Graduate education in the United States will almost certainly be different from the educational system in your country. This information provides an introduction to the graduate degrees available in the U.S., the different types of institutions that exist, and some key terms and ideas you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. university.
1. About Graduate Education in the U.S.
The graduate education system explained: masters degrees, dctoral degrees and why a degree from the United States matters.
Choosing among the numerous institutions of higher education is difficult, and the admissions process is complicated. Here’s a road map.
3. Financial Aid
The U.S. education system has developed an extensive network of financial aid to make the finest available education affordable as well.
In order to study in the United States, students take standardized tests such as the TOEFL, SAT I, SAT II Subject Tests, ACT, GRE, GMAT, and others.
Information on student visa procedures.
1. About Graduate Education in the U.S.
The two graduate degrees offered in the United States are the master’s degree and the doctoral degree; both involve a combination of research and coursework. Graduate education differs from undergraduate education in that it offers a greater depth of training, with increased specialization and intensity of instruction. Study and learning are more self-directed at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level.
Graduate courses assume that students are well-prepared in the basic elements of their field of study. Depending on the subject, courses may be quite formal, consisting primarily of lecture presentations by faculty members, or they may be relatively informal, placing emphasis on discussion and exchange of ideas among faculty and students. Seminars involve smaller groups of students than lecture courses, and students may be required to make presentations as well as participate in discussions. Class participation, research papers, and examinations are all important.
Degree requirements are stated in terms of “credits” (sometimes called “units” or “hours”), and each course usually earns three or four credits, generally reflecting the number of hours spent in the classroom and the amount of other work involved. A student will usually accumulate 24 credits per academic year if the university operates on a traditional two-semester system.
The master’s degree is designed to provide additional education or training in the student’s specialized branch of knowledge, well beyond the level of baccalaureate study. Master’s degrees are offered in many different fields, and there are two main types of programs: academic and professional.
Academic Master’s: The master of arts (M.A.) and master of science (M.S.) degrees are usually awarded in the traditional arts, sciences, and humanities disciplines. The M.S. is also awarded in technical fields such as engineering and agriculture. Original research, research methodology, and field investigation are emphasized. These programs usually require the completion of between 30 and 60 credit hours and could reasonably be completed in one or two academic years of full-time study. They may lead directly to the doctoral level. (See “Important Difference” below.)
Professional Master’s: These degree programs are designed to lead the student from the first degree to a particular profession. Professional master’s degrees are most often “terminal” master’s programs, meaning that they do not lead to doctoral programs. Such master’s degrees are often designated by specific descriptive titles, such as master of business administration (M.B.A.), master of social work (M.S.W.), master of education (M.Ed.), or master of fine arts (M.F.A.). Other subjects of professional master’s programs include journalism, international relations, architecture, and urban planning. Professional master’s degrees are oriented more toward direct application of knowledge than toward original research. They are more structured than academic degree programs, and often require that every student take a similar or identical program of study that lasts from one to three years, depending on the institution and the field of study.
Professional degree programs usually require completion of between 36 and 48 units (one to two years of full-time study), and usually do not offer a thesis option. They do not always require that the bachelor’s degree be in a specific field, but they may recommend a certain amount of prior study or coursework in the subject area.
Important Difference: One main difference between master’s programs is whether or not they are designed for students who intend to continue toward a doctoral degree. Those that specifically do not lead into doctoral programs are known as terminal master’s programs. Most professional master’s degrees fall under this category. Credits earned in terminal master’s programs may or may not be transferable or applicable in case you decide to continue toward a doctoral degree later on.
Some institutions restrict admission to certain departments solely to potential doctoral candidates, although they may award a terminal master’s degree to students who complete a certain level of coursework but do not go on to their doctoral work. Other departments require a master’s degree as part of the requirements for admission to their doctoral program.
Since policies vary from institution to institution and within various departments of each institution, it is best to check directly with individual graduate departments to determine the structure and admissions policies for their master’s and doctoral candidates.
The doctoral degree is designed to train research scholars and, in many cases, future college and university faculty members. Receipt of a doctoral degree certifies that the student has demonstrated capacity as a trained research scholar in a specific discipline.
At the doctoral level, the Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) is the most common degree awarded in academic disciplines. Other doctoral degrees are awarded primarily in professional fields, such as education (Ed.D. or doctor of education) and business administration (D.B.A. or doctor of business administration). Doctoral programs involve advanced coursework, seminars, and the writing of a dissertation that describes the student’s own original research, completed under the supervision of a faculty adviser.
A comprehensive examination is given, usually after three to five years of study and completion of all coursework, and when the student and adviser agree that the student is ready. This exam is designed to test the student’s ability to use knowledge gained through courses and independent study in a creative and original way. Students must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of their chosen field of study. Successful completion of this examination marks the end of the student’s coursework and the beginning of concentration on research.
The Ph.D. degree is awarded to those students who complete an original piece of significant research, write a dissertation describing that research, and successfully defend their work before a panel of faculty members who specialize in the discipline. This may take an additional two to three years. To earn a doctoral degree, therefore, may take anywhere from five to eight years beyond the bachelor’s degree, depending on the field of study.
In the U.S, you will find a variety of nontraditional doctoral programs; these programs might have very different types of requirements from the traditional programs. Prospective students should be sure of what is required to enter any program they are considering, and what is required to obtain the degree. This information is usually available from university catalogs and Web sites or directly from individual departments.
The academic year in the United States generally lasts nine months, from late August or early September until the middle or end of May, and it may be divided into two, three, or four academic terms depending on the institution. If the year is divided into two terms, these are called the fall and spring terms, or “semesters.” Short breaks occur during both fall and spring terms, between terms, and on public holidays. An optional summer term is often available and provides the opportunity to continue courses if you wish to accelerate your program.
It is best to start a program in the fall term (beginning in August/September). Many courses must be taken in sequence, and time may be lost in completing the degree if you start in another term. It is also easier to become accustomed to studying in the U.S. and to meet other students in the department if you start at the beginning of the academic year. Lastly, scholarship opportunities may be more readily available to students starting in the fall rather than mid-year.
Course Load and Grading Systems
“Course load” refers to the number of courses students take each term. The normal course load for a graduate student is three or four courses, which equals approximately nine to 12 credits per term. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service requires that international students take a course load that is considered full-time by the institution.
Passing grades are typically awarded on a scale of “A” through “D,” and “F” indicates a failing grade for a course. An average grade of “B” is usually the minimum required for completion of a graduate degree program. Other grading systems may include a grade-point scale from 0 to 3, 4, or 5; pass/fail; high pass/low pass; or other variations.
Credit, course load, grading systems, and requirements vary between institutions. Make sure you are aware of the policies of an individual program and institution before you apply.
Distance education is an increasingly popular way to study for everything from a short professional course to a doctoral degree in the United States, and numerous institutions offer graduate degree programs using distance education teaching methods. Under the distance education model, students do not attend classes in a classroom on a campus; instead, classes are delivered “from a distance” through the use of technologies such as the Internet, satellite television, video conferencing, and other means of electronic delivery. For international students this means that they can study for a U.S. degree without leaving their home country, though they may have to go to the U.S. for short periods of face-to-face contact and study on the campus.
Studying for a degree using distance education requires students to have special qualities such as self-discipline and the ability to work on their own. If you are considering distance education, you should thoroughly research the quality of the program, the accreditation of the institution in the U.S., and its recognition in your home country to make sure this option is the appropriate one for your future goals.
Choosing the Best Graduate Program for You.
Choosing universities from thousands of miles away presents some challenges; especially when there are so many outstanding universities to choose from in the United States. However, careful planning and advance research will help you come up with a manageable short list of institutions that match your needs. Every student is different, and it is very important to consider the factors that are important to you in both your education and your lifestyle.
This section will give you some ideas on where to get further help and information and on what academic and lifestyle factors to consider in developing a short list of universities. Finding the right academic and personal match requires careful planning, research, and networking on your part. No special formula or answer applies to everyone. You should begin the process of reflection and research 12 to 18 months before you wish to start studying in the United States.
Ø Step 1: Define Your Education and Career Goals
To help define your education and career goals, ask yourself these questions:
What career do I want to pursue? Is employment available in my country in this field? What advanced degree is required to enter this profession?
Speak to people already working in the field and to representatives of professional associations. Educational advisers or career advisers in your country may also have information about the skills and background required for various professions, as well as knowledge of the need for professionals in different fields in your country.
How will study in the United States enhance my career? Will a graduate degree help me earn a higher salary?
Consult educators, government officials, and working professionals in your country about the value of U.S. study for you at this stage in your career, including any increased earning potential. Take into account in your planning any revalidation or certification requirements for employment in your particular field when you return home.
What is the system of recognition for U.S. degrees in my country?
In many countries, a U.S. degree is highly valued, and recognition of degrees is straightforward. However, in some countries, particularly those with educational systems markedly different from that of the United States, graduate degrees from the United States may not be officially recognized, or they may be recognized at a different level. If this is the case, you may still wish to consider U.S. study to gain knowledge and experience. Check on the situation in your country with your nearest U.S. educational information or advising center or with the ministry of education or other appropriate authority before you begin your applications. Refer to the section on accreditation. This step is especially important if you are planning to undertake a professional program in the United States, because requirements for professional education usually are rigorously upheld and vary greatly from country to country.
Ø Step 2: Consult a U.S. Educational Information or Advising Center
Trained educational advisers in these offices provide information and advice about study in the United States. Advisers are available to assist you in answering questions about:
-equivalency between the educational system in your country and the United States;
-entry requirements for study in your field;
-using reference materials to find institutions that are appropriate for you;
-sources of financial assistance available in your home country and in the United States;
-testing and other application requirements;
-preparation of your applications;
-planning your education;
-adjusting to academic and cultural life in the United States;
-using your education after you return to your home country.
Ø Step 3: Develop a Short List of Programs
Deciding which institutions to apply to is one of the most important decisions you will make. It requires serious consideration. Since there is a great deal of diversity in graduate programs, it is especially important to clearly articulate what it is you wish to accomplish and find out which institutions offer the kind of program you are seeking.
Identify Universities That Offer Your Field of Study
Your first and most important step is to identify institutions that offer your subject area and any specializations you wish to pursue within that subject area. Finding the right academic “match” between you, the department, and its faculty by using the various human, electronic, and printed resources below can be the key to a successful graduate experience in the United States.
Printed Directories: There are several general directories that list institutions by degree program and include helpful articles on graduate study (see the bibliography). Professional associations for different subject areas also publish directories of university departments in the United States, including information on different specializations and faculty research interests. University catalogs provide the most specific information about the institutions and their programs. You will find many of these directories and catalogs at U.S. educational information and advising centers and in some university libraries.
Contacts: Discuss your plans with faculty members at your institution and with students who have studied in the United States. They are likely to have their own contacts in the United States and suggestions of universities to consider. Also, do not be afraid to contact universities in the United States directly with questions about their programs or to communicate with other international students in the department you’re interested in.
“Talk to someone who has gone through the process. They can provide you with information you won’t find in any school brochure.”
– Medical student from Ghana
College Web Sites and E-Mail: The United States leads the world in using the World Wide Web. Almost every U.S. university and college has a Web site that offers information about degree programs, application procedures, academic departments, faculty members, facilities on campus, and other topics. In many cases, you will also find a copy of the college catalog that you can study online or download to read later. Don’t forget that many sites also give e-mail addresses for current students, including international students, who often are happy to answer your questions about applying to the school and about campus life. Once you have narrowed down the colleges and universities you are interested in, you may wish to e-mail professors and admissions personnel to have specific questions answered before you finally decide where to apply.
College Searches on the Web: Some Web sites are independent of colleges and universities and allow you to search for institutions by the subject you are interested in studying, by geographic preference, or by a range of other criteria that you can specify. See ‘Related Links’ for Web sites offering university searches. Staff at U.S. educational information and advising centers can assist you in the use of search sites on the Internet and offer suggestions for locating information on specific programs.
“Contact universities so that you can be sure the program you are considering is exactly what you wish it to be.”
– Logistics student from Portugal
Three additional sources of information are:
U.S. University Fairs and Visits: Representatives of U.S. universities may come to visit your country. Your information or advising center can tell you about upcoming U.S. university fairs or other types of visits where you can talk to admissions officers or faculty members face-to-face. Since many fairs and tours will take place in the spring or the fall of the year before you intend to start your studies, it is important to start your research early.
Visiting Campuses: If you are able to take a vacation to the United States, this could be a great opportunity to visit campuses that interest you. Many universities organize campus tours that are led by current students; check with the admissions office for further information. Visit the academic and housing facilities, the student union, and the library to get a good sense of the campus. Americans are famous for being friendly, so talk to the students to find out what U.S. university life is really like.
Educational Consultants and Recruiting Agents: In many parts of the world, private agents or agencies work to recruit international students into U.S. colleges. There are also private educational consultants who charge a fee for assisting you with the process of choosing U.S. universities and putting together your applications. Often these educational consultants and private agents are graduates of U.S. colleges or people who are dedicated to promoting the benefits and advantages of the U.S. education system. However, sometimes they are not, so it is important to check the credentials and past performance of educational consultants or agents before using their services.
If you have found a recruiting agent or a consultant who is helpful, well informed, and dependable, she or he may be very useful in helping you to select and apply to a university in the United States. Be careful, however, to look for verifiable signs of the agent or consultant’s past success stories with students from your country. Ask the agent or consultant for a list of names and addresses of students presently studying in the United States who are there because of his or her help. Write, e-mail, or telephone some of these students to get their firsthand opinion of the college where they study and the services they received from the agent or consultant. Such precautions are especially important if the agent or consultant is asking for expensive fees for his or her services. Lastly, always check with an unbiased source (such as a U.S. educational information or advising center) to ensure the legitimacy and accreditation status of the university being represented to you.
“The Web is a vital tool as the USA is moving more and more across to this as their primary communication method.”
– MBA student from Great Britain
Check Accreditation Status
One of the major indicators of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. It is important to check that all institutions you are considering are appropriately accredited. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central governmental body that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by nongovernmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards.
While almost all U.S. universities hold widely recognized forms of accreditation, it must be noted that accreditation in the United States is a complex area; there are different types of accreditation (institutional and programmatic) and a large number of accrediting bodies. There is also no legal requirement that degree-offering institutions be accredited or hold a particular form of accreditation. Because of this complexity, you should check carefully whether a degree from the institutions you are applying to will be recognized by your homecountry government and by any relevant professional associations, ministries, and employers. Also talk to graduates who have returned to your country to see if they have been successful in applying degrees earned from such institutions to their chosen professions.
U.S. educational information and advising centers can advise you regarding recognition of U.S. degrees in your country and tell you whether a particular U.S. degreeoffering institution is appropriately accredited. For more detailed information on the topic of accreditation see Short-term Study.
Rankings: There is no official list of the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 universities in the United States. The U.S. government does not rank universities. Rankings that you may come across are usually produced by journalists and are likely to be subjective. They generally are based on a wide range of criteria that do not necessarily include academic standards or general reputation as a primary factor. Be particularly wary of rankings that do not explain the criteria on which the ranking is based. The more established rankings may give you a starting point for your decision; however, the “best” college is the one that is right for you based on factors such as those suggested in this chapter.
Internship or Overseas Study Programs: Many U.S. universities have incorporated into their curriculum internship (voluntary or paid work placements) or overseas study (“study abroad”) programs that may be of interest to you, particularly if you are undertaking a professional master’s degree program.
Size: Some institutions are small and offer degrees in one or two fields of study; some are very large and offer degrees in many fields. When choosing where to apply, you should consider the size of the institution, as well as the size of the department and degree program. A large institution may offer better academic facilities, while a small institution may offer more personal services. The same is true of the size of the degree program. A large program that has many students may not provide the individual attention you need; however, there may be more diversity within the faculty and student body, and more assistance may be available from other students. A small degree program may not expose you to as wide a range of views in your chosen field.
Student populations on U.S. campuses can range in size from 200 to 60,000 students. Some universities resemble small cities with their own post offices, grocery stores, and shopping centers. Other institutions may be in large, densely populated urban areas but have a very small enrollment. Determine what opportunities are important to you, and read the university catalogs closely with these in mind.
Location: Universities are located in all parts of the United States, from major cities where many institutions may exist, to rural areas where one institution serves a large area. Urban campuses offer a variety of eating, entertainment, cultural, and shopping facilities. Cities are usually more diverse in their populations than rural areas and may have a significant number of residents from particular countries. However, cities may also be more expensive. A rural university may mean a quieter, more college-centered environment. Climate is another possible consideration. From the four seasons in the Northeast to the desert in Arizona and a sub-tropical climate in Florida, the variety is almost endless.
Student Services: U.S. universities offer students a varietyof services such as international student advisers,campus orientation programs, counseling services, legalaid services, housing offices, day care facilities for studentswith families, varied meal plans, health centers,tutoring facilities, English as a Second Language programs,writing laboratories, career counseling, and more. Prospective students can compare facilities among universities to find services tailored to their specific needs.
Services for Students With Disabilities: If you have special needs, make sure that the university you choose can accommodate you. Allow plenty of time to correspond with colleges. It is advisable to begin your inquiries at least two years before you plan to leave for the United States. When you write for information from universities, give brief details of your disability and request information about assistance they offer to students like yourself. You may also want to contact the office on campus that deals with the special needs of students with disabilities to find out more about the services they provide. This may be a specific office, such as the Office of Disabled Student Services or the Office of Disability Services, or services may be housed within a general student services office on campus.
Some universities offer comprehensive programs for students with disabilities, while others make a number of special services available to such students. You should look at the services offered and compare them to your needs. Find out which services are provided automatically and free of charge and which services need to be prearranged and incur a charge. When you apply you will need to supply evidence to support the existence of your disability. A campus visit is recommended. If possible, try to contact a student at the college who has a similar disability to yours so you can gain a more personal perspective. Students with disabilities can, with proper documentation, request special facilities or extended time to take the graduate school admissions tests and any examinations during the academic year.
Ø Step 4: Decide Where to Apply
Once you have narrowed down your list to 10 to 20 accredited institutions that offer your field of study and any relevant specializations, you will need to compare the objective data among these institutions. Do not rely solely on rankings or ratings of institutions to do this; there is more to choosing the right department than choosing the most well-known or selective university. For any particular discipline there will be at least five or six schools that have excellent reputations. Keep in mind that a department’s reputation relies heavily on the reputation of its faculty. Sometimes it is more important to study under a particular person than it is to study at a university with a prestigious name. Remember too that assistantships and fellowships are often based on the right “match” between student and faculty research interests. Good advance research can help you find the schools whose departments and faculty meet your academic and professional goals, and it may enhance your chances for obtaining financial assistance.
Make a comparison chart listing the differences among universities with respect to:
-research programs and facilities, including libraries and computer facilities;
-size of department (students and faculty) and size of institution;
-qualifications of the faculty;
-accreditation of the institution and, if applicable, the department or program;
-course and thesis requirements;
-length of time required to complete the degree;
-academic admission requirements, including required test scores (see “Testing” for further information), degrees, and undergraduate grade average required;
-cost of tuition, fees, books, etc.;
-availability of financial assistance (see Financial Aid for further information);
-location, housing options, campus setting, climate, and cost of living;
-international student services and other needed services available on campus.
Eliminate those institutions that you cannot afford and that do not offer financial aid for which you qualify, that do not meet your individual needs, or that have admissions requirements that do not match your qualifications. Narrow your choices to those that meet your personal and professional needs, that you can -afford to attend, and for which you are qualified for admission. Develop a final short list of four to seven institutions to which you plan to apply. See “Preparing Successful Applications,” for further guidelines.
3. Financial Aid
Education in the United States may seem expensive, but you have probably already realized that it offers excellent value for the money invested. The information below provides more details on the costs involved in U.S. graduate study and ways in which you might pay your expenses, including financial aid from universities and other sources.
It is a myth that international students can easily get the money they need for study after they have been admitted to a college or university in the United States. In fact, such an assumption can lead to hardship and disappointment. Most institutions have committed all their scholarship and loan funds long before the academic year begins. Also, as part of the application for a student visa, you must be able to show proof to both the graduate school admissions office and to your local U.S. embassy or consulate that you have sufficient funds to meet the total annual expenses. If you plan to bring a spouse and/or children with you to the United States, you will also need to prove in advance that you have funds to support your family.
The best time to arrange U.S.-based financial assistance is before you leave home. Deadlines for scholarship and grant programs can be as early as one-and-a-half years before departure. Universities often require students to complete a financial statement, specifying how they intend to cover their expenses, as part of the application process.
The main types of costs involved in study in the United States are tuition and fees, plus living costs. These vary widely, which gives you some control over the costs involved in your education. All U.S. universities publish information on the costs for their institution and area. Consider the points outlined below in calculating your costs.
To complete graduate study in the United States successfully, you will need to be able to read, write, and communicate orally in English with a high degree of proficiency. English language proficiency will also help you to achieve your academic and personal goals while in the United States.
To determine your level of English language proficiency, arrange to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as early as possible: at least a year before you plan to enroll. As with many areas of U.S. education, each institution sets its own English language admission standard, but some guidelines on the standard required are given in the section on TOEFL scores below. Some institutions accept English language examinations other than TOEFL; check the information you receive from institutions to see which examinations they accept.
Even if you have a good basic level of English proficiency and have met the minimum TOEFL requirements for a university, some schools may require you to take courses to improve your mastery of American English, academic or research usage, and study skills. If you studied English under the British system, you may find that U.S. vocabulary and usage are quite different.
If you are applying for a teaching assistantship, the university may ask you to demonstrate your proficiency in spoken English, which the TOEFL examination does not test. The Test of Spoken English (TSE), often required for this purpose, is offered less frequently and at fewer centers than TOEFL. Allow several additional months for the application process if you are applying for a teaching assistantship.
TOEFL Waivers: If you are a non-U.S. citizen and nonnative speaker of English who has been educated in English for most of your school life, your TOEFL requirement may be waived. Allow time in the application process to correspond with U.S. universities about this issue. American universities are unlikely to accept secondary school English language examination results as proof of your language ability.
Graduate Admissions Tests
Most graduate departments require scores on at least one academic admissions test, either a general aptitude test such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test or a demonstration of proficiency in your field (GRE Subject Test), or sometimes both. The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is required almost without exception for applicants to business schools. The Miller Analogy Tests (MAT) may also be required in fields like education and psychology. These tests are in addition to an English language proficiency examination. They are sometimes referred to as standardized tests because all applicants are required to take the same tests (including U.S. applicants), allowing admissions officers to compare candidates by test score. See a listing of general academic tests that may be required for admission. Professional schools such as schools of law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine have special examinations; see “Specialized Professional Study,” for further information.
Usually, the faculty of each department within a university determines the requirements for various admissions tests, as well as the weight given to the results. Consequently, there is no general rule to follow with respect to test requirements.
To find out if you need to take one or more of these tests, consult university catalogs and Web sites or look in university reference books that are available at U.S. educational information and advising centers. The reference books may also give the test score ranges of successfulapplicants to the various programs. There are no passingor failing scores on these examinations, but your score will have an effect on the overall competitiveness of your application.
Admissions tests are multiple-choice tests that require a high degree of English proficiency. Some also require mathematical skills or in-depth knowledge of content related to the field of study. It is important to note, however, that test scores are only one of the factors used in evaluating an international student’s application. Admissions officers are aware that you may be taking the examinations in a language other than your native tongue, and they will take this into account.
In most parts of the world today, the GRE and GMAT are computer-adaptive tests. As with the TOEFL, this means that not all students will answer exactly the same questions on the test. Depending on how the student performs on each question, the computer will determine whether the student should be asked a harder or an easier question next. Test takers can view scores instantly when they finish the exam (with the exception of essay questions), and score reports are forwarded to university recipients within two to three weeks after the student has completed the test. In general, only very basic keyboard skills are required; however, tests including essay components require stronger typing skills. On the actual test day, time is allowed at the beginning for a brief tutorial on how to use a computer mouse in answering the questions.
You should plan to take the appropriate examinations one year prior to when you hope to start your graduate program. Contact your nearest information or advising center for registration and test preparation materials, and to obtain information about these examinations. Also visit the Educational Testing Service Web site at http://www.ets.org or contact the testing organization directly (see page 60) for further information. Remember that at busy times of the year you may not be able to take the test immediately; therefore, register well in advance. In particular, since the GRE subject tests are offered only two or three times each year, you must register to take the tests up to eight weeks in advance. Test scores can take several weeks to be mailed out, and it is essential that they reach universities before the application deadline date.
The most common student visa is the F-1, though a small number of students travel to the United States on an M-1 visa if they are completing a program of hands-on technical or vocational training, or on a J-1 visa if they are on a sponsored exchange program.
It is important to understand the differences between the types of visas available to students before you apply for yours. The F-1 visa category is the most common student visa type and is designated for undergraduate and graduate students in academic and language study programs. The J-1 category is for graduate or exchange students, teachers, scholars, and researchers who come to the United States under educational exchange programs such as the Fulbright Program. J-1 students must be financed, at least partially, either by the U.S. government or their home government, or by the U.S. institution that they will attend. They may also be part of an exchange program.
One advantage of the J-1 visa for married students is that it allows spouses (J-2 dependents) to apply for work authorization after they arrive in the United States. The F-1 does not allow F-2 dependents to work. F-2 or J-2 dependents may study full-time or part-time.
Your tax obligations to the United States government should not be affected by your choice of either the F-1 or J-1 visa. However, you may find some differences in health insurance requirements. Also, if you are traveling on a J-1 visa, a “two-year rule” may apply. This means that after you have finished your studies, you will be required to spend two years back in your home country before you can become eligible for immigrant status in the United States, or for long-term employment as a nonimmigrant.
For more details on F-1 and J-1 visas, contact your nearest U.S. educational information or advising center, check with the International Student Office at your U.S. institution.
Applying for a Student Visa: A Step-by-Step Guide
“Give the U.S. embassy no excuse to question your academic standing, and show in as many ways as possible that you will return home.”
– Computer science student from the United Kingdom
To apply for an F-1 student visa, you must have a valid I-20 form; for the J-1 visa, you must have the DS-2019 form; and for the M-1 visa, an I-20M-N form. Your U.S. university will send you the appropriate form after you have been admitted and after you have certified your available finances. When your form arrives, check the following:
-Is your name spelled correctly and in the same form as it appears on your passport?
-Is the other information: date and country of birth, degree program, reporting date, completion date, and financial information, correct?
-Is the form signed by a university official?
-Has the reporting date (“student must report no later than”) passed? If so, the form expires and cannot be used after the reporting date.
-If your I-20, I-20M-N, or DS-2019 is valid, you are ready to apply for the visa.
If you are required to attend a visa interview, be aware that they usually last an average of three minutes, so you must be prepared to be brief yet convincing. Be confident, do not hide the truth, or lie: U.S. consular section staff have a lot of experience and can easily identify when people are not being truthful about their visa application.
In order to issue your visa, the consular officer must be satisfied on three counts:
First, are you a bona fide student? The officer will look at your educational background and plans in order to assess how likely you are to enroll and remain in college until graduation. If you are required to have an interview, be prepared to discuss the reasons you chose a particular college, your anticipated major, and your career plans. Bring school transcripts, national examination results, and SAT or TOEFL scores (if these tests were required by your college), and anything else that demonstrates your academic commitment.
Second, are you capable of financing your education, your living expenses, and the expenses of any dependents who may be traveling with you? The U.S. government needs assurances that you will not drop out of school or take a job illegally. Your I-20 or DS-2019 form will list how you have shown the university you will cover your expenses (and those of any family members who will accompany you), at least for the first year. Provide solid evidence of any scholarships, grants, or loans you have been awarded, and of your sponsor’s finances, especially sources and amounts of income.
If you are being sponsored by your family or by an individual, how can you show that your sponsor is able to finance your education? Your chances are improved if your parents are sponsoring your education. If anyone other than your parents is sponsoring you, you should explain your special relationship with this person, justifying a commitment of thousands of dollars to your education.
Provide solid evidence of your sponsor’s finances, especially sources and amounts of income. This assures the consular officer that adequate funds will be available throughout your four-year college program. If your sponsor’s income is from several different sources (such as salary, contracts, consulting fees, a farm, rental property, investments), have the sponsor write a letter listing and documenting each source of income.
Third, are your ties to home so strong that you will not want to remain permanently in the United States? Under U.S. law, all applicants for nonimmigrant visas are viewed as intending immigrants until they can convince the consular officer that they are not. Note that if you are traveling on a J-1 visa, a two-year rule usually applies, whereby after you have finished your studies in the United States you cannot apply for an immigrant visa for the United States until you have spent two years back in your home country.
Overall you must be able to show that your reasons for returning home are stronger than those for remaining in the United States. The law states that you must demonstrate sufficient economic, family, and social ties to your place of residence to ensure that your stay in the United States will be temporary.
Economic ties include your family’s economic position, property you may own or stand to inherit, and your own economic potential when you come home with a U.S. education The consular officer will be impressed to see evidence of your career planning and your knowledge of the local employment scene.
For family and social ties, the consular officer may ask how many close family members live in your home country, compared to those living in the United States. What community or school activities have you participated in that demonstrate a sincere connection to your town or country? What leadership, sports, and other roles have distinguished you as a person who wants to come home and contribute your part?
For family and social ties, the consular officer may ask how many close family members live in your home country, compared to how many live in the United States. What community activities have you participated in that demonstrate a sincere connection to your town or country? What leadership, sports, work, or academic experience indicates that you are someone who wants to come home and contribute your part?
If your application is refused, the consular officer is required to give you an explanation in writing. However, this is often a standardized reply and is unlikely to go into the details of your specific case. You do have the right to apply a second time, but if you reapply, make sure to prepare much more carefully; the consular officer will need to see fresh evidence sufficient to overcome the reasons for the first denial.
If you have given careful thought to your educational goals and if you have realistic career plans, you will find the visa application an opportunity to prove you are ready to take the next big step in your education and your life: university in the United States.
6. Glossary of Terms
Academic adviser : Member of the faculty who assists and advises students on academic matters. He or she may also assist students during the registration process.
Academic year : The period of formal academic instruction, usually extending from September to May. Depending on the institution, it may be divided into terms of varying lengths: semesters, trimesters, or quarters.
Accreditation : Approval of colleges, universities, and secondary schools by nationally recognized professional associations. Institutional accreditation affects the transferability of credits from one institution to another before a degree program is completed and the continuation from one degree level to the next level.
Add/Drop : A process at the beginning of a term whereby students can change their course schedules, adding or dropping classes with the instructor’s permission.
Assistantship : A study grant of financial assistance to a graduate student that is offered in return for certain services in teaching or laboratory supervision as a teaching assistant, or for services in research as a research assistant.
Audit : To take a class without receiving a grade or credit toward a degree.
Baccalaureate degree : The degree of “bachelor” conferred upon graduates of most U.S. colleges and universities.
Bachelor’s degree : Degree conferred by an institution of higher learning after the student has accumulated a certain number of undergraduate credits. Usually a bachelor’s degree takes four years to earn, and it is a prerequisite for studies in a graduate program.
Campus : The land on which the buildings of a college or university are located.
Carrel : Individual study area usually reserved for graduate students in a library; available on a first-come, first-served basis (sometimes for a fee).
CGFNS : Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools.
Class rank : A number or ratio indicating a student’s academic standing in his or her graduating class. A student who ranks first in a class of 100 students would report his or her class rank as 1/100, while a student ranking last would report 100/100. Class rank may also be expressed in percentiles (for example, the top 25 percent, the lower 50 percent).
College : An institution of higher learning that offers undergraduate programs, usually of a four-year duration, that lead to the bachelor’s degree in the arts or sciences (B.A. or B.S.). The term “college” is also used in a general sense to refer to a postsecondary institution. A college may also be a part of the organizational structure of a university.
College catalog : An official publication of a college or university giving information about academic programs, facilities (such as laboratories, dormitories, etc.), entrance requirements, and student life.
Core requirements : Compulsory courses required for completion of the degree.
Course : Regularly scheduled class sessions of one to five (or more) hours per week during a term. A degree program is made up of a specified number of required and elective courses and varies from institution to institution. The courses offered by an institution are usually assigned a name and a number (such as Mathematics 101) for identification purposes.
Credits : Units that institutions use to record the completion of courses of instruction (with passing or higher grades) that are required for an academic degree. The catalog of a college or university defines the number and the kinds of credits that are required for its degrees and states the value in terms of degree credit (“credit hours” or “credit units” ) of each course offered.
Cut : Unauthorized absence from a class.
DAT : Dental Admission Test required of applicants to dental schools.
Dean : Director or highest authority within a certain professional school or college of a university.
Degree : Diploma or title conferred by a college, university, or professional school upon completion of a prescribed program of studies.
Department : Administrative subdivision of a school, college, or university through which instruction in a certain field of study is given (such as English department, history department).
Dissertation : Thesis written on an original topic of research, usually presented as one of the final requirements for the doctorate (Ph.D.).
Doctorate (Ph.D.) : The highest academic degree conferred by a university on students who have completed at least three years of graduate study beyond the bachelor’s and/or master’s degree and who have demonstrated their academic ability in oral and written examinations and through original research presented in the form of a dissertation.
Dormitories : Housing facilities on the campus of a college or university reserved for students. A typical dormitory would include student rooms, bathrooms, common rooms, and possibly a cafeteria.
Drop : See “Withdrawal.”
ECFMG : Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.
ECFVG : Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates.
Electives : Courses that students may “elect,” or choose, to take for credit toward their intended degree, as distinguished from courses that they are required to take.
ERAS : Electronic Residency Application System for obtaining a residency position in the field of medicine in the U.S.
Faculty : The members of the teaching staff, and occasionally the administrative staff, of an educational institution. The faculty is responsible for designing the plans of study offered by the institution.
Fees : An amount charged by schools, in addition to tuition, to cover costs of institutional services.
Fellowship : A study grant of financial assistance usually awarded to a graduate student. Generally, no service is required of the student in return.
Final exam : A cumulative exam, taken at the end of a term, encompassing all material covered in a particular course.
Financial assistance : A general term that includes all types of money, loans, and part-time jobs offered to a student.
Flunk : To fail an examination or a course.
Freshman : A first-year student at a high school, college, or university.
Full-time student : One who is enrolled in an institution taking a full load of courses; the number of courses and hours is specified by the institution.
GMAT : Graduate Management Admission Test, usually required for applicants to business or management programs.
Grade : The evaluation of a student’s academic work.
Grade point average : A system of recording academic achievement based on an average, calculated by multiplying the numerical grade received in each course by the number of credit hours studied.
Grading system : The type of scale – that is, letter grade, pass/fail, percentage ? used by schools, colleges, and universities in the U.S. Most institutions commonly use letter grades to indicate the quality of a student’s academic performance: “A” (excellent), “B” (good), “C” (average), “D” (below average), and “F” (failing). Work rated “C” or above is usually required of an undergraduate student to continue his or her studies; work rated “B” or higher is usually required of a graduate student to continue. Grades of “P” (pass), “S” (satisfactory), and “N” (no credit) are also used. In percentage scales, 100 percent is the highest mark, and 65 to 70 percent is usually the lowest passing mark.
Graduate : A student who has completed a course of study, either at the high school or college level. A graduate program at a university is a study course for students who hold bachelor’s degrees.
GRE : Graduate Record Examination, often required of applicants to graduate schools in fields other than professional programs such as medicine, dentistry, or law. Both a GRE general test and subject tests for specific fields are offered.
High school : The last three or four years of the twelve-year school education program in the U.S; secondary school.
Higher education : Postsecondary education at colleges, universities, junior or community colleges, professional schools, technical institutes, and teacher-training schools.
Institute of technology : An institution of higher education that specializes in the sciences and technology.
International student adviser : The person associated with a school, college, or university who is in charge of providing information and guidance to international students in such areas as U.S. government regulations, student visas, academic regulations, social customs, language, financial or housing problems, travel arrangements, and insurance.
Junior : A third-year student at a high school, college, or university.
Language requirement : A requirement of some graduate programs that students must show basic reading and writing proficiency in one other language besides their own to receive their degree.
Lecture : Common method of instruction in college and university courses; a professor lectures in classes of 20 to several hundred students. Lectures may be supplemented with regular small group discussions led by teaching assistants.
Liberal arts (or “liberal arts and sciences,” or “arts and sciences”): A term referring to academic studies of subjects in the humanities (language, literature, philosophy, the arts), the social sciences (economics, sociology, anthropology, history, political science), and the physical sciences (mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry).
LSAT : Law School Admission Test required of applicants to professional law programs and some postgraduate law programs in American law schools.
Maintenance : Refers to the expenses of attending a college or university, including room (living quarters), board (meals), books, clothing, laundry, local transportation, and miscellaneous expenses.
Major : The subject or area of studies in which a student concentrates. Undergraduates usually choose a major after the first two years of general courses in the arts and sciences.
Major professor/thesis adviser : For research degrees, the professor who works closely with a student in planning and choosing a research plan, in conducting the research, and in presenting the results. The major professor serves as the head of a committee of faculty members who review progress and results.
Master’s degree : Degree conferred by an institution of higher learning after students complete academic requirements that usually include a minimum of one year’s study beyond the bachelor’s degree.
MCAT : Medical College Admission Test required of applicants to U.S. medical schools.
Midterm exam : An exam administered after half the academic term has passed that covers all course material studied up to that point.
NCLEX-RN : A licensing examination for registered nurses. It is required by each state and must be passed before a nurse can practice in that state.
Non-resident : Students who do not meet the residence requirements of the state or city that has a public college or university. Tuition fees and admissions policies may differ for residents and non-residents. Foreign students are usually classified as nonresidents, and there is little possibility of changing to resident status at a later date for fee purposes. Most publicly supported institutions will not permit a foreign student to be classified as a resident student while on a student visa.
Notarization : The certification of a document, a statement, or a signature as authentic and true by a public official: known in the U.S as a notary public. Applicants in other countries should have their documents certified or notarized in accordance with instructions.
NRMP : National Resident Matching Program for applicants to U.S. Medical schools.
Placement test : An examination used to test a student’s academic ability in a certain field so that he or she may be placed in the appropriate courses in that field. In some cases a student may be given academic credit based on the results of a placement test.
Plan of study : A detailed description of the course of study for which a candidate applies. The plan should incorporate the objectives given in the student’s “statement of purpose.”
Postdoctorate : Studies designed for those who have completed their doctorate.
Postgraduate : Usually refers to studies for individuals who have completed a graduate degree. May also be used to refer to graduate education.
Prerequisite : Program or course that a student is required to complete before being permitted to enroll in a more advanced program or course.
President : The rector or highest administrative officer of an academic institution.
Professional degree : Usually obtained after a bachelor’s degree in fields such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, or law.
Qualifying examination : In many graduate departments, an examination given to students who have completed required coursework for a doctoral degree, but who have not yet begun the dissertation or thesis. A qualifying examination may be oral or written, or both, and must be passed for the student to continue.
Quarter : Period of study of approximately 10 to 12 weeks’ duration.
Quiz : Short written or oral test; a quiz is less formal than an examination.
Recommendation, letter of (also called “personal recommendation,” “personal endorsement,” or “personal reference”) : A letter appraising an applicant’s qualifications, written by a professor or employer who knows the applicant’s character and work.
Registration : Process through which students select courses to be taken during a quarter, semester, or trimester.
Residency : Clinical training in a chosen specialty. R.N.: Registered nurse.
Sabbatical : Leave time with pay granted to a teacher or professor after serving for six or seven years on the same faculty. Its purpose is to give the faculty member an extended period of time for concentrated study.
Scholarship : A study grant of financial assistance, usually given at the undergraduate level, that may be supplied in the form of a cancellation or remission of tuition and/or fees.
Semester : Period of study of approximately 15 to 16 weeks’ duration, usually half of an academic year.
Seminar : A form of small group instruction, combining independent research and class discussions under the guidance of a professor.
Senior : A fourth-year student at a high school, college, or university.
Social Security Number : A number issued by the U.S. Government to jobholders for payroll deductions for old age, survivors, and disability insurance. Anyone who works regularly must obtain one. Many institutions use the Social Security Number as a student identification number.
Sophomore : A second-year student at a high school, college, or university.
Special student: A student at a college or university who is not enrolled as a candidate for a degree. Also may be referred to as a non-degree, non-matriculating, or visiting student.
Subject : Course in an academic discipline offered as part of a curriculum of an institution of higher learning.
Survey course : A course that covers briefly the principal topics of a broad field of knowledge.
Syllabus : An outline of topics to be covered in an academic course.
Teachers’ college : Institution of higher learning that confers degrees in teacher education and related areas, or a college within a university that offers professional preparation for teachers.
Tenure : A position granted to senior faculty members who have demonstrated a worthy research and publication record. Its purpose is to preserve academic freedom.
Test : Examination; any procedure measuring the academic progress of a student.
Thesis : A written work containing the results of research on a specific topic prepared by a candidate for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
TOEFL : Test of English as a Foreign Language, required of graduate school applicants whose native language is not English.
Transcript : A certified copy of a student’s educational record containing titles of courses, the number of credits, and the final grades in each course. An official transcript also states the date a degree has been conferred.
Trimester : Period of study consisting of approximately three equal terms of 16 weeks during the academic year.
Tuition : The money an institution charges for instruction and training (does not include the cost of books).
Undergraduate studies : Two- or four-year programs in a college or university after high school graduation, leading to the associate or bachelor’s degree.
University : An educational institution that usually maintains one or more four-year undergraduate colleges (or schools) with programs leading to a bachelor’s degree, a graduate school of arts and sciences awarding master’s degrees and doctorates (Ph.D.s), and graduate professional schools.
USMLE : U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.
VAT : Veterinary Aptitude Test, required of applicants to most U.S. veterinary schools.
VMCAS : Veterinary Medical College Application Service; a comprehensive service collecting data for veterinary medical schools.
Withdrawal : The administrative procedure of dropping a course or leaving an institution.
Zip code : A series of numbers in mailing addresses that designate postal delivery districts in the U.S.