3 Critical Graduate School Considerations for International Students

Despite worries that the U.S. economy and the rising cost of higher education will lead to fewer students applying, one set of graduate applicants seems undeterred: international students.

Last year, first-time enrollment of international graduate students in the United States rose by 8 percent--the largest increase in 5 years, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools. While it's clear that an increasing number of international students want to earn a graduate degree in the United States, there are three important issues that these students must weigh before applying.

[See tips for international graduate students enrolling this fall.]

1. Academic credentials: Determining an equivalent academic degree received outside of North America to a bachelor's degree earned in the United States can be difficult. There is no singular guideline that applies to all institutions globally. Therefore, if you are interested in coming to the United States for a graduate or professional school degree, it is critical that you first find out if your college degree is acceptable for admission.

If your college degree does not match the requirements, or if it's unclear, don't despair. If you believe your academic or personal experience merits consideration, let the admissions office know.

Don't call or send an E-mail; instead, send a short letter that covers all the facts. Thank the admissions office for taking time to review your situation; make it clear that you will abide by their decision; and offer to provide any additional information.

2. English language proficiency: Until recently, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) was the predominant English proficiency test. In the past several years, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) has increasingly been accepted.

International applicants to U.S. schools are sometimes given a choice between the two. While the minimum score requirement for either test varies between institutions, once a school sets a minimum score, it typically does not accept anything below that score--though there may be a little flexibility.

When I served as a director of admissions, I considered applicants with scores within three to five points under the minimum, but no more. If the minimum TOEFL score was 650, for example, I considered applications with scores between 645 and 650, but not very often. A score below 645 was never accepted.

Do not take the TOEFL or IELTS more than three times. Even if you end up reaching the minimum score, if it has taken four or more attempts, it usually indicates that you are not proficient enough in English to be accepted.

[Get tips on how to master the TOEFL.]

3. Finances: Earning a grad degree in the United States costs a lot of money. Even if you're able to secure scholarships and grants, often there are additional expenses that must be considered. Having spent more than 30 years in higher education, I can't emphasize enough the importance of planning ahead financially for graduate study.

One of the most common misperceptions held by non-U.S. students is that the school will fully or largely fund their education once they are admitted. This is often not the case. Most institutions do have financial aid, but these resources have to be divided among deserving students throughout the incoming class.

It was my experience that there was never enough money to assist everyone we wanted to help. Educational costs increase every year, and in many cases the percentage of tuition increase is higher than the percentage of financial aid increase. But the good news is there are many financial assistance opportunities for international students:

-- Employment at the institution: Due to U.S. tax and immigration laws, many international students are not permitted to have full or part-time jobs in the United States. However, they can secure employment with their graduate school. This allows for a steady income, and in many cases, a reduction in tuition.

Once you are admitted, check out employment opportunities on your campus. In some cases, students are able to continue working throughout the entire length of their academic program.

-- Fellowships or assistantships: Fellowships and assistantships are often renewable, meaning that you could receive aid for more than one year, provided you maintain good grades.

Fellowships are reserved for the most qualified candidates and are used to recruit the best students. They usually cover tuition and sometimes living expenses, but you do not get paid. Instead, the institution essentially covers the cost of your education. Fellowships require a very large investment by the institution and are not as common as assistantships.

Assistantships are like fellowships, but with one big exception: Graduate assistants get paid for working or assisting a professor or department. For example, a graduate assistant might help a professor with his or her research, teach a class, or tutor other students, including undergrads.

Assistantship awards are usually not as large as fellowship awards, and therefore, there are more of them. You are still responsible for paying your tuition and other expenses, but the money received for an assistantship can allay expenses.

-- Scholarships: Unlike fellowships and assistantships, scholarships are usually awarded for only one year. As with fellowships, they do not require any services from the recipient. But unlike fellowships and assistantships, they are most always used to cover tuition and do not include living expenses. Scholarship amounts vary, from very large awards to an award that could be as low as $500.

[Learn more about scholarship sources for international students.]

-- Loans: It may be possible to secure a loan at some institutions. Loans for international students usually have very reasonable repayment terms, but may require a cosigner who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This will always be the case if the amount of the loan is high according to the lender's definition.

-- Assistance from the home country: Be sure to inquire about funding opportunities from local, regional, or national sources in your home country. Many governments support international study and may provide assistance for graduate students earning their degrees abroad.

Keep in mind that government assistance may require an obligation on your part to return home after graduation to secure employment. In some cases, the organization or government office providing the funding may offer a job upon completion of study.

Graduate education in the United States is very competitive and requires tremendous dedication and focus just to get in. By considering the critical aspects of graduate study outlined above, you will avoid frustration and give yourself the best opportunity to succeed.

Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. For additional tips on the graduate school application process, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.