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Planning Ahead

It is the most critical part of the graduate school application process.

As dean of admissions at several American universities, I read thousands of applications over an 18-year period.

As time went by, it became clear to me which applications had been prepared with thought and care, and which had been thrown together at the last minute. Those in the latter group were far less competitive due to the following reasons:

1. Essays were filled with typos and grammatical errors.
2. Essay questions were not fully answered.
3. The essay was for another institution.
4. Application fees were not submitted.
5. Directions were not followed—there were five recommendation letters instead of the two required.
6.A résumé was not included.
7.Entire sections of the online application were left blank.

Standardized Test Scores Not the Deciding Factor

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Many students in India put undue pressure on themselves when it comes to standardized tests. If you are ­considering studying in the United States as an undergraduate or ­graduate student, consider these tips to help you get started:

• Don’t obsess about getting high scores—the added stress will not help you perform at your best.
• Test scores are only one part of your application.
• Give yourself time to practice. It can take one year or more to prepare an effective application.
• Many students are admitted to outstanding schools with average or even below average standardized test scores. The reverse is also true—many students with excellent scores are denied for acting arrogantly or not demonstrating how they can contribute to a given university or college.
• Focus on fit, not rankings and test scores. You are more likely to be admitted and enjoy your educational experience if you research your options and find a program that meets your needs and expectations. Remember: life has many paths to success and happiness.


To learn more about the ­standardized tests you may be required to take, visit www.EducationUSA.info.

As dean of students at Columbia and University of Chicago, I held open office hours with students. In many instances, those who came to see me were upset about certain aspects of their student experience, and felt they had been misled about what to expect once they arrived on campus. When questioning them about how they came to decide to enroll, a typical answer was, “You’re the Ivy League,” or, “You’re ranked in the top five,” or, “In India, you are considered to be a very prestigious institution.” I wanted to say, “And?...You visited our campus, either in person or virtually? You contacted current students and alumni, asking them about their student experience? You thoroughly checked out our curriculum and faculty?” In many cases, they had not done any of these.


Graduate school is not something to take lightly. It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally and financially. It is wise to take about a year to do your research and prepare your applications. If you are considering starting your program of study in the fall, you will want to start your search two years ahead of time. Why two years, you may ask? Typically, graduate schools start accepting applications just under a year before the intended start date. In order for you to have time to thoroughly evaluate all of the information you will receive and read, you will need at least a year before applying to gather that information and review it.

You should have your application materials completed at least a week to 10 days before the deadline, so you have time for review, making sure everything is in order, meets application requirements, and is the way you want it.

By taking time to do your research, and also to prepare the best application possible, you are ensuring that the admissions committee will be able to focus on what you have provided, not the mistakes you made, and that once enrolled, you will be confident that you made the best choice for your graduate education.


Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern; and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”


Financing Graduate Education in the U.S.


Funding for graduate study in the United States is offered in a variety of forms, including research and teaching assistantships. Roughly 40 percent of international graduate students in the United States rely on these and other forms of financial support from U.S. universities and colleges. Most graduate students rely on personal and family funds and other sources to supplement financial aid offered by the university. Keep in mind that students in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—are especially competitive for financial aid.

How can you compete for financial aid?
The key to being admitted with funding is to distinguish yourself from the competition by carefully selecting schools and enhancing your application. Here are some things that you can do to strengthen your application:

• Research thoroughly. Use EducationUSA’s services and comprehensive Web sites like GradSchools.com to find the best overall fit and graduate program.

• Contact faculty in the United States who will be interested in supporting your research.

• Prepare thoughtful questions in advance—don’t ask questions that are answered on the university or college Web site.

• Take time to prepare and score well on standardized tests such as GRE/GMAT and TOEFL iBT or IELTS.

• Prepare outstanding essays and a statement of purpose. Outline your ideas and make sure your talking points for each essay address what is asked in the question.

• Focus on strengthening relationships with your recommenders—you will need outstanding letters of recommendation.• Submit professional and polished applications on time.

Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern; and author of "Road Map for Graduate Study." Wesley Teter is a former regional director for EducationUSA in New Delhi. He is also the editor of the multimedia outreach campaign, 10 Steps to Study in the United States.