Completing and Returning the Application Materials
Completing and Returning the Application Materials

"Try to arrange references and transcripts several months in advance of the deadline — it needs organization, especially in countries where these things work in a different way."
— Literature student from Hungary

Once you have received information from the universities, read everything thoroughly. Most schools require similar information but they may ask for it in different ways. You will usually be asked to provide the following items.
Application Form

"Take your time and do a thorough job of filling in the forms. Take a break when you need one. Start early and mail them early!"
— Clinical psychology student from Ghana

Your application form should be neat and clear to create a good impression. Unless it specifically asks you to complete the forms by hand, use a typewriter or word processor. You should fit your information into the application form provided and only use additional pages where necessary. Keep your personal information consistent and always spell your name the same way on all documents. This will help schools keep track of your application materials more easily. Remember that large U.S. universities handle thousands of student records annually.

Do not worry about providing a U.S. Social Security Number — either leave the section blank or write "none," according to instructions. Avoid abbreviations; it is better to write the names and addresses of your schools, employers, examinations, and awards in full. Always provide information about your education or employment experiences in a logical order that is either chronological or reverse chronological order, as required. You will also be asked when you want to start your studies and the degree you hope to receive. The information you receive from each institution should include a list of the exact majors and degree programs offered by that school. Be sure you list the major as stated in these materials.

Application Fee

Almost all universities charge a nonrefundable application fee that covers the cost of processing your application. It must be paid in U.S. dollars either by a dollar cashier's check drawn on a U.S. bank or by an international money order. These are obtainable from banks or American Express offices. Check the school's application form, Web site, or catalog for the current application fee and possible methods of payment. Be sure to submit the appropriate application fee with the application. If someone in the United States or elsewhere is paying the fee for you, send the application to that person and ask that the fee and application be mailed together to the university.

Academic Credentials

Each university will specify the types of official records it requires to document past education. In American terms, these are called transcripts and include a list of courses that students have taken, when they were taken, and grades received for each course. Usually, the university will require your entire scholastic record from secondary school and/or university sources in a similar manner.

The U.S. school may furnish special forms on which authorities at your school are asked to write your grades and academic performance relative to other students in your institution. If such forms are not provided, your school still will be expected to submit official documents that provide this kind of information on university letterhead with the school stamp. If the admissions officer requests an explanation of the grading and class ranking system or descriptions of courses that you have taken, this information should be furnished by an official of your school or university, if possible.

U.S. universities will either evaluate your grades and documents themselves, or they sometimes require international applicants to pay an outside company, called a credential evaluator, to evaluate your documents.

As requested, send certified copies of the originals of diplomas, degrees, or professional titles, and copies of full records of your performance in any comprehensive examinations administered in your home country. U.S. admissions officers prefer that transcripts of previous educational work be sent with your application in an envelope sealed by your former school or sent directly from the school. Do not send original documents unless there is no alternative; usually they cannot be returned. Copies should be certified with an official seal from the school or university, or certified by a public official authorized to certify such documents.

If English translations are necessary, you may use the services of a professional translator or translate the documents yourself. Such translations must also be certified by an acceptable agency. Some EducationUSA information and advising centers translate and certify documents to assist you with the application process. There may be a charge for such services. Do not attempt to convert your school results and courses into American terms. Instead, try to provide as much background information as possible on the grading system used and the types of degrees awarded.

Test Score Reporting

When you apply to take the GRE, GMAT, MAT, TOEFL, or other examinations, you should know which universities you wish to apply to. In this way, you will be able to specify at that time that you wish your scores sent to those universities. You will save time and money by sending the scores at test time rather than requesting separate scores at a later date. When you submit an application, also include a photocopy of your test score reports, if possible. The admissions office can more easily match the official scores with your application and, in some instances, they may begin processing your application with only the photocopy.

Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

"Think about what you want to achieve in the U.S. — you can be sure that each college will ask you this question, and a well thought out answer is critical."
— M.B.A. student from the United Kingdom

"It is important that your dedication to your field resonates in your application. Be sure and explain any academic difficulties you might have experienced and what you did to correct them. Extracurricular activities give the admissions committee an idea as to the type of person that you are."
— Medical student from Ghana

"Remain truthful not just because it is ethical, but because it is powerful."
— Management Information Systems student from India

Almost all graduate programs ask applicants to submit a personal statement, or statement of purpose, as part of the application process. The personal statement gives universities a chance to get a glimpse of you as an individual, an insight that is not possible in the grades and numbers that make up the rest of your application. The goal is to write a clear, concise, and persuasive statement that sincerely reflects your views and aspirations. The admissions committee that reviews applications wants to see if there is a good match between you and the department or school and whether the degree program can meet your needs.

The statement of purpose is an important part of the application, and it is essential that you write the best statement possible. It is an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself from other applicants. The personal statement is not meant to be an autobiography in chronological order; instead, use your imagination to come up with an interesting format and content that will maintain the reader's interest.

Four important questions should be answered in the statement of purpose:
  • Why do you wish to pursue a graduate degree, and why now? The university will often ask about your career goals and how they relate to your past experiences and your decision to apply for graduate study.
  • What are your academic or research interests? The admissions committee will be looking for a good match between you and the department to ensure that they can satisfy your interests. They are also looking for a demonstration of intellectual maturity and understanding of your field.
  • Why are you applying to this particular institution and degree program? Tailor each statement of purpose to the specific program and institution, including, if possible, references to professors you wish to work with, courses you wish to take, and unique facilities available at the institution. Admissions officers want to see that you have done careful research about their program and that you are a serious candidate.
  • What can you contribute to the department or program in terms of your background, abilities, or other special qualities and interests? Discuss any relevant past experiences and achievements, as well as any special qualities you feel you can bring to the program, such as your international perspective.
Some general tips:
  • Make sure you answer the question that has been asked. Once you have done an outline for a statement, go back and check that it answers the question, then do the same with each draft of your essay.
  • Stick to the word limit given. If a limit is not given, keep the statement to two or three sides of paper, typed or word processed, and double-spaced.
  • Make sure that your statement is a true representation of yourself and your abilities — it is important that the essay be genuine and honest.
  • Admissions officers read many essays. Since some programs are extremely competitive, try to have an interesting first sentence that grabs the reader's attention and makes the essay more memorable.
  • Address any obvious gaps or weak points in your application either in a separate cover note or in the application essay, but always keep the explanation positive. For example, state what you learned from a difficult experience and how it has made you a better student.
  • Get someone you trust to proofread each statement of purpose for grammatical and spelling errors. Make sure statements are clear, interesting, and logically organized. The personal statement is an important demonstration of your written communication skills.

"Anecdotes are much better than strings of adjectives and adverbs."
— Associate Dean of Admissions, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

You will usually be asked for at least two recommendations. Your recommenders (or references or referees) must be able to write about your work and be able to assess your potential to do well in graduate school. Ideally, they should be written by professors who have taught you in the past, if you are applying for an academic degree program; however, if you are not a recent graduate, one recommendation can be from an employer. For professional programs, references from employers and professors are acceptable.

Some universities send recommendation forms with the application; if so, ask your recommenders to use these forms and to follow the instructions printed on them. If there are no specific instructions, ask three or four professors, administrators, or employers who know you well to type letters on their own letterhead in English, and either place them in a sealed envelope for you to send with your application or send them directly to the university.

Recommendations should include:
  • a statement about the type and amount of experience they have with your academic work or employment;
  • an estimate of how your work compares with others in the same field with whom they have experience;
  • an assessment of your particular strengths;
  • your rank in their class, department, or university, if they know it;
  • an assessment of your research experience and ability, if known.
U.S. universities expect letters of recommendation to emphasize a student's positive qualities and to be longer and more detailed than might be customary in your home country. It is important to understand these cultural differences when choosing your recommenders. Poorly written, negative, or late recommendations will reflect on your judgment in picking referees. Recommendation forms may ask a list of questions or just one general question. Since recommendations carry considerable weight in the admissions process, take the time to brief your recommenders about your plans, where you would like to study, and why.

A recommendation form may include a waiver where you can relinquish your right to see what is written about you. If this option is offered, most admissions officers prefer you to waive your right so that recommenders may feel more comfortable when writing their evaluations. Admissions officers usually interpret waived recommendations as more honest. If your recommendations must be sent directly from your referees, it is common courtesy to give them stamped, addressed envelopes. Also allow plenty of time for your referees to write their recommendations. Remind them to sign the sealed flap of each envelope before mailing it to an institution. Check back with your recommenders to confirm that the reference forms have actually been sent to the United States.

Financial Statement

Most universities include a form called a Declaration and Certification of Finances or Affidavit of Financial Support in their application packets. This document must be signed by whomever is meeting your university expenses. It may also have to be certified by a bank or lawyer. Keep a copy of this form since you may also need it to apply for your student visa. Schools usually need to know that you have sufficient funds to cover at least the first year's expenses, although many may also ask you to indicate your source of income for the entire period of study. If you know when you apply that you will need some form of assistance from the university or other sources, such as scholarship programs, indicate how much you plan to request or apply for. Please note, however, that the university will issue the relevant certificate of eligibility for a student visa only if you are able to document fully your source(s) of income.

Some academic departments or schools operate a policy whereby your application for admission will be considered first, and then they will consider your need for financial aid. Other schools and departments that have limited or no financial aid available for their students will give higher priority to applicants who do not need financial support from the university.

Deadlines and Submission

Each graduate department within a university sets its own deadline date, and it is usually firm about not accepting applications after that time, particularly if a program is very popular. For the fall semester, which begins in late August or early September, deadlines are usually between January and March, although they can be as early as November or as late as June or July. If, however, an institution indicates that it operates "rolling admissions," late applicants may still have a fair chance of acceptance. In this case, a university will admit and reject candidates until the program is filled. It is nonetheless a good idea to submit your application as early as possible.

Some universities accept enrollment for any of their terms, although many institutions prefer to enroll graduate students for the fall term. For schools that operate on a semester calendar, midyear admission is some time in January. Universities that use the quarter system (three terms) may offer admission both in the winter term (January) and the spring term (March). The precise date differs for each institution. Deadlines for mid-year admissions are usually six to nine months in advance of enrollment. If you are applying for admission in January, take any admissions tests at least six months beforehand.

It is your responsibility to ensure that all documents, application forms, references, and official test score reports reach the universities safely and on time. Often the closing date for students from other countries is earlier than for U.S. students. Usually applications for scholarships or fellowships must be submitted earlier than applications for admission.

If at all possible, send all required documents, including certified academic credentials and letters of recommendation, together in one envelope that have been placed in sealed envelopes. (Some institutions require that all materials arrive together.) Attach a note to any documents that bear a different name or different spelling from the standard one that you are using, and give the same first, second, and family name you used on your application form. Again, use the name on your passport if possible.

Send your application by registered mail or by courier, or submit the electronic application and mail all supporting documents. Keep copies of your application and documents just in case your material gets lost in the mail; you will be relieved to know that you can supply another set of information quickly, if this should happen.

After you have submitted all required documents, you should confirm with the university that your application is complete. Allow a reasonable amount of time before following up, probably three to four weeks after submission of the documents. Do not correspond too often. Remember that the admissions office is trying to process a large number of applications, and the more correspondence it has to answer, the slower the application process. Allow at least six to eight weeks after completion of the application for a decision to be made. Some programs and institutions may take as long as three to four months, and many institutions review all completed applications at the same time and issue acceptances between March and May.

Throughout the application process, do your best to comply with instructions. If some procedure is impossible for you to complete or some document is lost or cannot be obtained, state the situation in a letter and send it to the school along with a letter from the relevant authorities who can support or authenticate your problem. Sometimes accommodations will be made for difficult circumstances.