As you may already know, there is no centralized authority that regulates higher education institutions in the USA. As long as the quality standards set by regional and national accrediting bodies are met, each U.S. university and, more specifically, each department decides on the specific ways they organize the admissions activity, administer their resources, and manage the academic process, its day to day operations, and curriculum. Although U.S. educational institutions vary in their procedures and requirements for admission of international students, applications usually include the following items:
- • Application form, which is university-specific;
- • Official transcripts or certified copies of educational documents (“diploma/adeverința de student/licență “; “foaia matricolă”/”suplimentul la diplomă”);
- • Certified translations of these documents. The translation may be certified by an EducationUSA center, your home university, or a translation office, depending on the U.S. university requirements and the services available at your home university;
- • Standardized test scores (GRE/GMAT, TOEFL/IELTS);
- • Statement of purpose/Admissions essay;
- • Letters of recommendation;
- • Financial information, with a separate application for an assistantship or fellowship, if requested;
- • Non-refundable application fee of $30-100, or, if applicable, a fee waiver request.
- • Financial aid application
As the above list points out, the application includes both quantitative and qualitative elements, so that the department can get objective and subjective information on your preparation level and potential for completion of the graduate program. U.S. universities are interested in your academic performance, but also in the activities you engage in outside your academic program, as long as these indicate the breadth and depth of your commitment. All these elements show who you are, how passionate and keen on pursuing a graduate program you are, and what you can bring to the U.S. campus in order to diversify and enrich it.
U.S. universities are not only interested in evaluating applicants as students and/or emerging scholars, they are also interested in the individual behind the grades and test scores. This perspective stands at the core of the holistic evaluation process. The holistic application required for admissions purposes will show the admissions committee not only how strong you are in your field of study, but also if you can work well in a team, if you are a person of initiative, if you have a clear vision of your development goals and stages. Basically, the admissions committee will rely on the application to decide if you will be able to adjust to the academic and institutional culture of the department, perform at your best, and make the most of the resources available.
Instructions for each application may be different, according to every university. Follow them carefully, paying particular attention to closing dates or deadlines for submission or receipt of the completed applications. Allow enough time for mail delivery, if applicable, and make sure you send your documents by registered mail (“cu confirmare de primire”). The deadlines for international students may be earlier than those for U.S. students. Also, some schools have earlier deadlines for scholarships or fellowships than for the application file – make sure you are aware of the deadlines so that you submit everything on time!
Try to begin work on the applications well before the deadline and send in completed applications as early as possible, ahead of the closing date. Keep copies of all the documents and application forms submitted. Also, it is best if you keep a record of when materials were submitted, mailed, etc. The way you manage the application tells a lot about you, your maturity, and commitment to a particular university. Admissions committees appreciate a mature, inclusive approach.
The U.S. admissions process is complex and likely to keep you busy and alert for weeks. Most Romanian students we have worked with and who are now graduate students in the USA found it challenging, instrumental to personal growth, and hugely rewarding. Challenging as the U.S. admissions process is, you have FEAC to guide and support you.
"I am a doctoral student at Columbia, on a full scholarship. I still wonder how I managed to be accepted, but I think that I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Advising Center. First of all, when you first set your mind on studying in the USA, the simple task of understanding a different academic system can be more daunting than trying to meet its admission requirements. The people at the Advising Center are extremely knowledgeable, nice, and supportive and they simply weed out discouragement by their very positive attitude to all who require their support. In a way, they give us the first taste of America, through the very confidence with which they embody the “Yes, you can!” approach in relation to us."
Gabriela Badea, PhD in Medieval Studies, Columbia University, NY
"FEAC helped me with its full-range support and in-depth advice about the U.S. application process and exams. They also encouraged me to be confident about my abilities. One important piece of advice that I was given at FEAC was to keep an organizer of my application process: programs I was interested in, full details about them, communication with prospective graduate supervisors, dilemmas. It helped a lot to have everything in order."
Cristian Vasile, PhD in Robotics, Boston University, MA
Holistic Application Package
The complexity of the application process springs from the educational philosophy materialized in the graduate application package which includes the following:
- Your application form will be neat and clear. Unless the university specifically asks you to complete the form by hand, you will type in your information, in most cases online;
- Make sure you fit your application in the space provided and only use additional pages when necessary;
- Keep your personal information consistent and always write your name in the same order on all documents;
- Avoid abbreviations: it is better to write the names and addresses of your schools, examinations, and awards in full;
- Always provide information about your education or employment experiences in a logical order that is either chronological or reverse chronological, as required or as best showcases your experience. We suggest the reverse chronological order: starting from the present and moving backwards. Universities are more interested in what you have been doing over the past 1-2 years.
Your application form will necessarily include:
1. Personal information including contact info;
2. Standardized test scores;
3. Academic ranking and honors;
4. Extracurricular/research/teaching activities;
5. Work experience (if available).
There is no standard application form: forms vary from department to department, so make sure you read them closely, follow the instructions, and fill in the forms as required.
First off, it is important to keep in mind that “official” has different meanings in the USA and Romania. In the States, an official academic document is issued by the school and bears the school seal and the dean’s signature. Such a document can be released by the institution in multiple copies once you request them. In Romania, most official documents can only be issued one time.
If that is the case with Romanian academic documents, how to submit official transcripts to several U.S. universities? There are several solutions to this dilemma. In order to support your application FEAC suggests the following steps:
a) get English translations of your transcripts issued by the “Diplomas/Educational Documents” department at your home university;
b) ask an EducationUSA center like the Fulbright Educational Advising Center/FEAC for a certification of the English translation of your academic documents.
Our advising center may, upon request, also issue a document to the U.S. universities of your choice stating that the translation is an accurate rendering of the original document in Romanian.
From what Romanian graduate students thriving on U.S. campuses tell us, it definitely helps to include in the application a profile of your university, department, as well as some information on the program you did and how it is ranked in the national education system hyperlink http://chestionar.uefiscdi.ro/docs/programe_de_studii.pdf, to better contextualize your results. In case you graduated before the Diploma Supplement was introduced, then you may like to also provide a brief description of the Romanian grading system, currently available on the back of the Diploma Supplement.
If you are applying in the fall-winter of your last year in college, you will send your transcripts from previous years, then, later on, you will follow up with the grades from your final year. If you are already a graduate, send your full transcripts and a copy of your Bachelor’s diploma. In case you were not issued the diploma yet, then send in a certification (“adeverinţă”) from the college. As a rule, do not send original documents; explain that you are only issued one copy of the document and suggest alternatives.
However, when you submit an application, you may like to include a photocopy of your test score reports, if you have them. The admissions office can more easily match the official scores with your application and, in some instances, they may begin processing your application with only the photocopy in hand.
"My TOEFL and GRE exams were a very smooth experience, thanks to all the advice and testing materials that are available at the Center."
Gabriela Badea, PhD in Medieval Studies, Columbia University, NY
Your recommenders should be able to write about your work and your personality. Encourage them to include anecdotes from your collaboration. Be aware that the definition of anecdote in the U.S. is, according to Longman, “a short interesting story about a particular person or event”, so there is nothing humorous about it. The more insights your referees can offer, and the more specific the information they share with the admissions committee, the greater the impact of their recommendation. Recommendations that are poorly written, vague, or late will reflect on your judgment in picking referees, so choose with care.
Recommendation forms may ask a list of questions or just one general question. Since recommendations carry a fair amount of weight in the admissions process, approach your recommenders early: let them know about your plans and where you would like to study well ahead of the application date and keep them in the loop during the admissions process. Allow plenty of time for your referees to write their recommendations.
A recommendation form may include a waiver by which you relinquish your right to see what is written about you. If this option is offered, most admissions committees prefer that you waive your right as they usually look upon waived recommendations as more truthful and reliable.
In case the department requests that your recommendations be sent directly by your referees by postal service and not by e-mail, it is common courtesy to make available stamped, addressed envelopes to them. Remind your referees to sign the sealed flap of the envelope before mailing. An alternative is to ask the university for permission to include your recommenders’ sealed envelopes in the one you are sending your transcripts in. This way, your application will arrive as one single unit and you will also save on postage.
"You’ll usually be required to get recommendation letters from your professors. Tread carefully here. Try to find profs who will be able to write consistent and objective recommendations. 2-3 pages, single-spaced, is pretty common as far as length goes.
Recommendations shouldn’t be general and aloof. Suggest to your recommenders to include specific examples of when you showed intellectual curiosity and academic professionalism. Do not settle for recommenders who say "write whatever you think is best, I’ll just sign".
You know just the right person for the job but they’re not that confident in their English skills? There’s a solution : ask them to write the rec letter in Romanian and get it translated at a specialized office (since in most cases, applicants waive their right to see the recommendations, you can’t really be the one translating it). Remeber to have the fact that the letter was translated stated on the English version. You wouldn’t want your recommender to be contacted unexpectedly by the department you’re applying to and put on the spot."
Bogdan State, PhD in Sociology, Stanford University, CA
When admissions committees read this part of the application, they look for additional information suggesting how you can enrich the program you are applying to and the department, too. They will check if their department/school can meet your needs. The personal statement gives universities a chance to get a personal glimpse of you, an insight that is not available from the grades and numbers that make up most of the application.
Application essays also allow admissions officers to assess your writing skills, academic ability, organizational skills, purpose in applying to a graduate program at a U.S. institution, and your reasons for pursuing a career in your chosen field of study. Admissions officers look for strong writing skills, as well as for clear evidence of academic promise and intellectual curiosity. Given the weight attached to the admissions essay, you will certainly write the essay well enough in advance so that you have time to put it aside for a week and then revisit it to see if it still speaks powerfully on your behalf and adequately represents you.
Invest time and energy in writing your essay: write with verve and color and your essay will stand out. Then edit your essay vigorously. The vibrant, memorable essay you will be finally sending to the admissions committee will provide information that is not available in any other item in the application package, will clarify and highlight points in your favor, will serve to communicate your vision and your passion, just like a well-conducted interview would do. In addition, the essay will show that you can write well and communicate effectively. Exactly what a graduate student is expected to do extensively.
"I would say that the essay that got me to Columbia would have been much more cramped and formal in style, had it not been for the workshop on essay writing offered at the Fulbright Advising Center as part of the grad admissions training program. I am grateful that they helped me play all my cards right, in a very honest and sincere manner, and that at no point did I feel that I had to embellish my case in order to be admitted. If you are taught to express who you are, it is a simpler task to feel at ease afterwards, here in the States. And this is what the Advising Center did for me."
Gabriela Badea, PhD in Medieval Studies, Columbia University, NY
Some general tips
- • Answer the question asked;
- • Focus on specific incidents or events; concentrate on the specific rather than the general;
- • Consider explaining anything unusual that has influenced your academic, professional, or personal life;
- • Get others to proofread your essays for grammatical and spelling errors and, above all, for impact.
FEAC tip for smart students: Use the Advising Center’s free essay critique service. Send in your top essay along with full details on the essay prompt (topic, length, etc.), your grades and test scores, as well as the U.S. universities you are applying to and their deadlines. Allow at least one week for our feedback.
- • Write the essay – or any other part of your application – the night before it is due;
- • Lie, embellish, or distort;
- • Choose a particular topic merely to look good;
- • Say what you think the graduate school wants to hear;
- • Turn down the university’s invitation to write more about yourself: the essay should describe you and speak about your accomplishments and aspirations.
Make sure that your essay is a true representation of you and your abilities. Write an essay that is genuine and honest. After all, the statement of purpose is your opportunity to tell the graduate program why they should accept you over other students: use it as such!
Some supplementary materials that Romanian students we worked with found helpful in contextualizing their applications were:
• A brief profile of the Bachelor’s degree which will go hand in hand with the Diploma Supplement, if available, and provide background information about your university, the competitiveness of your study program, its national ranking, and any other relevant details;
• A resume: given the limited space on the application form, a resume gives you the possibility to highlight your accomplishments in school and outside;
• A writing sample which will showcase your critical thinking and reasoning, research, as well as your English skills. This is optional, depending on the department policy.
"My application was made up of: 1) transcript; 2) recommendations (minimum 2-3, I personally sent in 5) ; 3) personal statement, 4) GRE and 5) writing sample. The writing sample needs to showcase your potential as a future expert in your field."
Bogdan State, PhD in Sociology, Stanford University, CA
FEAC tip for smart students: Does paying the application fees place a financial burden on you? Before paying hundreds of dollars for application fees, check each department’s website or contact them to learn about their fee waiver policies for international students. If you get a fee waiver, you will not need to pay the application fee, so the extra research is well worth it.
"Ambitious, patient, self-confident – these are the words that I would use to characterize a successful applicant to a U.S. university, especially since the admission process can be complicated, time-consuming, and costly for a Romanian student. Luckily, I had one more thing apart from my determination to be successful: FEAC was there to help me with precious advice and very useful resources.
In order to gain admissions to a U.S. university, every single element in my application package had to show that I was fully prepared to be a top student. This is what FEAC taught me and helped me accomplish. In their extremely useful webinar series for graduates, FEAC presented strategies on how to maximize test scores and obtain full financial aid. Then, during my visits at their headquarters, FEAC reviewed my top admission essay, provided resources on how to write a perfect resume, and gave me full support when applying for a U.S. visa.
I received extremely generous financial aid offers from 4 of the 5 universities I applied to. In great part, I feel I owe this to FEAC: being advised by the experts is always the most effective key to success."
Diana Oprinescu, MA in International Affairs at Marquette University, WI
Before you begin planning your application, do keep in mind that every student is different in terms of the time it takes to apply – some are very energetic and can balance out a full school or work schedule with the application, some prefer to have more time to polish everything to perfection. Generally, however, it is wise to allow 12-18 months for the admissions process, as follows:
March - August:
• Consider your personal criteria for selecting U.S. universities and departments (quality of the program, financial aid, location, etc.). Choose a reasonable number of universities that meet your requirements. Some people start with 15-20 universities, some with more. Investigate their admissions requirements and deadlines;
• At your chosen universities, establish contact with a faculty member who may become your graduate supervisor. It is vital to start building a professorial link as early on as possible;
• Learn about the standardized tests you need to take, about the registration procedure and deadlines. Most universities set their fall admission deadlines between December and early February, with school starting in August-September. Plan well!
• Prepare for the required standardized tests. The Fulbright Educational Advising Center/FEAC offers free access to test preparation materials. Online, you will find many useful resources on our site under Testing.
• Work on the application package. Admissions committees spend a lot of time on the statements of purpose and letters of recommendation. When they review an application, they also look at the applicant's outside-academic activities, such as professional experience, teaching and/or research activities, involvement in student organizations, etc. Admissions committees try to determine if you are a fit for their institution. A good match spells success!
• Make sure you are clear on the universities’ preferences for sending in your application: do they use an all-online application system, prefer most of the elements online and your transcripts and/or recommendation letters through the post, or require you mail your complete application file?
• If you need to mail documents to the universities, make sure you clarify whether the deadline is the postmark (“data poștei”) or the date the university is actually expecting the documents, and allow time for delivery accordingly. Also make sure you send your package by registered mail (“cu confirmare de primire”) or even a courier service, if the timing is tight.
• You decide which university to attend and then notify them of your decision; time to fill in and return any official university forms that are sent to you;
• Write to the schools that you will not be going to and thank them for admissions and financial aid. Inform them of your decision to enroll elsewhere;
• Make housing arrangements;
• Acquire as much pre-departure information as you can. Use the university website extensively. It will pay off!
• Make travel arrangements;
• Contact the university International Student Office with details of your arrival plan;
• Obtain a copy of your medical record, regular prescriptions, etc.;
• Plan to arrive on time for the general orientation session offered by the university to all incoming students or the international student orientation, if available;
• Attend the Pre-Departure Orientation organized by the Fulbright Commission to facilitate your academic and cultural adjustment in the U.S. This is a full-day event usually held in mid-July that combines sessions, workshops, and presentations – by Romanian and U.S. students eager to share their U.S. campus experience – with networking opportunities and fun. Contact us at FEAC@fulbright.ro for details.
It takes a lot of hard work, perseverance, introspection, resourcefulness, and good management to get admitted and funded by a U.S. school. While it may not be an easy process, we have ample evidence to show that it can be completed successfully: over 800 Romanian students are currently studying in the U.S. at graduate level. Most of them have got admission and funding by going through the stages above.
Good luck to you, too!
My fulbright experience
Students at the advising center