Three Challenges Facing International Applicants
Though the application process will vary widely across different programs, international applicants all face a common set of challenges. The most common challenges include English language testing, GRE testing, and research fit. All of these challenges can be overcome with planning and consultation with admissions professionals.
English Language Testing
Proficiency in English is one of the most important elements of a graduate school application, but it is often one of the most difficult for international applicants. International students should prioritize studying English early in their education and take the TOEFL or IELTS tests years in advance to become familiar with the testing format.
Applicants should also double check the English testing requirements and exemption requirements a year before the application process. While many universities will exempt students coming English speaking countries from testing, many other universities still require it, often creating confusion among applicants. Even if a student is clearly proficient in English, some universities cannot offer admission without official English testing scores.
Additionally, departments heavily focused on math and science will emphasize English proficiency less than programs in the humanities or the social sciences. As a result, individual departments may have lower or higher English language standards than the university requirement.
GRE Scores vs Research Fit
Since many students learn English as a second language, the English-based GRE exam can be exceedingly difficult. The pressure of a timed exam combined with often complex English can mean international students suffer from low GRE scores despite their best efforts. Even students with passing scores on the TOEFLexam can struggle in the verbal section of the GRE. As a result, an applicant’s GRE scores may not accurately reflect their knowledgeand intellectual ability, but rather their English comprehension.
The good news is that despite what many believe, competitive GRE scores are not the most important part of the application. Many universities recognize that GRE scores do not accurately reflect the future performance of graduate students or their subsequent careers. While international applicants should by all means do their best on GRE tests, the score is no longer the most important factor.
Instead, many universities focus on past grades, letters of recommendation, and most importantly, research fit. Admissions committees prefer applicants who have demonstrated an interest in research currently being conducted by the department. Applicants who clearly explain how their research interests align with the faculty’s publications will be more competitive than an applicant with only a high GRE score. This is an advantage to students who suffer from lower GRE scores but have the academic ability to perform well.
Many undergraduate students seek research opportunities and develop relationships with faculty members years before officially applying to the graduate program. However, international students have less access to academic conferences in the United States, English publications, or even campus visits, and so frequently struggle to align themselves with faculty research. However, researching faculty profiles online and carefully expressing interest in professionally crafted admissions essays are frequently enough to sway the admissions committee.