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How do US universities evaluate international graduate student applications

interstride logo by Interstride
July 31, 2023

The process of applying to graduate schools is much less standardized than applying to undergraduate schools. Whereas undergraduate applications focus primarily on academics and extracurriculars, graduate school applications focus more heavily on your intended degree, future direction, and even professional experience. Graduate school applications also rely heavily on an applicant’s “statement of purpose” to assess interest in your intended program, and the ways you can contribute to your intended field.

As an international student, your application to graduate school will generally be evaluated similarly to American students. At most schools in the US, there are no “caps” on the amount of international students that can be accepted to programs. At some schools, the acceptance rate for international students can even be higher than, or nearly equal to that of US students.

  • Out of 2,840 applicants who were offered admission to Duke University, 1,754 international applicants were offered admission (61.8%) compared to 1,083 American applicants (38.1%).
  • Out of 7,700 applicants who were admitted to Northwestern University, 47% were international applicants, compared to 53% domestic applicants.

This blog gives an overview on some of the most common ways you will be evaluated as an international graduate student applicant. Though it’s important to carefully review each school’s admission requirements, evaluation criteria, and application processes for international students, as these can be different compared to domestic students, and can vary by school.

Academic evaluation

As an international applicant, one of the primary ways your graduate school application will be evaluated is based on your academic performance. As part of your application, some schools may request as official transcripts, information about your GPA and overall academic performance, and even your scores on standardized tests.

Some schools may require more information about your transcripts or the courses you took, to determine the equivalence of your degree(s), if obtained outside of the US. It’s important to note that if your high school or undergraduate transcripts are not in English, you might be required to obtain a certified English translation. Similarly, if your high school or undergraduate transcripts are not based on a 4.0 GPA grading system, you might also have to send them to a credential evaluation agency.

Not all graduate schools and programs will require you to submit your scores on standardized tests. There are, however, schools and disciplines that do require standardized test scores as part of the graduate school application.

  • The Graduate Record Examination (GRE): a multi-discipline test required by select schools for admission to graduate programs. The GRE can be required in addition to some of the disciplinary tests below.
  • The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT): typically required for admission to business or MBA programs, this test is administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT): administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the MCAT is required by almost all medical schools, or medical graduate programs.
  • The Dental Admission Test (DAT: required for admissions to dental schools, and is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA).
  • The Law School Admission Test (LSAT): required for admission to law schools, and is administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).
  • Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT): administered by Pearson, the PCAT is required for admission to pharmacy schools.

English language proficiency

As part of the graduate school application, international students will also be evaluated on their English skills, most commonly via the TOEFL or IELTS tests. You’ll want to make sure you carefully review the requirements at each graduate school to see which test is required, if there is a minimum score requirement, and if the school offers alternative options for demonstrating proficiency.

For example, at Stanford, graduate applicants can demonstrate English proficiency by either taking one of the tests above, or proving that they meet a standing exemption, such as earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited US college or university. At the University of Washington, applicants can demonstrate English proficiency similarly, or by proving that all instruction at the applicant’s undergraduate degree-granting institution was conducted in English.

Interstride Tip: Did you complete your undergraduate degree in an English-speaking country? If so, you might be able to skip the English language proficiency testing requirement – check your school’s requirements for more information!

Research experience and publications

Not all graduate programs or disciplines require research experience or publication contributions. These are, however, important pieces of evaluation criteria for applicants interested in academic and research track positions, or applicants who are pursuing a doctoral degree such as a PhD. Applicants to these kinds of degree programs and disciplines will be evaluated more heavily on their experience in research and contributions to publications.

Admissions officers utilize research and publication experience to evaluate graduate applicants on their alignment with program objectives, their research skills, and their aptitude for rigorous level of coursework and research at or above the graduate level. Proof of research and publication experience could include research projects, journals you authored or contributed to, presentations, collaborations with faculty, and more.

Statement of purpose

While all pieces of your graduate school application will be evaluated closely, admissions officers look most closely at your statement of purpose. Your statement of purpose is perhaps the most significant piece of your application, as this will demonstrate how good of a fit you are for the school or program. Schools will also be assessing your writing skills, professionalism, clarity, and motivation.

Your statement of purpose should be a place where you differentiate yourself from other applicants, and demonstrate what you will bring to the table. You’ll want to make sure your statement is authentic and compelling, and addresses your goals, research interests, and future career aspirations. Essentially, demonstrate the ways you are a perfect fit for the program or school.

Interstride Tip: Always proofread, and seek feedback from a peer, teacher, and/or mentor!

Resume

Most graduate schools will require your resume as part of your graduate school application. Your resume should be a comprehensive high level overview of your academic performance and coursework, research experience, employment history, publication contributions, etc. Most importantly, your resume should be tailored to highlight experience that is most relevant with the requirements of your program.

As an overview, your resume will be a quick way for admissions officers to compare your experience, qualifications, and future potential to that of other applicants. So your resume should be well-structured, easy to read, succinct, and formatted to fit a graduate level applicant. If you’re looking for a jumping off point, see this international graduate student sample resume.

Actionable next steps

Now that you have reviewed the many ways you will be evaluated as an international graduate student, here are a handful of actionable next steps as you prepare to apply:

  • Research the schools or programs you are interested in. Spend time reviewing program deadlines, coursework, and even faculty members and their areas of research interest, if applicable.
  • Be organized. There is no centralized application (like the Common App) for graduate school applications. Each school and application will likely have their own process, portal, and requirements. It’s important to stay organized and keep track of deadlines.
  • Network with current graduate students, graduate alumni, or even program faculty if their interests and experience align with your own (especially if you’re applying for PhD programs!).
  • Attend information sessions, virtually or in person, if offered by the graduate schools you’re interested in. This can be an efficient way to learn more about the program, faculty, and research opportunities from faculty and current students.
  • Request recommendations letters ASAP. Your professors and/or mentors may have a long list of people who also want their recommendation, so get your request in as soon as possible.
  • Polish your resume. Your resume is something you can start working on right away. Seek feedback or advice from peers, mentors, professionals in your intended field of study, etc. Make sure your resume highlights academic achievements, and research and publication experience, especially for research-focused disciplines. If you are a current undergraduate student, you could even utilize your career services center for formatting tips.

Final thoughts

When applying for graduate schools as an international student, it’s important to understand the ways your application will be evaluated. Highlighting your academic performance, professional experience, and post grad-school aspirations are key pieces of your applications. Your international experience also brings distinct qualities and perspectives. Remember to use that, in addition to the many other pieces of evaluation criteria, to distinguish yourself from other applicants.

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