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Realizing a Dream

It is better to prepare seven to eight good applications rather than sending 15 half-baked ones.

It was my dream to pursue a master’s degree in the United States and a lot of factors were instrumental in helping me realize this dream. During my undergraduate studies at PDM College of Engineering in Haryana, I noted the stress on theory, but the lack of lab work spurred me to pursue a master’s degree in the United States. I believed that it would provide me with a global perspective, that I would get to participate in the exchange of ideas with students from various cultures.

Following this dream wasn’t an easy task and, in fact, in the beginning, seemed impossible.

I started with the GRE preparation, which is easy on the quantitative section for engineers and tough on the verbal. The GRE is a test of nerves where one has to give one’s best within a set timeframe. I failed at my first GRE attempt because I got a panic attack. I decided to give myself a year to prepare and take another shot at the test.

A common misconception among students is that in case of repeated GRE attempts, the better scores are taken into account. This was clarified by counselors at the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF), who told me that universities go by the latest scores. With the revised GRE pattern, students will get respite from mugging up the 4,000 word list and GRE would be more on the lines of the GMAT, which tests analytical abilities.

Having appeared for TOEFL, I began the application process that, at first glance, seemed quite cumbersome. One step at a time should be the motto. For a moment, I felt the top schools for my chosen program were out of bounds due to my average GRE score of 1220. After speaking to my seniors studying at American universities and checking edulix.com, I understood that GRE is just one part of the application and not the only factor that decides whether the student will be selected for admission.

It still remains a mystery what admissions committees might look for in an applicant, but we need to put our best efforts into preparing the application. The committees view the applications as a whole, so it might be possible that a person with a low GRE score gets into a particular university and someone with a high score might not make it. U.S. universities, to an extent, lay a lot of stress on undergraduate academics along with projects and research work at the graduate level. Another very important part of the application is the statement of purpose, which a lot of students postpone till the last moment. The first connection one makes with the admissions committee is the statement of purpose, which is a reflection of the applicant.

Having a solid undergraduate academic record helped me get strong recommendations from my professors. Some professors might ask you to write the recommendation letter yourself due to their lack of time. In this case, avoid exaggerating your qualities and achievements. While shortlisting universities, I took a lot of factors into account, including the coursework, fee structure, enrollment and teacher to student ratio. Based on all these factors, I divided the list into three categories—ambitious, moderate and safe. I did not really consider the rankings, though I still referred to the U.S. News and World Report, which gave a rough idea about the coursewise rankings of colleges. I was advised to prepare seven to eight good applications rather than sending 15 half-baked ones. I prepared four good applications. To my surprise, I made it into the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It has a sprawling campus of 670 hectares in a completely rural setting, away from the bustle of the city, and is just a two-hour drive from Boston.

My choice for this particular program was based on the coursework and professors who were working in my area of interest. It is very important that you really like what you are studying. Ask yourself the question, “Why do I want to do an M.S.?” A lot of students end up in majors they are not interested in.

It is important to check the authenticity of the school you are applying to. Do not go to the United States just for the sake of it as this involves a lot of money. The last and most important step of the application process is the visa, which was a crucial stage for me, but I cleared it with ease, thanks to a couple of sessions at USIEF with visa officers from the U.S. Embassy.


Shweta Malik is a student at University of Massachusetts Amherst.