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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!
First, what is a visa? Great question!
A visa is a promise of intended activity by a foreign national upon a host nation’s soil. It is an official document that is usually stamped or glued onto the foreign national’s passport. A visa is strictly defined to make sure that you, as a visitor, remain in the host country only for as long as the specified intention/situation holds.
For example, the visa category B1/B2 is a visitor’s visa offered to non-U.S. citizens who seek to enter the country temporarily either for business (B1), tourism (B2), or both (B1/B2).*
For the most part, the U.S. offers two main categories of visas defined by immigration law:*
Immigrant Visas: Offered to foreign nationals who seek to live permanently in the U.S. Examples include IR1, CR1, EB1, EB2, etc.
Nonimmigrant Visas: Offered to foreign nationals who wish to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis—for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work, study, or other similar reasons. Examples include F1, B1/B2, M1, H1B, O1, etc.
statsFamily based immigration accounts for 65% of all the immigrant visas issued each year.* Second to that are the Employment-Based Immigrant Visas (EB category). Every year, the U.S. immigration law has provisions that make approximately 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas available to qualified applicants.* This type of visa is usually given to foreign nationals who seek to immigrate based on their job skills. (For example, Melania Trump entered the U.S. on an EB1 Einstein Visa.*)
Now, let’s shift our focus to the nonimmigrant visas, as that is the means through which you can enter the U.S. to pursue your higher education.
danger This chapter was primarily written for international students planning to pursue their studies in the U.S. on an F1 visa. If you don’t belong to that archetype, please use other guides that are tailored for your situation.
All About That F1
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 visaonly 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.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
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.
I-20 is a form provided to you by your university’s International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) that provides supporting information on your visa status. It also has a ridiculously long alias: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students.
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
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.
Stem OPT Extension
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!).
To further gain valuable practical training to eventually apply for another nonimmigrant visa, such as the O1 (which does not involve a lottery).
To further gain valuable practical training before returning to their home country.
Booking Your Interview
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
complete the online visa application, a.k.a. form DS-160
pay the non-refundablevisa application fee and SEVIS I-901 fee.
Here are a few edge cases to watch out for:
dangerAcquiring multiple I-20s: It’s OK to have multiple I-20s. However, while completing your visa application form (DS-160), you should only mention the details of the university you’ve chosen to attend. If you change your university after receiving your visa, you have to redo the entire application (please avoid this!).
dangerWrong information on I-20: It happens. If there is an error on your I-20, request for correction from the university’s ISSO as soon as possible. You need the corrected version for your visa appointment.
dangerChanging visa appointments: After scheduling an appointment, you will receive a confirmation email indicating a date and time until when you can make changes to the appointment. No changes are allowed post that.
Assuming you’re all good to go, let’s get into what you need to take with you.
Preparing Your Documents
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
at least one photograph conforming to the stated requirements*
payment receipt of the SEVIS I-901 fee
letter of admission provided by your school
all of your academic documents
transcripts, diplomas, degrees, or certificates from schools you have attended
standardized test scores required by your U.S. school
danger We specified the documents based on information available at the time of writing the book. We cannot stress this enough: please check the official website to get the most up-to-date, accurate list.
Along with the above, you are also required to take additional supporting documents. But, before we get into that, let’s first try to get into the minds of your interviewer.
Know Your Customer
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:*
Do you have sufficient funds available to support yourself throughout your course of study?
Are you going to the U.S. (or another country) with the intent of studying and returning back to your home country?
If the answer to either of those questions is no, your visa will not be issued.
danger The two most common reasons for a visa denial are insufficient funds and indication of immigrant intent. Pay extra attention to the upcoming sections to ensure you present sufficient proof.
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.
How to Avoid
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.
Breaking that down into more detail, you need to show evidence of one or more of the following:
Personal or family funds, which can be one or more of the following: payslips, tax returns going back up to 3 years, bank statements and passbooks, etc.
Asset(s) held by you or your family member that can immediately be converted into cash. A good example here is real estate. If you or your family own real estate, be sure to include documentation on that along with documents on the amount left to be paid, if there is a mortgage or loan taken on it.
Scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, grants, or loans from your university, government, or private sources.
Employment status of family members who will be supporting you, in the form of a company letterhead or copies of income tax statements.
Form I-134, or an Affidavit of Support, if you are being sponsored by a U.S. citizen or someone holding a green card.*
danger Note that if there is an unusually large amount of recent deposit in your bank account, it will raise their suspicion that it was borrowed from a friend or relative for the sake of the interview. To avoid that, attach an official document or something in writing, explaining the source of the fund.
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.
How to Avoid
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.
Breaking that down into more detail, you need to show evidence of one or more of the following:
Financial ties in the form of property owned or investments made in the home country. Note that you cannot show the same documents that you used to show sufficient funds.
Employment ties in the form of a letter from your current or prospective employer stating that you will join after your studies.
Familial ties in the form of documents proving your relationship to your family along with their proof of residence.
Immigration history showing that you have travelled abroad before, and returned back to your home country.
The above might sound like overkill, and in many cases simply stating that you plan to return back to your home country might be enough. However, given that this is one of the top reasons a visa gets rejected, we strongly recommend being safe rather than sorry.
danger Showing the above becomes more critical if one or more of the following is true: one or more members of your family live in the U.S. or are permanent residents, your financial sponsor lives in the U.S., you are married and applying for an F2 visa for your spouse or children, this is your first trip to the U.S., or you have been denied a U.S. visa before.
Aside from those two, here are a few more reasons for denial:*
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.
Lacking English Proficiency
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.
Preparing for the Interview
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.
Wear Formal Attire and a Confident Smile
Check and Re-Check the Documents Required
Reach the Venue at Least 30 Minutes before Your Appointment
Don’t Take Prohibited Items (Phone, Electronics, Food) into the Consulate
Go Over the Q&A’s in Your Head and Think of a Happy Memory
Follow the A.D.M.I.T. Process
After Your Interview
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.
Denials and Mitigation
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
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!
Just one final point. Until now, if you’ve been following the book closely, you know the theme “anticipate difficulty and prepare early” well. The topic of visas is no exception.
Now that you’ve (hopefully) gotten your F1 visa, begin exploring the other categories out there, aside from the H1B. When you enter the U.S., or any foreign country, you should not enter with the intent of becoming an immigrant. However, that should not stop you from understanding the requirements to eventually get there, and aligning your career accordingly.
Hear what Saiman Shetty, an EB1A Einstein Visa recipient who pursued his master’s in the U.S.*, has to say:
In my opinion, the U.S. has always been open to people who demonstrate extraordinary abilities in their own fields. The O1A and EB1A visas allow for that. There is a high bar of excellence to qualify for them, rightfully so. However, I believe that consistent original contributions in your field, publishing papers, obtaining patents, being a part of elite associations, getting featured in the press, and earning the admiration of already established people in your field will make you stand a good chance. Adopt a well-defined, personalized strategy from the beginning.
So, anticipate difficulty, and start early!
Final Thoughts on Getting Your Visa
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!
A Little Reflection on Visas
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.
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