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Prepared by my student chhavi who is doing PhD from Yale University

USA is a very popular destination for higher studies. US universities encourage research and are up-to-date with advanced technology and literature to further research in a many fields of study. Many post-graduate students who wish to apply for PhD to universities in USA get cold feet at the last moment because they have heard that GRE is a very tough exam to crack, or that without a foreign internship on your CV your application will not be accepted. Many students tend to believe that since their application is going to be one amongst many from all over the world, their CV might be inferior to that of students of other nations or that their recommendations might not be strong enough. Well, here is some general information about applying to foreign universities that should bust some such myths. Preparing for applying abroad is not difficult; it is only a time-consuming process. If tacked meticulously, you can stand a very good chance of being selected.

1.      Find your area of interest

Much before you actually apply, you must find the field that interests you the most. If you’re a post-graduate in physics, you must have studied many branches of physics during your undergraduate & post-graduate degree courses. By now, you must know which field fascinates you most; if you’re lucky you may be able to narrow down your interests to particular topics in that field. In case you don’t know your area of interest, I suggest you read journals, books, scientific papers and newspaper articles to get to know the current developments in your field of study. This’ll make you up-to-date with the topics of research in your field and give you an idea of the variety of topics open to you for research. This often helps us choose our area of interest.

2.      Short-list universities

Once you know which area of study fascinates you the most, access the internet and search for universities where professors are currently working in that area. This is a time-consuming activity and you will have to devote more than a month to it. So, ensure you are done with this search much before college admission procedure starts (usually November).

Searching for universities can be a tedious job. one way to streamline your search is by searching for scientific papers in your field of interest and finding out the universities where the authors teach. Similarly, you may search journals or books, find out from your friends/seniors/teachers. Another way is to access websites like US News Ranking. This website is a reliable website that gives the rank-wise listing of the universities that have a department teaching your subject. Your search will be according to the broad subject-e.g Physics, Astrophysics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Geology, Geophysics, Planetary Sciences etc. (choose the subject you completed post-graduation in).  Once you know the universities that offer the broad field, open the website of each university and explore if they are doing research in your area of interest. If yes, you may jot down the name of the appropriate department, university and its professors whose work you like. By the end of your search, you will have a list of universities you want to apply to, professors in them you want to work under and the respective ranks of those universities. You can arrange the universities according to your preference or their rank, whichever is more important to you.

3.      Read articles/papers (if possible), contact professors

You may already have started reading scientific literature on the progress research has made in your area of interest. In case you haven’t, try to do so now. It helps broaden your mind to the options and opportunities available to you. It also helps you get to know the prominent scientists who are working in that field. The next step is to contact through mail these professors and the professors you shortlisted while searching for universities. The purpose of contacting professors before you apply under them is that if they hear your name beforehand, there is a possibility they may give your application a closer consideration among the huge number of applications they might be getting each year. However, this doesn’t guarantee selection.

A smart way to contact professors is to ask them a doubt that you might have in a paper they wrote; professors in most universities are very friendly and appreciate students asking them questions and discussing problems intelligently with them. By doing this, you will have an opportunity to interact closely with him and he may be able to judge your zeal and caliber himself. As you apply under him eventually, he may be more likely to choose you if your application matches his other selection criteria. Alternatively, the typical way to mail professors is to introduce yourself to them, share your keen interest in their research work and convey your area of interest to them and your inthusiasm towards research. Express your wish to work under them. Some professors do not reply; do not spam their inbox. If a professor is interested in your application, he will tell you how to apply. In case a professor doesn’t wish to accept a student that year, he will tell you so (this is good because then you wont spend time and money applying to that college).

4.      Register for GRE (general and advance), TOEFL/IELTS and prepare:

There are no written entrance exams for applying for PhD to any college in the US. You only need to qualify the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Mentioning the general GRE score is mandatory for all applicants. There is no defined syllabus for the general GRE exam. There are 2 parts to the exam- verbal (English) and quantitative (math). The English section aims to test your skill at the English language-your grasp over English vocabulary, grammar, understanding of the language, as well as how effectively, efficiently, concisely and briefly you can put your point across in English. This section also tests your reasoning and analytical abilities. The quantitative part has multiple choice type questions in basic mathematics (up to class 10). For some subjects, colleges require students to qualify the advanced GRE too which is subject-specific like GRE in  Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computer science. There is a defined syllabus for these exams.

Foreign nationals also have to prove that they can communicate in English by submitting scores of exams like TOEFL or IELTS. More information about all these exams can be obtained from their respective websites. Depending on how good you are at speaking, writing and understanding English, it may take you 3 months to 1 week to prepare for these exams. Some good books to study from are Kaplan, Barrons, Princeton Review. Do attempt online tests too. Widening your vocabulary is very important for these tests.

These exams do not have a “cut off”; you cannot pass or fail in them. Scores are relative and no university displays its minimum requirements. General GRE is more of a qualifying criterion. The top score does not guarantee admission neither should a poor score dishearten you. An above-average score is re-assuring, but each application is evaluated as a whole. Only GRE scores are not the criterion for selection or rejection. 

NOTE: ensure that you write GRE and TOEFL/IELTS much before colleges start accepting applications. You have to register yourself for these tests atleast 2 months in advance, and your test scores will be available online 20 days after the exam. However, the score cards take longer to reach. To ensure that score cards reach your targeted universities within the deadline, take your exams atleast 1 month before application-procedure begins.

 5.      Prepare application:

Preparing your application is a long process but it is very crucial to your selection. Many students may have very high credentials but may not be able to present their application in a pleasing manner. In contrast, a neat and well-presented application may seem more impressive even if the credentials are not so high. Hence, how you organize your application will have an effect on how you present yourself to the selectors.  Following are some things to keep in mind:

Note:  on each page of the word/excel document that you type, leave a 2inch margin at the top. Include your name as well as the page number of that document as a header. Every document must start with the topic like “Work Experience” or “Statement of purpose”.

                 I. Draft an SOP, edit it repeatedly:

The statement of purpose is a very very very important part of your application. A statement of purpose (SOP) is a brief essay in which you have to convey your achievements, your area of interest, your work-experience, your knowledge, your passion for the subject and for research and your future goals, to the panel of selectors. In effect, it is a summary of your entire application and subtly, it should convince the reader that you are the right candidate for PhD, you are able enough to do research and you will be an asset to the department. Self-praise is necessary, but it MUST BE SUBTLE. The composition must be honest, do not try to exaggerate. Make it interesting. Do not write it like your resume or a personality-sketch. Write it like a story- how you got interested in the subject, who inspired you, what you did to promote that interest, how passionately you pursued your field of interest or made efforts to know more about it, how your work-experience complements your interests or in what ways it helped you (academically or non-academically). You may even mention your hobbies apart from academic qualifications or justify any irregularity in your academic career so far. Conclude by emphasizing why you want to join that particular university, the works of which professors fascinate you the most and why you think you should be selected. Read SOPs available online or of your seniors to get an idea.

An SOP is ideally brief, concise and shouldn’t exceed 1000 words. There should be a flow in the entire composition and no part of it should seem redundant. Every paragraph (compose atleast 3 well-organized paragraphs) must have a unique, meaningful purpose and there should be connectivity between consecutive paragraphs. After you prepare your SOP, read it and re-read it. Correct grammatical errors, edit it more. Then ask your parents/ friends/ teachers/ professionals to read it and give their opinion. Was it boring? Did they think you were bragging or underplaying yourself? Can any paragraph be made more interesting or else deleted? Is the SOP conveying what you want to say? Is it organized? Is it clichéd? Do they think they’d accept an application that included this SOP? The more number of times you draft the SOP and edit it, have it read by others, the more chances it has of improving.

               II.   Prepare an impressive, neat Curriculum Vitae (CV)

The CV is a brief but accurate account of your academic and non-academic achievements as well as qualifications that are written point-wise, chronologically and neatly, under well-organized headings. Go online and find the current format of a student CV. It must include your name in bold and your contact details in the beginning. Use a neat professional font, readable font size and leave adequate space between consecutive lines or sections. Do not underline to highlight anything. You may highlight some exceptional achievements by mentioning them in bold. Include academic qualifications in reverse chorological sequence. Include academic and non-academic achievements beginning from class 12 (at the earliest). Mention work-experience. If that includes projects/training, mention topic, field, institute/organization, name of guide/head, the aim, and the conclusion/results and if any new skill was learnt. Do not write false information because you may be asked to show certificates for each achievement. A mention of the positions of responsibility held in college and co-curricular activities participated in is appreciated; they project you as someone with a well-rounded and balanced personality. If you have trained yourself in any art form for a long time, do mention that, any professional qualification you have in that art and any awards/performances you have to your credit. This shows that you can contribute to the cultural activities on campus too! If you have published paper(s) in an academic journal, it would definitely give your candidature a boost, however, do not be disappointed if you have not. Not many students of our age get this opportunity and the selectors are well aware of that. They do not expect you to have done everything, achieved the impossible or even to know everything. They only need to be convinced that you are trainable, you have a good academic foundation and that you are interested enough to work hard and be passionate about your research work.

              III.    Work experience

Work experience includes any professional job (post held) or academic/industrial internships that you may done. It may or may not be in the area of your interest. List them chronologically. Each entry must have the full title of your position/project, exact dates and duration, place of work and name of supervisor (if any). Write a brief description of your work under each post/project-the nature of your work, your work profile, aim of project, your personal contribution to the work assigned to you (in case you did any part of the research independently or individually derived any conclusion or made some important contribution to the post you held). It is important to mention the skills or sophisticated techniques you learnt during your job/training/research. In case of a project, also give the conclusion of the project and the significance of your work. 

             IV.  Recommendations-very important

One of the most important set of documents in your application is your teachers’ recommendation letters. For this, you will have to politely ask atleast 3 teachers who know you well and are familiar with your work (they could be your professors from your graduate or post-graduate courses or internship guides or your supervisor at your job), if they would recommend you to the universities to which you are applying. Tell your teachers which universities and which department you are applying to, and if necessary, mail the teachers your CV and SOP too.  Ask them for recommendation atleast a month in advance so that they have time to write the same. Letters of recommendation are given a lot of importance when applications are being evaluated since they are considered to be your evaluations by the people you have worked under in the past.

               V.   Deadlines, prepare a time-line

When short-listing colleges, prepare a table in which you write the name of each college + department and their respective application start date, deadline, general requirements like no. of transcripts you have to post/mail, which test scores to post, school/department codes (to send scores of GRE, TOELF, IELTS to those schools), specific requirements like advanced GRE, no. of recommendations required etc. Students who have studies a 3yrs of graduation of 2yrs of post-graduation are also eligible for PhD in the US despite their 4-yr bachelor’s requirement, so don’t worry about that. Ensure you meet all the eligibility criteria and have all the required documents scanned or attested or photocopied before deadline. If a college asks for original transcripts to be posted, do so atleast 2 weeks before deadline. It takes about that long for posts to reach the US from India (even though some colleges allow posts to reach even 10days after deadline, it is always better to have your application complete before deadline). 

Time is of the essence. The sooner you begin preparing, the better. All aspects of an application are given importance, yet being a little behind in one aspect can be compensated by bettering another. You cannot tell what exactly a selector is looking for, so put your best foot forward, be honest and the best shall happen with you!