Applying for higher studies could be made easier if you have the plans on your mind at least in some form during your undergraduate days. Like say you know that you would be applying for MS / PHD in future( Many students know this when they enter their undergraduate programs). Many students start taking coaching classes, building up their profiles, start building good rapport with Professors so that they could get good letter of recommendations, do internships in different schools so that they could have their hands on research, try to involve in academic oriented extra curricular activities etc. Thus if you are amongst those few who know what they want to do in future, applying for higher studies could be very easy for you as you yourself are building your profile and are aware of the entire process.
It is for those who had never thought about applying for higher studies previously because of various reasons may be because of financial issues, lack of exposure, lack of communication skills, lack of future vision, lack of guidance etc. things could be slightly difficult.
I am describing here a detailed procedure of how to apply for higher studies and what steps go in the whole application process.
1. Planning. - You need to have at least some idea about why you want to apply for higher studies. Are you applying because you want to do heavy research, you need a break from your current job, you have fascination towards a higher degree, you are very enthusiastic about learning new things technically etc. Believe me everybody is confused to a large extent on this question, but at the same time everybody has a vague fuzzy idea of what he/she wants to achieve to at least some extent. So for example take my case, I knew I would like to learn more but I never had money to apply for GRE examinations also, neither I was confident that I had enough exposure of all the things, had good communication skills etc. So I took my time doing jobs, learning how Industry works, what kind of job opportunities are there in future etc. And when I had got enough exposure in these 3 years I applied for a MS. Some students apply directly after undergraduate degree. I find that a bit risky as I do not think you are mature enough to have known industry when you directly apply after undergrad degree. You lack the exposure you get when you work at least for some time in Industry. But if you are from a family where there is lot of exposure about higher education like say you have a elder sibling or your parents are in Industry and they know things, you might be correct. It all depends on the guidance you get from other people and how much exposure you have about things around you. Differs from person to person and situation to situation. So do not compare yourself with others. Everybody is unique and takes his time to understand things and get into shape.
2. GRE / TOEFL Pattern and plan of action:
The first thing that one should do is take dates for the GRE / TOEFL examination. Deadlines always work and they in a way act as milestones and help to keep track of the progress while you are preparing. How to calculate the tentative time you would need is the first question one asks. It varies from person to person. There are two main situations.
1. Either you are studying in your undergraduate school.
2. You are doing a job.
Preparing for GRE is a bit easier in the first case as you are in the charge of the your time. When you are doing a job, the packed schedules of job and professional commitments could pose a bit problematic in preparation. So a very high degree of self commitment and motivation is needed to keep on studying, while you are doing a job. A detailed tentative time table would help you stay focused during your preparation. The amount of time you need for the preparation depends a lot on your background. If you are convent educated, read a lot of English novels, stories, magazines chances are that you are having a good command over the vocabulary, so the verbal section of GRE would require less preparation.
GRE exam consists of a
1. Verbal section - synonyms, fill in the blanks etc
2. Quantitative section - 10th standard maths.
3. Essay - Essay on a general topic. ( social, educational etc)
For most of the people tackling the Verbal section is the only difficulty as it involves learning around 4000 words. These words are called GRE words and most of the standard coaching books like Kaplan have a list of them. Its called a GRE word list. So keeping so many words in memory and use them correctly in the exam is the major difficulty most of the students face. Quantitative section is quite easy and does not involve complex mathematics. Essay writing comes with practice. If you are an avid newspaper reader, follow the news channels, read newspaper editorials, read magazines essay writing should not be a problem.
So the time needed for the preparation varies from person to person. Typically 5 months should do wonders starting from scratch and without having any background. Around 1.5 months are needed for preparing application packet once GRE exam is done. I would describe that at the end of this post. 5 months was the period I used for the preparation. It is a personal choice. A good strategy is to go through the syllabus, analyze your capability, understand the pattern and take the dates accordingly. Dates could be taken throughout the year. Once taken, they could also changed by paying some fee. But sticking to the first date is advisable as sticking to your deadline helps a lot. It is a good idea to take the TOEFL date earlier to the GRE date, so that when you appear for the TOEFL you have an idea of the surrounding in which you would take the exam. You are prepared for the exam surroundings mentally, when you would appear for the GRE. TOEFL is supposedly very easy if you can talk and understand English pretty nicely and your grammar usage is good. It is much simpler than the GRE.
3. Preparation strategies:
Most of the students who opt for the GRE / TOEFL attend some form of coaching classes. So most of the strategies are the ones, which are known to almost all other students. So its really a personal choice how one tunes them to ones own use. For those who do all the studies on their own, guidance from friends who go to such classes is useful. Different strategies could be used in learning up the word-lists. If you start going alphabetically word by word, soon you would find it too boring and you would find that you are not able to recall anything. Good idea is to do a word-list at a time, like say you would do a word-list for the alphabet "A" first, word-list for alphabet "F" next, so just keep on randomizing. It surely helps. The best way to remember words are to identify them while you are reading newspapers, listening to news, reading magazines. Slowly you would realize that the words start popping out when you are reading newspaper articles, books etc. Its perfectly natural if you do not recall the meaning of the word exactly as you studied it. The feeling that this word looks familiar itself is good enough. This way you remember the words using their contextual usage. Simply memorizing them up does not help. For long lasting results always try associating them with their meanings and it should do wonders. There are softwares available like "word dictionary", or "word pop ups" (it pops up a different word with its meaning on your computer screen every minute or so). Such tools also help to keep them fresh in the mind. Remember if you do not keep them fresh and refreshed, chances are that with in a week you would have forgotten most of them. Human memory is very fragile. It needs constant updates and refreshments to keep things up and running. So do not feel bad and disappointed, if you feel you do not recall anything. You are not dumb, what you are feeling is perfectly natural and humane. Only few amongst us are gifted with super natural powers of amazing memory. :) So keep on working. Do not give up thinking you have no memory or you are dumb. Know that this is natural. Talk to your friends, understand their ways of learning. Discuss with them. Discussions are the best way to get the fear out of your mind and knowing that the other person also faces the same problems as you. So start speaking.
3. Tracking the progress -
It is very important to have your own intermediate goals and deadlines to keep track of your own progress. Like say first 2 months are dedicated for complete word-list preparation. It is perfectly alright if you do not know all the words at the end of 2 months. But you would have gone over all the word-lists in the first 2 months. In the next 1 month you could revise your strategy to keep things in memory and again go through the words. In this month you could brush up your maths. It is a good idea to take a sample practice test, just to know that how the knowledge that you are learning, would be used. Where do all these words gets used? In what form they are used? Its a good idea to take tests which come on the paper books and try to understand the pattern of exam. So by now you are in a state where you are familiar with the words, you are somewhat familiar with the maths section. Now you can revise your methods of preparation in the last 2 months. For preparing maths, the maths section in books is sufficient. So over the last 2 months you would keep on revisiting words, reread the word-lists, do Maths. And you do this repeatedly. By the end of last 2 months you are so much bored of the words and would feel like running away from all this, and wish this could end fast :) GRE preparation can drive people crazy because, after a certain point it gets monotonous. It becomes more of taste of your patience than your intelligence. GRE really does not tests your technical intelligence. It tastes your patience and general aptitude. In the last week many people opt for the online tests from the coaching institutes where feedback is given on your taste scores. Test CD's are available in market from different institutions, which allow you to take online tests. Your score is reported immediately. 5 to 10 such tests are sufficient, depending on how much time you have in hand.
4. Appearing for the test:
The tests are held at different locations in India and you chose the location convenient and closest to you. Date availability is also another criteria in choosing the location. The test environment is very user friendly and relaxing. The people over there are very friendly and helpful. But it is always a good idea to be aware of the exam setup so appearing for TOEFL first, which is comparably easy than GRE, is advisable. One more important thing to keep in mind is the choice of universities where you want to apply to. At the end of both tests, you are allowed to send your test score directly to 5 Universities, free of cost. So it is a good idea to have a tentative list of universities where you want to apply.
5. Procedure after GRE:
Relax and enjoy your days :) You have gone through a laborious, monotonous procedure and you deserve some pat on your back whatever may have been your result. Many times people do not do well during final exam. Since you can always get a new exam date, you should not be worrying much about it, unless money is an issue. That brings me to another point. Always take a date such that even if you do not do well enough in final exam, you would have al teast 15 days to take a new exam before you can start with the application procedure.
6. Application procedure -
On what basis does an University give an admit? A casual talk with one of my professors here lead to discussion where he told me following things. Most of the times the admission procedure is mostly a guess work on Universities part. How does the admission procedure goes? Mostly there is a panel of professors, who decide looking at your credentials whether you are good candidate or not. So what the professor told me was, "Mrunal, we have to be judgemental in our decisions. Many times the students whom we admit fail to meet our standards, so its only your application packet that helps us decide, how good a guess could we make."
If you are applying after you have some job experience, its better to apply to specific Universities which are doing good research in your area of interest. If you are applying as a fresher, you need very very strong academic background, good extra curricular activities. You should show a good potential to these professors. Believe me, many of us think that industry experience of 2,3 years is good enough to get into good schools and even if your academic is not so good it would match up for it. hmmm, sadly that is not the case. The way research is done in these universities is totally different than how mostly people work in industry. So industrial experience unless, its in exactly in the area of interest of future research to some extent, is of not much use. If you have industry experience of say 8,9 years yes, it really matters. Otherwise it really does not matter that much. But it does give you an edge over the other candidate, who is a fresher and who has a weak academic background.
University Selection : There are some online forums which are very popular, where senior students help applicants in selecting the correct universities to apply to depending on their profile. Do look at these forums. University selection depends on how good your profile is in terms of academic achievements, Research background like number of publication you have ( What is a publication - See my other post, "Is MS an Experience" where I mention about technical conferences where technical papers are published), relevant industrial experience, GRE / TOEFL score (Many universities have individual cut off marks for Verbal and Quantitative, essay section). Another important criteria while selecting university is "Financial Cost" involved. According to me first thing that one should look for, while selecting an university is the "Research Work" being done and whether it matches your interest? Next, think of the financial criteria. Always remember you are going for MS / PHD, to learn new things and be a better person. So research work is of utmost importance.
The MS / PHD application package needs following important items.
1. GRE / TOEFL score - Score above 1300 is considered good for getting in a good school. If your score is above 1500, you are special and you are treated specially by all universities.
2. Three letters of recommendations -
3. Mark-sheet transcripts - These are the official copies of your mark-sheets signed
by your college registrar.
4. Statement of Purpose - Why do you want to go for higher studies? The purpose.
5. Application to University - Generally universities have online application forms.
6. Resume - Resumes in US are formatted in a different and much more professional
way than in India. Have a look at my resume on this site.
A good preparation for all the above items take around 1.5 months. So another criteria in choosing a date is to know the tentative date of deadline of applications, so that you can schedule the procedure accordingly.
GRE/ TOEFL score is sent directly to the 5 universities which you listed when you appeared for the GRE / TOEFL exams. If you want to apply to more Universities, you could pay and send the score to more.
7. Letters of recommendations -
The concept behind letters of recommendations could be understood if one understands how a US professional system works. In US recommendations are considered a genuine way of knowing how good a person you are. So these people keep great deal of trust in the person who is referring to you, even though they do not know him. They expect the person recommending you is of high caliber, have good ethics, knows you well. The general practice that could be seen in two tier Engineering colleges in India is, the professor asks you to write your own recommendation letter and he just signs it. After witnessing the professionalism in US, it feels a way of cheating. But there is no option as many times professors are not aware of how to write a good recommendation letter himself. hmmm, but then in that case the professor you chose is not a good candidate for referring you. But this is how it generally works. You can not argue with professors in Indian colleges as they work under their own fancies. So its best to be very true about what you write in those recommendation letters. General rule of recommendation letters is to keep them short and simple, yet giving details about your technical abilities and overall aptitude. It is good to have letters of recommendations from well knows professors from well known institutes like if you have done an internship with some Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)professor. Its good idea to get a recommendation letter from him. The caliber of the person who is recommending you is the most important thing. If you are working in industry, recommendation from your manager or MD who knows you is good to get. Thus an integral part of application procedure is planning the three persons who would refer to you. This is where those students who know that they are planning to do a MS in future become successful, as they could plan their action by working with some good professors, or doing internship in good institutes like IIT. The whole idea is to build a good profile and how successful you are at it.
8. Statement of purpose: - The statement of purpose as its name suggests is a way to tell the University where you are applying, your main reason to pursue higher studies. It is one of the most important documents and is taken very seriously by professors who are on the selection panel of these universities. Preparation of it requires extensive homework and a genuine attempt of your own thoughts. You have to be to a large extent, true to your reasons to apply and the statement of purpose should indicate that. If a person has already done technical research work his statement of purpose would show that clearly, but if you are working in industry and have not done good work, or if you are a fresher your statement of purpose has to indicate your future plans with some backing claims. Do not look at sample statement of purpose available on web, or your friends. Try writing rough drafts, have the idea of what you want to write. Make some initial attempts. Only when you feel like you really have thought well enough on all the things, take a look at others. Be creative. Do not be a copy cat. It does not really help. You will really be damaging your own chances of success by doing that, because by looking at others you would start thinking in their directions. You have to be a genuine writer.
9. Resume: Prepare a good resume. It is always a very bad idea to lie on resume. Strictly avoid that. Avoid all the things that could get you in trouble in future.
10. Creating an online application: Most of the universities allow you to create an online account for application. It mainly consists of an application form. Many times you are also asked to provide your statement of purpose, letters of recommendations, resume in online application. It varies from university to university. Every university has a different deadline. So you have to be aware of all these different facts while applying.
11. Final dispatch: Once you are ready with your application packet. You send it to the university by international courier services like FedEX, DHL etc. Results are declared within two months and you get to hear about the good news or bad news. All you need is an admit from a good university. So do not feel bad if your friend got admits from lots of universities whereas you received a single admit. Different people have different profiles, so do not compare yourself. You have taken so much of pain, so end results would definitely be good. Hope for the best. If you get an admit, you are sent a form titled "I-20" by the university. This is the most important form that you need in the procedure for VISA application. Once you get an admit, start preparing for your VISA interview preparation.
12. VISA interview: VISA interview preparation starts right from applying for VISA dates to actually appearing for an interview. VISA preparation could be a pain, depending on your financial status. Most of the times Universities ask you to prove your financial status by sending them the copies of your banks statements and other funds that you have. It shows them that you can support yourself financially. Most of the time finance proof is the most important hurdle, as showing amounts in Lakhs of Rs suddenly is a serious problem. Most of the time people remedy this by transferring funds temporarily from their friends, relatives in a back account and then a taking a bank statement. If you are promised some financial support in terms of funding by University, finance should not be a problem for you. Online forums discuss all these issues in detail and help a lot in solving the questions you have. VISA interviews do not last more than 1 minute or half a minute. Be confident. Dress smartly. There are standard set of questions which VISA officers asks and you would get all the help about those on online forums.
Well, this is the most of what goes in applying for a MS / PHD degree, in most of the foreign universities. There are more details in it, but this should help you getting started and would help you understand the bigger picture. A first look at all these things could be intimidating. Do not fear it. Tackle the procedure phase by phase. Do keep the overall picture in mind, but at a time concentrate only on a single phase. Like first only think of cracking the GRE exam. Once GRE part is done, concentrate on the application procedure. Dealing with each and every phase separately should ease out the stress and help you get going.
I wish you all the best. Remember, once you decide to do it, you would be able to do it. Give your best.
More information about applying, could also be found on www.kaaledge.com