Preparing the Application
In addition to completing the application and essays, you will need to provide certified copies of your original educational credentials (diplomas, grade reports, test scores, comprehensive exam scores), certified English translations of these documents, TOEFL exam scores, scores for any required academic entrance examinations, financial information, letters of recommendation from teachers, and the application fee. Include all the items requested, or your application will be considered incomplete. The admissions office will not review your application until it is complete, and it is your responsibility to make sure they receive all of the required documents. If a requested document is not available, include a letter stating this and explaining why the document could not be provided. In such situations it is helpful to include a cover letter from a third party such as the educational advising office or the US cultural affairs officer that confirms the details of your situation.
The transcripts of your educational records should be sent directly from your former schools. This is to prevent forgeries and modifications to your transcripts. The admissions office will also want explanations of the grading and class ranking system and descriptions of the courses.
Do not send your original documents, since they cannot be returned. Copies should be certified with the school's official seal or by a notary public (a public official responsible for certifying documents). English translations, if necessary, should be done by a professional translator and also certified. The translator should be unrelated to you. Information about professional translators can be found in the credential evaluation section of this site. US embassies and consulates do not certify documents.
The application will ask questions about your academic background, your hobbies and extracurricular activities, and your educational and career plans. It will also require one or more essays. The purpose of the essays is partly to see an example of your English writing ability, and partly to provide an opportunity for you to express yourself in a more open format.
One of the essays may be a statement of educational purpose. Use this essay to explain why you are pursuing an education in your field, describe your experience and strengths in that field, and outline your plans for the future. Weave the strands of your life together into a tapestry that shows where you've been, where you are now, and where you are headed in the future. Your essay should be cohesive and well-organized. Give specific examples to support any general statements. Review your essay for spelling and grammatical errors before writing it on the application form.
Pay careful attention to the deadlines, and allow enough time for the mail. Submit your completed applications two or three months before the deadline. Send the applications as early as possible. You may wish to use an express delivery service, since then you will know that the application has arrived in a timely fashion.
Keep a copy of everything you send to the admissions office. If your application is lost in the mail, this will help you resubmit it.
Create a chart showing all the deadlines and important dates, and keep a record of the date you mailed each application. This will help you track your progress.
When asking teachers to write you a letter of recommendation, choose teachers who know you well. If a teacher taught you for two years, that is better than a teacher who taught you for only one year. Ask the teachers whether they can write you a good letter of recommendation. If they can't, ask them to suggest other teachers.
Provide your references with a copy of your completed application or a summary of your qualifications. This will remind them of your better qualities.
The best letters will present an honest appraisal of your abilities, highlighting both weak and strong points. A letter from a teacher who taught you in a challenging course is more valuable than a letter from a teacher who taught you in an easy class. The purpose of the letter is to evaluate your background, motivation and promise, and not to offer meaningless praise. When admissions officers receives letters from a teacher for several students, praising each of them as the best he's seen in his career as a teacher, they ignore them. The result is a negative mark against the students, not a positive one. It is better to be balanced in presentation, so that the admissions officer can learn to trust a teacher's opinion over the years.
Your teachers will want to mail their recommendations directly to the university. Provide them with a stamped airmail envelope with the proper address, and write your name in the lower left hand corner of the envelope.
Although applications from American students are usually considered on a need-blind basis, applications from international students are increasingly being reviewed in a need-sensitive manner. Competition among international students is so intense that most schools can get enough qualified students who do not demonstrate financial need. As a general rule, it is still worth applying for financial aid. If you need financial aid and don't apply for it, the school might admit you without offering any aid at all, yielding the same result as an outright rejection. Many international students have sent email reporting that they have been offered admission to a US university but do not have enough financial resources to pay for the cost of education, even when the schools provide some financial aid.
Once you have submitted your applications, you will have to wait for several months before hearing anything. If you do hear anything in that time period, it will usually be a request for additional or missing items.
If you are lucky, you will be accepted by one or more institutions. They will send you a letter of admission. Accept one (and only one) of the offers of admission, and confirm your acceptance according to their instructions. You will probably have to write a letter to the admissions office confirming that you will enroll and including a non-refundable deposit of several hundred dollars. They will then send you the form you need to apply for a student visa (Form I-20). If there are any additional forms, submit them in a timely fashion.
Once you have accepted one of the offers, send a letter to the other schools declining their offers. Not only is it polite to do so, but it allows them to reallocate any financial aid they offered you to other students.
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