Applying for graduate studies in the U.S.
Congrats! You have completed your undergraduate studies in Nigeria and now want to further your education abroad, specifically in the United States. It may seem daunting, and you may have questions like, “Where do I start?” “How do I find the best school for me?” “How do I get funding for my grad studies?” With proper planning, you can navigate this seemingly difficult path and find that it is pretty straightforward. In this article, I will attempt to give guidelines based on my own experience, in the hope that it will help make your task easier. I must emphasize that I will be falling back on my personal experience throughout this article, and I’m well aware that the experiences of others may differ drastically from mine. Furthermore, since I’m in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field, this article may seem slightly biased to that. In the end, what I hope to highlight are steps, which you can tweak however you like to achieve your own personal goals, and which (with little adjustments like plugging in the right exam for instance) can be used to get into programs in the humanities, arts and business, whatever you want to study! So, here goes.
One of the toughest things about applying for grad school is actually picking a school or picking schools. As a rule of thumb, you should apply to as many schools as you can afford to apply to (most schools will demand an application fee). Three to five schools are ideal; some people may apply to two schools if that is all they can afford. As much as you can help it, DO NOT APPLY TO ONLY ONE SCHOOL. It’s simple. The more schools you apply to, the greater your chances of being admitted into at least one of them. Increase your chances by applying to more than one school.
There is a ranking system of schools in the U.S. that to me is arbitrary but may become important depending on your test scores (I’ll talk about tests and test scores in a bit). For simplicity, I will classify these schools as top tier, middle tier and low tier schools. Top tier schools like the ivy leagues (Harvard, Stanford) and other high ranking schools are usually highly competitive and you need to be a near perfect candidate to get admitted. Middle tier schools are not as competitive as top tier schools, but are pretty competitive in their own right, while low tier schools tend to be the least competitive (but be warned, employers know this, so there are some schools you will graduate from and e go be like say you no go school at all, you get? So, choose wisely). Of course, this is a general ranking system. Programs within schools can be ranked too. Therefore, a middle tier school may have the best business program, or music program, or biology program in the entire country even though it is not an ivy league school. In such a case, that particular program is very competitive to enter. This is why I think the ranking system is somewhat arbitrary, since a program ranking within a school may be different from the school’s overall ranking as a whole.
Even with the classification, there are still A LOT of schools to choose from. And this is where a certain level of planning and knowledge of what you want comes into play. In my case, before I began my application process, I already knew a couple of things:
1. That I wanted to further my studies abroad.
2. That I did not have money so funding would be ESSENTIAL. Not part-funding, FULL-FUNDING.
3. That I wanted to earn my graduate degree in microbiology, and do research in environmental microbiology (my undergrad degree was also in microbiology, but this doesn’t matter. You don’t necessarily have to earn a grad degree in the exact field as your undergrad degree).
4. That I wanted to live and study in a part of the US that was not expensive.
Don’t laugh, but before I even began searching for schools, I went on google and typed: cheapest places to live in the U.S. This was the start to narrowing down my search for schools. The result of my google search was a list of states considered the cheapest to live in. These were the states I continued with in my search for schools to apply to. This was helpful, because it immediately eliminated a LOT of other options, and I didn’t have to wrestle or bother with those anymore. I zoned in on the cheap states.
Next, in those cheap states, I searched for schools that offered full funding for graduate studies. I learned some things from this search:
1. Funding comes in various forms, but the most common grad school funding options are scholarships, fellowships, teaching assistantships and research assistantships. School websites (especially program websites within the school websites) are very good at providing information on what the funding options are if you get admitted into their school/program. These things are often explicitly outlined, so comb the websites for these pertinent info, to avoid stories that touch like, “I got admission, but funding no dey o!”
2. Full funding is rare for Masters programs, but readily available for Ph.D. programs. Let me pause here to emphasize that the above statement was my observation for most STEM fields. The case may be different for your field of interest, which is why scanning program websites is very helpful. Now, let me continue. In most cases, if you wish to apply for a Masters program please HAVE YA MONEY, because you will be required to pay your tuition and will likely not be given any funding. Ph.D. programs are different, and in my case (and most cases, to be honest) I have guaranteed funding for as long as I am in the program, usually in the form of a teaching assistantship (where I teach undergrad courses) or a research assistantship (when I’m not teaching). This basically means I do not pay tuition, and I get a stipend every month. This is where cost of living becomes important. Stipends vary depending on the program. There are programs in my school for instance, that pay their Ph.D. students $11,000 a year and some that pay $25,000 a year before taxes. Because Indiana is not too expensive, both categories of students can manage to survive. In a more expensive state or city, it may be hard to save anything from stipends, and it may be hard to pay bills altogether. This is why I had to conduct my first google search. If like me funding is important to you, then make sure that you are only applying to schools that guarantee funding upon admission. This information is very clearly stated on most school websites. If you are having difficulty accessing this information, then calling the school and speaking to someone in the graduate office of your program of interest may help. A side note here: do not be afraid to bombard your prospective schools with calls and/or emails (with reason, please!). They will often readily respond and help you with information you may be confused about. During my application period, emails were exchanged multiple times with the biology graduate officers in the schools I was applying to, to the point that I eventually established friendships with some of them before I ever even got admission. In fact, when I accepted the admission offer from Indiana University (IU), the biology graduate officer was very excited that I was coming. We had communicated a lot before the admission offer came that she couldn’t wait to meet me. We are still very close friends to this day. So, do not hesitate to reach out. It doesn’t hurt, and can help you clarify murky issues. I will tell you of another advantage of reaching out to these schools when I talk about the English Language test.
After I had narrowed my search down to schools in the cheapest states that offered full funding upon admission into their Ph.D. programs, I searched within those schools for the ones that offered my course of interest, and more specifically, for schools that had professors doing research in the areas that interested me. By now, my search for schools had been so streamlined, that they had become a small number, not the hundreds of options available in the beginning. I also looked at application fees, and selected from my small pool, schools whose application fees I could afford without breaking the bank, further narrowing my search. When I was satisfied with my choices, I moved on to the next step, which I will discuss below.
To end this part, I will say that choosing a school may seem like climbing a very high mountain, but finding ways to narrow down your options based on your unique needs will prove very helpful in making it a manageable task. My fundamental need was funding. Narrow your search based on your own fundamental need. You may begin by searching for “best schools in the US for nursing,” or something similar, or even by searching for schools in U.S. states where you have friends or relatives, and go from there. Good luck in your search!
Different programs have different admission requirements, but more often than not, you will have to write a standardized test. In most cases, for STEM and non-STEM fields, it is the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), although it might be something else depending on the program (like the GMAT for MBA programs). I will keep this simple. Prepare well for the GRE before you take it. Get GRE books and study. Take the mock exams found in your study books and on the Education Testing Service (ETS) website www.ets.org/grebefore taking the actual exam to give you a feel for what to expect. More info on what the exam itself entails can be found on the website I provided. This will likely be your first time taking an exam of its kind, so don’t treat it lightly. Also, GRE scores for now, remain an important determinant of whether you get admitted into a program or not. Whatever you do, do not score less than 300 on the GRE. Aim for 300 or higher (combined quantitative and verbal reasoning scores) and a 6 and above on the critical writing section, and you won’t have to worry about what tier school to apply to. If you get below 300, you can still move on with your applications, but I won’t recommend applying to high and most middle tier schools. Some school/program websites will also state their preferred GRE cutoffs. To increase your chances of admission, get the cutoff score they stipulate (or above). But as a general rule, aim for what I have already mentioned. Most good schools have cutoff scores within that range.
Another requirement for most programs is your undergraduate transcript. School/program websites will indicate if they will accept official or unofficial transcripts and if they require a transcript evaluation (since we use a 5-point GPA system in Nigeria and they use a 4-point system in the U.S.). Evaluations are carried out by organizations like World Educational Services (WES), where they will convert your 5-point GPA scale to a 4-point one so as to give your prospective schools a clear idea of your undergrad academic standing. This evaluation service is not free, and since I was interested in saving money during my application period, I sought out schools that did not require the evaluation. My prospective schools also accepted unofficial transcripts for the purpose of application, and when I was offered admission, demanded for an official transcript to be sent from my undergrad university to them. In all, don’t be too worried. A good second class upper (2.1) from a Nigerian university should be enough to get you into a Masters or (yes!) Ph.D. program. In fact, I have a friend who graduated with a second class lower (2.2) but still got into a public health Masters program. His GRE score was really good though, and his statement of purpose was fantastic (I’ll talk about this next). So, I hope you can see the way some things compensate for others. If you have a 2.2, make sure all the other components of your application are top notch, especially your GRE scores. You can do it.
Another requirement, as I hinted above, is your statement of purpose (SoP). This is a short essay highlighting a bit of your background, why you are interested in the school/program and (in some cases) what your future goals are and if you will require funding from the school. I’ve heard that the SoP is a big factor in determining if you get admission. Besides your transcript and test scores, the SoP is one way the admission officers can get a glimpse of who you really are, your interests, your passions, if you hold promise, and so on. When writing your SoP, SELL YOURSELF, but don’t overdo it. Keep the essay clean, short and simple. Don’t be unnecessarily verbose and don’t try to impress with big grammar. Be honest, and use this as an opportunity to explain any discrepancies or gaps in your CV (for instance, if you spent some years outside school before getting into undergrad, or if you had to drop out of school for some time then return, explain what you were doing during those gaps in your education. Let them know that you are human and life happens. Use this as an opportunity to show your dedication to pursuing your goals, etc. You get the drift). A year into my Ph.D. program, one of my professors who was on the admission committee when I applied confessed to me that my SoP was one of the best they had read and it boosted my chances of admission. These people have to read hundreds of SoPs during the application period from prospective students from all over the world. Make your SoP stand out, because these tend to quickly become boring to read. Good luck as you write!
Most schools will also require you to upload a CV to your application form. I won’t say much here. Just have a good CV, even if you’ve not had any work experience. If you don’t know how to put together a CV, there are many templates online. Google is ya friend.
You will need recommendation letters from at least three people as part of your application. These people should ideally be lecturers/professors who have taught you and can say a thing or two about your academic standing and behavior, or people you’ve worked with like a colleague or a boss who can attest to your competence and other virtues. Please choose people who you know will have nice things to say about you, for obvious reasons. Your recommenders should NOT be family members or anyone you share a surname with, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives, pastors, imams, gurus, shamans, priests, babalawos, etc. It is important to notify your recommenders early enough in the application process that you will be needing recommendations from them in order to give them plenty of time and prevent them from feeling rushed. Recommendation letters will be collected by different schools in different ways. Some schools will only ask for the names and email addresses of your recommenders, then send them private messages requesting recommendation letters on your behalf, while other schools will require that you upload the typed and signed recommendation letters. Either way, you will be able to monitor when the schools receive these recommendation letters, and will know when it is necessary to remind your recommenders to write the letters so that you do not miss the deadline. I will talk about deadlines in a bit. If you are asked to waive your right to view these recommendation letters (especially if the schools will contact your recommenders on your behalf), WAIVE IT!
I’ve saved this requirement for last, because it varies from school to school. This is the English Language test. Because you will be applying as an international student, many schools require a test to show that you are proficient in the English Language. There are several such tests. There’s the Test of English as a Foreign Language (ToEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) among others. School/program websites will clearly state which of these tests they want you to take. Before you start shouting that we speak English in Nigeria and should therefore not be required to write these tests, let me say, I AGREE!! But what I’ve come to realize is that there are many countries where English is not the official language and some schools group all international students (except Canadians and Britons, I believe) into the category of non-native English speakers. These schools do not go about scanning individual countries to determine if they speak English or not. What some schools do however, is state on their website that you are exempt from writing an English Language test if all or most of your education was in English, or if your country is an English speaking one. Please note that some schools will still insist on having you write the test as a Nigerian, but this is where my case was different. Let me tell you another story about the benefit of reaching out to these schools. After I had narrowed down my search and was satisfied and had made considerable progress towards my applications, I discovered to my shock that all the schools I had picked required me to write the ToEFL, even though I was from an English-speaking country. For these schools, ALL international students had to write the test, regardless of where they came from. Note: I did not check for this requirement early enough, and was caught off guard when I finally found that it was a requirement. Be sure to check for this at the beginning of your application process! Anyway, I decided to see how much the exam would cost me and was like, “Nah, I ain’t doing this. I speak English just fine. See expensive exam o!” Besides, I had already spent a small fortune on the GRE (another expensive exam). I didn’t want to spend more money on a test I didn’t need. So, I emailed the schools and politely explained to them that not only was all my education done in English, and not only was English Nigeria’s lingua franca, but I scored very high on the verbal and critical writing portions of the GRE. Surely, this was enough for me to get a ToEFL waiver, right? Thankfully, the answer was RIGHT! I did get a ToEFL waiver from all the schools I applied to, and didn’t have to spend extra money writing the exam. Let me be honest and say that I would have jejely written the ToEFL if my verbal and writing GRE scores were not things to boast about. You see the benefit of aiming for high GRE scores to begin with? I traded those GRE scores for a ToEFL exam! Moral of the story? Reach out to these schools if need be. These admission officers are there to help you, and they are often very reasonable people. Furthermore, there CAN be flexibility in the admission requirements. You won’t know if you don’t ask.
Note: The requirements I have highlighted above are general requirements. It is possible that your program of interest may have other requirements outside of the ones I have mentioned. Please consult program websites for any and all requirements. Remember, this article only serves as a guide. You should be getting most of your relevant information from the schools/programs you wish to apply to, and their websites are great places to find this information.
This is the last section and here, I will attempt to tie everything I have already mentioned together. It is important to begin the application process early, to give yourself enough time to take the necessary exams and tests, get your transcripts sent to the schools you wish to apply to, write a good SoP, get all recommendation letters submitted and complete your entire application before application deadlines hit. Yes, all schools have application deadlines, and you MUST pay attention to these deadlines. Some schools even have two deadlines. One deadline to meet if you want to be considered for funding, another (later) deadline for those who wish to be considered for admission only (no funding if you submit your application by the second deadline, even if you get admitted). Generally, applications for Fall admission (the most common, although there are Spring admissions too) begin the previous September and run through December or January. This means if I am applying for a Fall (August) 2019 admission, the application portal will open sometime in September 2018 and close sometime in January 2019. Some schools even have a later February deadline. Basically, in the space of a few months, these schools should have all your documents and all your exam scores and your application fees. Again, check your school/program of interest’s website for exact deadline dates and other additional important dates to keep in mind. Also, bear in mind how long it may take for your Nigerian school to send copies of your official transcript to your prospective schools, or how long it may take lecturers to write recommendation letters for you, and plan accordingly. Bottom line, start early so that you can complete your entire set of applications before deadlines approach and you begin to have high blood pressure. Here is a useful link to The Princeton Review that has a month-by-month timeline to guide you: https://www.princetonreview.com/grad-school-advice/application-timeline
I hope this has been a useful guide to aid your application process. I wish you all the best! Once you hit that “Submit Application” button, you will heave a heavy sigh of relief. Then the waiting begins.
Maureen is currently a microbiology Ph.D. student at Indiana University Bloomington where she studies the mechanism of polysaccharide biosynthesis in a model Alphaproteobacteria. She loves reading, taking long walks and writing short fiction.