Enrol with Uncle Sam

September 15, 1995

British postgraduate applicants are attractive to US universities but few apply. Kate O'Neill explains why and gives some application tips.

Applying to graduate school in the United States, particularly for students from abroad, involves a bewildering array of forms, requirements and exams quite foreign to the United Kingdom university system. This has discouraged many British students who would otherwise have been interested in going to the US for their graduate education.

Earlier this year, I sat on the Columbia University political science department's admissions committee, with the task of reading (and often translating) applications from British candidates.

That experience threw up two observations. On the one hand, UK students made certain common strategic errors, and on the other, the application pool from the UK was not only small, but overwhelmingly out of Oxbridge. This is surprising, as UK students have at least two major factors in their favour. First, US universities pride themselves on their "diversity". User-friendly international students (such as Brits) are therefore very welcome. Second, the highly specialised UK undergraduate system makes candidates look very attractive in comparison with typically "wide-ranging" American majors.

Why then do so few British students bother to apply to the 3,000-plus institutions of higher learning in the US? The answer, I believe, has a lot to do with information.

Oxford has quite good information because of its long tradition of transatlantic exchange.

But if the experience of Mark Blyth, who was an undergraduate at Strathclyde University, is anything to go by, the rest of UK potential applicants have a much tougher time. All applicants to US graduate schools must take the Graduate Record Exam. The testing centre for Scotland is Strathclyde; however, after a two-week search of Strathclyde faculty and administration, Blyth found that no one had any idea where the GRE was held, who administered it, or what one might look like if encountered in the street. If this is similar to your experience, here is what to do. To choose a school, your first stop should be your careers library. Make sure they stock Peterson's Guide, which lists institutions, course offerings, and addresses for application forms.

Within your field, there is a range of programmes you can apply to. In political science, a common distinction is made between research-oriented PhDs and policy-oriented masters programmes. They are often separate degrees, and it is not easy to transfer between them.

Once I had decided on a PhD in international relations, I chose places to apply to by where they were (New York topped the list). You should also consider department quality, how much financial support they offer, and time taken to complete the programme. US postgraduate courses require one to three years of coursework and exams. Hence US PhDs take about twice as long as UK ones. If in doubt, write to the department.

Also, hunt out local resources. Members of a faculty who have a US PhD or American students on your campus will almost certainly be very helpful.

Applications usually consist of a fairly straightforward form; your GRE scores; an official transcript; three letters of recommendation; a personal statement; and a non-refundable $50 - $60 fee per school. Some institutions also require a sample of your writing.

The whole process is time-consuming - it took both Blyth and myself two to three weeks. We strongly advise applying for a place that starts a year after you graduate rather than immediately because academic calendars on either side of the Atlantic are out of sync. In order to obtain a place for Fall 1996, say, your application has to be in the mail by January 1996. This means requesting materials, sitting the GRE, and putting the application together the previous autumn. Furthermore, having your degree result in hand is of immeasurable benefit: "has got a first" has a much better ring to it than "should get a first".

The trickiest part is the GRE (or similar test: medical students take the MCAT, business students the GMAT, and so on), a standardised, multiple choice test taken by all applicants to American graduate schools, which (supposedly) tests your verbal, analytical and mathematical skills. Admissions committees take the results seriously, although, depending on the field, they may weight each section differently. The exam is offered at different centres in the UK several times a year. Write to the Fulbright Commission Education Advisory Service (London) for information and sample tests.

Practice helps, if only to get into the style of the American standardised exam. Scores range from 0 to 800 in each section; the minimal acceptable level is between 550-600, and the test can be retaken to improve your results.

The New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, sends your results to your designated schools.

You will also need a transcript: an official record of grades you have obtained throughout your undergraduate education. The US system is one of continuous assessment: undergraduates receive course grades at the end of each semester. As this kind of formal record is lacking in Britain, ask your department/college administrator to prepare an officially sealed list of the courses you have taken, along with an indication of your performance in each. Ideally, the transcript should contain your degree result. Make sure there is a note on grade translation: in Britain, 75 per cent in an exam earns you an A, in the US it ranks C+.

Next, letters of recommendation. These are key; but are where cultural differences between the US and the UK come to the fore. American letters tend toward the hyperbolic, and while most admissions committees can read between the lines of such letters, the low-key British style (eg "x is really quite good") simply will not suffice. Find referees who can "wax lyrical" about your merits. If possible, get references from UK academics who are known or have had experience in the US. Tell them what you need. One paragraph of "so and so is a very good chap" can assign an otherwise strong candidate to the "also-rans".

Personal statements are designed to show basic literacy and describe your interests, life goals and career plans. Statements I have read have ranged from starry-eyed desires to make the world a better place to detailed dissertation summaries. As neither of these is taken very seriously, focus on giving an impression of your background, what you want to study, and what you hope to gain from that particular institution. This last point is important: I read several applications to Columbia which explained in glowing terms why the student wanted to study at Harvard.

Once you have collated the applications, and sent them off well within the deadlines given, sit back and wait. Generally applicants are notified the following April. If you have been admitted to more than one place, all the better. The basic rule of thumb is "go where the cash is". US graduate education is expensive; full-time fees at Columbia are now about $20,000 a year. Foreign students are not entitled to US student loans. So, unless you are extremely wealthy, do not go unless you have assembled at least one year of guaranteed funding. On the positive side, US institutions are fairly generous compared with the UK, offering most of their students at least some support. For example, in 1991, the UK Economic and Social Research Council offered 250 doctoral fellowships of which 21 were for political science. In a typical year a large doctoral programme such as Columbia's gives out double that number of fellowships, many of them covering full tuition and $10,000 stipend. Moreover, there are many US independent trusts and foundations to which you can apply. In the UK there are a few trusts. For example, Blyth combined awards from Sir Graham Hills, ex-Strathclyde principal, and the Scottish International Education Trust (in Edinburgh), for his first-year living expenses. The Fulbright Commission, and the English-Speaking Union also provide grants for US study.

Of course, once you have arrived, in our case at Kennedy Airport, the next big obstacle - culture shock - is yet to be faced. Still, learning a new culture and a new academic tradition is half the fun.

For Information on the GRE write to: Educational Testing Service, P.O. Box 6000, Princeton, NJ 08541-6000.

Kate O'Neill is in the fifth year of PhD study in political science at Columbia University. She was an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford.

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