I am on my way out! Yes, all year it’s been on my mind that this is my final year at college; that I shall be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in May.
Well, in truth, I have known for a while now which path I wanted to pursue. I have been interested in politics and international affairs for a long time and would like to be a part of that world, whether in terms of policy and decision-making or analysis and commentary. So it wasn’t too hard for me to decide to look for master’s programs in that field. I know politics can be a real pain – both for the politician as well as the citizen – but it’s the one sphere, I feel, where I can achieve a meaningful impact.
As far as research into institutions went, the APSIA website (Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs) was a good place to start. I can’t say I did much beyond that, as that website listed many top institutions. I did also have a look at Ivy League colleges, and – I must confess, even though this is a blog of international students in America – that I looked at options in other countries as well.
GRE and TOEFL
One of the earliest steps in the process involved that peculiar practice in the U.S. of taking standardized tests and exams. I don’t want to be one to complain, but the truth is that the purpose (and definitely the price) of the GRE did not make much sense to me. I managed to take it over the summer in Armenia, though, before senior year, so at least I did not have to spend any time on it during the school year.
Proving English-language capability was fortunately not an issue for me, as my undergraduate studies are in English.
Most of the universities where I applied had an almost-exclusively online admissions process. In fact, most of them had outsourced to the same company or software, so the way their websites were setup was similar. But I learned a great deal about the universities just by the admissions process itself, especially looking at what kind of questions those various places asked, what kind of demands they put on their applicants.
It seemed to me that some universities wanted extra reassurances from their applicants that they would be able to pay for their studies. Not that any university did not want such guarantees, but pushing that question was a bit of a turnoff for me.
Contrary to that, only one out of the six places where I applied asked for writing samples. That was really cool. They were also the ones who had real, live human beings respond to my e-mail inquiries within a matter of days. It’s little things like that which leave a lasting, positive impact.
Letters of Recommendation
The letters of recommendation are also a very important aspect of applications. People tend to be busy, so it is useful to remind your recommenders every once in a while to go on to that website and to submit that letter. I found a gentle reminder e-mail once every couple of weeks or so was enough. It is also a good idea to get an early start on your recommenders, so that they have the time to craft a meaningful letter.
I was fortunate in picking a couple of people at my college who I knew shared my interests and also with whom I had had helpful interactions over the past few years, including discussions on politics and international affairs. My third recommender was a mentor and internship boss of mine back in Armenia, so she had seen my “real life” work (as opposed to my academic work) and could speak to that.
If you are graduating soon, but if you won’t be applying for further study this coming year, I’d recommend asking a favorite professor to have a letter of recommendation on file, just as a reference in case of future need, because your professor may not remember as many details about your conduct in class or your character after a year or two.
Even though the online applications were really similar, many of the universities to which I applied had entirely separate processes for financial aid, which required almost just as much work as the application itself.
I was told that it is difficult to get funding at the graduate level in humanities or social sciences, and, yes, as it turns out, the financial aid has not come to much, at least not as much as the support I’m receiving now for college. Still, every little bit helps, and I am grateful for the assistance.
I like to think that the personal statement is the most important part of the admissions packet, so I worked really hard to highlight my strong points and to elaborate on why the place where I was applying was suitable for my choice of career and academic interest.
But I tried to be concise as well, as I imagine those universities get thousands and thousands of applicants with only a handful of staff to sort through them. They all put word limits, as a matter of fact, so the choice of words had to be careful too.
I have noticed that many of my fellow-seniors are not sure what path they wish to pursue. A lot will not be going on to graduate school. This seems to be a pretty normal thing around here. Work experience, internships, volunteer work or international experiences are a big plus, in fact, when applying to master’s programs. But I’d had all that before I came to the States, “in-between-schools,” as the saying would go. Since I already had a good idea of my choice of career, taking on this next challenge seemed like the right thing to do.
And that is very significant: to be aware of what it is exactly you want to do with your life. Finding the exact place or program that fits those aspirations comes second. There is an immense diversity of colleges and universities in this country, which is a great luxury. So, I’d say take your time, look into various possibilities, and apply to as many as you can. It will take effort and patience (and, with application fees, a bit of money just to try), but I like to think that it will be a worthwhile investment.
But I won’t be able to tell you for sure until a couple of years or more down the road.