Choosing a graduate program at a US college or university can be a challenge for international students, because the system by which the programs operate is quite different than most other countries. The following steps can be helpful when going through the selection process.
Step 1: Conduct Research on the Value of a Graduate Education from the US
Although in many countries a degree from a school in the US is highly valued and readily acknowledged, some countries may not officially recognize, or may recognize at a different level, a graduate degree from the US. This is particularly true in countries where school systems are markedly different. Students, from these countries in particular, should have a clear sense of not only what value a degree from a US college will add to their career in their home country, but why they prefer to study in the US. If their primary goal is to gain knowledge and experience, rather than certification or preliminary required schooling, an American college can be an excellent choice for these students.
Interviewing others in the student’s community who have received graduate degrees in the US, or are currently teachers or working professionals in the desired field of study, can be informative. Students should consider where they are in their career, how additional education would help increase earning potential, and what recertification or validation may be required upon returning to their home country.
The United States Department of Education provides trained educational advisers for international students who seek information and advice regarding traveling to the US to study. These advisers are available in students’ home countries through American embassies and consulates. They can assist by answering questions about:
- Equivalency between educational systems in the student’s home country and the US
- Planning a path of education, and entry requirements for study in different fields
- Finding and comparing institutions and programs
- Financial assistance available from the student’s home country and the US
- Preparing applications and taking standardized testing
- What to expect from academic and cultural life in America
- Getting the most benefit from a graduate degree in the student’s home country
A list of advising centers is provided on the Department of Education’s website for international students.
Step 2: Learn How Graduate Studies are Structured at US Colleges and Universities
After students graduate with a baccalaureate degree from an undergraduate program, they have the choice of pursuing a more in-depth education in a specialized field by pursuing a master’s degree. For some fields, this additional education provides sufficient qualification. However, in some fields, a doctoral degree is expected. Graduate study refers to these two degree options.
Step 3: Set Criteria for Preferred Programs
Prospective students should consider carefully the answers to what, where, when, why and how questions when it comes to graduate studies. Hundreds of thousands of students come to the US from other countries each year to get an American education because of the diversity, flexibility and quality of US colleges and universities. But because there is so much opportunity, there is also a lot of decision making to be done when it comes to finding the right program. A student who is clear on what they plan to study, how it will benefit them in the long term, and what kind of program will suit their individual needs, will find the selection process much easier.
Making sure a US graduate program is properly accredited by the United States Department of Education (USDE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is important for five primary reasons:
- The US government only issues student visas to students who have been accepted to accredited programs
- Government regulations of the student’s home country may require a program to be accredited
- Financial aid sources often require that programs be accredited
- Accreditation assures that the student will receive a high quality education
- Employers in the student’s home country will most likely prefer graduates of accredited programs
Step 4: Compare Options
Using Internet searches, printed directories, materials provided by individual schools, compare:
- Field of Study – A school should not only offer a program suited to the student’s field, but one that is a good match to the student’s learning style, career objectives and level of ambition.
- Admission, Course and Thesis Requirements – The structure of programs, the approach to learning, and the required coursework can vary greatly from one college to another. Careful comparison of all requirements is essential, as well as length of time necessary to complete a program. Many schools require acceptable scores on standardized tests including the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
- Reputation – US schools are not officially ranked. There are some popular lists, but the selection criteria often do not reflect true academic value. They can offer a good place to start, but students should consider all factors.
- Faculty – Assistantships and fellowships are often awarded to students who share similar research interests with current faculty, so it is important to research the reputation of the faculty members within a prospective department, and interview current and former graduate students.
- Private or Public – Universities that are supported by government grants tend to be considerably less expensive than private universities. However, the quality of education at a private school may exceed that of a public school.
- Size – Students should consider not just how many students attend the school, but also how many are in the field of study, the department, and classes. Some campuses may have 200 students, with limited choices in degree programs and exposure to different cultures and communities, but offer a more personal approach to education. A large institution may have 60,000 students, with greater diversity and better academic facilities, but be more impersonal.
- Location – Not only are universities and colleges located throughout varied geographical regions and climates in the US, but they can be found in small towns, metropolitan areas, and everywhere in between. Urban campuses usually offer more variety in food, entertainment and shopping facilities, and more diversity in student populations. They also tend to be more considerably more expensive.
- Tuition and Expenses – When comparing the cost of attending different schools, keep in mind tuition, fees, books and software, lab fees, housing and utilities, food, travel, entertainment, local transportation and parking, medical care and insurance, and unanticipated expenses. Although tuition may be affordable, cost of living may be prohibitive. Research into financial assistance can be time consuming for international students.
- Practical Experience – Internships (voluntary or paid work placement) or overseas study are frequently included in US degree program curricula. Students pursuing a professional master’s degree program may be particularly interested in these kinds of programs, due to practical experience they will gain.
- Student Services – Most universities offer students a broad range of services to assist them in getting the most out of their education. Libraries, campus orientation programs, housing and meal plans, legal aid, medical and counseling services, day care facilities for students with families, tutors and writing laboratories, English as a Second Language programs, computer labs, career counseling, and events for international students are commonly offered. Students should weigh the value of these services against the size of the school and cost of tuition.
- Foreign Studies Departments – A thriving foreign studies department can make a big difference for students far away from home. The size of the department (how many students and faculty), what kinds of resources are available, and frequency and types of social events are all important to note. Ask to speak with international students who are currently attending the school, or have recently graduated.
- Accommodation for Disabilities – It is recommended that students with disabilities ensure that a university can not only accommodate their specific needs, but offer an abundance of supportive resources. Some assistive programs are free of charge and readily available, while others require prearrangement and fees. The school’s office for disabled student may arrange for interviews with other students with similar disabilities.
Step 5: Complete Applications
After selecting 4 to 7 desirable programs, complete the application process. If possible, arrange a campus visit. Acceptance results, financial aid offers, timeliness of responses, and interactions with faculty and students will provide valuable information to support a final decision.
- University Fairs – Sometimes representatives of U.S. colleges visit other countries as part of university fairs. The US Department Education provides a schedule of fairs available around the world.
- Campus Visits – Visiting a campus while comparing different programs can make all the difference. Most school admissions offices organize campus tours led by current students.
- Educational Consultants – A properly qualified educational consultant or recruiting agent who works in a student’s home country can be helpful in providing evaluative information. Consultants should be able to provide references that can be easily contacted to verify their helpfulness, and local US Department of Education advising centers may have information on the validity of the services offered.