Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How to Apply for Higher Studies (Especially to US Universities)

I have been thinking of writing this article for so long, but couldn't manage time to do so. I am not writing the article on how to apply for higher studies, as many people have already done so, this article is actually a compilation and direction to the articles I found useful. Before starting I will like to clear that this article is not showing you the short-cut way to get an admission with scholarship, but showing what you need to know and how to prepare yourself for an admission to a US university that will be of your category. I am a Computer Science student, so my suggestions/articles are most on Computer Science graduate studies, but students from other disciplines can also get the benefit, e.g. Engineering, Economics, Natural Science, etc.

My personal focus was PhD program, but a prospective MS student can take benefit from this article as well. Although I am writing for applying to US universities, similar preparation will enable you to apply with ease to any other universities in the world.

Applying to US Universities, an overview

The first thing you need is an overview of the whole process. There are many such great articles, forums that discuss about it in details. You should start with CMU's Mor Harchol-Balter's article "Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Computer Science" <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf > or <http://www.naushadzaman.com/gradschooltalk.pdf >. This is a big article but the best article written in this category.

There is another article that is very useful for Bangladeshi students. It was written by a Chinese for Chinese students. As US education system is different from ours, it is useful to understand their education system first before applying to USA. This will help you to understand what you should focus in applying to US universities. This is BeBeyond's 9 step guide <http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/bebeyond-9-step-guide-for-applying-at.html >.

Another very useful guide for applying to US is available by Natalia <http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide.htm > from Caltech. Her guide on every step is very useful.

Yet another article that also did the same as what I am trying to do in this article; compiled all steps. You can check it here: <http://www.techenclave.com/forums/guide-applying-engineering-grad-schools-us-63834.html >
in case you cannot find the post in this link, check <http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/httpwww.html >

There are few popular and resourceful forums, e.g. <http://www.urch.com/forums/ > <http://www.edulix.com/forum/>. You should check these forums for each step of your preparation.

Timeline Applying to US Universities is a long process. Conversely, for an admission to a university or any other educational institution in our country, we just need to appear at an admission test and at best face an interview, nothing more. For an admission to a US university, you need to prepare for GRE exams, prepare your SOP (Statement of Purpose), and collect LOR (Letter of Recommendation) from Professors as well as submit financial statements in some cases. And as we need visa for US, we need to prepare scores of things for visa, which is another big hassle. So to catch up Fall Semester (starts in September), you need to have more than a year in hand to prepare everything. Well, there are no hard and fast rules, rather mostly depends on you, but it is better if you start early.

Now the question is, exactly how many days one needs to prepare for applying to US. It depends from person to person, but I will try to give a guideline in general. Let's start with our deadline. For the best universities the deadline usually is between December 15 and January 15. After that other mediocre universities follow. I will give timeline based on earliest deadline, presuming that you can make your own timeline. Before proceeding to that I will let you know what you need to do to prepare for applying to a US University.

i. Prepare and appear at General GRE (Target scores should be Verbal: 560+, better if 600+; Maths: 750+, better if 800, for applying to most A grade universities. But there are exceptions, I only had 360 in Verbal section! But definitely it helps to have a higher score, so target for more.)
ii. Appear at TOEFL (Target scores should be 90+ on iBT)
iii. Research which universities are good match for you
iv. Write SOP (Statement of Purpose)
v. Collect LOR (Letter of Recommendation)
vi. Prepare and Appear at Subject GRE (Optional but highly recommended for top-tier universities)

You will need to get qualifying score in GRE for applying to most of the schools in US. Even if you don't need GRE for a particular university (very exceptional; MIT doesn't want it and few others sometime don't), it is better to take GRE exam for your visa! Not kidding, a visa officer told so in a seminar. Reason is, usual US students qualify GRE and apply to more than 1/2 universities. So they expect you to go through the same process and they take it as a proof that you are a bona-fide student and really serious about studying in US, so you did whatever it takes to get the admission. In this regard my suggestion is, at first complete the GRE and TOEFL whenever you manage time. Go through the GRE/TOEFL section for suggestions regarding preparing for those exams. If you study seriously and regularly for 2-3 months, you can get good scores in the General GRE. 3rd and 4th year of your undergraduate studies are good time for taking the GRE exams. So, try to complete these steps well before thinking of other things (Usually GRE remain valid for 5 years). But still, if you have already passed the 3rd and 4th year, then start now and spend 2/3 months.
For TOEFL you will just need to know the format, nothing else. I suggest you to complete the TOEFL exams after the General GRE, it helps.
Top ranked schools highly recommend/require for Subject GREs. It's better to complete the subject GRE as well. I didn't and I don't have regrets for that as I am happy with my admission. But if you don't want to risk then you should complete the subject GRE as well and its good to appear at the subject GRE just after completing the undergraduate studies, as everything is fresh in your mind at that time.

Deadline: 15 December [Earliest deadline]

Submit Everything: Before 15 November to 1 December [Deadline - (minus) 15 to 30 days: Submit as early as possible (especially if you need financial aid), so that if you miss anything you can update/modify it in the last minute. One thing you should understand that all of your documents must reach before the deadline. So it doesn't help if you had submitted before deadline, but it reached after deadline. You have to make sure and send everything using the fastest and safest mode of transfer such as prominent international courier services.]
Research universities, Write SOP, Collect LOR: October and November [2 months before submitting: You can do all these simultaneously. But you need to spend time for these as well, the way you spend time for GRE!]Complete GRE, TOEFL: September [You can spend one month for taking the exams, e.g. early September for GRE then one/two weeks later for TOEFL exam, which is end of September. In case you need to take the GRE again, you still have time. So try to sit for the exam even earlier.]Prepare for GRE, TOEFL: July, August [At least two months regularly and seriously practice GRE]

This is a very customizable thing and you can schedule in your own way. But many people asked me to give a template, that's why just sharing my own one. I hope you get the picture and can do your own.

In next sections, I will point out for articles that will describe how to prepare for each step.
How to GRE
General GRE: For general GRE I wrote an article after my exam. This article has my suggested pointers and my suggestions, so check if it interests you.

Subject GRE: I will not mention names, but I have seen students who were in probation (because of CGPA lower than 2.0) at my university, i.e. BRAC University, and went to other university and passed with CGPA 3.5+. So think how the admission committee of US and other university will be able to judge you and your CGPA, when they don't even know about your university! It's better to take the Subject GRE right after the completion of your undergraduate study. It is valid for 5 years, I guess. As I didn't take the subject GRE, I cannot give suggestions about that. Search for it, you will find many useful information. One thing I must tell you that, if your CGPA is low because of some problem during your undergraduate study then you can take Subject GRE and they will value your Subject GRE scores more than your CGPA.

For further suggestions, also take benefit from:
<http://www.urch.com/forums/ >

How to TOEFL
I wrote an article on my TOEFL experiences after my TOEFL exam as well. This article has my suggested pointers and suggestions, so check if it interests you. http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-toefl-ibt.html

For further suggestions, also take benefit from:
<http://www.urch.com/forums/ >

How to Research for Universities that are good match for you Every year thousands of Indian and Chinese students go to US for higher education and all of them are not the best caliber students. It's true that they have more people than we do, but we have many more prospective students with equal caliber, who should apply to US for higher education. The fact is, Indians and Chinese people have understood the applying process very well and there are people out there who can help and guide them, may be voluntarily or on payment. But they are getting the guidance. Now in the internet you can find every suggestion you need, and I tried to give links to articles that will be useful for you. But one of the most important parts of the application process is selecting where to apply. There are many universities with similar quality, but some are tougher than others to get in (may be some are more demanding because of geographical location, etc). Again, if you apply only to top 5 or 10 universities, you may end up not getting any admits. But if you apply to 5/10 universities wisely then you may get at least 30% acceptance. Bottom line is, you have to understand where you should apply and the Indians and Chinese people have mastered this technique, that's why they are getting more opportunities.

You should read two sub-sections from two articles for understanding the process of selecting universities.
- Check "5. Choose the Right Schools for You" section from <http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/bebeyond-9-step-guide-for-applying-at.html >
- Check the guideline from gradschooltalk.pdf's <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf > or <http://www.naushadzaman.com/gradschooltalk.pdf > "3.7 How many schools should you apply to?" and "5. Choosing the right PhD program for you" section.As these articles have described it so nicely, I won't write much here. But I will like you to remember few things.

- Don't just apply to top ranked or your category universities. You should apply to 3 categories of universities, your level, above your level and below your level. Your level is where students of your category get admitted (You can ask other students in the forums, <http://www.urch.com/forums/ > <http://www.edulix.com/forum/>); above your level is the ambitious university list, which you should apply so that if you get lucky you could go to a better place!; below your level is the safe list, which is the alternative. This category is where you are confident that you should get an admission. From each category you should at least apply to 1/2 universities, but more at your own level, may be at least 2/3 universities. Another thing is, visa is a problem for USA, even though this year I didn't hear about anyone getting rejected with student visa from Bangladesh. But yet, I prefer to keep alternatives outside USA as well! So the ratio should be something like,
At least: your level (2/3 unis): ambitious (1/2 unis) : safe (1/2 unis) : safe outside USA (1/2 unis)
At most: your level (5/6 unis) : ambitious (4/5 unis) : safe (3/4 unis) : safe outside USA (2/3 unis)
I am giving you the maximum limit because you need to research on all universities, their professors, their students' qualifications (help you to judge if you have a good chance or not), their research projects, department, university and many more. But you may go up to 20 universities, but you should have time to spend for that. May be few extra days. And again, you should keep in mind that applying to universities is a big investment. You have to pay approx. $14 to send GRE scores to each university, $14 for TOEFL, application fees (which is as low as FREE to as much as $105), sending transcripts (mail cost) and other documents, etc. Managing everything is a bit tough, so you should limit the number of universities and select the universities wisely.

- If you have a particular research interest or experience before applying then it is a high plus point. You can sort out universities where people are working in the field of your interest actively. One thing you should understand is people working in your field will be more interested to take you. If there is a big research group in your field, then there are good funding opportunities, and they might hire students as well. So keep this in mind and these universities have more probability to hire and fund you than other universities with one or few professors in your field.
But if you don't have particular research interest or experience, no problem at all, may be Subject GRE can help you there, and good CGPA, and also general GREs are very useful for mediocre universities.

- If you have queries then write to students of professors, but not to the professors directly. Professors are usually very busy people and students are busy as well, but not as professors. And many students are very keen to help people. Email them if you have particular queries. Search the websites first. You can contact them for queries like, if his/her professors are taking students in the next Fall or not. Also give your credentials, like your results, research interest, etc, but keep it very short. If the student feels like you are a good prospective student then s/he will forward your email to the professor. You can actually write email to the professors of universities, ranked after 50, or something. In these cases, professors sometimes have the authority to take the students at their will, given they will support you and you fulfill the minimum requirement. So they are interested to get emails from good prospective students. But the problem with top ranked universities are, the admission committee decides whom to take, no matter who will fund you later. I guess that's the reason, they don't find any incentive to keep the correspondence with students. Bottom line is, if the university is ranked within 50, contact students only, after that you can consider writing to professors as well.

Which program to apply It's a good question to ask, if you want to go for MS/PhD. You can apply for a PhD program with undergraduate degree, or you can apply for a MS first. Fact is, if you can get a MS from US/Canadian Universities or from a renowned program abroad then you will have higher chance to get in to a high ranked PhD program at US. But it is hard to get the financial support during MS in USA; Canada is different. Canadian universities mostly give financial aid for MS in CS (and possibly in other disciplines as well), I got one. But don't know if it is very tough to get or not! If you have financial support from your family, then you should go for a MS first.
I am writing this article, assuming my reader a prospective PhD student. But if you are still confused whether you want a PhD or not, then I will recommend to go through the Chapter 2. Do I really want a PhD? What does a PhD entail, section of the article <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf > or <http://www.naushadzaman.com/gradschooltalk.pdf >.

How to write Statement of Purpose (SOP)This is a very important part of the application package. This is the place, where you can defend your weak part of the application, e.g. low CGPA, low GRE scores, etc. Again, this is the part where you can show the committee your vision, what you want to do with this degree, how this particular university's education will help you in your career, how you have built yourself - why they should select you, etc. Go through the following articles for better understanding of the whole process. Remember, this is not a last minute thing, even if you are a good writer, you should spend time for your SOP. Revise it again and again, remove repetitive parts, and make it precise and short.
<http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/how-to-write-successful-statement-of.html >

<http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/statement/st1/outline.htm >
Samples: <http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/statement/samples.htm >

Start with <http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/how-to-write-successful-statement-of.html > for SOP. Try answering the questions, it will be a good start. I started that way.
For polishing the SOP, check the 3.3 Personal Statement section of the article <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf > or <http://www.naushadzaman.com/gradschooltalk.pdf >.

About Letter of Recommendation Check the guideline from 3.5 Recommendations section of the article <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf > or <http://www.naushadzaman.com/gradschooltalk.pdf >.

Check these articles as well.
in case you cannot find the document then try it in my server

<http://www.dickinson.edu/career/files/lettersofrecforstudents.pdf >
in case you cannot find the document then try it in my server
<http://www.naushadzaman.com/lettersofrecforstudents.pdf >

<http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/recom.htm >
<http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/recom/dos.htm >

How to write CV I actually spent a lot of time in writing my CV, actually modifying and updating it. The information the US universities look for in a CV is not the way we write CV in Bangladesh and this is not something that can be done overnight. Your content might be ready, but you need to work with it. I actually forgot from where I got references when I built my own CV, but now found a good suggestion page, where it describe about it nicely. You can check this page.
<http://career.berkeley.edu/Phds/PhDCV.stm >

Few More Suggestions:
- Sending Application Package
Now most of the application process is online, starting from application to submitting Letter of Recommendations. But you need to send at least transcripts to the universities. It is actually very expensive to send it through DHL or FedEx. One thing many people in Bangladesh do not know much, at least I didn't know - one of my colleagues told me about it, it is the EMS (Express Mail Service, I guess). It takes max 10 days (min 5 days) to reach and it costs around 300 Tk (as far as I remember) and the other regular mail service from the govt. will take at max 30 days (min 10 days) with the cost of 100-150 Tk, whereas DHL, FedEx will cost you at least 1500 Tk in a cheaper deal as a student, but it will reach within 3 to 5 days. It really counts when you are applying to 10-15 universities. So better to apply early and send the transcripts and other packages early, so that they can get things beforehand.

- Monetary Transactions You need to make payments to universities (application fees), ETS (GRE, TOEFL test taking organization) for these exams and also for sending scores to universities, etc. These could be really quick if you have a credit card. But international credit card, issued in Bangladesh, cannot make transactions abroad from Bangladesh, there are some govt. restrictions. So if you have someone abroad, who doesn't have problem giving you the credit card, then you should use that. It saves your time and money.

It is usual that not everyone will have relatives abroad willing to give the credit card. For people in Bangladesh, I will recommend to contact people at <http://www.varsityadmission.com/ >. They give the service of online transaction with a charge of 1000 Tk per transaction. I feel it's too much, but it's not my business man! Ask them! Yet there are questions of reliability. So don't just give money to some new organization if they offer you much lower price. Get information of that organization, or person, before giving him/her money for online transaction. I personally used their service for paying my GRE registration fees only and I know people who used their service for every transaction and they are reliable. I just hope that some other people will also come forward and start the business and make the business competitive. They shouldn't charge more than 200-300 Tk for each transaction, it's still too much. But if you pay it by bank drafts, then you also need to send it through courier service, then you will end up spending lot more than 1000 Tk. So, it's still a better option.

- How to USA Visa Interview
When you get the admission at US university then visa interview is another big hassle. Good thing is now they are giving student visa quite easily, but the visa process is another big story :) I wrote my experience about that as well. You can find it here:
<http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/06/usa-visa-howto-and-my-visa-experience.html >

- Getting Ticket
For buying ticket you should talk to more than one travel agent and ask for the quotations. See first who can give you the cheapest price, in which airlines. Check the baggage weight and size restrictions of that airline before buying the ticket.

- After Visa WhatNow you are ready to go after visa, so you should pack up your things. You should talk to people at your university, that city, state, regarding what to take for that particular place's climate, and also some books and few other things, other than these all are general things, so nothing to worry much. I found one article in my hard disk about what to take. Shared it in my blog. Find it here:
http://naushadzaman.blogspot.com/2007/07/after-visa-what-do-i-do-after-visa.html >

After that you are in USA and you build your own future :) and my article stops here. I hope the article was useful. Even if a single person is benefited from this, then I will feel myself successful. Feel free to send me your feedbacks and suggestions. And please feel free to forward this article to people, who you think could be benefited from it.
Good luck with your application process.
Take care. Naushad
Naushad UzZaman

Who Am I Well, I started writing this article for my friends and juniors at university and high school. In that case I really don't need to introduce myself. But as I continued compiling things, I felt that many Bangladeshi people could be benefited from this article, so I expect my readers to forward this to people who will be interested to get these suggestions. Regarding me, I received Computer Science PhD offers from University of Rochester (NY, USA), University of Pittsburgh (PA, USA), University of Texas at Dallas (TX, USA) and University of North Texas (TX, USA); Computer Science MS offers from Columbia University (NY, USA), University of Alberta (Canada) and offer for Masters program on Computer Science and Language Technology, funded by European Union with Erasmus Mundus scholarship. All with full funding except Columbia. I ended up going to University of Rochester for my PhD from Fall 2007.

I must acknowledge few people as they have contributed a lot in my admission process.
- My father, who is my best friend and my mentor as well, for discussing and suggesting what to do in every step of the admission process; even the first draft of this article with scores of grammatical mistakes was corrected by him.
- Dr. Mumit Khan, my mentor, for literally shaping my career and particularly helping me in selecting universities and writing SOP in this admission process.
- Recommenders: Dr. Mumit Khan, Associate Professor - CSE Department and Head - CRBLP, BRAC U; Dr. Sayeed Salam, Associate Professor and Chair - CSE Department, BRAC U; Mr. Matin Saad Abdullah, Lecturer, BRAC U; for recommending me.
- Saria Choudhury, my GRE partner.
- Sajib Das Gupta, Naira Khan, Zahurul Islam, Taniya Siddique and other colleagues at BRAC University, for helping me at different times during my application process.
- BRAC University Registrar's office for helping in sending transcripts. Sabeka apa, Irish apa and Shreyasee Di.
- My choto chacha, for helping in my online transactions.
- Last but not the least, my family - mother, father, brother and new bhabi, for being my inspiration, encouraging me in every step and also giving constant support.
- And many more people, whom I can't remember because of my poor memory.. :(


Jubair Sieed said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts & also for those useful links ...

Shouhardo said...

great work

Rafan Alam said...

Thank you so much for this resourceful article. Great job!

Logistics Glasgow said...

Some great advice here, thanks