an amazing writer with limited time? If yes, you should probably reach out only after you’ve reached version six or seven of your draft. You want incremental input to improve, not a storm of input at once. And even after you receive all their input, assess if it makes sense before incorporating it.
A lot of students want to know when an SOP can be called complete. We know you won’t like this answer, but the truth is: it will never be complete. However, the best practice is to get it reviewed by three to four people and review it yourself half a dozen times. Keep it ready at least a week or two before your deadline. In the final week, simply revisit it every few days and make minor corrections.
We can’t help you in deciding when you know it is complete, but we can tell that you will reach a stage where you wouldn’t want to read a word of it anymore.
As a final piece of advice, take a walk.
Alone, and without your phone.
It can be around a basketball court or in that garden next to your university’s main office. Cal Newport,* an associate professor of computer science and the author of many bestsellers, says in a famous talk,*
The way to find your passion is to be so good at something that the people around you can’t ignore it.
I found myself trying to write an essay amidst the stress of senior year coursework, thesis work, and placements. A friend of mine suggested I obtain a free profile review by a consultancy. I was a top student in my class and proactive when it came to extracurriculars. So when I saw that the consultancy recommended universities that were all tier 3, I was shocked. I decided to take things into my own hands and began drafting my SOP.
I wrote the first draft without giving it too much thought. Then, I looked for SOP questionnaires online that provided guidance on questions to answer. Once it got to a good stage, I began removing unnecessary information, followed by getting feedback from my alumni and mentors. Finally, I began fine-tuning it to adhere to the word limit set by each university. I went through the editing process separately for each university.
—Nivedhithaa Santhakumar, Purdue University
Around mid-October, I created a rough mind map, trying to answer some basic questions around my academic interests and long-term goals. I thought hard about how I can contribute to a university’s research work and what I can take away from it. In hindsight, these were the main segments of my essay, but the journey wasn’t smooth. As soon as I began writing, I experienced the dreaded writer’s block. However, soon after, I wrote 2,500 words in one sitting and ended up with a rather verbose essay.
In the end, what helped was putting myself in the shoes of the admissions committee and imagining having to read a hundred essays a day. That made me talk about only the most pertinent ideas and be parsimonious with the whitespace. Of course, this was followed by iterative alumni reviews that helped fine-tune the sentences and improve the presentation of the content. In short, be original, and come up with a way to stand out from the crowd.
—Vishnu Chandrasekhar, Carnegie Mellon University
Humans will always be riddled with cognitive biases. Rather than trying to escape them, think about how you can use the knowledge to your advantage. The statement of purpose is one part of your application, not all of it. Don’t overstate its importance. The person reading it wants you to show them how you plan on utilizing the time spent at their university as a bridge to go from where you are now, to where you want to be.
As you begin to think about writing the essay, first take a step back and try to answer a few questions: Why are you choosing this university and major? How do you want to spend your time at graduate school? What is your long-term goal? Do you have the experience needed to provide value in return? Can you think and write clearly? These questions should be used as guiding principles, and ideally, your essay should answer all of them.
Getting your SOP reviewed is very critical, but don’t begin sending emails to dozens of seniors without wording it carefully first. Be very selective in the people you choose, and try to reduce the friction from their end as much as possible by sending it in a collaborative document where they can add comments, and send helpful reminders if they don’t respond after a week. The people you reach out to have been in your shoes already, so they understand the need.
You will never be sure that you have reached the end of your review process. So either stop editing it a week before the application deadline, or set a threshold of six to seven reviews before declaring it done. Finally, take a walk alone to indulge in your thoughts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the things you begin to notice.
thinkWhen you went through some of the cognitive biases, did you notice any that you fell prey to recently?
What do you want the person reading your statement of purpose to walk away thinking?
If you were the senior being approached by five students, how would you want them to email you?
What interesting thoughts did you have after taking a few walks?
When we think of our professors, we generally picture them inside a classroom with a clicker (or a piece of chalk) in hand, delineating a topic with ferocity.
Our mind falls prey to a few heuristics when it comes to decision-making, one of which is called the representative-ness heuristic.* It was discovered by two behavioral economists and Nobel laureates, Daniel Kahneman,* who we referenced in an earlier chapter, and Amor Tversky,* in the early 1970s.
You can think of heuristics as shortcuts that your brain uses to reduce cognitive overload and get to a decision quicker. However, sometimes, these shortcuts lead to faulty decisions and stereotypical thinking. Let’s look at an example from Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,* which we introduced in the previous chapter:
Generally, a university would require either two or three letters of recommendation. In most cases, it is two. Assuming you plan on applying to eight universities, that comes to 16–20 recommendations. However, that does not mean you need to find 16–20 recommenders, since a professor would be willing to shell out more than one. From our experience, professors provide three on average, and maybe more depending on the strength of your relationship.
statsA back-of-the-napkin calculation says that you would need between four and six recommenders to apply to eight universities.
Now, let’s stop assuming and start putting this data in the Dream Tracker.
As mentioned earlier, it has to be someone who you spent a significant period of time with. The six months mentioned is a good standard to keep in mind, but it can also be an employer with whom you interned for a period of three months.
danger Although we have been using the term professor as a catch-all for people who can recommend you, it doesn’t have to be someone within the realms of academia. In fact, it would help if you can get it from someone who works at a company (a manager, or maybe a CEO?), so your profile looks well-rounded.
Since we decided you might need between four and six recommenders, be sure to have a list of at least six so that you have a buffer for people who might say no.
Ask yourself if you put down a name because they have closely observed your work or because they are the head of a department who has seen you thrice over the past four years. We all want to get a recommendation from the heads of departments and directors of companies.
However, would you rather someone write this:
“It is my pleasure to recommend Siya to your graduate program. Siya took my course on Psychology in her junior year. She is a strong student, works well with her peers, and is attentive inside the classroom. She scored an A in my course and consistently scored above average in her assignments. Apart from being a good student, she also is the head of design for the university’s magazine and spends her time volunteering at the local NGO on the weekends.”
Or have them write this:
We understand this is not always possible, if your professor lives in a different city (or country). However, as much as you can afford to, schedule some time with your professor so you can request it in person. If that isn’t possible, request to schedule a call if they know you well enough or send a well-worded email, which is what most students resort to. We’ll get to the well-worded part in a minute.
To reiterate, you are not the only student who is requesting a letter, and they have a packed schedule as it is. So give them a reason to say yes by being prepared with your request. If you’re meeting them in person or speaking on the phone, give sufficient context around the following: why you chose to study abroad, picked that major, and decided upon those universities. They would be delighted if you chose a major where their expertise lies.
In addition to requesting for a letter, you need to provide them with the information they need to fulfill that request.
Speaking of which…
Most things in life are not black or white. Rather, they lie somewhere in between. Sharing too little or no information will lead to them writing a short, insipid letter that could hurt you rather than help you. Sharing too much information will overwhelm or, worse, annoy them into writing a subpar letter which could once again hurt you.
Beyond sharing the foundational details, you need to carefully cherry-pick the achievements and highlights you want to mention, to refresh their memory of how amazing you really are. In no specific order, the following are recommended fields to share:
context of your relationship with them
brief description of the program you’re applying to and why
Every university you apply to will display the following message in the letter of recommendation section of the application.* This gives you the choice to either waive or not waive your right to view the recommendation submitted by the professor (or whoever you asked).
That question above is asking, Do you waive the right to request access to the information provided by your references?
Have you wondered why this question is being asked?
The best strategy to get your recommendation is to first build good relationships with the people you work with, be it your supervisor or internship guide. From my experience, it is better to work with a young professor in a small group. I realized this through my association with an Assistant Professor at IIT Madras, under whom I interned twice. He was a great mentor with whom I built a strong relationship, and we ended up publishing a paper together. He also went so far as to assist me during my graduate applications.
The same holds true for my third-year summer internship in Germany. During this internship, I built a good relationship with my supervisor, who happened to be a post-doctorate in the group. He later went on to help me obtain recommendations from my professor and was very helpful in reviewing my SOPs. In short, it is all about developing a natural rapport with your professors and guides that will aid you in getting the required LORs.
—Saman Salike, University of California, Berkeley
I felt it was important for my recommendation letters to reflect on me holistically: including my achievements and career goals. If you feel the same, you need to communicate this transparently to your recommenders. I set up meetings with my recommenders and spoke about my future aspirations, what the program was about, and how it would lead me to achieve the destination. After the meetings, I sent them a written document where the aforementioned was elucidated along with a copy of my resume. I also provided details on what skills were necessary for the program and how I have displayed them in various scenarios. By doing all this, I made sure to equip them with the right information to write a good letter.
Honestly, writing a letter of recommendation is a time-consuming task and requires huge dedication on the part of the recommender. Hence, do not request for it at the last minute. Follow a step-by-step strategy that gives them the right information and sufficient time.
—Uchechukwu Ekeopara, Dartmouth College
You might have begun reading this chapter thinking, what’s there to learn about getting a letter of recommendation? We hope you feel differently now. A letter of recommendation, when obtained from the right person, can go a long way in getting you admitted. It shows the admissions committee who you are from a third person’s standpoint, as opposed to your own.
So begin to note down the list of recommenders based on the Venn diagram we proposed: how long they’ve known you, how well they know you, and how established they are in their role. The first two factors should take precedence over the third.
As much as you can, approach your recommender in person when you ask for the letter since it is a huge time commitment for them, and not something they enjoy writing. You can make that process easier by being prepared and sending a document with information about your achievements and experiences. A nicely worded email will go a long way. Also, don’t be shy to follow up with them. Give a buffer of ten days after your first email to follow up if you haven’t heard back.
Finally, we strongly recommend that you waive your right to view the letter. If you have done a good job choosing your recommenders, there shouldn’t be a need to view it in the first place. This letter must be written with confidentiality and trust. Once all the letters have been submitted, take the time to thank them for their effort. You can also go the extra mile to keep them in the loop as you begin getting your results, thus continuing to grow your relationship.
thinkWho are three people you have met that you highly look up to in your professional life?
What were the top criteria you used while choosing your recommenders?
Did you provide them just the amount of information they would require?
Aside from an email, how else can you say thank you to your professors? Think about it.
I always tell aspiring product managers that being a good product manager is not the same as being a good product manager interviewee. To ace your interview, you need to prepare on five different verticals (product design, product strategy, guesstimation, technical, and behavioral). I remember solving a dozen questions found on Leetcode, figuring out ways to improve all the products I use, and testing myself on a plethora of how many coffee shops are present in San Francisco type questions when I was preparing for my interviews.
As a product manager, you don’t need to code or know the statistics of your city’s coffee shops. Rather, you need to be good at collecting requirements and feedback from your customers, building relationships with the various teams you work with, and balancing priorities across engineering, business, and design. Yet, you have to learn things which you don’t particularly need for your interview process. Why?
To make you think and be prepared.
We’ve noticed that some universities also include optional sections in the application, which generally manifest in two formats:
making a video introduction
writing an essay on diversity.
Every component of your graduate school application is an opportunity for you to reflect on your past and ponder upon your future. Your resume, recommendation letters, and transcripts reflect what you’ve accomplished so far. Your test scores signify how hard you have been working for the past few months. Your statement of purpose is an opportunity to answer critical questions related to your future.
Your video is a condensed, visual depiction of your story.
The admissions committee can gauge a lot from a few minutes of hearing you talk: your proficiency in English, presentation skills, and intent in pursuing the degree.
danger You don’t need to put yourself in front of the camera if it feels too unnatural or if you feel you won’t be able to put your best foot forward by doing it. It’s OK to skip this part of the application, since it’s optional.
We just hope you will at least give it a shot!
The journey begins. It’s now time for you to choose the story that you want to tell your audience, i.e., the admissions committee.
Here are a few ideas to get you thinking. You can choose and go ahead with the storyline that best fits your experiences and aspirations:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
First, you became a director by choosing the story and developing the content. Now, it’s time to become an actor (and possibly, a videographer).
Here are two ideas you can adopt while shooting the video:
Involve props that display your creativity and/or skill.
Shoot in a location that has some relevance to the content of your video. If your one big idea is centered around building low-cost technology to improve agricultural yield, then shoot it in a farm or a field if that’s feasible.
Ideally, you should aspire to shoot the video in one sitting and preferably in the same location. But, if that isn’t possible and you end up shooting bits and pieces, no problem! There is enough technology out there that will do the job of stitching these together.
There are three stages in the editing process:
Stitching it together: Use some of the freely available apps, such as Quik, Blender, or Lightworks, to stitch the videos together (assuming it’s not a single shot). Sai used the Quik mobile app and managed to edit his entire video in less than an hour. These apps also let you add images and text in between as needed.
Removing noise: Even after controlling the external factors, there could still be noise that crept into your video. In such cases, we recommend using software such as Audacity, which is intuitive, user-friendly, and quick.*
Most universities don’t ask you to write essays aside from your statement of purpose. However, we’ve noticed from experience that some, like Dartmouth,* and Purdue* do ask you to write a diversity essay.
In fact, this essay is a key requirement for you to be considered for certain fellowships at Purdue University, namely The Purdue University Doctoral Fellowship, David M. Knox Fellowship, and George Washington Carver Fellowship.
These are fun additions to your application, as they make you think about questions you wouldn’t normally think about.
thinkWho are you and what has contributed to your identity?
We’ll walk through a four-step framework to help you construct your essay, and at the same time, write a sample one ourselves.
First, begin the story with your first encounter with the underrepresented community. Try to be as specific as you can with the details.
I was not expecting to walk out with a heavy heart when I stepped inside the Mahatma Gandhi Orphan Home in Trichy, India on July 22, 2018. I had gone there to assist my friend in conducting a class on chemistry for 20 ninth-graders. During a break, I was having a conversation with a teacher there when I heard the bad news. She told me that the students had thus far attended private schools thanks to numerous generous donations. However, the money had run out and they had no means to fund their high school and pursue education further. They were now reliant on a few part-time faculty and students from nearby universities to take one-off classes in lieu of proper education.
It’s very important to set the stage for a story. Be specific on the when, why, and how. Now that your reader knows the problem statement, you can move forward and talk about what you did about that.
I always knew I wanted to make the video. Many applicants ignore it since it’s optional in most applications. However, to me it was an opportunity to lend a face and voice to my statement of purpose and display confidence.
Content is not just the king; it’s the whole kingdom. What differentiates your video from a hundred others is NOT the visual effects; it’s what you say. Please do NOT say in plain words that you are a hard-worker. Narrate a story that convinces the viewer that you are a hard-worker. I also made use of props—Roti (flatbread) and Rubik’s Cube—because I was sure very few would do it. Do things that other people don’t usually think of doing. There is a moment mid-way in my video, where I turn to look at my degree hung on the wall and the camera moves with me. The point is: the camera is your friend. Instead of making the camera sit there passively, try innovative things and showcase your creativity.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth?”
A video is worth an admit.
—Aniruddh Menon, Dartmouth College
I had written several SOPs for the various universities that I had applied for in the U.S. and in Europe. None required a more unconventional and out-of-the-box thinking approach than the Diversity Essay and the Personal Statement Essay that I wrote for Purdue University and Michigan Ann Arbor, respectively. Initially, I thought that these essays would require little effort in comparison to the SOP that I had drafted so many times earlier. However, in order to stand out from the plethora of other applicants, I quickly realized that I need to put in a lot more effort.
Armed with the powerful tool of introspection, I carefully handpicked the encounters that I had with less privileged people in my college days and blended them with my own set of childhood experiences with people from different cultures. After writing and re-writing it a few times, I got help from a few of my seniors who proof-read it to ensure the message was coming across well. Was it a perfect recipe for success? Not quite, but it instilled in me a work ethic powerful enough to provide an impetus for my career over the next few years.
—Ravi Ramesh, TU Delft
Once you begin looking for jobs in the new country, you will realize that a lot of the things you learn for the interview won’t be of use in your day-to-day life on the job. Yet, it’s important to still learn them because they make you think and be prepared. Your application process to get admitted follows a similar analogy. Every component of your application says something about you. The optional components, asking you to make a video or write an essay on diversity, show that you’re someone who goes above and beyond. You’re someone who goes that extra mile. We hope you do.
A video is a condensed version of your story. You only get about five minutes to say it, so choose one of the three approaches that we mentioned in the chapter. Connecting the dots approach is best if you can see a common thread between disparate events from your past. Big idea approach is best if you grew up with a strong conviction of what you wanted to do. Linear line approach is best if your career has so far had a vertical path, with every experience leading seamlessly to the next one. While shooting it, think of ways you can infuse your creativity or skill. Sai used props; can you do something similar? Can you shoot in a unique location? All these will grab real estate in the minds of the admissions committee and make you memorable.
Most universities only ask you to write a statement of purpose. But, if yours wants you to also go the extra mile and write an essay on diversity (or another topic), that’s great! It gives you one more opportunity to ponder interesting questions. Diversity and inclusion has become a very hot topic right now, and for good reason. You will realize how powerful it is as soon as you sit through a lecture where you hear opinions from students coming from different countries. We gave you a four-part framework you can follow to write this essay: begin with your encounter with those who were underrepresented or underprivileged, mention what you did to help them, talk about the impact you created (don’t be modest here!), and finally end it with your plans for the future.
With that, you’ve hopefully reached the end of your application process.
thinkWhat prop do you think best brings out your creativity and/or a unique skill?
Have you ever felt that you were underrepresented due to your gender, race, or ethnicity?
And with that, you have reached the end of submitting your applications.
It doesn’t feel that way, though, does it?
That’s OK. That’s bound to happen when you’ve been working on a task for more than four months (or in some cases, even 12 months!*). In an ideal scenario, you should complete your standardized tests after shortlisting the universities and before beginning the application, so that your GRE preparation doesn’t collide with writing the SOP.
In both cases, the advantage of applying early is clear.* The sooner you apply, the more spots there are to fill and fewer students to compete with for them. You will get your result sooner, which will give you more time to work on the post-admit procedures and let you save money by not having to apply to other universities, assuming this was your first choice. Even otherwise, having an admit on hand will prompt you to apply only to the universities which you had ranked above this. Finally, the universities will know that you are more serious about their program if they see an application land by October as opposed to January.
However, you shouldn’t forget to think about the other side of the coin.
Is it OK to submit a shabby, sub-par application just to apply sooner or to meet an earlier deadline?
The answer is a resounding no.
The only way to fund myself is through loans is one of the most common myths while applying to graduate school.
We say that from personal experience.
storyAfter I was done applying to all the universities, I began focusing on scholarships right away. Fortunately or not, I didn’t have anyone who could guide me on this path, which meant I didn’t have anyone telling me that the chances were low or that it wasn’t worth my time. So I applied anyway. I spent dozens of hours spread across a few months searching for scholarships across Quora, various websites, and student forums. In the end, I ended up creating a list of almost 25 scholarships, of varying reward amounts, and about a dozen conferences to apply to in the future. All that was left was to submit an application for each.
More often than not, if a senior from your university obtained a scholarship, they would add it to their public profile on LinkedIn or another social networking site. An alternative is to check with your university’s career center. The career center watches hundreds of students travel abroad to study every year, many of whom receive scholarships and grants. If they aren’t crowdsourcing information from the alumni yet, you need to ask them to begin right away. Apart from gathering knowledge, they can also look for endowments from alumni who might be financially well-off.
We cannot stress this enough: take advantage of the articles and forums where your questions have been asked and answered already.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here.
In-depth articles have been written both for a global* and India-specific* audience, stating 20+ scholarships to apply to.
Quora, Reddit, and Facebook (with the help of past students) have done the work for you already. Join the various information sharing groups in these sites, where you will have access to the accumulated wisdom of the past and present students. Ask questions (and answer the ones you can to help others). Some students get pretty specific with theirs.*
If you want to go beyond the information you obtained from past students, you can make use of the numerous websites that are dedicated to keeping an updated list of all scholarships.
MHRD Government of India
Graduate assistantships (GAs) are the ideal path to earn and learn at the same time. You work for a predetermined number of hours every week in exchange for a waiver on some or all of your tuition and a possible monthly stipend. What more, GAs are an attractive addition to your resume, as aptly described on University of Louisiana’s website.*
Graduate assistantships are professional positions. The experience you’ll get looks great on a resume and holding such a position will give you that professional experience that employers (or doctoral programs) are looking for. For master’s students applying to doctoral programs, an assistantship on your resume is a feather in your cap and demonstrates that you have experience, that your master’s program recognized you as the best of the best. In many research fields, if you didn’t have an assistantship, those PhD programs you’re applying to may wonder why. And if you’re planning a career in academia, an assistantship is essential for getting the teaching and research lab experience you need.
Graduate assistantships (GA) can come in two forms that are most common: research assistantship and teaching assistantship.
In simple terms, research assistants (RA) assist professors on hardcore research, whereas teaching assistants (TA) assist in preparing class materials and grading (and sometimes teaching).*
In India, the concept of universities offering part-time jobs on campus is virtually nonexistent. If it’s similar in your country, then it might seem surreal when you encounter this concept in the U.S. and elsewhere. You get to work for up to 20 hours a week (or more under special circumstances*) and earn money to support yourself financially as you earn a degree.
statsThe pay for a part-time job varies based on the state you’re in, but the minimum wage in most states is between $7 and $10.* If you worked 20 hours a week for $10 an hour, that’s $800 a month, a pretty sizable amount that will cover most or all of your rent and other expenses.
We know it sounds attractive, but remember that money is not your greatest asset in graduate school.
Your time is.
As you go and begin your application now, keep the following in mind. First, the importance of applying on time cannot be overstated.
The people on the other side see things as black and white. If you miss your deadline, or apply when you’re not eligible, it will be an outright rejection.
storyI applied for the PEO Peace Women’s Scholarship* on time, but the professor who submitted my recommendation did it two hours after the deadline. So they told me they could not accept my application. I emailed back explaining the situation and the why, but this was their response:
“I am truly sorry but there are no exceptions on the deadline.”
We are optimists, so hearing someone say that it’s not possible to do something doesn’t always make sense to us. Now we know from experience that it is possible to obtain scholarships and fund oneself through other means. We are not discounting the effort it takes to apply or the very low chances one has of obtaining them. We are simply saying it’s possible, and worth giving a shot.
First, start with your immediate seniors and ask them about the ones they have heard of (or obtained). Next, hunt for these in crowdsourcing groups on websites such as Reddit and Facebook, where you have access to the knowledge of the masses. Finally, if you want to go the extra mile, do your own research through the websites we mentioned and curate your list. We didn’t want to just give you the tool here, though. Out of personal curiosity, and to save a few hours of your time, we found a list of 20 general and 10 women-specific scholarships you can apply to. Start from there.
Apart from scholarships, you can also fund yourself through assistantships and part-time jobs. The former pays well and may even waive your tuition altogether, while the latter can be used to offset your living expenses. If neither of these concepts are widely prevalent in your country, they may seem extremely attractive at first. However, because they are attractive, the demand outweighs the supply. So begin your research early in both cases, and keep a conscious eye on the number of hours you’re signing yourself up for (especially for a part-time job that doesn’t add direct value).
Coming back to the scholarships, check the eligibility requirements and deadlines very carefully, apply to a diverse set of scholarships, and put in your applications early. I would hate to see you make the same mistakes I made. Hopefully, you end up getting one (or more) to fund yourself. When you do, be sure to pass on the optimism to those who come after you.
thinkHow important is it for you to obtain a scholarship?
What are the other means through which you can fund yourself? Does your university offer GAs and part-time jobs?
Assuming you obtained a scholarship, how can you help your juniors now?
storyI remember dressing up in an orchid pink Allen Solly shirt (the only one I had back then) and black high-waisted pants to have a conversation with a laptop screen. In my undergraduate university, girls had a curfew that prevented us from stepping outside the fortified walls of our hostel after 9:00 p.m. on weekdays. So, I had to resort to sitting inside the common room on my floor, desperately hoping that no one would walk in, as I had my interview at 11:30 p.m. The internet connection failed me twice, and finally worked the third time, just long enough for me to answer five pre-recorded questions that flashed across the screen.
What does ethics mean to you? (unexpected)
Tell us about one project that really interested you. What did you do and what did you gain out of it?
Universities in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) are very vocal about their motto and mascots. One university archivist even went so far as to co-author a book on his alma mater’s mascot, titled The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale.* Students in the U.S., especially those pursuing their undergraduate degree, anthropomorphize these mascots to reflect the qualities that they wish to embody. Just look at how poetically the authors describe the Nittany Lion:*
The Nittany Lion became a part of our lives soon after we reached Penn State. The Shrine [of the Nittany Lion] is more than just another location on campus dedicated to some tradition or another: it is the embodiment of what we believe Penn State represents. First and foremost, anyone who has looked into those big eyes knows that it is one smart lion—having, of course, studied at the land-grant university he protects. He is powerful, yet not overbearing; regal, yet not snobbish. The Nittany Lion Shrine symbolizes Penn State’s past accomplishments while reflecting its hopeful future, which is key to Penn State’s success in all its academic and athletic endeavors. No school symbol does that better than Penn State’s Nittany Lion.
Source: The Nittany Lion. Calareso, J. What Is A Nittany Lion. Study.com
Let’s start with the one that will follow you for a long time: tell me about yourself. This is a pithily worded monster of a question, as the answer can range from talking about your childhood dream to recounting what you learned from your worst failure. Because there is no boundary to the degree of variability, students wreck their mind trying to come up with a response that is interesting, memorable, and concise. The paradox of choice* can be crippling, so use the following framework by an academic consulting firm that we found to be useful.*
Do not use this as an opportunity to regurgitate your resume or history.
Remember, they have already seen it. They are looking to understand what made you, well, you. What made you spend that summer volunteering abroad? Why did you choose to become a class representative? Why did you choose to focus on optimization of traffic in metropolitan areas for your final year project? Every decision we take has meaning behind it, which might not always be obvious. Let’s find out now.
Take a pen and paper (or post-its) and create three columns.
The questions under general background focus on what you hope to reap out of the time you spend at the university. In return, the university will also get a lot out of you, monetarily and otherwise. Academic background focuses on what you can bring to the table and how you will collectively help advance the position of the university by working on new areas of research, publishing papers, obtaining funding, and attracting more students.
A commonly asked question here is: how has your previous experience prepared you for this degree at our university?
The question is asking you to talk about your relevant past experiences as well your plan to utilize them for future research at the university.
Let’s assume that you plan to pursue your graduate degree in Computer Science at the University of Washington. If you were to prepare for this question, your first stop should be the page that shows the areas the department focuses its time and money on.* Pick the area that resonates most with your past work and future aspirations (for now, assume it’s security and privacy*), and hop on to the page* dedicated to the research in that area. In this case, the Security and Privacy Research Lab lists 14 projects they’ve worked on in the past (as of this writing). They also link you to over a dozen people (faculty, doctorate students, research scientists) who themselves have dedicated pages that go into more detail on their academic hopes and dreams.
The previous two categories focused more on your actions during situations. This category focuses more on your reactions to situations.
The university is trying to gauge how you react to both negative and positive situations your life, like stress, success, pressure, inspiration, failure, and uncertainty.
A common player in this field is: list your strengths and weaknesses.
danger Many people interpret that the question is asking them to list one of their strengths and one of their strengths masquerading as a weakness. Don’t be one of those people.
Finally, for all of the questions, follow the rule of three if you can. What is the rule of three?
The rule of three is “a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers.”* This applies to both written and verbal communication.
Try to begin noticing the occurrence of this (in this book and elsewhere). You will be surprised at how prevalent it can be. During the interview, use this rule to give your response in three parts wherever possible.
You know what you want.
We began this chapter by talking about missions and mascots. It is important that you read the mission statement* of the university before you sit for your interview. Every university, and even departments, have their own mission statements and values. The following is the mission statement of Harvard College for liberal arts and sciences:*
The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.
Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created. From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.
Even if the language is slightly abstract, you can pick out some key cues from it: Harvard encourages diversity with respect to your background and the majors you pick. They want to build leaders out of you, and appreciate a student who has the ability to adapt and evolve over one who does not.
Reading the mission statement will fill you with a sense of purpose and excitement, especially if you can relate deeply to the values it mentioned.
The interview is the first instance the university gets to connect mere words on paper to a real, breathing human being. This is your chance to show them how all of the experiences from your past align perfectly with what you’re looking for. The interview itself can be divided into three parts for ease of preparation: The General, The Academic, and The Personal.
The General is for them to understand why you made the decisions you made. Why that university? Why that major? Why now? Why you? These are not easy questions to answer, especially the last one. Use the framework we provided by connecting what you’ve done to what you learned to how that will help you in the future. It’s nothing new; however, few students actively think about it.
The Academic is for them to see what you can bring to the table. How have your past experiences prepared you for this venture? What are you interested in? How will you add value to the university? This should be easier to answer if you did a good job choosing your major and universities.
The Personal segment is for you to explain how you react to situations. How did you overcome a major failure? Or work with an unpleasant colleague? Pick your answers carefully, as they have to be both genuine and not too personal.
thinkWhich question took the most time to write an answer to?
Did you find a way to respond by following the rule of three?
Did you identify a friend of yours you can practice the answers with?
What are some little things you can do to enhance your interview experience?
story“…Everything happens for a reason, so wipe that tear off your face and move on. You are strong. You can do it. You will get through this.”
I came across a short letter I had written to myself after I received my first admit result. It was 12:52 a.m. on February 17, 2017, when I received an email from the Chemical Engineering department’s co-chair at MIT. It began with the all-too-familiar I’m truly sorry to inform you. I remember crying silently into my pillow that night. The second blow came within a week on February 23, from HEC Paris, for their Master’s in Management program. I had attended an interview for this program, which I thought went very well. I guess I was mistaken. And within the next two days, the third rejection came from Yale. In hindsight, I can see I had a next-to-impossible shot with the Yale Silver Scholars program—which is an accelerated MBA program for students to join right after their undergrad—given my research background. Nevertheless, the blow hit hard back then. Yale was my dream university.
Those three rejections, within seven days of each other, deeply affected my mental state. On the outside, I maintained a posture of humility and kept reciting how I had low expectations. However, my mind screamed with optimism. Around that time a year earlier, in 2016, I had obtained all the three scholarships I had applied to for the summer. That made me complacent, and arrogant. I assumed I had a good shot with all these universities. That week changed it all, and reset my expectations.
You may remember Herbert Simon coined the term satisfice to strike a distinction between classical and behavioral economics. Classical economics posits that we are all maximizers who strive to get the very best out of every decision we make. However, this assumes that we are rational and armed with the information needed to make that optimal choice. Simon proposed that this is rarely, if ever, the case, due to the limits of human cognition. Rather, he suggests an alternative route wherein the decision maker can be a satisficer by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world.
In both cases, the satisficer is happy to walk away with a good enough solution that meets the threshold set by them, as opposed to the best possible one.
You were a satisficer when you were trying to pick the universities to apply to.
Now, we want you to be a maximizer.
Time to open your Dream Tracker again.
In fact, let’s revisit the quadrant once again.
There is a famous saying when it comes to hiring: look for someone with T-shaped skills.*
The T here is a metaphor that conveys that companies want someone with both breadth-wise and depth-wise skills, indicated by the horizontal and vertical bar of the symbol T. Think of the T-shaped person as a “jack of many trades and master of one (or a few)”. The earliest reference of this goes all the way back to a paper published in 1978.* Since then, it has been referenced in various articles* as a way to encourage people to acquire skills across varied fields.
We will now use this mental model* to help you make the final choice.
When you were eliminating universities to apply to in the chapter Choosing the Universities, you were using just a few factors on the surface level. You might have used some hard requirements you set for courses, research, and location to do the elimination. Now, you have the luxury to go deeper into all the factors that you deemed to be important back then. We will specifically talk about Academia and Career.
Courses and research are still the most important factors that will define your experience. You already spent some time looking at the course catalog, research areas, and professors’ pages in the beginning. Now, we need you to dive deeper into these areas and get more questions answered.
Courses: Revisit the work you had already done in the Choosing Universities sheet and go over the course website once more for the universities. Back then, we asked you to think about the single most important factor that mattered to you with regards to courses. Most of you might have had something on the lines of, I want to study x, y, and z topics during my graduate school.
While narrowing down universities, you looked at a few factors at the horizontal level and selected your top universities. The T-shape was more like a “—” back then.
In the previous section, we asked that you paint the vertical bar of the T by going deeper into a few critical factors.
You need to complete the T-shape by considering a few factors we disregarded before, breadth-wise.
Academia: We looked at courses, research, and STEM certification in the chapter Choosing the Universities. The second layer of research here involves spending some time searching for factors such as possible industry partnerships and assistantships available, which we covered in the chapter Applying for Scholarships.
At the end of all this T-talk, go back to your best buddy, the Dream Tracker, who has kept track of all your work so far.
actionFor the vertical bar where you dived deeper, keep track of your findings and modify the scores for each of the columns accordingly. You also don’t need to resort to using just numbers. Add a new column to record the qualitative feedback and information you obtained from your research.
For the horizontal bar where you looked at newer factors, create new columns once again to record your feedback.
Finally, add the relevant information from the What’s New? quadrant for each of the universities, if any.
We all build our own frameworks to get to the solution here. The way I chose a university to study at is different from the way Sai, or anyone else, did.
storySai told me that he loved the four years he spent in Trichy, even if he didn’t put a lot of thought into choosing to study there. When he got admits from all seven universities he applied to, he took the opportunity to dive deeper into each to find the optimal one. He made a list of the five most important factors that will affect his experience, based on research, and asked his seniors and mentors to rank their importance. The five were: curriculum, reputation, tuition, weather, and proximity to the industry. He chose Dartmouth in the end due to the flexibility of coursework, reputation as an Ivy League, and scholarship offered to offset the tuition.
On the other hand, I certainly did not love Trichy, but I loved the limited freedom and independence I had. From my viewpoint, Trichy was a city with too many temples, sparsely populated restaurants, and a single theater (at least in my time). Even before I sat down to evaluate the admits from Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth, a part of me knew I would choose Columbia. Maybe I chose Columbia for its reputation and course curriculum, which let me work as a student consultant for startups in New York. But maybe, a small part of me chose Columbia for New York. Maybe I wanted to get away from the austere environment for a while and immerse myself in one that was chaotic and exhilarating. It’s hard to tell the difference.
We tried our best to quantify this process for you with spreadsheets and scores. However, we can’t ignore the human element amongst it all.
Here ends a very long journey of yours. We don’t remember a lot of things that happen in our lives, but there are these key moments that are impossible to forget. Receiving Congratulations! emails from your dream universities are definitely up there on that list. These moments are precious, so do your best to record them in your head as a mental picture, or better yet, take a screenshot of the email and celebrate with your loved ones in the way you see fit. If you didn’t meet your expectations, on the other hand, know that it is OK to feel dejected.
That just shows how much effort you put into this venture. But with time, you will learn to move on to the next. There’s no other option.
We revisited the concept of satisficers and maximizers once again. Earlier in this journey, you learned to be a satisficer. You learned to find a satisfactory solution for a complex world by using limited, critical factors to eliminate the universities to apply to. Now, we need you to do the opposite. Be a maximizer. Your world has been greatly simplified. You only have a few choices in front of you and enough resources to dive deep and find a near-optimal solution. To help you with this process, we spoke about the T-shaped mental model.
The T-shaped model, generally quoted during a hiring process, can be used to dive deeply and explore widely. Dive deep into the factors you had used previously while you eliminated the universities. Write down more use cases for Academia and Career. Reach out to the alumni to learn about their job search. Tease out the other factors that will matter to you, ranging from sport facilities to research assistantships. At the same time, look at a few more factors that you did not consider a few months ago, and collect information on them. Everything you learn must go into the Dream Tracker, so you can make a well-informed decision in the end.
thinkWhat is a miscellaneous factor that you did not consider when you were choosing universities to apply to?
If you had to guess, what’s the human element that helped you make the final decision?
What is something you want your future self to know right now?
There was a story that I read when I was in ninth grade that has stuck with me throughout the years. You may have read it too. It was titled The Bishop’s Candlesticks and was one of the chapters in my English textbook.* The play’s protagonist is an incredibly generous man, almost too generous to a fault, who goes by the title Bishop. The entire play occurs in the Bishop’s cottage, where an escaped convict breaks in to demand food. The Bishop treats the convict as his friend, feeds him, and gives him a place to stay. In turn, the convict steals the Bishop’s beloved candlesticks, only to be caught by the police as he tries to escape.
The final minutes of The Bishop’s Candlesticks is a powerful reminder of what generosity can do to a damaged soul.
Victor Hugo said it best,* “As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.”
I found the joy in sharing my knowledge when I received considerable positive feedback within NIT Trichy on an article I wrote on the theory of general relativity in my sophomore year (which, sadly, I cannot find anymore). Those were the days when physics deeply fascinated me. By learning a new concept and sharing it in an easily digestible manner, I was able to help someone else and strengthen my own grasp over it. Win-win.
You can do the same by writing about your journey so that the lessons are cemented in your mind, and also help future aspirants. It doesn’t even have to be in the form of an article (or a book). You can participate in webinars, make a video, or simply write answers on a forum like Quora. Be sure to share the important resources you used in this process. You have incredible knowledge built up through this journey.
The world deserves to see it in action.
Writing a blog article might help hundreds of students along their way. On the other hand, mentoring one student will completely change his or her life. You don’t have to pick between the two; you can do both. Mentoring someone goes beyond providing resources and talking about what you did.
Mentoring someone requires that you understand their situation, empathize, and tailor your advice accordingly.
Pick three to five students who reach out to you when the next cycle of admissions begins. Set up a regular cadence when you can meet them all and be updated on their situation. Share resources to help them with their applications, and find ways in which they can help each other. The good thing about generosity is that it is infectious. Your altruism will soon be multiplied many-fold as the lives you touch begin to do their part.
You could not have done this without them. Take the time to write personalized emails to everyone you could think of who had a stake in this. Trust me, it is a fun process! I remember thoroughly enjoying writing emails to all the professors who wrote me a recommendation letter. The highlight of it was the responses I received from them as they expressed their happiness.
If you wanted to thank us in some way, we only ask that you leave a brief and honest review of this book on e-commerce platforms and other forums so more students can discover it.
We would also love to receive an email from you.
Until now, we helped you get admitted! The final and fourth part of the book will help you prepare for what is to come as you leave your home country.
I want to thank two people without whom the next two chapters would not be part of the book: Siddharth Chamarthy and Karthikeyan Eswaran. Thank you both for working with me to compile the research, brainstorm, and write the chapters on loans and visas.
Much of this chapter is written with an Indian audience in mind. If you are from another country, you may still find it useful, but many of the details will differ. We suggest you find additional resources in your country for loan information.
We hope you took a break to relax after all that hustle for more than six months. Loans and visas are two topics that are almost thought of as a given, that everyone will get them with time.
But valuable information on these topics is neither easily available nor intensely searched for.
My father is a veteran banker, so he took care of most of the procedures related to securing my loan. For my visa, I went over a few posts on Facebook groups to look at past visa interview questions, prepared for them, and got it on my first try. However, I ended up taking out a bigger loan than needed, and heard about visa categories such as O1 and EB1 much later in my journey than I would’ve liked.
Even barring those consequences, I know, in hindsight, that the following chapters contain information that I dearly wish I had known a few years ago. Let’s begin with helping you secure your loan!
We get it. Learning about loans doesn’t sound interesting. You would rather spend time taking an online course or setting up your LinkedIn profile (which you can do in the chapter LinkedIn, Networking, and E-learning).
actionBut before you skip this chapter (and we hope you don’t!), read and re-read the following three principles so you don’t commit a huge mistake later on:
Loans are not the only way to fund oneself. First, try to source as much money as possible from other sources like scholarships, assistantships, and fellowships—as discussed earlier—before resorting to a loan.
Traditional banks in India are not the only sources of loans. We go through three other entities you can look at in this chapter. Also note that you aren’t obligated to take out a loan from a single entity. For example, if you need INR 30,00,000, you can take out a smaller loan of INR 15,00,000 from two sources that offer a lower rate of interest than from a single source offering INR 30,00,000 at a higher rate of interest.
Let’s start with the foundational question, how much money do you need?
Instead of guessing based on your tuition fee, let’s go back to our trusted friend, the Dream Tracker. Navigate to the sub-sheet titled Loan Estimation.
actionFirst, spend some time reviewing the sheet and the text added below.
Second, understand that the numbers added there are a very approximate average. Review each category and edit the numbers to reflect your situation. For calculating your rent and food, use the link available next to the table and search for your location. For Visa and Immigration, leave it as is unless there’s been a change in fee.
Let’s start with the definition of a loan.
A loan is a type of credit vehicle in which a sum of money is lent by a party to another party in exchange for future repayment of the value. In most cases, the lender also adds interest and/or other finance charges to the principal value, which the borrower must repay in addition to the principal balance.
Sounds good? Now, along with the loan, there are a few more terms whose definition you might benefit from.*
Lender/Creditor: The party lending the sum of money.
Your credit score is a measure of your creditworthiness.
It is calculated based on your credit history, which includes the following factors: current debt (if any), debt history, repayment history, length of credit history, etc. If someone were to lend you money, they would want to look at your credit score to answer the question: will this person pay me back my money on time? The higher your score, the more willing they would be to give you their money.
statsIn the U.S., the credit score ranges between 300 and 850. In India, it ranges between 300 and 900. While the range differs per country, having a higher score is better everywhere.
In 1956, engineer Bill Fair teamed up with mathematician Earl Isaac to create Fair, Isaac and Company (later renamed to FICO), with the goal of creating a standardized, impartial credit scoring system.* By 1958, they began pitching their first credit scoring system to 50 American lenders.* Fast-forward thirty years, they created a general-purpose credit score system we now call the FICO system. Since then, FICO has become the industry standard in the U.S., and is used by most lenders, if not all. As of 2020, the FICO score is evaluated by the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. These three bureaus share the information on an as-needed basis when a lender, such as a bank, requests for it.
So far, we learned about loans and credit scores. Let’s switch our focus to the main topic now: educational loans.
Educational loans can be of two types: secured and unsecured.
A secured loan, also called a loan with collateral, is where the borrower is required to provide collateral of some form, which is of greater value than the value of the principal amount. An unsecured loan, one without collateral, as the name suggests, is a loan where the borrower is not required to provide collateral of any form. Instead, the borrower will be judged based on the 5 C’s.*
Character: This can include your credit score, employment history (if any), and references.
We said it before, and we’ll say it again.
Traditional banks are not the only source to secure a loan.
The educational loan market is a very lucrative one, and there are plenty of other players who offer competitive terms to get more customers. Your strategy should be to get a free quote from players across the market, compare the offerings, and pick the ones that suit your needs best. We will go into more detail on how to compare loan offerings later in this chapter. For now, let’s learn about the four kinds of entities.
So far, you learned a lot about the various options available for you out there. To cap it off, we built a mental model in the form of a flowchart that you can use to pick the right options. We also went a step further, and created a table comparing the various options available side-by-side.
We hope you find the next few pages useful!
|Name||Indian Banks||U.S. Federal Aid||U.S. Banks||Neobanks||Non-banks|
|Application Processing Time||~ 1 week (private sector). Longer for public sector.||3 days - 3 weeks||~ 1 week||< 1 week||< 1 week|
|Interest Rate (w/o co-signer or collateral or good credit score)||Not Applicable||Low||High||Medium||Low|
|Interest Rate (w/ co-signer or collateral or good credit score)||High||Not Applicable||Medium||Low||Medium|
|Co-signer and Collateral||At least one required||Not Required||At least one required||Typically Not Required||Typically Not Required|
|Credit History||Highly Relevant||Not Relevant||Highly Relevant||Relevant||Not Relevant|
|Loan Tenure||7+ years||10 years||7+ years||Flexible||Flexible|
|Terms of Agreement||Not Flexible||Not Flexible (for good reason)||Not Flexible||Flexible||Flexible|
As you begin to approach these entities, keep the following in mind:
Do your due diligence before, during, and after the process.
Before: Check websites like Quora to read other people’s experiences.
During: Prepare a list of questions you want answered (to make your job easier, we’ve added a checklist of questions to ask in the Resources folder).
After: Begin thinking about your repayment plan from day 1 (more on this soon).
Do bargain. The people you talk to will mostly be sales reps who get commissions based on the number of sales. Use that to your advantage and ask for a reduced interest rate, reduced fee, flexible terms, etc.
Do apply to more than one entity. In most cases, getting a quote is free. Once you get from more than one, you can begin to compare offerings.
Loans and visas are two topics that people think of as a given, and almost no one dives deeper to understand the nuances. But we know you’re different! And we hope you read this chapter completely. If you didn’t, here are some key points to remember: loans are not the only way to fund yourself, traditional banks are not the only source of loans, and it is important to follow the do’s and don’ts we laid out if you choose to take a loan.
If you’ve decided to take a loan, fantastic! First, make sure to use the Loan Estimation sheet in the Dream Tracker to figure out exactly how much you need, then add a 10% buffer on top. We laid out some key terms related to loans in the chapter, which will come in handy. One of the biggest factors in taking a loan is your credit score: the higher it is, the better are your terms.
We covered four kinds of entities that lend money: traditional Indian banks, traditional U.S. banks, neobanks, and non-banks. A neobank is a new type of bank that is 100% digital, sometimes mobile-only. Non-bank lenders are typically fintech companies who are primarily focused on lending, but also offer other useful features like scholarships and U.S. bank accounts. You can use the flowchart we created to figure out suitable options, and then use the table to compare them further.
When getting a quote, do your due diligence, try to bargain, and do apply to more than one lender. Once you get quotes, use the method you followed to rank your universities once again. Create a repayment plan on day one, keep looking for refinancing options, and if you take multiple loans, see if you can get a better rate by consolidating them. Congratulations once again on getting your admit and working to fulfill your dream financially!
thinkDid you estimate the amount needed? Was it less or more than your expectation?
Did you know about neobanks before reading this chapter? Were they more advantageous than a traditional bank?
What was something that surprised you while looking into the various entities? Is it worth sharing with the wider community?
I remember a period of dormancy in the months of May and June, after picking Columbia University and packing my bags from NIT Trichy.* This dormancy ended when I had to begin preparing for my visa interview. Like any diligent student, I combed through dozens of questions and answers on Facebook groups and student forums, practiced speaking in front of the mirror, and hoped for the best.
storyMost of my memories from that summer are hazy, but I remember sitting in an auto rickshaw on my way to the U.S. consulate and thinking, Oh no! I forgot to take my transcripts. I had a neat checklist and everything. Yet, I somehow missed a critical component. I made my father travel all the way and give it to me before my interview began. In the end, they did not ask me for it (nor did they ask for most of the documents I carried with me).
Still, I was right to be scared. And, you’re right to be scared now if your interview is a few days away. Some students do get rejected, and that is devastating. All the work you did until now might seem obsolete if this doesn’t go well.
However, you need to understand that this is not like the H-1B lottery, where the odds of getting selected are out of your control. There are clearly laid out guidelines when it comes to visa interviews, and as long as you are aware of them and abide by them, there is no reason you won’t get your visa. We’ll go through all of them in this chapter and ensure you’re well prepared to inch closer to your dream. You’ve got this!
The F1 student visa is a nonimmigrant visa.
It is offered to foreign nationals who wish to enter the U.S. as students to attend their dream universities. You are eligible to obtain this visa only if you are enrolled in a program or course of study from a U.S. accredited university that ultimately awards a degree, diploma, or a certificate upon successful completion. It is generally provided for up to five years, however it is valid only until 60 days after the end of your academic program (assuming you don’t apply for an OPT, which we’ll come to soon).*
In your first academic year on an F1 visa, you are allowed to work on-campus, but you cannot work off-campus. However, after the first academic year, you may seek three types of off-campus employment opportunities, as laid out below.
CPT is an integral part of your program of study. It adds relevant work experience to your arsenal and gives you course credit. To be eligible for CPT, you need to speak to your Designated School Official (DSO) to understand your school’s policy. Generally, you need to:
Have completed one academic year as a full-time student in a SEVIS-approved college
Have a letter from your employer for either a full-time or part-time position related to your major
Upon completion of the requirements set by your school, you will get a new I-20 showing proof of approval to begin your CPT.
OPT is offered to students either during (pre-completion OPT), or after (post-completion OPT), the completion of the program. Similar to CPT, you must obtain approval from your DSO, get your new I-20, and then apply for something called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the USCIS. However, unlike the CPT, you don’t obtain a course credit on an OPT.*
statsOn pre-completion OPT, you can work for up to 20 hours a week, since your program is still in session. On post-completion OPT, it’s the opposite. You have to work at least 20 hours a week in a field that is directly related to your field of study.
If you remember, in the chapter Choosing the Universities, we introduced something called a STEM OPT extension. Let’s recap once more: if you are an F1 student earning a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM), you may be eligible for a 24-month extension to your employment authorization in the U.S.
You can find a list of all STEM verified majors on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.*
thinkIf you’re wondering why someone would apply for a STEM OPT Extension, here’s why:
In most cases, it’s to give themselves more time to have another shot at the H1B lottery (remember, it’s a lottery system!).
Alright, that’s enough information on your visa. Let’s dive into your interview now. By now, you must have gotten the I-20 from your university. If you haven’t, please contact your university’s ISSO to get it as soon as possible. Without it, you cannot proceed forward.
Before you book your visa appointment, make sure you complete the following:*
confirm your enrollment at the university
acquire your I-20
Getting your visa is a two-step process.
First: you need to go for your biometrics appointment at the Visa Application Center (VAC).
Second: you need to give your much-anticipated visa interview in the U.S. Consulate.
Here are the documents needed throughout the process:*
current and old passports, if any
form DS-160 confirmation page
a copy of your visa appointment letter
There is an important term in banking called Know Your Customer (KYC). It refers to the steps taken by a financial entity to establish the identity of the customer, verify that their funds are legitimate, and assess them for risk of money-laundering in the future.* Without going through a thorough KYC process, the bank might expose itself to possible fines and reputational damage in the future.
Similarly, when it comes to visa interviews, the consulate goes through a KYC process where they screen you for a few things. Read what the USCIS has stated on its website under student visas:
You may enter in the F-1 or M-1 visa category provided you meet the following criteria:
You must be enrolled in an “academic” educational program, a language-training program, or a vocational program
Your school must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program, Immigration & Customs Enforcement
You must be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution
You must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency
You must have sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study
You must maintain a residence abroad which you have no intention of giving up
We highlighted the last two points to show their importance. The two main questions that your interviewer looks to answer in your interview are:*
If you don’t show sufficient funds for at least the first 12 months of your studies, along with indications on how the rest of your studies will be funded, they will most likely reject your visa.
First and foremost, your funds must be in the form of liquid assets: either cash or something that can be converted into cash immediately. This is what Ilono Bray, an award-winning author and legal editor at Nolo, says:*
Your sources of financial support can include personal funds; personal assets or pieces of property that are readily convertible to cash; pay from work that you do as part of a fellowship or scholarship; or specified funds from other persons or organizations.
If you come across as someone who has immigrant intent, meaning someone who wants to settle down in the U.S. (or a foreign country), they will most likely reject your visa.
By default, the consular officer will assume that your intent is to settle down abroad. The burden of proof is on you to display nonimmigrant intent by proving that your visit is temporary in nature. Boston University’s ISSO says,*
The way you can try to prove your non-immigrant intent is by giving the Consular officer documents that indicate that you have strong ties to your country. The stronger your financial, employment or family ties to your country, the more likely it is that the Consular officer will believe that you intend to return home.
If you apply for your visa after the specified program start date on your I-20, they might reject your visa. To avoid this, ensure that you apply for your visa at least eight weeks before your program’s start date.
Finally, if your English proficiency seems inadequate, they might reject your visa. If you don’t feel satisfied with your current proficiency, revisit the official and unofficial resources for listening and speaking that we mentioned in the chapter on preparing for competitive exams.
In the table below, you will find some of the most commonly asked questions, along with what we feel the interviewer’s intent is and the approach you should follow to answer them.
Alright, you did it! You checked off another critical component in your journey to study abroad.
If your visa was approved, fantastic. We hope this chapter helped you in that process. You just need to wait for your passport to arrive or go pick it up yourself, depending on the option you chose.
However, if your visa was rejected, then it’s OK! It happens more than you think. In fact, the worldwide rejection rate for an F1 visa is 33.4%*, in no way a trivial number. As mentioned earlier, this is not a lottery. If they deny you your visa, they will have to clearly state the reason for doing so, and you can act on it.
In the table below, we’ve mentioned the various reasons for denial along with some next steps to take.* Please keep in mind that we are not attorneys and this should not be considered legal advice.
|Reason for Denial||Context||Next Steps|
|214(b) Immigrant Intent||You did not sufficiently prove that you have nonimmigrant intent||This is a temporary ineligibility, and you should gather more evidence as stated earlier and apply|
|212(a)(4) Public Charge||You did not sufficiently prove that you have the funds required to support yourself, and will become a public charge in the future||This is a temporary ineligibility, and you should gather more evidence as stated earlier and apply again|
|221(g) Incomplete Application||You did not provide all the documents required and requested for||Provide the requested additional information as soon as possible|
|212(a)(9)(B)(i) Unlawful Presence||You had previously entered the U.S. and illegally stayed beyond your visa expiration date||This is a temporary ineligibility depending on your previous misconduct, and you should contact a lawyer|
|212(a)(6)(C)(i) Fraud and Misrepresentation||You had willfully misrepresented a material fact or committed fraud||This is a permanent ineligibility (unlike all reasons above) and you should contact a lawyer|
danger We have witnessed cases before where students approached education consulting firms to assist them with a complex case, only to receive bad advice and make the situation worse. If your current situation seems complex, please reach out to a lawyer right away!
Are you nervous about your upcoming interview? You should be. However, know that if you follow the guidelines we laid out in this chapter, take all the required documents, and answer the questions confidently, there’s no reason why you won’t walk away with an approval!
First, know that a visa is a promise of intended activity by a foreign national upon a host nation’s soil. It is to make sure you, as a visitor, remain in the country only for as long as specified. Visas are of two types: immigrant and nonimmigrant. The visa that we focused on in this chapter is the F1 nonimmigrant visa. On an F1 visa, you can study in the U.S., work on-campus, and after one academic year, work off-campus through CPT and OPT. If you are pursuing a STEM major, you can get a 24-month STEM OPT extension.
Once you get your I-20 from your university, go ahead and book your interview and prepare the documents required. We’ve provided a list, but make sure you check the official website to get the latest version. It is a two-step process to get your visa: first, they take your biometrics and then there’s the interview. They screen for certain things during the interview, so make sure you understand them and especially provide sufficient proof to show nonimmigrant intent and financial stability. Use the table we gave (and other resources) to practice the answers a few times.
If you get your visa on the first try, that’s fantastic! However, if your application is rejected, don’t worry, it’s not the end. The interviewer will tell you the reason, so you can act on it for future applications. Once you’ve obtained your F1 visa, also begin exploring the other categories out there, such as EB1 and O1, for the future. Finally, remember A.D.M.I.T. and we hope you get ADMIT-ted into the country of your choice!
thinkDo you have a sense of what you want to do after graduating from university abroad?
What is your plan if you run out of money abroad? Have you applied for scholarships or assistantships? Can someone sponsor you?
Did your visa get rejected? What could you have done to prevent it? How do you plan to mitigate it now?
Life is on overdrive when you are in graduate school.
storyDuring my first two semesters, I lived in the basement of an apartment, sharing a room with another girl. I would wake up at 10:15 a.m. to tiny rays of sunlight coming in through a tiny window, get ready in a matter of minutes, and be out of the door by 10:30. As I rushed to the campus for the 10:40 a.m. class, I’d check my email and messages to see if I got any interview calls. The class would go on until 12:15 p.m., after which I’d pick between the three inexpensive places where I always bought my lunch, and take it to the business school library. The afternoons were consumed either by assignments or meetings. Occasionally I would meet someone I know who would stop by to say hi.
By 4 p.m., I’d rush again to another class and sit there for the next two hours. On many days, there would be an event happening in the evening. If it was a networking event, I’d quickly change into better clothes I had stuffed in my bag and attend it in the hope that someone there would give me an opportunity. After a tiring hour or two of standing and talking, I’d retire to another building that was open 24/7, to meet my friends. I would continue working on my assignments or hunt for jobs, depending on my mood, until we all decided to go buy dinner around 10 p.m. from a nearby deli. After a questionably long dinner filled with chit-chat, I’d return to the building, move my things to a different room, and work there until 4 a.m. before finally deciding to go back home and crash onto my not-so-sturdy bed.
On a daily basis, you will be shuttling between classes, meetings, assignments, events, and searching for jobs. Not to mention any research you need to conduct if your major entails that. That isn’t a recipe for a calm day.
You will need to learn to infuse some order into the chaos and find pockets of peace to engage in deep work whenever possible.
The good news is, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself for what is to come before it actually comes. Now that you’ve gotten your admit and hopefully taken care of your loan and visa, use this downtime to make your future self’s life easier.
In this chapter, we’ll look at three verticals where you can begin your preparation from now.
The string of emails from your university will start flowing in soon after getting your admit. Among these emails, pay close attention to the ones with resources to write your resume and set up your profile on professional networking sites. In an increasingly digital world, there is a much higher probability for recruiters to see your profile online before seeing you in person.
Ensure that the first impression you give someone online is the best version of yourself.
We already went through how you can craft your resume in an earlier chapter, so let’s look at how you can beef up your online profile on professional networking sites and job boards.*
Unlike its competitors, LinkedIn serves as both a professional networking site and a job board.
statsLinkedIn had a very humble beginning back in 2003,* when it was conceived in the living room of Reid Hoffman. It received a sizable investment of $4.3 million from Sequoia Capital, which helped it launch its premium services in 2006, aimed at job seekers. Since then, it has seen an upward growth trajectory, becoming one of the top professional networking sites in the world (although lately, it has also become a social networking site).
It was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion, the biggest acquisition by the software giant till date. As of 2020, LinkedIn boasts a user base of 660 million users across 200 countries, with the U.S. and India being its top two markets. More importantly, 90 million of the users on LinkedIn are senior-level influencers.
actionWe say all this to drive home the importance of having your profile visible on such a massive platform. Since creating a profile is free, we highly recommend creating one now when you have the time to customize it to your liking. It will always be a work in progress to keep your profile updated, but the right time to start doing that is right now.
Unlike LinkedIn, job boards have a singular purpose: to let job seekers upload their profile for job providers to evaluate. When it comes to job boards, find out the top two or three as of when you’re applying, create an account, and fill out your profile in all of them. For example, in 2020, Indeed, LinkedIn, and CareerBuilder seem to dominate this list.
There is no easy way to sync your data between these job boards, so you need to fill them in again each time. However, as you begin filling, you would soon notice that almost all the fields are exactly the same between them, thus reducing your cognitive load to think of new responses every time.
thinkWe focused on setting up your profile on job recruiting sites in this section, but you can also get creative in leveraging other social media sites. Graphic designers have turned to Instagram to expand their network, writers use blogging platforms like WordPress or the more chic Medium to express their thoughts, and coders turn to GitHub to keep all their projects up-to-date. Where do you fit? Or, how do you want to stand out?
The phrase your network is your net worth will come to life as you enter graduate school.
That’s the grad life calendar of University of California San Diego.* Every week is filled with a mélange of events, workshops, and seminars, and you have the fun job of choosing how best to optimize your time while attending all the events that are important to you. This is not an easy task. This has to be done in addition to ten hours of classes, possibly 20 hours of assignments, and even more time spent searching for a job.
But once again, you’ve got a great head start! You can begin laying the groundwork right now.
Roshni Chellani,* a Qualcomm engineer and LinkedIn influencer, says, “Students would have much more success with LinkedIn if they perceive it as a way to propel their curiosity by making genuine, lasting connections rather than perceiving it as a mere job search engine.”
And she did exactly that. She spent countless hours understanding the intricacies of how LinkedIn works to experiment with the lesser-known features and form lasting connections. Thanks to her curiosity, she ended up meeting Jay Shetty, a famous author and motivational speaker.*
The journey doesn’t end with creating a stellar profile; it begins with it.
In the beginning, it’s better to cast a wide net. Start connecting with the people you already know. Beyond that, Roshni suggests using groups, university pages, and company pages to find more people to connect with.
First impressions matter.
Most of the LinkedIn requests we see have the following generic template:
Hope you’re well! My name is Neel, and I’m an incoming master’s student at [university] majoring in [said major]. I wanted to connect with you to learn more about your company and your role there.
Thanks in advance.
When a working professional sees this, their first impression of the sender is that they are lazy. This question doesn’t need to be answered by a person; it can be answered by a web search engine.
Jonathan Javier,* the founder of Wonsulting and a LinkedIn influencer, says, “Put your community first because when you do, you’ll build a foundation of friends who will support you no matter what.”
Most of the posts made by Javier garner a huge, engaged audience, sometimes viewed by over 100,000 people. That is because he uses the platform to share his personal stories, mostly of his struggles, while ending each with a takeaway for the reader. Unlike many influencers, he also takes the time to respond to the comments on his posts and engage with his audience.
There are various kinds of posts you can create on LinkedIn (or any platform, really). We’ll highlight three types below.
Ivan Pavlov* is a famous guy among physiologists. He is most known for his work in classical conditioning, which is described as* “learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings about a particular response (i.e., a reflex) with a new (conditioned) stimulus, so that the new stimulus brings about the same response.”
Let’s decode that jargon with the famous Pavlov dog experiment. In the 1890s, Pavlov was researching the salivation in dogs in response to being fed. One day, he noticed that his dogs began salivating as soon as they heard the footsteps of the assistant approaching with the food. This instance, of watching the dogs display the same response even for objects or events associated with food as opposed to the food itself, changed the course of his research.
He spent the rest of his life working to refine this theory.
It was clear to him that dogs didn’t have to be taught to salivate when they saw food. It was hard-wired into their system. So he conducted an experiment wherein every time he fed his dogs, thus generating the unconditioned response of salivation, he would also play a metronome,* a neutral stimulus that wouldn’t cause any salivation on its own. However, after a few such trials, he began playing the metronome without giving them food. The result? An increase in salivation.
We created a Networking tab for you in your Dream Tracker. Since you will be speaking to dozens of people every month, or even every week once you begin your graduate studies, internalizing the action of taking notes and following up after a call is crucial.
actionEvery time you know you are bound to have a call with someone, set a reminder on your phone to beep exactly 30 minutes after the call is scheduled to happen. That way, as soon as you get off the call, or a few minutes later, you will hear a ding that will prompt you to note down their names and details in the tracking sheet. If you condition yourself to do this enough times, you will begin to note it down even without the ding.
Now, during this downtime, when you are laying the groundwork, you can set up the tools you need, such as a tracking sheet and a reminder app, to do this effortlessly later on. While we do not suggest reaching out to alumni and current students for job opportunities, we do recommend making that initial contact and following up with tailored questions.
With that, we’ve reached the end of the section on networking 101. Let’s look at the third and final vertical of preparation before you leave your home country.
We live in an era where you have access to the most brilliant minds around the world through the virtue of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have an interesting history, by having two histories. It was almost as if there were two separate trains, one that began in 2008 and the other in 2011, both running down close parallel tracks to democratize education but through different philosophies.
George Siemens,* a research and writer, introduced a term Connectivism in a paper in 2004.*
Connectivism is a theoretical framework for understanding learning. In connectivism, the starting point for learning occurs when knowledge is actuated through the process of a learner connecting to and feeding information into a learning community. The learning process is cyclical, in that learners will connect to a network to share and find new information, will modify their beliefs on the basis of new learning, and will then connect to a network to share these realizations and find new information once more. Learning is considered a . . . knowledge creation process . . . not only knowledge consumption.
Connectivism can best be thought of as a learning theory that is built on the following foundations:*
Learning happens through interaction with your network.
Kudos on completing the longest chapter in the book! And for reading till the very end. Getting your loan and visa is undeniably important. It’s non-negotiable. You need them. However, among all that work, don’t forget the things which will make your life so much easier. That’s what this chapter is about. Life at graduate school is on overdrive, all the time. Don’t expect a pause; rather, use the time now to prepare.
First, we looked at how you can create a stellar LinkedIn profile. We went through each of the fields in detail to talk about the best practices. The journey doesn’t end with creating one; it begins with it. Once you create a profile, begin planting the seeds of networking by finding potential connections via groups, university pages, and company pages. Then, reach out with preferably a personal message without asking for favors. And of course, use the platform to keep your community engaged.
If you have time and some unquenched curiosity, you can enter the world of MOOCs by taking online courses on topics related and unrelated to your major. This is a great time to be alive and learning. You have access to some of the best minds in the world at your fingertips. Use this downtime well.
thinkWas there a LinkedIn profile of someone that you really liked?
What kind of message got you the most response?
Have you been sharing more personal stories or observational ones?
If you ask anyone who has already arrived in a new country to study abroad, what do you wish you had done more before you left?, their answers will follow remarkably similar threads.
I wish I spent more time with my family, friends, and loved ones.
There will never be enough time
One day, while we were on a call, Rishabh asked, “Why don’t you add a section at the end to give the readers a glimpse into your experience?”
So, here you go.
Fortunately, I love documenting my life through timeless entities, such as photographs, videos, and articles. I went through more than a thousand images to hand-pick these. While reviewing them, it felt like I was looking at a doppelgänger. Someone who looks like me and even acts like me in some images, but it isn’t me. Not who I am today.
The past three years had a profound impact on my life, for the better.
During the seven months that I worked on Admitted, I would pause at random moments during the day and think, how lucky am I? How lucky am I to be able to work with people who were almost as passionate about working on the book as me? How lucky indeed.
It really did take a village to get this book to you.
Let’s start with my tiny and irreplaceable village back home: my mother, father, brother, grandfather, and sister-in-law. I like to think I got the writing gene from my grandfather, who mesmerized me with tales when I was young and filled with imagination. My mom and dad have never stopped me from taking on a new venture, even if it meant I would put myself in challenging situations, and for that, I’m forever grateful. Whenever I face a major dilemma, my brother is who I turn to. Hearing him say something always makes it feel right. Finally, I can never thank my sister-in-law, Anu, enough for her constant support and encouragement.
If you read till here, you now possess the output of hundreds of hours of research, brainstorming, writing, and designing in your mind. That’s quite powerful!
I love reading books because they are entities that stand the test of time. I get a glimpse into the author’s mind, get access to their knowledge and experiences, all in a few hundred pages. I hope with Admitted, you got a glimpse into mine.
If you found the information you read valuable, you can help more people feel that joy by spending just a few minutes sharing about the book with one (or more!) of your friends who are also embarking on their study abroad journey.