Applying to graduate school can be a headache even in the best of circumstances. After all, it's not nearly as easy as applying to most undergraduate colleges and universities, which involve taking the SAT's, filling out an application, writing one essay at most, and having your school's guidance counselor send your transcript to the institution to which you're applying. No, applying to graduate school is much more involved than that, and it is a lengthy process even for American students.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to make the process of applying to an American graduate school easier. And while this is merely a primer, it should certainly help you along.As a foreign student, the process is even more arduous. You not only have to go through everything your American counterparts do, you also have to deal with the paperwork required for maintaining legal student status in the country, take the appropriate and corresponding standardized tests in your own country, and make sure you have all of the proper materials filed on time from your home overseas.
Look at the big picture
Before you start anything, it's important to consider everything you will need to do throughout the process so there will be no surprises along the way. Once you have narrowed down the list of schools you're considering, make lists of what you have to do to complete the applications for each school. Remember, while there will be some consistencies, every school will have its own little (and sometimes not so little) quirks; the more you know before you begin, the smoother the process will go once you get started.
Whatever the deadline is for each of the programs, make sure you get all of your materials to the right person in no less than one week before they are due. That way, you will have time to address any unforeseen events along the way. The last thing you want is to put all that effort into applying and then to miss the deadline because you weren't adequately prepared.
Finally, give yourself a weekly goal for each of your applications. If you make a schedule in the beginning, and follow it every week, you won't accidentally fall behind. Really, you should think of the application process as a job. Take it seriously and get your work done in a timely manner.
A smart list is a good list
Don't just make a list for each application of everything you have to do and start checking off items at random. Organize your list in the specific order that you need to accomplish each task, or you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. For example, filling out all the basic information on the application can wait until the last minute, but signing up for the standardized tests, whichever you plan on taking, must be done as early as possible; there may only be one or two tests given each year in your country, and space constraints can be an issue, so make sure you reserve a spot early risk not getting a spot at all.
Also, many applications include essay sections. There are generally two that are required, but again, this varies depending on the program you choose. The most general is the biographical essay, which is sometimes called the "personal statement." It is the easiest to write, so you should probably save it for last. If, however, you are required to write a scholarly essay dealing with some issue that is relevant to your field, you should give yourself plenty of time to complete it. Remember, you may need to do research before writing it, and that takes time; the earlier you start the process, the better off you'll be.
Finally, make sure you budget yourself enough time to tie up any loose ends; a buffer of a week or two should do the trick. Of course, if you made a good list, and followed it, then this shouldn't be an issue. But there are always seem to be last-minute items that you forgot to put on the list in the first place.
The waiting game
While you are waiting to hear back from the schools you have applied to, you can begin preparing for all that you will have to do when you enroll in a program. This does not mean you should start the paperwork, there is always the disappointing possibility that you will not get accepted; it means you should be prepared, because you might.
Use this nerve-wracking time to scour the Internet for information on what you will have to do in order to become a full-time student in the United States; you can even gather some of the raw paperwork and documentation that you will need to file with the United States government prior to coming to America. (Have you ever noticed that government agencies like to take their time processing requests? Hey- we've already got something in common.)
It may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it will save you a lot of aggravation once the ball gets rolling and you begin the process of applying to graduate school in the United States. Remember, no matter how difficult or time-consuming it is, the end result will be worth the effort.