Applying to United States Graduate Programs
as an International Student

by Nuri Jeong, with contributions from Mariella Quispe-Carbajal

Congratulations on your decision to apply to graduate school! There are many things to consider if you intend to apply to STEM programs in the United States as an international student. This list may seem overwhelming but not all of them require your immediate attention when submitting applications. I hope you find them helpful, whether as an applicant or accepted student.

 
Note: This is written for STEM programs structured with rotations, when you apply to a program before committing to a research lab. This applies to most programs in the biological sciences but may differ in other fields.

Shortcut Links to Contents

Your "Why"

Money Matters & Choosing the Right Graduate Program
General Timeline

12+ months before application deadline

6-9 months before deadline

3-6 months before deadline

2 months before deadline

Interviews

A week or two before interview

Emailing a PI before an interview

within a week after the interview

Requirements (Visa, Immunizations)

Country-Specific Advice (this section is a work-in-progress)

Your "WHY"

  • Writing your personal statement is not easy. This is a good time to reflect on all your past experiences (both professional and personal) that made you who you are and inspired you to embark on this journey. Personal statements should capture relevant experiences and future research interests and highlight the unique strengths that you bring to the table. Confidence is always a plus! Many international students find it difficult to talk about their proud moments and accomplishments. This is where you are expected to show your track record as a researcher. If you don’t have a significant research experience, highlight your motivation for what you can do.

  • Just as you should write fantastic things about yourself, don’t forget to mention the specific assets of the program to which you are applying. This can be the names of professors (perhaps, those who you have reached out to - see below) whose research excites you. Or, it can be a new initiative or curriculum expansion plans the school is actively pursuing.
     

  • Look at example personal statements written by other applicants for US schools in similar programs (link) to the ones you are applying to! There’s a good chance that application essays are different in your country than the type that your programs of interest will be expecting. Also check out Científico Latino's personal statement guide.

     

MONEY MATTERS & CHOOSING THE RIGHT
PROGRAM AS AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT

  • International students are ineligible for most funding available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Therefore, it is true that international students are less likely to secure independent funding and will require full funding for the entire duration of study. That said, most programs offer the same financial support to all accepted students. Try to look for schools/programs with guaranteed funding for the duration of study (Emory University, Rockefeller University are among those schools - full support for 5-7 years). It is comforting to know that you don’t have to worry about extra financial stuff once you get in. Also be mindful that in some cases you may have to pay for tuition (at Stony Brook University, this costs $1800 per year).
     

  • Fellowships. It is possible and helpful to apply for funding from your home country, especially if you are applying from outside the U.S. Check out Científico Latino's Fellowship database for fellowship opportunities to international students and some offered to nationals outside the U.S.
     

  • Paid internships. If you are already in the States, consider applying for paid internships (CPT and OPT). Students graduating from colleges in the States are eligible for full-time paid positions in the field of their study. CPT is generally for short-term positions (like a summer research internship) while pursuing a degree. OPT is for students who have completed their study. STEM students can extend their OPT to 24 months (it is usually 12 months outside the STEM field). I used my OPT during my gap years as a research assistant in a lab. Paid experience that looks great on you CV: win-win! If you are not yet done with your undergraduate degree, check out Científico Latino's Summer Research Program database.
     

  • Stipend and cost of living analysis. This is specifically important for international students who may have to spend a lot upfront (international flights, relocation, insurance, etc.). Last thing you want to stress about is whether you will be able to pay rent next month. To get an idea of cost of living in the U.S., particularly if you are applying to different U.S. cities, you can use this online tool.
     

  • Building your credit. It is very important to maintain a good credit history in the United States. A good credit score (700+) is necessary for housing and car insurance. If you do not have a credit history, many insurance companies will ask for a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen.

     

General Timeline

 
 

This timeline has some overlapping information with our timeline for all graduate school applicants,
but with additional information that might be useful to international students. We encourage that you look at both!


 

12+ months before application deadline

  • Keep up with your coursework and volunteer in research labs. If you already have your bachelor’s degree, apply for lab technician jobs where you can work while getting paid and gain more research experience.
     

  • GREs (General and Subject Tests): Many schools have dropped their GRE requirement, but you want to double-check the requirements of your programs. If you have a low GPA, you may elect to take a relevant subject test to help increase your chances. If you take the general GREs, you may want to have at least an average verbal score.
     

  • English proficiency tests: International students who have not graduated from an accredited English-speaking institution are generally required to take the TOEFL or the IELTS. Be sure that your scores have not expired, and the school will accept them. Some programs only accept the TOEFL or IELT but not both.

    • Some schools are becoming more relaxed about English proficiency exam requirements. For instance, program web pages may say that they require applicants score of 100 on the TOEFL, but if you get a 92, apply anyway! Certain programs have started abolishing the English proficiency test requirement completely.

    • Remember you can send a few score reports for free, unlike the GRE that allows you to do it at the end of the test, you have to submit the institutions before giving the TOEFL on their website.

    • See this list to check which graduate programs do and do not require the TOEFL, and additional useful information! (Credit to Aníbal Tornés Blanco)
       

  • If you are able, try volunteering at a science outreach or advocacy organization. It will enrich your experience and broaden your impact as a scientist.
     

  • Build/update your CV. Keep it fresh with new, relevant experiences. Seek feedback on the format, content, word choices (use strong action verbs). Look at examples from other graduate students applying to US schools! (link here). There’s a good chance that CVs are different in your country than the type that your programs of interest will be expecting.
     

  • Contact professors you are interested in working with. Each program, particularly in different fields, have their own quirks. For some programs, your application might greatly benefit from having a professor that already knows you and wants to work with you. Send letters of interest to professors whose research you are interested in and ask them questions about their research and if they are accepting students (sometimes labs are just full). Better to do this as early as possible, but you can send letters to professors until about a month before the application is due (but do not email more than three professors in a particular program or department). Sometimes if a professor is interested in having you in their lab, your application might rise to the top of the pile. For other programs, it can at the very least show your proactive and enthusiastic about a research program. Letters of interest can do very little to hurt you, but they can do a lot to help.

     

6-9 months before deadline
 

  • Research programs, areas of research that interest you. If you are applying to exclusively U.S. schools, we recommend you apply to around 10 programs that interest you. Apply to a range of schools that might be more or less difficult to get into -- don’t only apply to ivy league graduate programs, for instance.

  • Check out lab websites, recent publications, current lab members (postdoc to grad student ratio), see where graduate students and postdocs that have left the lab have done after their time in the lab (most people are on LinkedIn and/or Research Gate). You can also reach out to current students and postdocs if you’d like their perspective on the lab environment.

  • Reach out to individual PIs by email (see below).

  • Start drafting your personal statement and update your CV. Make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors.

  • Start thinking about potential letter of reference writers. If your letter writers need an example of what letters of recommendation for US graduate programs look like, you can refer them to these documents (note, word docs will automatically download: template, example letter #1, example letter #2).

     

3-6 months before deadline
 

  • If possible, try attending conferences or workshops on campus. It can be very helpful to meet with the members of the admissions committee and find out what exactly they are looking for. If you live abroad, look for and register for virtual graduate school fairs. It’s rare for international students to be able to get application waivers (as far as we are aware) but you can also sometimes get application fee waivers through virtual grad school fairs!

  • Revise your personal statement.

  • Request champion letters of recommendation. The letters should be very strong and highlight your potential to be an independent researcher.

     

2 months before deadline
 

  • Final selection of your schools. Budget your time and finances for applications and interviews.

  • Send a gentle reminder to your letter writers. Chase after them if you must.

  • Arrange your transcripts, test scores to be sent to your programs.

  • Have someone check your grammar and spelling on your CV, personal statement and any other documents. If English is not your first language, then try to find a native English-speaker. Feedback from PIs, current grad students and postdocs can also be extremely helpful!

     

 

INTERVIEWS

A week or two before the interview

  • Breathe. You made it this far! It might not feel like it at the time, but interviews are a lot of fun. This is a great time to meet with your potential mentors and colleagues and see if you can picture yourself in that environment for 5+ years.

    • For international students, it is possible for you to have a Skype or phone interview before an in-person interview invitation is sent. For Skype, you should still dress up and be professional. I know it is awkward but try to look at the camera when speaking, and not at the screen. If you are in the United States nearby your program of interest, you can also sometimes request to have an in-person interview.
       

  • If you have the schedule/itinerary (you should), do some research on the people who will interview you. Write down questions (both research- and program-related) for each one of them. Some schools will have you list a couple of professors you are interested in meeting and try to match you to their availability. If the PIs you really want to meet have schedule conflicts or are out of town, you should still email them and let them know of your interest. It is possible to arrange a chat on the phone after the interview.
     

  • Iron your interview attire. First impression is key.
     

Emailing a PI before an interview

  • Address them as Dr. So-and-so, not their first name. If they respond back and sign with their first name only, it is usually okay to start calling them by their first name. But I would discourage calling anyone you have not yet met by their first name. If they do respond, make sure to reply back in a timely fashion!
     

  • All PIs are busy. Keep it short and sweet. A brief introduction of yourself, why their work grabbed your attention, and end with an action item: ask them a question about their research or ask to schedule a phone/Skype chat.
     

  • When reaching out for the first time via email, it is best to focus on the scientific side of things. Ask intelligent questions about their ongoing projects or recent publications. If you feel comfortable in person, you can ask about their funding situation, average number of years (and publications) to graduation, mentorship style, and general expectations for graduate students in the lab.
     

  • Attach your most updated CV. You will want to work on your CV before sending it out to people.
     

  • You will inevitably find (a lot of) people who do not respond to your carefully drafted emails. A week of silence is not uncommon in academia. The most important thing is not to panic and not take it personally! It is actually a good way to find out the type of communication you can expect in the lab. If they have not responded in 2 weeks, move on. Keep a note of how many people in that school seem thrilled about you applying.


Within a week after the interview

  • Send your interviewers a thank-you email. Reiterate why you would be so excited to attend this school.

 

Requirements (VISA, IMMUNIZATION)

  • Visa. As soon as you have decided on your program, you want to start working on the F-1 visa. Depending on your home country, this process can be long, political, and unpredictable. You want to give yourself an ample amount of time (2+ months) to get this done. Do not lose your I-20! You will likely have to pay a SEVIS I-901 fee, which costs approximately $200.
     

  • Immunization records. Most programs require a list of immunization vaccines to be completed before you set foot in the classroom on your first day. Beware: This can take up to 6 months to complete, since some shots require you to have additional doses at different times, so make sure you start far enough in advance. These can be difficult to get done and can be expensive too. Additional tests include: QuantiFERON-TB Gold Plus for Tuberculosis, Tuberculosis Skin Test.

 

COUNTRY-SPECIFIC ADVICE (FOR APPLICATION IN GENERAL)


Please note that this section is a work-in-progress. If you have tips or experience that you can share from your home country, email us at cientificolatino@gmail.com. Thank you!
 

  • Peru: Getting your immunization records can be really hard. If you do not have them, I would recommend getting serological tests (Roe Laboratories, Suiza Lab, etc). If you need any vaccine, go to a clinic, since hospitals can take too much time -- both in getting the vaccine administered and in getting the records. Not all vaccines are always available in the same hospital.
     

  • India: Talk to your parents! They might have saved your old immunization cards which would inform you of the vaccines you have already taken (and need not take again). You could also go to a local clinic to get your shots, if you’re unable to go to a hospital. Some vaccines need to be taken only once in a lifetime (moderators, please feel free to correct) and you might already have yours. If you go to your pediatrician, they might have your old records and can help you in the event you’ve lost/misplaced your immunization cards. 

     

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