CAREERS: A Guide for Applying to Masters and PhD Programs in the United States

From time to time, I get requests for information on how to apply to postgraduate (Master’s and PhD) programs in the US. Below is the information that you need if you need to do so successfully.

1. Are you qualified to apply for a US graduate (postgraduate) program? You are more likely to be admitted to a US graduate program and to get a scholarship (called a graduate teaching or research assistantship in the US) if you have a second class (upper) or higher undergraduate degree (i.e., a B-average or better or a GPA of at least 3.5). If you have a second class(lower)undergraduate degree or a low GPA, ensure that your letters of recommendation clearly explain why you got a second class (lower) and that you have the ability of doing well in your master’s program. You should also address this in a sentence or two in your Statement of Purpose – SOP (see 8(iv) below). Additionally, if you got a second class (lower) degree but had strong grades of B or higher in, say,your Geography courses, then you and your referees should highlight this fact in your application to a Geography master’s program.

2. Decide if you want to apply for the “Fall” (August/September) or “Spring” (January) semester. It is usually better to apply for the Fall Semester because it is easier to get a scholarship or assistantship. The application deadline for Fall Semester usually falls between December 15 and March 15. Application deadlines vary from university to university and by department even with the same university. Start date for online Master’s programs may however be different and might have different application/admission requirements. For example, review The 10 Best Master’s in Applied Mathematics and Applied Statistics Online here: https://www.bestcollegereviews.org/top/online-masters-applied-mathematics-applied-statistics/.

3. Prepare and take the GRE/GMAT/TOEFL exams according to your target universities’ Fall/Spring semester application deadlines. Many universities have minimum GRE/GMAT/TOEFL score requirements. This year (2021) many universities have waived these exams because of COVID-19. Some US universities (e.g., BGSU) don’t require Kenyans to take TOEFL because English is the country’s language of instruction. You can however submit your TOEFL scores if you have them. If you obtained a lower second class degree, you can use GRE/TOEFL scores to show that you can do well in your graduate program. Some departments might also use these scores to grant you an assistantship. In such cases, they will expect you to have certain minimum scores.

4. Choose 5 or so universities that have graduate (postgraduate) programs in your academic area of interest (see 10 below). Then apply to 3 or more of them as you are able. To increase your chances of getting an admission and/or a scholarship, consider applying to universities in different rank categories (e.g., Research 1 and Research 2) because similarly ranked universities (e.g., Princeton and Yale) tend to be equally hard to get into. Most R1 and R2 universities are shown here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_research_universities_in_the_United_States.

5. Ensure that your chosen course/area of study and university is accredited. All reputable US universities are accredited by reputable bodies(https://www.chea.org/regional-accrediting-organizations) that are recognized by the US Department of Education. Duly accredited US universities publish their institutional accreditations on their websites e.g., https://www.bgsu.edu/catalog/general-information/the-univeristy/accreditation-and-recognition.html. Professional and specialized degree programs in the US (e.g., Urban Planning) are also required to have programmatic accreditation from members of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (https://www.aspa-usa.org/). There are many unaccredited universities in the US that offer cheap but worthless degrees. Be careful that you do not fall prey to such institutions. Even some of the duly accredited universities have poor quality programs. Use the information in section 9 below to avoid poor quality universities. Seek guidance if you are not sure of the quality of the university you are applying to.

6. Visit the website of your target graduate program/department and identify professors that you would like to work with based on mutual research interests and their expertise.Reach out to these professors ahead of time and be sure to mention them in your statement of purpose (SOP) – see 8(iv) below.If you don’t know which professor is best for you, ask the target graduate program/department’s Graduate Coordinator(CO) or Director of Graduate Studies (DoG). The CO and DoG is also the best person to approach with any application fee waiver/deferral requests or with any question that you might have about the program you are applying to. Your email to the CO or DoG should be written formally – a careless or informal email can cost you a valuable opportunity. Don’t write informally to the CO or Do Guntil he/she allows/asks you to do so.

7. Consult your select US university website for current information on itsgraduate (postgraduate) degree programs and admission requirements.For example: (a) BGSU – https://www.bgsu.edu/graduate/admissions.html, (b) Ohio University – https://www.ohio.edu/graduate/apply and (c) Harvard University – https://gsas.harvard.edu/admissions/apply.

8. Prepare/obtain these items before you start applying for admission

(i) Official undergraduate and/or postgraduate transcripts.While you can apply with unofficial transcripts, be sure that you will be required to submit official undergraduate transcripts either before or shortly after you enroll.

(ii) Set aside money for the application fee. While this fee varies, you can expect it to be in the $50 to $150 range. It is usually paid with a major credit or debit card (e.g., Visa or Mastercard) though the university you are applying to might have other payment options. If you do not have any of these credit cards or your Kenyan one is declined, you can ask a family member or friend in the US to pay the fee for you with his/her credit card and then reimburse him/her in Kenya Shillings. In some cases, the application fee might be waived or deferred if you have strong academic credentials and the university you are applying to is interested in recruiting you. Your university’s Graduate College or program/department Graduate Coordinator or Director of Graduate Studies can let you know if you warrant a fee waiver or deferral. Before you ask for an application fee waiver, realize that some universities also use this fee to determine if you can afford the cost of their program.

(iii) Your GRE/ TOEFL/ GMAT/IELTS Scores – Your target graduate program or university will indicate on its website which of these test scores it requires. Minimum acceptable scores will also be specified. Your program’s CO or DoG can let you know if it is possible for these tests to be waived or deferred under certain circumstances. Because of COVID-19, many US universities (including BGSU) have temporarily suspended this application requirement. As a result, it is cheaper and easier to apply to many US graduate programs this academic year (i.e., 2021-22).

(iv) Statement of Purpose (SOP). The SOP is VERY IMPORTANT because it gives you an opportunity to sell yourself to your target graduate program and to explain to the program why you need its masters/PhD degree. Moreover, it often serves as your writing sample. Therefore, you should take time to write it carefully and to proofread it for grammar and spelling mistakes. The SOP generally consists of 4 paragraphs: (a) self-introduction – name, country of origin, and your university education background, (b) career goals and how the masters/PhD degree will help you to achieve them, (c) why you are interested in studying in the chosen department and which professors you plan to work with based on mutual research interests and their expertise (Professor profiles are posted on their department websites), and (d) why you are interested in studying at your select university e.g., institutional reputation, location, research facilities, professors, and other factors (refer to respective university website). Try to limit your SOP to one single-spaced typed page (about 500 words).

(v) Identify 2-3 people who will write your letters of recommendation.Because you are applying to an academic institution, it is best for your recommenders to be your former professors or lectures. Aim for a minimum of 2 such recommenders if you can’t get 3. Your prospective program/university will indicate the number of recommendation letters that you need to submit. If you are applying to a professional degree graduate program (e.g., law or medicine), a recommendation letter from a practitioner that you have worked with can help.

(vi) A well-written resume or CV – details like age, marital status, and religious affiliation are not necessary.

9. The US has around 5,300 universities and colleges. How do I know which one(s) I should apply to?

(i) Do a Keyword/Key-phrase Google Search– If, for example, you are interested in pursuing a master’s degree in Biology, do a Google search using phrases like “Top rated biology graduate programs in the US.” The results will include this list of the Best Biological Sciences Programs in the US: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/biological-sciences-rankings.

(ii) Use this US News Find the Best Grad Schools search tool: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools. After you do a search by subject (e.g., History), you can customize the results by program rankings, School Name, or Location.

(iii) Consider USUniversities with African Studies programs because they tend to be more hospitable to African students. Besides being among the largest universities in the US, they also have many graduate degree programs and scholarships. They are listed here by location in the US (i.e., Northeast US, Mid-Atlantic and Southern US, Mid-West US and Western US): https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/global/virtual-libraries/african_studies/africanstudies_programs/geo.html.

(iv) Consider the Top Research Universities in the United States – they are excellent if you can get in (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_research_universities_in_the_United_States).

(v) Consider the “Big Ten US Universities” which include, in alphabetical order, Indiana University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The “Big Ten” are very large US universities that have some of the most comprehensive academic programs. Though competitive, they also have useful research alliances with universities in many countries including Kenya. Although some of them are in small rural towns, they collectively tend to have (a)a good social climate, (b)many international students including Kenyans, and (c)many MA/MS/PhD scholarships.By the way, the “Big Ten” are really fourteen. Find out why.

(vi) Review these top 100 Universities in the US: https://www.indiaeducation.net/studyabroad/usa/best-us-universities.aspx. The list is also available by statehttps://www.indiaeducation.net/studyabroad/usa/state/. Because the US has approximately 5,300 colleges and universities, most of those in the top 500 are good. It is also not unusual for a lower-ranked university to have a top-rated master’s or PhD program in a given area.

(vii) Review these 500 Members of the Council of Graduate Schools of the U.S. & Canada: https://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/CGS_Member%20Institutions_flyer_Dec20v1.pdf.

(viii) Universities near/in Cities/States with many Kenyans. Most Kenyans in continental US live in the major cities of Washington (Seattle), Minnesota (Minneapolis), California (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento), Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston), Massachusetts (Boston and Wooster), Georgia (Atlanta), Maryland (Baltimore), Washington DC, New Jersey (Jersey City), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh), Illinois (Chicago), New York (New York), Delaware (most of its cities are small but being closer to Philadelphia is advantageous), Ohio (Columbus, Cincinnati), and Kansas (Kansas City, St. Louis). Selecting a university in or near these cities/States will make it easier for you to settle down or to find someone to pick you up from the airport.

10. What to expect after you are admitted

(i) Passport– Your US university will need a copy of your passport’s biographical page before it can issue you an I-20 which you will use to apply for a student (F or M) visa at your nearest US Embassy.

(ii) Graduate Financial Statement Form/Affidavit: Before issuing your I-20, your US university will ask you to fill out some kind of Graduate Financial Statement Form–GFSF(see an example here:https://www.bgsu.edu/content/dam/BGSU/internaionalprogramsandpartnerships/docs/Graduate-Financial-Statement-2018.pdf) to confirm that you have enough money to cover the estimated cost of living and studying in the US for at least one year (minus any scholarship or stipends received). If you are offered a graduate assistantship (which usually includes a tuition scholarship, a stipend that pays for most of your US living expenses, or both though it does NOT cover the cost of your airfare), the personal/family/sponsor funds that you need to show on your GFSF will be low.The information on yourGFSF will also be captured on your I-20 (learn about the I-20 form here: https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/students/prepare/students-and-the-form-i-20) and will inform the US Embassy’s decision to grant/deny you a student visa (usually the F or M category – learn about these visas here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/study/student-visa.html). You will need the visa (that will be stamped in your passport) and your I-20 to enter the US.

(iii) The Student (F-1) Visa Process consists of these steps (https://www.indiaeducation.net/studyabroad/usa/):

  • Obtain your Form I-20 from your US university
  • Pay your SEVIS I-901 Fee to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement section of the US Department of Homeland Security: https://www.fmjfee.com/i901fee/index.html.
  • Print your SEVIS Fee payment receipt
  • Fill the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160): https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/
  • Print your DS-160 application confirmation page
  • Pay your visa application fee
  • Print your visa application fee receipt
  • Schedule an appointment for a student visa interview at your nearest US Embassy

Read more about this process here (https://www.utrgv.edu/iass/admitted-students/f1-visa-process/index.htm). However, be sure to work closely with your US university when you are ready to apply for your student visa. The Nonimmigrant Visas page of the US Embassy in Kenya is accessible here: https://ke.usembassy.gov/visas/nonimmigrant-visas/

(iv) Prepare Well for Your Student Visa Interview at your nearest US Embassy. As you prepare for the interview remember that “[good] luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD). American culture highly values individual and independent work. For this reason, you can expect to be asked questions like how/why you decided to pursue your masters/PhD degree in the US and not in Kenya. The interviewer will also consciously or unconsciously try to gauge your confidence level and self-drive and, by extension, your likelihood of doing well in your graduate program in the US. Without staring, make eye contact with the interviewer throughout the interview. Look at the interviewer (not down or elsewhere) when answering his/her questions. Americans consider failure to make eye contact when talking to them to be a sign of dishonesty. Pay attention to the other DOs and DON’Ts here: https://studyabroad.shiksha.com/usa-student-f1-visa-interview-questions-and-answers-applycontent5991. These resources might also help you to prepare for the interview: Top 10 Tips for Passing Your Student Visa Interviewhttps://www.universitiesintheusa.com/blog/2017/march/tips-for-passing-a-student-visa-interviewand F1 Visa Interview Questions and Answershttps://visaguide.world/us-visa/nonimmigrant/study-exchange-visas/f1/interview-questions-and-answers/.

In conclusion, I wish you all the best as you pursue your graduate education in the US.While doing so, be sure to network with your fellow Kenyan and Kenyanist scholars at Kenya Scholars and Studies Association – KESSA (www.kessa.org). Why? Because according to one African proverb, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Please note that this guide is for general information purposes only and is subject to change without notice. You, therefore, agree to use it at your own risk even as you also agree that the opinions expressed in this guide are NOT those of the entities or websites referenced in it.

The author

Prof Kefa M. Otiso has a PhD in Urban and Economic Geography from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. He teaches at Bowling Green State University. Email: oyomose@yahoo.com

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Prof. Otiso has Ph.D. in Urban and Economic Geography from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. He teaches at Bowling Green State University.

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