Friday, January 3, 2014

[ADMISSIONS EXPERT] Ms. Colleen Flynn Thapalia – What Grad Students Should Know Before Studying Abroad

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WES Student Advisor: Colleen, studying in the U.S. may be an attractive opportunity for many international graduate students. What kind of students would be best fitted for studying abroad in the U.S. and what are some advantages that they could possibly expect?

Students who have a flexible attitude toward their studies and their social lives will do best. Many international graduate students in the U.S. find the classroom experience to be very different from the system they experienced as undergraduates “back home.” Professors may lecture less, do more activities, and assign more group work than students are used to. Be ready to adapt!

U.S. institutions also offer international students the opportunity to build intercultural communication skills. Use the opportunity of studying abroad to develop friendships with people different from you. Explore new food, entertainment and sports. Intercultural competence makes daily life more enjoyable and fulfilling … and gives you a competitive edge in employment.

WES Student Advisor: Once a student has made a decision to study abroad, what are some steps they should take in researching and shortlisting schools that would fit them best?

Websites like can help students narrow a dizzying number of choices to a manageable list. Such sites exist internationally as well, such as India’s or China’s

Consult reputable, unbiased sources for advice, like EducationUSA and WES Student Advisor.

Don’t ignore advice from friends, family and classmates who have studied abroad before you. They may have great experience and insights you can draw upon.

Many people also look at rankings, like the well-known US News & World Report list. Although the rankings are influential, they are more about perception than reality. Be sure you apply to institutions and programs that match your educational goals, rather than just ones that are famous.

Make sure that the institutions you consider are accredited. In the US, accreditation is done by regional associations (not by the government).

Finally, pay attention to how an institution responds to you. Are the staff and faculty responsive and helpful, making the transition as smooth as possible? If not, and the institution doesn’t treat you well as an applicant, how will the student experience be?

WES Student Advisor: Many U.S. colleges and university application deadlines are in December or January. What kind of advice would you give to graduate students just now starting to prepare their application package and would still like to start their program in Fall 2014?

If you have already taken the tests required for admission at your selected institutions, you can easily apply and meet posted deadlines. For institutions that you are very interested in, check with the admission office to find out if they will accept late applications.

Many programs accept applications on a rolling basis until they have filled their available seats. If the institution’s website isn’t clear, follow up by email or phone. Making personal contact with representatives is an effective way to get noticed for all the right reasons!

“Rolling” admission means that as applications are received, they are reviewed for a decision against a set of criteria.

If you have not taken exams like the GRE or GMAT, you may still be able to apply, as long as the admissions staff know that you have an exam scheduled. For people without proof of English proficiency (usually a TOEFL, IELTS or other score), many institutions will offer “conditional admission,” meaning that the candidate can enroll once the minimum score has been achieved.

WES Student Advisor: In your opinion, are there specific portions of the application that international graduate students may want to focus more time and effort on? If so, what are they and what tips do you have?

Your statement of purpose and your letters of recommendation are parts of the application that you can influence and that offer the biggest potential for positive impact.

Use your statement of purpose strategically. This is your opportunity for an admission committee to get to know you. Everything else in your application is about you. Your statement of purpose is the one credential where the application reviewers hear your own voice. Make sure it is well written and proofread carefully. Sloppy mistakes here will really hurt your chance of success.

Select your recommenders carefully. Pick people who are excited about your decision to go to grad school. You need people who will be specific about your strengths and who will submit their letters before the deadline. Ideally, at least one of your recommendations should be from a former professor.

WES Student Advisor: Lastly, what are some character qualities admissions officers look for in international graduate students? How can they showcase this in their application?

In my experience, key qualities include:
  • Attention to detail – provide application materials that are neat, well written and submitted on deadline
  • Motivation – show your readiness to work hard to achieve your goals
  • Enthusiasm – display your passion
  • Thirst for knowledge – describe what you plan to study and research; intellectual curiosity correlates highly with grad school success



Colleen Flynn Thapalia, Director of International Recruitment & Admissions at The College of Saint Rose, works extensively with graduate applicants. A former board member of NAGAP, an association of graduate enrollment professionals, Colleen edited An Essential Guide to Graduate Admissions (2012). Her experience includes volunteer service with Peace Corps and the United Nations, as well as directing a study abroad for the School for International Training in Nepal. Colleen has an M.S. in Communication from Cornell University and a B.S. in Journalism from New York University.

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