Planning , Timing & Synchronizing

The admissions process usually begins during a student’s penultimate year when a student meets with a guidance counselor, selects some colleges, and perhaps visits a few campuses. During third year (in a 4-year program), or the summer vacations before final year is a good time to finalize application plans and perhaps begin writing essays, and prepare for the GRE. International students may need to take tests showing English-language proficiency such as the TOEFL, IELTS or PTE Academic. Final year is when students apply for MS. Decisions happen by April, and students are expected to reply by May unless waitlisted.

If you want to take admission in session beginning in September 2017, then ideally, the process starts in January 2016 and has 12 stages.

    1. Prepare – January to May 2016 – Prepare for GRE and TOEFL. This preparation can take 3 to 4 months.
  1. GRE Exam – March to June 2016 – Take the GRE exam
  2. TOEFL exam – July 2016 – Take the TOEFL exam
  3. University Selection – By the end of July, you will have your GRE and TOEFL scores. Start short-listing universities in July-August period.
  4. Scholarship Search – Universities will have an earlier and separate deadline to apply for scholarships. Remember the scholarship deadlines will be earlier than the admission deadlines. Search for the scholarships that you can apply and start applying by September.
  5. Apply Online – Create your account on the University Website and start filling all the required details. You can start filling the online application of the universities in October.
  6. Transcripts and LORs – Apply for transcripts in the month of October. It normally takes 2 weeks to get the transcripts. Also consult with your professors about LORs in October.
  7. SOPs – Finalize your recommenders and Prepare your Statement of Purpose and any other required essays in the month of November. In November, Some universities require hard-copy LORs, get them from your recommenders. If a university requires an online LOR, then provide email-IDs of your recommender professors to the university.
  8. Application Review – By the end of November, you should have all your documents ready for submission. Double check all the documents. By November 31st, your application should be ready for submission.
  9. Submit Application – In first week of December, submit your application.
  10. Online LOR check – If online LOR were to be submitted, give polite reminders to your recommender professors and ensure that all LORs are submitted by mid December 2016.
  11. Prepare Bank Statement – After completing the entire application process, in the month of January 2017, start your preparations for Financial Requirements that you have to meet when you receive the admits.

Selecting Courses / Colleges / Universities

Senior advisors suggest that it is wise to have a “four-year plan” with proactive planning. Some suggested against lightening the academic load during senior year because this may indicate less real interest in academics.

Selection of Universities/Departments/MS programs – Rankings of Colleges & Universities

Counselors suggest one place to begin a search for MS programs is to consult a ranking guide. Two well-known college and university rankings guides are the U.S. News and World Report and The Washington Monthly’s “College Rankings” issue, but there are many different groups that produce rankings of U.S. universities based on different factors and using different methodology. Advisors stress that consulting a ranking list is only a beginning, and that much more research is needed.


The US News ranking generated much controversy when their map showed locations of its assessment of the top 40 universities and colleges in the US in 2007, with many located in the northeast of US.

Rankings have been the subject of much criticism. Since much of the data is provided by colleges themselves, there are opportunities for schools to manipulate the rankings to enhance prestige. There have been instances in which school officials deliberately misreported statistics, such as an admissions dean at Claremont McKenna who falsified average statistics, and a report that Emory University falsely reported student data for “more than a decade,” as well as reports of false data from the United States Naval Academy and Baylor University. There is considerable hypocrisy surrounding rankings: some colleges pretend to loathe the guidebooks that rank them, yet if they get a good write-up, they would lap up the opportunity. Media has criticized the “mindless pursuit of better numbers” by universities to boost their rankings as destructive and opined that families place too much emphasis on the rankings as a way to select universities. Further, the US News rankings fail to take a universities’ affordability into account or factor in the average student indebtedness after MS programs as well as failing to measure how well universities actually educated their students. The US News algorithm “favors universities that spurn more students.” Universities admissions counselors criticized rankings as misleading, and criticized the rankings inputs of peer assessments, student selectivity and alumni giving as being poor predictors of a university’s overall quality. The rankings title “America’s Best universities “, prompted counselors to ask “best for whom”?

In 2007, members of the Annapolis Group discussed a letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the US News “reputation survey”. A majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting agreed not to participate, although the statements were not binding. Members pledged to develop alternative web-based information formats in conjunction with several collegiate associations. US News responded that their peer assessment survey helps them measure a college’s “intangibles” such as the ability of a college’s reputation to help a graduate win a first job or get a prestigious internship. An article by Nicholas Thompson in Washington Monthly criticized the U.S. News rankings as “confirming the prejudices of the meritocracy” by tuning their statistical algorithms to entrench the reputations of a handful of universities, while failing to measure how much students learn. Thompson described the algorithms as being “opaque enough that no one outside the magazine can figure out exactly how they work, yet clear enough to imply legitimacy.” One effort to systematize the compilation of college admissions data is the Common Data Set initiative.

Choosing MS programs by selectivity

Senior Advisors typically ask students to begin to see potential universities in terms of four types:

  • Reach universities provide a slim chance of acceptance, such as a 5% or slimmer chance.
  • Possibles (or high matches) have greater chance of rejection than acceptance.
  • Probables (or low matches) have greater chance of acceptance than rejection.
  • Solid or safety universities seldom reject candidates with similar academic credentials. Counselors recommend that a safety university be one that a student would like to attend if rejected everywhere else. Counselors also advise having at least one financial aid safety university that is affordable even without financial aid. Another classification is “unlikelies” (5% chance of acceptance), “reach ” (25% chance), “possibles” (50% chance) and “likelies” (80% chance).

Typically counselors will suggest an applicant apply to a mix of the different types of universities, usually having at least two safety universities, but the numbers of the others are up to students and families. Some recommend that a student apply to a minimum of two “solid” universities and two “probable” universities.

Better fit or prestige

Prestige of colleges correlates with age, such that the oldest east-coast universities tend to have accumulated the most prestige by virtue of their longevity. There is widespread consensus that the fit between a student and a college is an important factor. Several reports suggest that “fit should trump prestige every single time,” and that it is better for a college to match a student in terms of social, cultural, and academic qualities and not be chosen simply because of a school’s prestige. Others see college admissions as essentially a choice between “price and prestige”. Elite colleges have been compared to designer labels, a valuable credential in the job market, and an entryway into top career positions. Some advisors specialize in helping students find a good fit—a suitable list of colleges—which helps students in the long run. They help students to explore their values and needs, and provide counseling to help both students and parents find a college or university program that helps students meet long term goals. Questions include thinking about life goals, which activities a person likes best, and what style of learning works best for the student. Evaluating personal preferences is important and can take time. One advisor suggests it is important for a student to think through what is best, and choose on this basis, and “do not listen to your friends” since they have different needs and wants. “One of the worst ways to make a decision about where to go to college is to follow a friend because he or she is having a good time at that school,”. Since “barely half” of students entering college as freshmen ever graduate from college later in their lives, getting the right fit is important for parents and students to avoid wasting money.

So what is a good fit:

The college that fits you best is one that will:

(1) Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs

(2) Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn

(3) Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation

(4) Offer a community that feels like home to you and

(5) Value you for what you do well.

(6) Helps you to challenge and improve yourself

A private admissions counselor elaborates: A school has to fit – academically, socially, and economically … Ask whether a college feels right … rather than is it best

One admissions dean likens “fit” to a friendship:

I draw the analogy of friends to explain why fit is so important in considering a college. You like your good friends for some reason. It may not be an objective reason. It’s often subjective. There’s some sense of compatibility, a kind of intuition, a match, a common sense of values, what you like to do, how you think – those are the things that really bind people together. It’s similar with college. You don’t want to spend four years with a college who isn’t really your friend.

In addition, counselors can help less academically astute students find good colleges to help them pursue careers, and can point out colleges that are “gems” but relatively unknown. In some cases, choosing a college in a different part of the country can improve chances for admission, particularly if the college is seeking “geographical diversity.” One study suggests that the overall prestige of a person’s college is less important, overall, in predicting how they would fare in later life, and that personal characteristics, such as aptitude, are more important. 

Selecting colleges by type

Different types of schools offer different educations: including engineering-oriented colleges such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, which emphasizes teaching, internships, and technical education.

Although most educational institutions in the U.S. are non-profit, some are for-profit. Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering or technical curriculum while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above. Another consideration is the male-female ratio; overall, 56% of enrolled college students are women, but the male-female ratio varies by college and year and program. Admissions guidance counselors can offer views about whether a public or private school is best, and give a sense of the tradeoffs.

Costs of College Education (Only tuition fee discussed here)

Sticker versus net price

The general pattern is that most colleges and universities, particularly private ones, have an artificially high and unreliable sticker price while charging most students a discounted price ( net price ) that varies considerably. Some people compare college prices with “airline tickets” since “everybody pays a different fare”.

Another report agreed: Sticker price is the full price that colleges list in their brochures and on their websites. Net price is the price students actually pay. Net price accounts for the fact that many students receive grants or scholarships. So it can be considerably lower than sticker price.

Discounting began in the 1970s and was dramatically expanded in the 1990s, according to one report. Discrepancy between sticker and average net prices can vary substantially. Estimates vary, but show a consistent pattern of sticker prices being much greater than real costs, sometimes more than double, sometimes only one and half times as high. Estimates are that 88% or 67% get some form of discount. Generally, the sticker-to-net price discrepancy is greater at private colleges than public universities. For example, in 2014-2015, the average sticker price for tuition, fees and living expenses at private colleges such as Caltech, was $198,700 while the average actual cost was $91,250; at public colleges such as Georgia Tech, the average sticker price was $157,100 and the average actual cost was $118,500. Another estimate was that the average postgraduate gets $19,500 in grant aid along with $1,000 in tax-based aid to offset tuition and fees.

Colleges use high sticker prices because it allows them wide latitude in how to use funds to attract the best students, as well as entice students with special skills or increase its overall racial or ethnic diversity. The most sought-after students can be enticed by high discounts while marginal students can be charged full freight. Further, the high sticker price is a marketing tool to suggest the overall worth of a college education, along the lines of encouraging people to think that “schools that cost more must provide a better education.” A report by the Pew Research Center found that while there was growing concern about escalating college prices, most Americans believed that their personal investment in higher education was sound. But discounting adds complexity to decision-making, deterring some students from applying in some instances based on a false sense of unaffordability.

Net price calculators

In the fall of 2011, colleges were required by federal law to post a net price calculator on their websites to give prospective students and families a rough estimate of likely college costs for their particular institution, and to “demystify pricing.” A student or family could go online, find the calculator at a college’s website, and enter the required financial and academic information, and the calculator should tell them an estimate of the likely cost of attending that college. The first online calculators were started by Williams College. The online calculators look at financial need and academic merit to try to estimate the likely discounted price offered to a particular student from a particular college, using information including details from tax returns, household income, grade point averages and test scores. Colleges vary in terms of their pricing formulas; some consider home equity as a factor while others disregard it. We recommend that families shopping for colleges go to a college’s website and use the net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of cost.

There are numerous potential problems with the calculators. Some are difficult to find on a college’s website; others require specific financial numbers, possibly leading to errors by parents or students; some are difficult to understand and use; some may be manipulated by schools to increase applications or to make it seem as if a college is “more affordable” than it is. Accuracy of calculator estimates may vary considerably from college to college. Ultimately aid decisions will not be made by calculators, but by humans in the admissions offices.

Types of financial aid

Advisors can help students and parents decide whether to choose private universities or public ones, including state-subsidized schools as well as community colleges, and to help students and parents understand different types of financial aid.

  • Need-based aid is offered according to the financial need of a student. Generally colleges at the “top of the pecking order” dispense aid solely in terms of need using “fairly predictable formulas”. According to one source, about 30 elite universities have “coffers deep enough to meet all student need” and consequently only offer need-based aid.
  • Merit-based aid is scholarships and grants awarded to top academic performers or others with special talents. One report suggested that academic scholarships tended to be few, and were usually awarded by the admissions office and are “highly competitive”. Another report suggested that most colleges use merit scholarships, based on high scores or grades or other accomplishments, to lure students away from a competing college.

One view is that most colleges award aid using a mix of both. Further, student loans can lessen the immediate difficulty of large tuition bills but can saddle a student with debt after graduation; in contrast, grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back.

Schools trying to climb the prestige ladder use merit based scholarships to attract top students to boost their rankings in the US News guidebook. As a school’s “stock” rises, high performing students start attending in greater numbers, and consequently the college can “ratchet back on the merit aid to wealthy students” and shift funds towards “need-based financial aid”. Elite schools such as the Ivies don’t give merit scholarships, according to two reports. Another tool is to use the College Board’s expected family contribution calculator that can give families an idea of how much college will cost, but not for any particular college.

Families think their sons and daughters are awarded a merit scholarship because of the fact that they are wonderfully smart and talented … The primary reason for awarding a non-need-based merit scholarship is to change a student’s enrollment decision from another institution to our institution. That’s why colleges do it.

Applying for financial aid (For Indian students)

Because sources of financial aid to study in the US are extremely limited, you will have to be resourceful and explore every possibility. In addition to the sources listed below, we recommend searching the FastWeb database, because it is free and has good coverage of the awards available for international students.

Aid from Your Home Country

One of the best sources of financial aid to study in the US is organizations is your own country. The nearest educational advising center may have information about local sources of support.

Your own government may have financial aid available. (Usually this support requires that you return home after your education is complete.) Contact the cultural section of your embassy or your ministry of education for more information, since there are many awards which require you to be nominated by your government.

There may also be private organizations in your home country that provide support for study in the US. Businesses, foundations, and religious groups might have funds available.

Aid from International Organizations

Of the few private scholarships for international students, most require that you apply from your home country. If you are already in the US you might not be eligible. So you should search for financial aid before you arrive in the US.

Some international organizations offer funding for graduate students to study in the US. These include the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), AMIDEAST, the International Maritime Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, the League of Red Cross Societies, the Soros Foundation, the World Health Organization, and the World Council of Churches. These awards are extremely competitive.

Fulbright scholarships are awarded to approximately 4,700 graduate students worldwide each year. Applicants are required to take the TOEFL and GRE or GMAT exams. Professional education, such as medical studies, is not eligible. Fulbright students are required to be on J-1 visas for the duration of their sponsorship. For information about applying to the Fulbright Program in your country, contact the nearest US embassy or consulate, Fulbright Commission office, or educational advising centerEducationUSA, operated by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State, maintains information about studying in the US and the Fulbright program, including Fulbright Commission contact information for most countries. For more information, send email to

Aid from the US Government

Please note that the US government student assistance programs, including the Pell Grant, Stafford and PLUS loans, and work-study programs, are not available to international students.

There may, however, be aid available from the US government for students from specific countries. Your best bet for finding out if there is any financial aid from the US for students from your country is to contact your embassy, the US Department of State, and EducationUSA. You should also write to the Agency for International Development, Office of International Training, Washington, DC 20523.

Aid from US Educational Institutions

Financial aid for international undergraduate students is extremely rare. Foreign graduate students have significantly more opportunities for financial aid than foreign undergraduate students. The amount of financial aid for foreign graduate students is nevertheless limited.

Some US schools have direct exchange programs with their counterparts in foreign countries. Such exchange programs often include financial aid for the international student. To find out about these programs, check your local universities.

International students who intend to enroll in a graduate or postdoctoral program at a US university should contact the schools that interest them. Ask both the relevant department(s) and the university’s Financial Aid Office about financial aid for international students. Most support for graduate study in the US by international students is provided by the schools themselves in the form of teaching assistantships and research assistantships. These assistantships are based on academic merit, not financial need. The school will probably require you to pass the Test of Spoken English (TSE) to qualify for a teaching assistantship.

Financial aid is not available for English as a Second Language courses, so you should have a TOEFL score of at least 550 to qualify for financial aid. If all else is equal, the candidate with the better English skills will get the financial aid.

International students who are already enrolled in a US university should visit the International Student Advisor, Financial Aid Office, and Career Planning & Placement Office for information about financial aid for international students.

Aid from Private US Organizations and Sponsors

There is very little financial aid for international students available from private sources, such as foundations and individual sponsors.

To discover what is available, search some of the free scholarship and fellowship databases listed on the FinAid site. The FastWeb database, in particular, has good coverage of the awards available for international students. See also the scholarship and fellowship databases. (Be aware that fee-based scholarship matching services often do not have any listings of awards for international students. Most awards listed in these databases are restricted to US citizens and permanent residents. The databases may claim otherwise, but that’s often because they find it easy to exploit international students. Don’t waste your money.)

Another suggestion is to read some of the ethnic newspapers that are published in the US. Some sources of financial aid are publicized only in such foreign language newspapers. If there isn’t anything listed, try calling the editor of the newspaper to see if they know of any possibilities, such as a member of the community who might be willing to sponsor your education.

Although you might be able to find a generous benefactor who will offer to sponsor your US education, the chances of this are less than 1 in 10,000. Sponsorship of this sort is much more common in Europe than it is in the US. You’re more likely to find a sponsor in your home country than in the US. (US sponsors are as generous as their international counterparts. They are just overwhelmed by the relatively large numbers of international students seeking financial assistance and the higher cost of education in the United States.)

Assistance from Your Family

According to NAFSA (Association of International Educators), more than two-thirds of international students in the US finance their education using their own resources and the resources of their family.

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