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How to Apply for a Master’s: A Guide for International Students

college application
advice for students
By Deshan Mendis
Published on August 16, 2021

Thinking about pursuing a master’s degree? Here is everything you need to know about starting a master’s in the US!

An Asian female international student sits at a table and speaks to a fellow female student in her master's degree program at a US university

Heading to the US to earn a master’s degree can set you up for professional success. Know the steps to study for your MS in the USA and learn how to apply for a master’s degree with our helpful guide.

Benefits of Pursuing a Master’s Degree in the USA 

The US remains one of the highest-ranked countries in the world for students to pursue their master’s degree. Here are just a few reasons to choose the USA for a graduate degree program:

  • Cutting-edge technology and resources—The most innovative companies and higher education institutions are in the US – which means coming here to study offers tech access and skill development that can’t be matched anywhere else.

  • In-depth research—Master’s programs in the US place a high value on graduate student research. This means that graduate students will have hands-on opportunities to conduct primary research, collaborate with experts, and make discoveries. Many US universities have dedicated research faculty and if you are interested in researching an innovative new idea or theory, you can work directly with experts and utilize exclusive research labs and facilities.

  • Networking opportunities—Universities in the US understand the importance of experience and contacts in finding job opportunities and building careers. As a graduate student in the US, you can attend employment fairs and networking events, plus get an internship that can advance your career.

  • Expert faculty—US universities are committed to offering international students like you a world-class education. As an international student at a US university, you’ll study with industry professionals and expert professors who share your passion for the subject you want to study.

How to Apply for a Master’s in the USA 

With so many different types of US universities and colleges to choose from and each with their own programs, it can be difficult to figure out how to apply for a master’s in the USA. Each master’s program has its own unique requirements, and these are different for each university you apply to. Requirements can include evidence of prior studies, published papers, examinations, proficiency tests, and more. With so many steps to the MS application process, it can be helpful to start preparing a checklist for MS in college as you learn more about how to apply for a master’s in the USA.

In this guide, you will learn more about steps you need to follow to study MS in USA, including specific examinations you need to take, the importance of university application deadlines, visa requirements, and more.

What Are the Requirements to Do a Master’s Program in the US?

Most graduate programs teach advanced concepts first covered in undergraduate programs, so a common requirement is to have a bachelor’s degree in the field where you want to get a master’s degree. Some universities may allow you to enroll without a related bachelor’s degree, so be sure to check all requirements with a Shorelight advisor or the enrollment officer of universities you are considering.  

Depending on the program and university, you may also be required to take certain tests and achieve a specific minimum score. The exact test and score you need will be different for each institution, and may be related to the field you want to study. For example, students who want to enter medical school are required to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and may have a preferred score range in order to be accepted. Additionally, most institutions require you to have a minimum grade point average (or GPA) as an undergraduate student (typically 3.0 or higher).* 

You also need to prove you have sufficient funding to pay for the entirety of your program by submitting bank statements, a list of assets, or other university-requested financial documents.

Additionally, most US institutions require you to take an English proficiency test and achieve a certain score. This is not a universal requirement and some schools, such as Shorelight universities, may allow you to take English classes before you arrive to start your program or help you improve your English as you study.

English Language Proficiency Test

English proficiency tests evaluate your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills with the English language. Most programs at US universities and colleges are taught in English, and having good command of the language is important to make sure you can actively participate and collaborate in class. 

There are many kinds of English proficiency tests, but the most common are the International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). These tests are available at certified English testing centers in your home country.

Some universities may also waive this requirement if you meet certain conditions, such as having graduated from a school where English was the primary language. 

What Exams Do I Need to Take To Pursue a MS in the US?

The exams you need to take depend on which program you are applying to, your field of study, and other university application requirements. As many of these international standardized tests require significant time to study for, complete, and get results, it is important to find out test requirements in advance to make sure you can properly prepare – and meet application deadlines. 

GRE Testing

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) are for students who plan to study a liberal arts-related field for their graduate program, such as philosophy, sociology, literature, psychology, and more. 

As a general examination, the GRE test covers three areas: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. These areas measure your skill with English, writing, evaluation, analysis, usage of evidence, and various types of mathematics, including algebra and geometry.

GMAT Testing

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is for graduate students who want to apply to business programs such as a master’s in accounting, management, human resource management, and more. The GMAT test covers four areas: analytical writing, integrated reasoning, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.

These areas also test your skill with mathematics, your understanding of English, and your ability to analyze and interpret graphs and tables. The analytical writing section also includes an essay, but your essay score is recorded separately. 

LSAT Testing

If you want to study law or politics at top grad schools, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a mandatory requirement at many of these institutions. This standardized test measures your skill with analytical writing, reading comprehension, and verbal and logical reasoning. 

There are six sections in the test: an unscored writing section and five multiple choice segments. Only four of these segments will be scored, but you will not know which ones have been chosen in advance. The test takes approximately four hours to complete, with breaks included. You can register for the exam and find additional information at lsac.org.

To learn more, have a look at our LSAT guide.

MCAT Testing

Medical schools in the US require the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) for students who want to study medicine. The MCAT is a computer-based test that takes seven hours and 30 minutes to complete and is available at certified Pearson VUE testing centers.

The exam tests four areas: biological and biochemical foundations of living systems, chemical and physical foundations of biological systems, critical analysis and reasoning skills, and psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior. You can register for your MCAT exam and view material to help you start preparing at aamc.org.

To learn more, review our MCAT guide.

Research Universities

When thinking about how to apply for a master’s in the USA, first consider which universities you want to apply to. With so many top-ranking universities and colleges in the US that offer a wide variety of programs and unique experiences, researching your options is the best way to make the right choice. 

One of the most important factors to start with is the type of program you want to study. Some institutions may specialize in certain fields (such as business, biology, or fine arts) and can have specialized programs which can allow you to dive deep into the industry where you want to work. Similarly, it can be helpful to research the type of curriculum these programs offer, as some may focus on more theory-based learning, while other programs include practical experiences.

As a graduate student, you should also research which universities offer the best career opportunities. Many master’s programs offer you the opportunity to gain work experience while you study, and some universities may also host career fairs to connect you with industry professionals.

Additionally, look at the enrollment periods at each university and college you are considering. As each university can have a different start period, they will also have different enrollment deadlines and completion times. Keep this in mind to make sure the time you will be committing to study aligns with your professional goals and your budget.

Know the Deadlines 

Before you begin applying, you should carefully research the application deadlines of each institution that interests you. These deadlines can differ based on the program and institution, and enrollment periods open up usually only one to three times a year: Spring, Fall, or more uncommonly, Summer. If you are not able to submit your application for MS in US within the deadlines of these periods, you have to wait for the next available enrollment period, which can delay when you will receive your master’s degree.

Consider application deadlines alongside any required documentation and entry exams. Depending on which documents and exam scores you need to submit, it can take time to gather everything you need to submit your application. 

Other Academic Requirements

In addition to standardized test and English proficiency scores, you are required to submit other documents as part of your application for MS in US. These documents outline your personal characteristics and strengths, helping US universities and colleges gain an understanding of your background and capabilities.

As graduate programs are more specialized than undergraduate programs, they are more limited in capacity and applicants are evaluated more strictly. With the following documents, institutions gain an idea of who you are as an individual and how you can be a valuable member of their university community.

Statement of Purpose

This is a written statement that highlights why you have chosen the program and university you applied to. US universities and colleges use this statement to evaluate your personality and character and to determine if you are a good fit for their university. 

Your statement of purpose is one of the most important parts of the MS application process, and should showcase your honesty, commitment, and passion. Remember to pay close attention to the required word limit for your statement and make sure to meet it, while also making your objectives clear. 

Letters of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation is a written document from an individual whom you have worked with, for, or studied under. The letter outlines various aspects of your personal characteristics, such as your skills, knowledge, experiences, or personality. If your letter is from a professor or instructor, it can also include your academic performance and behavior in class. 

Typically, your letter of recommendation must come from an individual who is not a friend or family member, and they must have sufficient authority to evaluate you. Along with your statement of purpose, universities and colleges use recommendation letters to gain a better understanding of who you are and your identity as a student or professional. A well-written letter of recommendation can go a long way toward helping you stand out among other applicants and securing your position at a competitive university program.

Required Essays

Some universities may require you to write an essay about a certain topic, or may allow you to choose your own topic from several options. The main purpose of these essays is to evaluate your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, along with measuring your skill in writing and conveying your thoughts and ideas to others. Though universities with this requirement usually ask for only one essay in the MS application process, some may ask for two or even three essays. 

Transcripts

Your academic transcripts include records of your previous education, including your academic performance, grades, and any degrees, certificates, or qualifications you have earned. Submitting your academic transcript is a mandatory requirement at many US universities and colleges. 

The exact transcripts you need to provide are based on the program you want to pursue and the institute you have chosen, though many include any post-secondary education you have received. While some schools may allow you to submit copies of transcripts when you apply for a master degree in USA, they usually require original transcripts when you register as a student after being accepted.

Resume and Work Experience

Some advanced or specialized programs may require you to list your working experience, including the roles you had and the activities you were responsible for. Additionally, you may also be required to submit your professional resume with your application for MS in US. 

It is important to note that this exact requirement can be different for every program and institution. For example, while a master’s in business administration may require three years of professional experience at one university, the same degree may require two years — or even no previous experience — at another university.

Credential Evaluation Documents

Certain universities and colleges may require you to have your documents and transcripts evaluated by a specialist third party, known as credential evaluators. While credential evaluators offer many services, you only will need their academic and professional credential evaluation services in most cases.

Degrees and certifications can have different names and classifications in different countries, and credential evaluators review your transcripts while recording your academic performance and listing the US equivalent of the qualifications you have earned. This helps US universities and colleges evaluate if you have the necessary academic and professional qualifications to enroll in the program you have applied for.

Apply for the Master’s Program in the US

Once you have prepared the necessary documents required by your top-choice universities, it is time to apply for a master degree in the USA! All US universities and colleges that accept international students allow you to apply online via their official enrollment website. 

While preparing to submit your application, remember to double- and triple check if you have attached all the necessary documents. If you are missing documents, your application needs to be resubmitted and reevaluated, which can take time. If this is too close to the application deadline, you may miss the enrollment period you are targeting. 

Once your application is submitted, all you need to do is wait for your letter of acceptance! After you receive this letter, it is time to apply for your student visa and start preparing for your visa interview.

Interviews

Certain universities and colleges may conduct an interview with you as part of the application process for a graduate program. As graduate programs have smaller class sizes than undergraduate ones (due to being more focused), the admissions process can be more competitive and these interviews help the institution understand if you are a good fit for their program. Making it to the interview stage of the application process is a good sign — it means the institution is interested in learning more about you! 

The interview can be conducted in different formats, and will be different at each university and college. It can be formal (similar to a job interview), conducted in person or online via videochat. There may be a portion of the interview where you take a practical test or make a presentation, or alternatively, it can simply be an informal chat between you and the interviewer. You will be asked questions about yourself, your goals and ambitions, why you are interested in the program, your strengths and weaknesses, and more. Practicing your responses to these questions with a friend or an advisor can help you prepare for your interview and allow you to give more natural answers. 

Visa Requirements to Study in the USA  

Before you apply for your student visa, you need to choose which one is right for you: F-1, J-1, or M-1. Each of these visa categories have their own requirements and to apply for any of them, you need to first be accepted by a US university or college.

Once you have chosen the right visa for you, you need to prepare a list of documents:

  • A valid passport

  • A copy of the photo to be used for your visa

  • Printed copies of your DS-160 and I-901 SEVIS payment confirmations

  • Your I-20 form

  • Academic transcripts and the official test scores as listed on your university application

  • Diploma (if applicable)

  • Bank statements or other proof of finances

Shorelight advisors offer exclusive services to help you learn how to apply for a master’s in the USA, such as student visa support and helping you choose which graduate degrees are right for you. They can also give you essay writing tips, teach you how to ask for letters of recommendation, help you pick credential evaluation services, prepare you for campus transition, and much more.

A graduate degree from a US university or college helps you enhance your skills and knowledge as an expert, allowing you to take the next step in your career or begin your journey in a new field. With a Shorelight advisor helping you, you can learn how to apply for a master’s in the USA and will be supported every step of the way.

Reach out to a Shorelight advisor today >>

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