Tips for applying for higher studies abroad

If you’re aiming to join a Masters or Phd program in Fall 2010, now is the time to start preparation for it. It is a long and quite boring process – you need to start early if you want to ensure that you get the best colleges you can get. If you have an imba profile or are the college topper, feel free to ignore this and apply at the last minute :)

Please note that all the information in this post is not from my personal experiences – it is a mixture of my experiences, seniors experiences and so on.

So, first of all – why would you want to do studies abroad? ( And not at the IITs or IISc )

1. Quality of education – Abroad, the quality of education is very high – institutes in the US rank among the top universities in the world, and you will sometimes be taught by the leaders in the respective fields. For example, if you study in UMass, you might attend lectures by the legendary Jim Kurose.

2. The experience – ( Almost all of this point is from seniors and the web ) Studying abroad is a different experience altogether – you will get a chance to experience different cultures, see new things and enrich yourself personally. Many universities have credits for some fun, non academic courses – Imagine finishing a course on ballroom dancing as a part of your Masters!

On the downside though, there is the cost – doing Masters in a reputed institute in the US costs around 20 lakhs INR on average. But once you finish your Masters, you will earning around 2-3 lakhs per month, so it should be easy to pay off. Now especially is the best time to improve your profile with a higher degree – jobs are not easy to come by in this time and by the time you finish your degree, hopefully the economy will be on the upswing.

So what are the steps to get admitted to a reputed college?

1. Choosing a degree: Decide between Masters and Phd. Prashanth has a nice article which should help you decide between an MS and a Phd. If you have the inclination for research,  a MS leading to a Phd is considered a good choice – that way, if you drop out in the middle of the Phd, you’d still have the Masters degree.

2. Selecting colleges: Prepare a list of colleges that you are interested in. For rankings of US universities in Computer Science, check out USNews. Specialty rankings by field, such as systems in Computer Science, are available here. But please do not select colleges based purely on rank – most of the rankings are meaningless. All of the Top 20 colleges are equal in terms in job placements. In terms of research, the rankings don’t mean a thing. Check out the top conferences in your field, and see which universities are publishing there. That should give you a good idea about the research capabilities of a university. If you are going for a Phd, purely see research capability of your department in the university – who is teaching there, what are they working on etc.

What makes a good match between you and a university?

  • Your profile should be near the average profile [ in tersm of academics and test scores ] accepted by the university ( some universities publish this information, others you have to ask seniors studying there )
  • If you are going for a Masters, the university should have a strong [ or at least decent ] department in your area of interest.
  • There should be research work going on at the university which you [ with your research experience or academic knowledge ] should be able to contribute to.

Classify universities that you are interested in, based on your chances of getting in – safe (you will surely get in), medium (most probably you will get in), high (low chances of admittance), and dream (kind of like lottery ticket). Mix and match universities from these classes to get your final list. I’d recommend going for 10 or fewer universities, with the split like this : 2 safes, 4 medium, 3 high, 1 dream. You could drop the dream for a safe also. The important point is to always aim for higher colleges than you think you will get – please do not go for all safes, or something silly like 5 safes. Remember that you should be excited to study in the college you get admitted to – filling up your list with extremely low ranked safes is not a good thing.

3. Contacting profs: Go through the websites of the universities that you have selected. Become somewhat familiar with the work that they are doing. Zero in on 2-3 professors that you would like to work with. Read their work. If you can think of ways of usefully extending their research, mail them about it – Introduce yourself, tell them what you have worked on, how it relates to project X of the professor, and your idea Y of extending it. Impressing a professor virtually guarantees an admit in that university. However, don’t spam professors – do not mail more than 2 professors per university and only mail when you have some idea of extending their work. Also, attach text resumes with the emails you sent – do not attach pdf resumes, as they will lead to your email getting filtered into spam.

4. Writing tests: You need to write 2 tests for applying for MS – GRE and TOEFL. Book dates early for both and get them done with. Get the Barron’s book for GRE – it should be sufficient if you generally read a lot. The higher ranked a university is, the lesser importance it gives to GRE. In most top universities, the GRE is a minmium barrier, like you have to get more than 1300 overall, but anything above that ( even 1520 ) is equal to 1300. Do not waste much time and money on the GRE, it does not make big differences to where you will get admitted. I recently got to know that I was totally mistaken about the GRE  -universities do care what your score is. While it is not the biggest criteria for admission, a fair amount of weight is given to your score. So make sure to do well on the GRE. The TOEFL is similar, you have to get a minimum cut-off for admission into the university. The TOEFL is very easy, you should be able to get good scores on it if you have a decent english base.

5. Finding people to recommend you: The people who recommed you for admission should be a person in good standing in the academic community who is able to judge whether a candidate will do well in a graduate course. Professors should be the first choice, followed by assistant professors. Recommendations from the head of departments are highly regarded. However, don’t blindly get recos from professors who barely know you – Ideally, the person recommending you should have taken a class for you, and should know you personally. The more personal a reco is, the better.

6. Applying: Now comes the actual process of applying to universities. This starts in around August. Most universities require you to send your transcripts ( and some other documents ) to them by postal mail. Try to make sure that they get the package by October end. Certain universities have rolling admissions, which means instead of getting all the applications and processing them, they process each application one by one. In these universities, you stand a slightly higher chance if you apply early.

This post is already too long, but a final word – A lot of people will tell you that projects and pulications matter hugely in the admission process. That is not true for fresher admissions – reason being you never have the chance to do big projects yet. And publications count only if they are in the top conferences. This is hard to accept, but the single biggest factor is academics. Next comes your recos, test scores and the statement of purpose. Projects, publications all matter very little compared to these three factors. And also know that graduate admissions are highly random - therefore always have a backup job just in case. And try not to apply with a single safe – at least have 2.

Factors which influence admission decision for freshers

I hope this article helps you a bit in your search for admission into a top university. Please note that I may be in error in most of the things I have said, as they are all personal judgements :) For more information on these topics, check out the Edulix forums.

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34 thoughts on “Tips for applying for higher studies abroad

  1. Vijay gethu post.. and always first to comment… :) lots of details da.. really useful.. let me add a few thoughts to it

    Guys and Gals besides these factors there is also a lot of luck involved.. their strategy can never be predicted.. There is a lot of advantage if u are the only person to app to the college.. Besides this see to tht the profs do not give u a prototype reco.. prepare a doc with resume , sop , grades in their subj and their project details for the profs..it will be very useful for them and u can get a better reco.. and while requesting recos online always choose “i waive the right to see”.. its better..appers can form a group among yourselves .. it will be really motivating..

    Happy apping :)

  2. Great! I had missed that! Apping is inherently random :P

    Another thing – the so called blocking effect – that people with similar qualifications should not apply to same colleges as the university will choose only one out of the 2 – is a myth. Thanu and I applied to a lot of colleges and we either both got selected or both rejected :)

  3. even though i know very little , i disagree with point 5. if you’re from india, and your ‘recommender’ is not from an IIT or IISC , then it really doesnt matter .

    and the reco should’nt be personal, strictly professional. as in, it should just indicate what all you have done , and how well you’ve done it…. for the ‘recommender’.

    There are some more silly factors like applying to the univ where you’re seniors have gone … and done well for themselves. As in , i hear TAMU prefers NIT IIT students , osu prefers anna univ students etc …. again these facts really cant be verified , but it is ‘supposed’ to be true.

    and last but not the least …. never ask for funding/aid in your very first mail to the prof! :D

  4. @venkster:

    Strongly disagree with that it shouldn’t be personal da. The reco is for the personal angle alone – the more the recommender supports statements with personal details the better. For example, saying “He is very creative – he came up with a clever way to implement X in my class Y. He was always asking questions in class Z” is much better than “He is very creative and inquisitive.

    And its not required your recommender be from IIT or IISc, just that they should published a lot and be known in the research community.

    Agree with the rest of your comments though :) Good to know you still read my blog :p

  5. lol , all i meant was … adverbs and adjectives really dont matter. what you have done , does. consider this

    1. i could have published a paper at a small conference with a help of some prof and his reco says , i have done so and so work and was responsible for so and so.

    2. im your average anna univ -affiliated college student who gets thro 4 years of BE buy sitting few nights before the exams with my local author book and clearning them somehow. and my recommender is kind enough to gimme a sugar coated reco saying ” i am very creative, very dependable, nallavar … vallavar … etc etc” ..

    which reco would really matter ?

    and non iit/iisc profs in the research community ? i think there are very few ppl like that. probably the ppl at MSR or someother research lab.
    The profs at your avg coll dont really publish much … because frankly they dont have to. unlike in the US where ‘if you dont publish , you perish’ :D . they have something to work for , a tenure. and if they dont publish enough, private firms wont invest on them and hence budget cut!

  6. Thanks a lot for the info anna… Very informative and well written… [:)] If possible pls share with us your experiences and perspective about the placements this year.. Will be very helpful for us juniors [:)]

  7. @venkster:

    Definitely disagree.

    1. It’s a small conference. Matters almost next to nothing in admission decision. So a reco just stating what you have done is almost worthless – gives no new information to the reader that they can’t get from the sop or resume.

    2. If its just not sugar coating and the prof actually backs up adjectives with some personal anecdotes, its priceless! The admission commitee will have almost 100 people with same credentials – yet they have to choose one from them – the person with the best reco is invariably chosen, I think.

    Some profs from CEG are still active in research :) I think there will be at least one prof in all decent colleges. And even though we don’t have tenure, we have something like that – in order for a lecturer to become a asst prof and an asst prof to become a prof, u need X publications or so. So they do have an incentive to keep publishing.

  8. superb post na…never imagined academics will count till you said!!!.. gr8 post…was as good as ur spoj tips post :-)

  9. Hi Vijay,

    My search for information on MS landed me to this site. Nice blog! Thanks for the info man. Can you please tell how much time does it take for the prep? I am planning to start for the preparation. I am plannng to start the prep. So, will I be able to make it for 2010 admissions?

    Please help.

    Thank you!

  10. very useful information but it would be useful if you details regarding bank balance requirements and importance of AID and stuff … That is also vital la!

    Thanks anyways

  11. @kvkannan: Thanks!

    @Ashish: Sure you can, for a start, take the GRE and TOEFL and get those out of the way.

    @Ravi: Thanks :) Going to Wisconsin Madison :)

    @Vidhoonv: The post was already very big, didn’t want to extend with financial details. If you check the edulix forums link in the bottom, you would find all sorts of information regarding that.

  12. i am doing btech mechanical engineering part time at a overall percentage of 82% can i go ms in petroleum engineering in abroad

  13. CGPA and project work.. do they have a compensating effect? that is better the cgpa little does the project matter. Or even the reverse. Is this the case?

  14. @Yuvaraj: Try the edulix forums for questions like that. I have no idea about other streams

    @Arun: CGPA definitely matters – and a high cgpa will make up for a average projects. But even brilliant projects will not make up for a poor cgpa

    • hi,

      i have published two papers in some conference, both claim to be national conferences. However, one was genuine. My CGPA is pretty bad .. My projects are somewat worst, except the one i published as paper. Will i get any top bloody university ??

      will my gre scores have any effect since ?
      my 10th and 12th acads are distinction.. just stupid CGPA wont help me :)

      Fraud !!!

  15. @Siva:

    Thanks da! I dunno da, ask your friend about how good those conferences are.. If they are well-known, they will help.. Otherwise they won’t.

    I think with work experience you will have a shot at some of the Top 20 universities da

  16. i jus had a idea of studying in abroad.i have 9.27 cgpa and had my project works are going on.is tat sufficient or should i score more.

  17. i am an eritrean nationality currently lived in sudan and i want to study in Renton technical college in the departement of industrial engineering but i can not afford the tition fee the college asked so i need and help me in finding financial aid.

  18. thanks a lot,

    it is quiet useful.iam in final BE(cse).
    i want to study MS in abroad . what is the scope for it.can i get good salary .what i have to prepare…please tell me

  19. resurrecting the post!

    i just realized how stupid i was, when i was reading and commenting on this post.

    you are brilliant :)

    your post lives through the time again !!

  20. Respected Sir,
    I have completed post graduate in biotechnology,i wish to do phd in abroad, but i am not getting a proper idea of it.i would like to get advices from you,please help me sir.
    Thanking you, Yours faithfully
    Sharanya S Chandran

  21. hai, Now i am in 3rd yr of my btech .I want to prepare from now it self to write exam to get seat in one of best university in USA for doing MS in IT.
    So please can u help me how i have to proceed my self to be best.can u plz mail me how it will be because i don’t no anything regarding this but i am very much interested in doing that ………….pplz send to my mail……
    mail id : vv.iiitb@gmail.com

  22. I’m pursuing final year ECE department…..
    I would like to continue my higher studies in abroad…
    As i’m a kid these talks requesting you to give me the information from starting procedure…

    Expecting!!!!!!!!!

  23. I would like to get seat in one of best university in USA for doing MS.
    So please can u help me how i have to proceed my self to shine myself.l am more interested to fit myself in a good position……
    mail me: sharmiamudha@gmail.com

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