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The United States Postgraduate Application Process for International Students

Applying to study abroad in the United States is an exciting step in your academic journey. Postgraduate programs attract a passionate and diverse range of students, and the US is home to many of the world’s most respected educational institutions.

Application requirements vary, and some programs have specialized requests, like a portfolio. Before you apply, refer to the program page on the ApplyBoard Platform for current information. 

Key terms and application tips for studying abroad in North America.

Illustration of a school with a US flag.

Start Your Journey Early

Planning ahead can optimize your application process. You should start researching US colleges and universities 24 months before you want to start your studies. Also, reach out to family, friends, and others you know who have studied or worked in the US to learn about their experiences. 

With 20 months to go, continue your research and/or work with your recruiter to create a list of target programs. Depending on your list, different tests may be required. Tests will include postgraduate standardized tests and English language proficiency tests—and this is a good time to start studying for them! Once you know which programs you’re interested in, each program’s requirements can help you determine which standardized test is right for you.

Understanding Postgraduate Standardized Tests

Graduate Records Examinations (GRE)

The GRE is a standardized test measuring a student’s readiness for postgraduate study. There are two kinds of GRE: a General Test and a Subject Test

The GRE General Test is available as a paper-based or an at-home, computer-based test. It assesses: 

  • Verbal reasoning
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Analytical writing skills

The test is adaptive, which means how you score in early sections will impact the difficulty of later sections. Several US schools use this test score as part of their admission process. Additionally, a 2014 Kaplan survey found 66% of graduate school admission officers shared that a high GRE score can help students receive grants, scholarships, or teaching assistant opportunities.

GRE Subject Tests are intended for students with an extensive background or undergraduate major in a specific discipline. GRE Subject Tests are written on paper, and are available for the following subjects: 

  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Math
  • Psychology 

Taking a GRE Subject Test can help you highlight your area-specific knowledge and stand out from other candidates.

Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) 

The GMAT is a standardized test for MBA applicants. It assesses skills relevant to succeeding at business school. Some business schools also accept GRE scores, but if you’re considering a future as a consultant, or in management or logistics, the GMAT may be a better match.

You’ll have two minutes at the end of the GMAT to accept or cancel your score. Go into the test with a target minimum score, and know whether your target colleges and universities would like to see only your best score or all of your attempts.

Both tests may be re-taken, but each attempt requires another payment of the exam fee. Take advantage of free online practice tests, and don’t treat exam day like practice. Whether you choose the GRE or GMAT, you should take the admissions test 15 to 18 months before your chosen program’s intake date. An early test date makes it easier to retake a test if needed.

Note that these tests are just one component of your application. Colleges and universities will also consider your previous academic performance and work experience, and may weigh those factors more heavily. COVID-19 has also impacted application processes, so check your target college or university’s program pages for more information.

Application documents including a passport and envelope.

Assembling Application Materials

With 12 to 13 months to go, start writing your personal statements or essays. Check program requirements and tailor your writing to their guidelines. What’s the difference between an essay and a statement? According to writer Nina DuBois, essays are more formal, where personal statements can be in story form, and are a good way to share why the applicant would be a good addition to the program.

Also, start assembling a portfolio of work, if you’re applying to a program that requires one, such as art, architecture, or design. 

To obtain certified copies of academic transcripts, reach out to the college or university where you completed your undergrad. Processing times can vary, so it’s best to request these as soon as possible.

This is also a great time to contact past professors, employers, or other professional connections to request a reference letter. Ensure that you ask for letters from people who will give you a strong, specific reference, as a weak letter can hurt your chances of acceptance. Let references know which institutions you’re applying to, the deadlines, and what’s required so they can write the best letter possible. It may seem early to ask, but if your first choices aren’t available, you’ll have time to ask someone else.

Drafting and Submitting Your Applications

Once you have your application materials ready, start applying to colleges and universities. We recommend starting this process nine to 10 months before your desired program begins. Learn when the application deadlines are, as they vary.

In the US, there are four kinds of applications:

  • Early Action (EA): Students apply in early November, with responses coming by the end of December.
  • Early Decision (ED): Students apply in early November, and hear back in December. This option is for students who know which institution they want to attend. ED is a binding contract which, on acceptance, means students must enroll in the institution, and withdraw applications to any other colleges or universities.
  • Regular Decision (RD): Students apply in early January. Institutions usually respond by April.
  • Rolling Admission (RA): This flexible admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.

With the exception of Early Decision applicants, students have until May 1 (National College Decision Day) to accept an offer, submit their decision, and make a tuition deposit.

Common application requirements include:

  • An official bachelor’s degree transcript meeting/exceeding the minimum GPA.
  • Standardized test scores: GRE; GMAT.
  • Proof of English language proficiency: TOEFL or IELTS scores accepted.
  • Credential evaluation establishing the equivalency of coursework completed outside of the US or Canada. This may be completed through organizations like WES or ECE.
  • Financial documents required for the I-20 Form.
  • A personal statement or essay.
  • A resume outlining the student’s academic and professional background.
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • Portfolio or demonstrated work if required.

Blue and white checklist with hand.

Moving Forward

With four to five months to go, you should be hearing back from the programs you applied to. (If you choose the EA or ED pathways, response times will be even quicker.) Now’s the time to make your program selection, accept and return the offer, and pay a deposit if needed.

Before you know it, it will be time to start your journey as an international student!

Ready to go? Here are eight US institutions that should be on your radar:  University of New Haven, Clark University, Northern Kentucky University, Western New England University, Duquesne University, Kent State University, Marymount California University, and CSU Chico.