Saturday, July 14, 2007

BeBeyond 9-Step Guide for Applying at US Universities

This is a very big article, but it is worth it to spend the time reading this article. This article was written by Chinese people, so the examples were for Chinese students! Good thing is the points the author made for Chinese students is very similar for Bangladeshi students as well. So this article will be very helpful! Good luck.
BeBeyond 9-Step Guide
  1. Think, Think, and
    Think Again
  2. What to Think
  3. Make Your Application Competitive
  4. Plan Your Application
  5. Choose the Right Schools
  6. Get Financial Aid
  7. Prepare the Right References
  8. Write Powerful Application Essays
  9. Communicate Well: Present Yourself

The 9-Step Guide to Successful Applications to US Schools
1. Think, Think, and Think Again
For most of you who are planning on applying to American universities, if we could offer you only one recommendation, it would be a simple one-word suggestion: Think. In fact, we think it is so important to your success in getting into an American school and obtaining an America visa, we want to emphasize its importance by saying: Think, think, and think again!
"Wow! Really?" You are probably a little surprised at our suggestion, wondering why "thinking" is so important to applying to American universities and what is there for you to really think about.
Before we answer your question, let's examine the following situations and ask ourselves a few questions based on them.
Situation A: If you are a great test score taker, don't you wish that American universities would be just like the Chinese universities, which set clear standards for admissions and awarding scholarships? (For example, "600 in TOEFL and 2,000 in GRE will secure you an admission and 620 in TOEFL and 2,200 in GRE will get you a full scholarship.") Wouldn't life be much simpler if the Americans could simply adopt the Chinese approach? Think: Why don't they?
Situation B: If you always have had some problems with English or perhaps simply any kind of exams, don't you wish that you would only need a minimal TOEFL score -- say, 550 -- to get an admission and a visa? In fact, American schools do admit low score students! For example, Stanford University's Business School has taken students with GMAT scores below 500 and University of Chicago, possibly the most academically demanding school, takes many students with B or C averages. Think: Why not you? How can you do it?
Situation C: If you have ever been refused by the US visa officers, don't you feel annoyed every time they ask you why you want to go to America and why that specific university? Aren't the answers so obvious? ("We go to the States because it is the most advanced country and I choose that university because it is the one that admits me or the only one that gives me financial aid.") Believe it or not, they might actually have refused your visa based on your answers to those dumb questions! Think: Why do the visa officers keep asking similar questions? Why do they often refuse you, saying that you have immigration tendencies, even though you have partial or even full financial aid?
Believe it or not, all the above situations illustrate the key difference between the American and Chinese educational systems. You'd better know the difference, or you will have hard time with your applications. And the word "think" conveniently summarizes this key difference.

In China, you don't have to think when it comes to education because there is only one route to your higher education. The route is the test scores. How good a university you can get in depends on and only on how high scores you can get in exams. Your major in college is also determined by your test scores, especially when it comes to the "hot" majors. In China, it is generally the case that your scores determine your choices of college and college major and in turn, they determine your job and career. There is really nothing to "think" about except getting as good scores as you can.
Generally, the ways Americans decide their education choices are completely the opposite. For Americans, what determines your choice of school and major is (1) what you like to do, (2) what you want to do in the future, and/or (3) what kind of job you want after graduation. First you think about that. Then, and only then, you think about how you can get in your chosen schools.
In other words, you have a "dream" first. You have figured out (by thinking) why you want to pursue that dream, why you will be good at what you will be doing, why this specific university will help you realize your dream, and so on and so forth.
Because Americans have to do a lot of thinking in selecting their schools -- and because in general, how well students think about their future helps determine how successful they will be in their future endeavors -- American universities want to hear about your thinking process. Thus test scores are no longer the sole factor in determining one's admission and scholarship. It is within this kind of educational system that one student with low scores can convince the admissions officer to get into a university, sometimes even the best ones. Basically, American universities are looking for individuals with thinking abilities while the Chinese system looks for scoring machines.
(Author: Jinbo Xie,

1. Think, Think, and Think Again

This American way of thinking -- having a goal first and then having that goal determine your subsequent actions (school choices, etc.) -- permeates the American society and will have significant implication for your application and your success in the States.
For example, American visa officers like to ask the previously mentioned questions precisely because they want to see whether you have thought through your studying-abroad plan. (In a typical American phrase, "Do you know what you are doing?"
Like university admission officers, the visa officials believe that students with clear ideas of what they want to do will be more likely to be successful in the future.
Unfortunately, Chinese students are so used to not thinking and not making decisions for themselves that it takes a long time for many of them to adapt to the American way of thinking. And in many cases, there is a huge difference in terms of success between those who adapt quickly and those who change slowly.
The American system poses several major problems for Chinese applicants:
  • First, Chinese students lack training in thinking and making decisions for themselves. For most students, decisions are made by their parents or teachers or their fellow students. For example, many students want to go study abroad because their parents expect them to; many others go because their classmates are going.
  • Second, for one to think and make decisions, one needs information. In our case, that means information about US schools, America's or China's future job markets, economic and social trends, American culture and customs, and so on. Obviously, it is hard for Chinese students to obtain such information adequately and accurately.
  • Finally, when applying to American schools, most Chinese students are limited by their English communication skills (note that this is very different from English testing skills!). It makes it difficult for the Chinese students to articulate their thinking even if they have thought through everything. This limits their ability to express themselves to US admission officers, much less be convincing to them.
So how can we overcome these three difficulties?
To address the first one, you should probably do what we suggest: Think, think, and think more! It might be difficult at very beginning to come up even one topic to think about and think about it thoroughly. In this case, BeBeyond's 9-step Guide is designed to systematically help you think about your school application and visa obtainment plan.
Also, you should share your thinking with your friends and classmates because most likely their ways of thinking will help you think and vice versa. (Note that you can also exchange your ideas at in the "Forum" section!)
To overcome the second difficulty, you probably should read more news, articles, books and magazines about America. It's better if they are in English and written by Americans because the Chinese media is too selective in reporting America. You also should know American education system and admission process as much as possible.
In both areas, offers information in a systematic fashion selected specifically with you, our members, in mind and provides research resources on schools. To make learning more interesting, you should probably also watch more American movies -- although we have to warn you that movies are movies and often are not very realistic.
Finally, your English communication skills (as opposed to your English testing skills that are only good for TOEFL, GRE, or GMAT but not for the real world) can only improve through actual communicating!
No matter how difficult it is at very beginning, and no matter how poor your initial English writing is, keep doing it in English. And start now! Your communication skills will not only help you get an admission and even a scholarship, but also will help you enormously after you arrive in the States. encourages you to do so by providing the only forum in the world for Chinese to communicate only in English. Let's get started!
Today, it has become even more important for Chinese students to think, think, and think more because more and more Chinese are getting such high scores that scores don't differentiate Chinese students as much as before. For example, in choosing between a student with 710 in GMAT and another with 730 in GMAT, the scores are not the determining factor at all because there is really not much difference between those two scores. What is important to Americans is who can articulate better what he or she want to do with an MBA degree. To do that well, you need thinking, information, and communication skills.
Since your ambition is to go into the American system and succeed in the States, you'd be better off if you start thinking just like the Americans do.
Let's remember this: Think, think, and think again!
(Author: Jinbo Xie,

2. What to Think?
So, what should you think about? At minimal, you should categorically think the following questions and come up with some answers to them even though the answers might not be that convincing. But it will be a good start.
Why do you want to study in America? Don't just list the following reasons: (1) America has the best educational system. (2) I want an American degree. (3) Everybody I know is going, so should I. (4) Your parents expect you to go. These are not "true" reasons!
Instead, try to ask yourself the following questions: (1) How am I going to develop my career in the next 1-5 years? (2) What do I really want to do with my life? (3) How much do I really know about America? (4) How big is my chance go to American given my background and different strategies that I am going to use?
Believe it or not, if you know enough about America -- its educational system and work environment -- as well as your own strength and weakness, many of you will have a much clear idea as to how you are going to pursue your going-to-America dream. For example, many may decide that going to America through an American job offer is much easier than through an F-1 visa. (see related information at the Work Abroad section at BeBeyond.)
What is your plan in the States? Knowing your plan now or at least having thought out some possibilities will have significant impact on your study and career in the US. For example, if you want to teach in an American college after graduation, you'd better get your Ph.D. from a prestigious university. So if you can only go to the States with a scholarship from a middle-tier school, prepare for a transfer to a better university as soon as possible. Again, to develop your plan in the States while you are still in China, you need to obtain as much information about the US as possible.
How are you going to support your education financially? If the plan is to get financial aid, how are you going to get it? Just get as high as possible scores? This might not work! If the plan is to have a sponsor, how are you going to get a reasonable sponsorship that a visa officer will believe? If your plan is to use your own money, are there better ways than simply showing a bank letter to gain a visa officer's trust? If working part-time is part of your plan to support your study, which of the American cities should choose so you can find jobs easily?
What is your application strategy? If scores are no longer the key factor, how are you going to apply? How are you going to convince the admission officers that you are one of the students they should never miss? What kind of self-image do you want to present to the admission officers, based on your background and your aspiration? Who should be writing your reference letters that will support image instead of weakening it?
There are a lot of questions to think about and really, the more you think, the more likely that you will find your ways to a US university or a scholarship. Or you will realize that your way of going to America is not through schools but something else like a job offer. Just think how many Chinese students who had no relatives or friends in the States, who was penniless, and who were just "average” students have come to America in the past 20 years. If they can, you can!
The key, besides working and studying hard, is to keep thinking and to know well of both America and yourself. This way, you will find solutions to almost every difficulty that you will encounter. Once again, as mentioned in Step 1 of the guide, in order to think well for yourself, you need to do three things: keep thinking, obtain enough information, and communicate with others with similar experience and intentions. At, we intend to help you and all members to help each other in precisely these three areas.
(Author: Jinbo Xie,
3. Make Your Application Competitive
The first thing you need to do to make your application more competitive is, not surprisingly, to "think." Think about this question for a moment before you continue to read:

"How can I make my application more competitive?"
What are your answers? To be serious with your thinking, you can write your answers here to share with other BeBeyond members.
For most Chinese, the first thing comes to mind is, of course, the scores. All Chinese application "experts" tell you so: Get as high as possible scores and you will be accepted and will get financial aid. This is true in many cases. But as we point out in Step 1 of the BeBeyond 9-step Guide: (1) High scores DO NOT always guarantee you a place in or financial aid from an American university. Neither do they warrant you a visa. (2) An application with low scores CAN still be competitive.
You might have also read from some Chinese school application guidebooks that you should list all the awards that you have amassed from high school, college, and everywhere else. There are at least two potential problems with that advice.
(1) If every Chinese applicant lists a number of similar awards (almost every Chinese student seems to have some awards, right?), how can the very similar awards make you stand out among others others? It will be tough!
(2) Some awards might send a wrong message. For example, if you are applying to an engineering school and you list overwhelming number of awards in music, the admissions officer might question your academic interests: Do you want to become a musician or an engineer? In this case, list one or two awards in music might be perfect to show that you are a student with some interests in different areas.
So what should you do to make your application more competitive? The answer is simple: Think. Continuously think for yourself how you can make your application more competitive, given your background and situation. Don't just passively fill out your application forms.
What are the aspects of your application that will make you more competitive? The answer is that almost anything that impresses the admissions officers while is relevant to your study goals will do. For some people, it could be their passion for the field they are pursuing. For others, it could be a convincing, detailed reference letter. You may have low GPAs and average GRE scores, but your working experiences are impressive. So emphasize it! The great thing about applying to US universities is that you can always be creative about your application. You can even turn your weakness into your strength because unlike the Chinese educational system, the US system uses more flexible admission criteria.
One of my friends, Mark, an American who got his M.D. from University of Chicago, was a trouble student in high school because of his family situation. Before graduating from high school, he realized that he needed a quality higher education for his life. He wrote an essay that talked about how came to this realization from being a lost high school student. His maturity made him stand out among many other applicants and his writing showed that he had academic potential. He was admitted with a very low GPAs.
Finally, you can also improve your competitiveness by doing a lot of things. For example, take some additional courses, publish a paper, work for certain jobs, etc.
How do you intend to make your application more competitive? Let's discuss it at the BeBeyond Forum. Exchanging views help both yourself and others. Let's do it!

(Author: Jinbo Xie, USA)
4. Planning Your Application
We all know that we need a plan for our application so we won't be late in meeting the application deadlines. "Experts" tell us to request school catalogs in August, take the GRE exam no later than December, and mail out applications by February 15. Is this the right way to plan our application process? Yes, but it's only partially right.

If you think that planning consists of simply allowing enough time to finish everything required by the applications, you have missed the critical point! Planning your application is about being very clear about what you want to achieve (and when), knowing how to achieve it, and having an alternative plan if your original one fails.
In other words, a good plan has three parts: (1) Goals and objectives, (2) strategies and action plans to achieve those goals and objectives, and (3) alternative (backup) plans in case things fail.

Goals and Objectives
The most important part in a plan is its goals and objectives. Without them, you are wasting your time.

Let's assume that you have thought through major issues about whether you should pursue an education in the US or not. Let's say that the conclusion is that yes, you should. And you have also assessed your qualifications and decided that you want to get into one of the best universities by August 2000. This is your goal.
Now in order to achieve your goal, you need to make your application competitive. After reading Step 3: Make Your Application Competitive and doing some long, hard thinking, you have come up with some answers to the competitive issues.

For example, you want to:
  1. Publish 1-2 new research papers by the year end;
  2. Have two strong reference letters ready in two months;
  3. Score at least 1,900 on the October GRE test;
  4. Rewrite your application essay to make it more convincing;
  5. Take one more course to strengthen your existing academic background.
Little goals such as those five above are called objectives. Objectives are the necessary requirements for achieving your goal. According to your plan, you believe that once you fulfill all or most of the objectives, you should be able to achieve your goal and get into one of the top American universities.
Criteria for Goal Setting: There are two criteria as to whether you have done an adequate job in setting up your goal and objectives.
(1) Are the goal and objectives clear and specific? Ask yourself questions such as "What is my goal in preparing this application?" If you know nothing more than the names of the schools to which you are applying, you don't have a clear goal. If you are applying to all kinds of schools -- from the worst to the best -- with equal energy, you don't have a specific goal and you are only trying your luck like a stupid gambler.
You also need to be clear and specific about your objectives. Don't simply fill out an application form or get an application essay done on time. Think about what you want to achieve by finishing them! If you know that you want your references to show your research potential and you understand that you're taking an additional mathematics class to build a stronger quantitative background, you are clear and specific about what you are doing.
(2) Are your goal and objectives practical? Is your goal of applying to the best schools realistic, given your background and the time you have available for preparing your application? What is the probability that you will get financial aid if you change your major? It would be ideal that you can reach all the five objectives listed above. But if you realize that it is impossible to finish even half of them in a short period of time, your objectives are impractical. You need to modify your objectives or reduce the number of them for your plan.

Strategies and Action Plans
Once you have developed clear, specific, and practical goals and objectives, you have to come up with right strategies and specific action plans with time estimates for completing them.

To devise a winning action plan, keep asking yourself the following three questions:
(a) What is the best way to meet each one of my objectives? For some people, the best way to get a high GMAT score might be to study alone...while others might do better by going to a preparation school.
(b) How much time do I need to accomplish this specific objective? You shouldn't just have an objective of writing a strong essay and assume that you can accomplish it in three days. You may need three months to practice your writing before you can even write an adequately good essay. Without good estimates of the time required for actions, you will fail at the end.
(c) What is the probability that my action plans will work? If the chance is low, is it because the objective is impractical or the strategy/action is ineffective? You will only realize the impossibility of reaching some of your objectives or flaws in your action plans after you have started to pursue them. Therefore it is extremely important to keep evaluating your plans and redefining them accordingly.

Alternative Plans
Mostly, nothing will work as perfectly as planned. Therefore a good plan always has alternative plans to handle failures or unexpected situations.

If your primary plan is to get into one of the best schools in the US, what do you do if it fails? Your alternative plans can be many. For example, you can apply to some average universities in addition to the best ones. If your primary plan fails, you can still be able to go to a second-tier school. Or you can wait for next year to re-apply. In that case, your alternative plan is to try one more time.
You also need alternative plans for achieving your objectives. If you have difficulty in improving your writing skills, should you hire a private teacher to help you? Alternatively, you could give up on the idea of writing a great essay and, instead, try to get a quality recommendation letter to improve your competitiveness. To have an alternative plan also means that when you plan on taking the GRE test in October, you know you will have a second chance to retake it in December if your first try fails. (This is one of many alternatives.)

Sense of Planning, Matter of Practice
After reading this Step, many of you are probably overwhelmed by how complex planning seems to be. You might even lose confidence in or become confused by and frustrated with how you are going to plan your applications.

Don't worry! The main reason that you are feeling so is that we Chinese are very unfamiliar with making decisions for ourselves. Once you start following the guidelines we have discussed here, you will quickly improve your planning skills and decision-making capabilities. Spend time to think about and talk with others about planning issues and you will quickly develop your sense of planning. At the end, you will be handsomely rewarded by practicing your planning skills.
Remember this: if you reduce 10% of your time for preparing the TOEFL or GRE test and instead, use the saved time for planning, your probability of getting to America will increase 100% or even more. So, develop a sound plan for your application!
(Author: Jinbo Xie,
5. Choose the Right Schools for You
What are you currently doing to find the right schools for you? Do you simply look at some kind of school rankings and decide that you are only going to apply to several second-tier schools and then randomly contact them? Or do you single out all the schools with the lowest application fees and think you will at least save some money?

These are not the ways to find your perfect schools!
In order to decide which schools you should apply to, you need to do two things right: (1) Have a clear objective in selecting your schools; and (2) Know how to research US schools and spend a lot of time doing it.

Objectives in Selecting Your Schools
As we have pointed out in previous steps, you need goals and objectives for almost everything you do for your applications. And they have to be clear and specific. The same is true with your school selections.

In selecting your future schools, your objectives can be many. Examples: (a) Your objective is to go to the best schools. (b) You will settle for whichever schools offer you a scholarship. (c) You plan on paying the tuition on your own so you want a school that is affordable. (d) You know that you will have to work part-time at a restaurant; therefore, big cities with a lot of Chinese restaurants are the right ones for you. (e) You want to go to Boston because the person with whom you are secretly in love is there.
You can have any kinds of objectives for choosing your schools and you can even have multiple objectives. For instance, you might want a scholarship and at the same time you might only prefer big cities. That's fine. But no matter what objectives you have, the objectives must be clear and specific and then you must find the schools that meet your specifications.
Do you have clear objectives in selecting your schools?

How to Research the US Schools
There are so many schools in America. How should you go about researching your ideal schools?

Most Chinese students use the school rankings as their main tool. But, this is not the best approach. The best approach is (a) to acquire general knowledge about American university system and then (b) to do in-depth research on the individual schools that are on your list of potential targets.

General Knowledge about American Universities:
(1) Private vs. Public: Private universities are usually considered much more prestigious than public universities. Private universities have quality professors who are actually teaching while many public universities have their best professors mostly doing research. While top private schools are extremely competitive, average private schools are easy to get in because they want your money. Public universities normally have more RA and TA positions available than private ones because they don't have enough budget from the government to pay for real professors. So they'll pay you.
(2) Geographical Differences: Universities in the Southern US normally charge much lower tuition than their Northern counterparts. Universities in boring states such as Alabama or Iowa are much less competitive in terms of admissions standards even though some of them are top-ranked schools. (For most Americans, those places are seen as not much fun.) California is an extremely difficult state for Chinese students to apply to because the State has a lot of Chinese residents. (Being Chinese, they are normally good at school and many of them want to stay with California universities.)
(3) Big vs. Small: Generally, small schools are much more likely to pay close attention to your application and your situation than the big ones. They are likely to be more flexible too. For example, they might be more willing to write a letter to the US Embassy for you or to add some additional money to your scholarship when you have problems with your visa. Of course, they may have fewer scholarships; this, however, is not always the case. But at the same time, they may have fewer applicants as well.

Methods to Research Individual Universities:
(1) Knowing the Obvious: Get school catalogs, go to the schools' website, and read books on American schools to know as many official details of the schools as possible. Is the school that you are researching a private school or a public one? Is it big or small? Where is it located? Do they fit the general descriptions listed above? How are they going to help you meet your goals?
(2) Figuring out the Untold: Look beyond rankings, application fees, and deadlines. When you study a university, don't just write down what is required for an application. Instead, read between lines in a school catalog. What kind of students are studying in this university? Are they rich kids or average US citizens? Do they have a lot of international students? Is this a school with mostly White students? What kind of professors does the school have? Are they more specialized in research or teaching? If you have answers to all these questions, you should be able to imagine the real conditions of the school and therefore decide whether you will like the school or not and whether the school will like you as a student.
(3) Personifying Schools: Know the school like a human being. A school is like a person; it has its own personality. Some schools are always motivated and aggressive. They are eager to pick up a good student on the spot. Some schools are arrogant and they won't give you much special help. Other schools are very liberal; they like to have more minority students and international students. Different schools have different educational philosophies. For example, some top schools will let you in easily but have high standards for graduation. Some schools like Harvard care not only about academic performance but also about family connections.
(4) Confirming Findings: If you can, you should confirm your research results through some channels. For example, if you know somebody who has studied in that school, talk to him or her. You can also try to send an email to the school or one or two professors there to see how they respond to your inquiries. You should always review, confirm, and adjust the schools of your choosing.

Always with Objectives in Mind
Remember: Whatever you do to research the right US schools for you, you need to be aware of your own objectives in choosing a school. You need to constantly evaluate the schools against your objectives to see whether they meet your requirements.

With this approach, your application will have a better chance to be accepted by the schools that you have selected.
(Author: Jinbo Xie,
6. Money: Get Financial Aid!
The term "financial aid" has two different definitions.

Most US schools use "financial aid" to mean the US Federal Student Loan (low interest loan), Federal Work/Study Program, or Federal or State financial assistance (free money) to students from low-income families. This is need-based financial aid good only for US citizens and permanent residents. And it is widely available in US schools. That's why many schools sometimes boost a very high percentage of financial aid. But, it means nothing to you, as foreign students are not eligible for applying.
In other cases, "financial aid" is used to mean any kind of financial assistance, both need-based and merit-based, from both the school and outside sources. The merit-based financial aid includes TA (teaching assistantship), RA (research assistantship), GA (graduate assistantship), and Scholarship or Fellowship (both are free money for students).
It's almost always the case that foreign students can only apply for merit-based financial aid. But be aware that not all merit-financial aid is available for foreign students. For example, every year Cornell University offers 40 MBA students scholarships, but they are for citizens or permanent residents only.
For most schools, your application for admission also serves as your application for financial aid. Many schools may require additional one or two pieces of material for financial aid and may require you to submit your application before certain dates, which are usually earlier than the admission deadline.

Basis for Awarding Financial Aid
So, on what basis do schools award their financial aid to applicants? There are two categories: (1) Academic and other types of excellence, and (2) the skills that an applicant can offer to the school.

Star students: Every class needs to have a few "star students." With star students being around, other students might feel good about themselves because they have high-caliber classmates. The star students will probably also provide more intelligent classroom discussions and quality papers that teachers can show to other students. And in the future, successful star students may help the school develop a good reputation.
To attract potential star students, almost all US schools use Fellowships or Scholarships. As you can see from the above description of the purpose of having star students, your application for a Fellowship or Scholarship needs to show your excellent academic record, unique working or personal experiences, good writing and oral communication skills, and a certain level of leadership. All previous steps of the 9-Step Guide will help you to come up with a competitive package if you are applying for a Fellowship or Scholarship.
Assistants: When you are applying for admission, you only need to be a quality applicant. But when you are applying for an assistantship (a TA, RA, or GA), you need to show that you have the skills to do the job.
For example, if a school is looking for TAs to teach undergraduate Mathematics classes, you'd better have good scores in your math courses. In many of the RA cases, school professors are specifically looking for certain skill sets and working experiences, which could be computer skills, lab experiences, etc. You have to find out what they are looking for and show in your application that you have what they want. Some assistantships, such as some RAs and most GAs, need no specific skills or experiences. In those cases, schools tend to give the assistantships to the best qualified applicants.

Applying Strategies and Tips
Here are some useful strategies and tips that many Chinese students have successfully used in preparing their applications:

(1) Be an investigator! The above observations tell you general information of the kind of things US schools are looking for from applicants for financial aid. You need to find out details for your target schools so you can tailor application according to their needs. How to conduct the investigation? Please read the Step 5 of the 9-Step Guide.
(2) Probability helps. Apply to more schools and different kinds of schools! If all your targeted schools are top schools, you may find out later that none of them will offer you financial aid. You need to apply to some less competitive schools or to more schools to increase your probability of getting financial aid.
(3) Be flexible and know all the opportunities. Don't stick to a few schools or the only field that you want to get into. If your goal is to get financial aid, be flexible! Also, there are many opportunities that few people know about. For example, applying to MBA programs is so popular now that it's hard to get financial aid from an MBA program. But if you apply for an MS in Finance, you may easily get financial aid.
(4) Networking with insiders. For students who want to apply for an assistantship, the easiest way is probably to get some help from within the schools. If you know somebody who is studying in the school, he or she might be able to recommend you to certain professors or tell you what to do with your application. This is very effective! Also, when you have a chance to meet US professors who are visiting China, try to talk to them -- and then keep contact with them after they go back to America! If you can do this, you are almost guaranteed an assistantship. Finally, more and more Chinese now are teaching in US schools. Try to find out their background (for example, one might originally from Fudan University) and contact them.
(5) Nothing is final with financial aid. The most inaccurate information in a school catalog could be the information about assistantships. In many cases, schools won't really know how many assistantships they need until long after the application deadline passes. Also, professors have always applied for all kinds of research grants and some of them may suddenly come -- for example, in August. So, if you keep contact with the school even when they have refused you financial aid, you may get it later because of the unexpected money. Alternatively, after you have arrived in school, you can talk to the school and the school may give you one then.

More and Easier than You Think
Most Chinese applicants think that it is extremely difficult to get financial aid and are puzzled by the awarding process. So they put all their energy into scoring high on the standardized tests (GRE and TOEFL), hoping this will bring them good fortune. This is precisely the wrong approach!

There are a lot of opportunities for financial aid -- and you don't have to score even 2,000 on the GRE to get one. The keys are to (1) know where the opportunies exist and (2) what the schools or professors want and then to (3) prepare your application tailored specifically for them. To keep taking tests does not do any of the three important things for you.
Remember, there are always more financial aid opportunities than you think and getting finanicial aid is easier than you have imagined if you take the right approach. But you do need good communication skills and in-depth knowledge of the American system!
(Author: Jinbo Xie,
7. Get the Right References for You
What are the right reference letters for you? Think for a minute... Do you know the answers? If you are unsure about your answers, you probably should continue to think for a while.

Thinking is a good habit if you want to go to America. That is why BeBeyond 9-Step Guide devotes both Step 1 and Step 2 to "thinking." Don't ignore those steps if you really want to be successful!

Wrong Ideas about Reference Letters
Chinese students tend to have two kinds of wrong ideas about recommendation letters.

(1) Applicants with the first kind of wrong idea regard reference letters as something not that important. They think that as long as they can get two or three letters signed by their professors, make sure the grammar is correct, and send them out on time, they are fine. They believe that their scores will determine their fate regarding their admission and financial aid.
(2) Applicants with the second kind of wrong idea think that they need "powerful" recommendation letters. While it is true that reference letters should be "powerful," these applicants have wrong ideas as to what is considered "powerful" from an American's point of view. They often try to get a letter signed by a "famous" Chinese, Dean of their department, or Chief of their working unit.

Correct Ideas about Reference Letters
(1) Reference letters are extremely important. If you have high scores, admission officers want to also see evidence of your academic ability from your reference letters. They want to know you are not somebody who is only good at taking tests. If you apply for an Assistantship requiring certain skills or working experiences, admission officers hope that your reference letters will praise you for those skills or experiences. In short, good recommendation letters confirm your qualifications and, better yet, provide additional information about you that application forms and scores do not.

(2) In preparing reference letters, focus more on content. It is true that famous people may help to get attention from admissions officers. But how many Chinese are so famous that even Americans know about them? If the letters do not contain the kind of information needed, they are useless. Furthermore, if the contents are so badly written or the "famous" person really does not seem to have good reasons to write the letter, admissions officers may think that the letters are fake. So focus on the contents and make sure the letters confirm your qualification and provide additional, useful information about you.
(3) A good reference letter should be reasonable and specific. Reasonable means that the person writing the letter knows you well and has the qualifications to evaluate you. A famous professor has the qualification -- but if she has only met you once, she does not know you well. Her writing a letter for you is unreasonable; it won't help you.
Most Chinese reference letters are filled with vague praises. That is bad. A good reference letter cites examples, provides specific information, and tells little stories about the student. Without the specifics, an admissions officer's doubt comes back to the question: Does the author of the letter really knows the student well?
Only reasonable letters with specific information can convince admissions officers. Only these kinds of reference letters can be considered "powerful."

How to Prepare Good Reference Letters
Believe it or not, good reference letters may take 1-2 years to prepare! Here is why:

You need to get to know people who are qualified to write references for you. You need to impress them -- to let them know about you as much as possible, so that they eventually will be willing and able to write specific reference letters for you. All this takes time. You should start doing this as early as when you are a junior in college, in the case of applying to graduate schools.
Also, you need to know more than three persons who can write you references. That way, when one of them refuses to write a letter, you still have others to back up. This takes time as well.
Finally, when the time comes for you to ask for reference letters, be proactive and be direct! Not only ask for your references' permission to write a letter for you, but also tell them what you want in your letter. If they say that they cannot write the kind of things you want, go talk to another person. Your goal is to have the right kind of content in your letters!
You can rush to get reletively high GRE or TOEFL scores, but you won't be able to quickly obtain good reference letters and the writing ability and communication knowledge needed for preparing them. That is why you should start early!
(Jinbo Xie,
8. The Power of Application Essays
Application essays can do two things for you:

(1) They can kill your chance of getting an admission or financial aid, even though you have a "strong" application (such as high GRE scores, high GPA's, research papers, and/or solid working experience).
(2) Or, they can get you into a US school, with financial aid, despite an otherwise a "weak" application package!
This is how powerful application essays are. Pay attention to them!

Importance of Application Essays
No matter how much information schools or professors ask from their applicants, they are trying to picture a person based on the information provided. After all, they are taking in a real person, not a bunch of test scores or research papers.

So how do schools figure out what kind of person you are? They carefully exam your scores, your awards or lack of them, your working experiences, your references, and your extracurricular activities. After reading all this information, admissions officers will have a general idea of who you are and what you have gone through in your life. They will also have questions and worries about you.

For instance: Why are your GPAs so low but your GRE incredibly high? Why did you switch jobs after only a half-year with your first job? Can you do academic research after you have been in international trade business for three years? Why is there a seven-month period in your life that is unaccounted for?
For some of the questions and concerns, admissions officers can guess the answers on their own. For others, they turn their attention to your essays.
Good essays should answer all the important questions in an admissions officer's mind, eliminate his or her concerns about you, and reinforce your qualifications evident in other application materials.
Badly written essays, on the other hand, not only are unable to answer the critical questions, but even create more worries on the part of the school. If an admissions officer is already questioning your research ability after your three years in international trade, your enthusiastic description of your trade experiences will only magnify his or her worry. (One of the right things to do in such a case would be to write how you can transfer the skills learned in trading business into your academic research capability.)

Plans, Personalities, and Communication Skills
To be competitive, your essays should at least outline your general plans for what you want to do in school and afterwards. These plans should be specific and make sense given your background and abilities. Remember, every admissions officer want to know your future plans because your future will be part of the school's future if you are accepted. (If you don't have a plan, go back to Step 1 of BeBeyond 9-Step Guide!)

Good essays showcase the good side of your personality. You are driven but not overly aggressive, you are enthusiastic but not lightheaded, or you persevere but you are not extremely stubborn.
Poorly-conceived essays may give readers the impression that you are overly passive, negative, uninteresting, overly private, overly pessimistic, mean-spirited, arrogant, or egotistic. If you would have to spend the next 2-5 years with such a person, would you admit him or her? Some essays written by some Chinese students are depicting such a bad personal image that they fail in their application even with very high test scores.
One of the biggest worries that US schools have for their Chinese applicants is their communication skills. There are two kinds of communication skills: One is related to your language skills, especially writing and speaking. The other has nothing to do with language skills. Rather it is knowing how to communicate. Many Chinese essays show that the writer lacks both kinds of communication skills.

Typical Problems with Chinese Essays
Most Chinese essays have two typical problems:

(1) They are pointless. Due to poor writing skills, many Chinese applicants are simply happy that they finally can make several paragraphs for their essays. In many cases, what they have written is a collection of random sentences. The essay has no point and none of the paragraphs has a subpoint either.
"I have nothing to say!" is the typical complaint of many people when they have to write essays. If this is your case, you should go back to Step 1 and Step 2 of this Guide.
(2) They have writing style problems. When it comes to communication, Americans are very specific, factual (or at least they appear to be factual), and moderate, citing little stories or examples. The Chinese, on the hand, like to use slogans and vague statements -- which, from an American's point of view, are often exaggerating and/or meaningless.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the Chinese communication style. But if you want to convince an American, don't you think using the American style will be more effective?

How to Write Powerful Essays
Compare the number of hours that you have spent on preparing for TOEFL or GRE to the number of hours you have spent reading articles about America, writing in English, and thinking about application essays. What is the ratio? 1,000:1? You now know why it is hard for you to write good essays.

So, how to write powerful essays? Here are our suggestions:
(1) Spend a lot of time writing in English -- and most importantly, share your writing with others to see whether they understand your meaning, or whether you yourself can still understand what you mean a few days later.
(2) Read as many articles written by Americans as possible to learn about America in general and American communication style in particular.
(3) Write your essays in accordance to the guidelines presented above and plan to use at least 50 to 100 hours to write them. Read a lot of sample essays -- good ones and bad ones.
(4) Discuss your essays with others -- ideally including experts.
(Author: Jinbo Xie,
9. Communicate: Presenting Yourself
In applying to US schools, think of yourself as a product that you want to sell to your customers: the US schools and professors.

Then, think: What kind of product are you? What kinds of products do your customers normally buy? And how are you going to convince your customers that you are the right product for them? These are the most important decisions that you have to make for your application and they fundamentally determine whether you will succeed or not.
This is why the BeBeyond 9-Step Guide to Successful Applications to US Schools devotes the first 6 steps to helping you make the right decisions in designing yourself, determining your customers' needs, and coming up with the correct selling strategies. (That is one of the reasons why we have created BeBeyond; by participating in BeBeyond community, you will understand better the "market" conditions -- America -- in which you are going to sell your product -- yourself.)
However, we all know that even great products cannot sell without a nicely designed package, powerful advertisements, and positive responses from previous customers. When it comes to these aspects of products, we Chinese are not nearly as good as we should be.
So, think of the information on your application forms, your TOEFL or GRE scores, your working experiences, and your research papers as the technical specifications of the product (yourself). Regard your reference letters as the feedback from previous users of the product. Treat your application essays as advertisements for your product. The question is: how to put these three parts together to create a powerful, irresistible presentation of the product that is you.
Steps 7-9 of the BeBeyond 9-Step Guide to Successful Applications to US Schools are designed to help you do just that. And is the place that you can come to improve your communication skills, which in turn assists you in making a strong presentation of yourself.

How to Make an Impressive Presentation
(1) The Main Image: Project to your audience one -- and only one -- primary, appealing and memorable image of yourself.

When you think about Sony, the first image comes to mind is an innovative audio/video electronic product like a Walkman or a TV set. This is Sony's primary image. The image is likable and appealing and easy to remember.
What is your main image that you want to leave to admissions officers after they read through your application? Are you the one who has a great potential to become a leading scientist in biology? Are you the one who will be able to build a world-class company based on your past business experiences and determination? Are you the computer expert who can provide the help that the Sociology Departments are desperately looking for for their research projects?
Images can be many different kinds. Which one to choose depends on how you want to present yourself based on your background and which images are easier to impress on your customers.
However, you can only have one, only one, primary image because that is the only way to get the admissions officers to vividly remember you. Don't try to be everything! Many Chinese applicants emphasize too many aspects of their qualifications: They are good at English, active in extra-curricular activities, hardworking, smart in computer usage, and nice in dealing with people.
After reading the application from such an all-mighty student, you will find it difficult to vividly picture his or her image. When you are trying to be everything, you may turn out to be nothing. Can you imagine if Sony also made women's underwear, cigarettes, and mooncakes? If it did, could you visualize Sony as easily as before? Would you buy soy sauce with a Sony logo on the bottle? Probably unlikely, right? So, don't make the same kind of mistake in your application.
(2) The Breadth of Your Image: While you should focus most of your energy on building a primary image of yourself, your image should have some breadth. In other words, you cannot say that you are only good at one thing.
Some of the Chinese applications tend to focus too narrowly. For example, all of their reference letters and Personal Statement are repeating the same thing: the applicant is an extremely good student with high test scores. This image in itself is not a bad image. But if this is the only thing that an applicant talks about himself or herself, this image becomes one of a nerd. No good!
An applicant is a real human being with flesh and blood. So while maintaining an impressive primary image, you should also add a few minor images and details to it. This way, your image will become fuller, more likable, more believable, and more interesting. For example, your essay may show slight humor to add some fun to your otherwise very serious application -- also good for those admissions officers who have read too many serious essays. You can also write about one or two very little stories of your life which shows your personality or other life interests to make yourself more colorful. It might be valuable to have a unique hobby.
(3) Consistency (and Reinforcement): Inconsistency in your presentation does the most harm to your application. And be warned: Inconsistency is also what the admissions officers are looking for in each application. -- confirm the message...
What is inconsistency? For example, if you are emphasizing on how good your English is and then your essay shows bad writing skills, the admissions officers will immediately question the credibility of everything you have said. Inconsistency shows when your reference letter ranks your analytical skills as the best of all your skills and then your analytical score from GRE is very low. Inconsistency can also come from the fact that you claim to be experienced in a certain area, but your working experiences seem to be unable to provide the confirmation.

Final Words: Learn Something Valuable
No matter how good a product is and no matter how well designed the presentation of the product is, there are always some people who don't like it. It happens in the business world all the time and it happens in the admissions process. Therefore, there will always be admissions officers or professors who don't like you or your style.

This, however, doesn't mean that you are not good. Different people have different judgment and different personal likes or dislikes. So do admissions officers! This is why Lili, who was refused by several second- or third-tier schools, was accepted by University of Michigan. In that sense, admission sometimes is a matter of luck (in other words, probability).
What is the most important thing you should keep in mind in preparing to go abroad? You should learn something that is valuable for the rest of your life from the process!
(Jinbo Xie,

1 comment:

Gladiator said...

nice blog, bro..
keep going on..