I go to the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley, and I get tons of emails requesting for information on the application process. I thought it’s best to put everything in a blog post.
Between working at One Degree Initiative Foundation, the countless coaching centers and the numerous Facebook groups, I have heard/read substantial misinformation about applying to the schools in the U.S. I have written multiple recommendation letters for our volunteers or interns, while many have worked with us for years and ended up in some of the top schools in the U.S., Canada, Singapore, Australia and the U.K.
If you are considering applying to non-engineering graduate programs in the U.S., read further. If you are considering applying to undergraduate programs in the U.S. or Canada, feel free to do a cursory read. I will share snippets from our volunteers’ experiences about applying to undergraduate programs in schools in the U.S. and Canada, however will primarily focus on applying to graduate programs in the U.S.
Applying to any top program in the U.S. takes time. Once you have really decided you want to pursue your Masters in the U.S., you should start with breaking down the five holy grails of college/grad school applications.
- Your CGPA/GPA
- Standardized test scores (GRE/SAT/GMAT and TOEFL/IELTS)
- Your personal statement or essay
- Your recommendation letters
- Your extra-curricular activities/after-school achievements (if you are applying to grad school, this will be your resume that highlights your awesome work experiences and ECAs)
Unlike undergraduate programs, graduate programs are focused and therefore, you need to have a clear sense about what you want to study and why. You don’t need to have a research topic or focus, but you need to know why you want to study economics instead of political science, or get an MBA instead of working full-time.
I worked for over 10 years in the nonprofit space, with experiences ranging from working in international development to mentoring social impact startup. I was curious about scaling up, which for development professionals often mean seeing programs transform into policies. I therefore looked up public policy programs in the U.S. and spoke to my peers (thankfully, I knew a few who went to Harvard or Princeton) about public policy.
Most people I know in Bangladesh literally Google top schools in public policy. I was no exception. I picked the top 3 schools – Goldman School at UC Berkeley, Harvard Kennedy School and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton – and then selected two middle-ranking schools at the time – Maxwell School at Syracuse and Heinz at Carnegie-Mellon. I looked through their websites, application requirements, potential blog posts from students or alumni, and in general, reached out within my network to find current or recent graduates from their programs. I had a relatively decent idea about what each program entailed before I was applying to them.
Once I had my preferences listed down, I divided my time between the five holy grails as follows.
- Acing my GRE and IELTS
I didn’t need to take GMAT for Public Policy and the schools I selected accepted IELTS. I did not want to give TOEFL because (a) it is time-consuming, and (b) my instruction of education has always been in English, something that will be evident in my transcripts.Two of my friends and I formed a study group to prepare of our GREs. This was super helpful, because (a) I could be held accountable for what I was (or wasn’t) studying, and (b) I could learn from my peers. We met once a week to take practice tests together, and worked on our vocabulary or maths prep at home.I only bought two books, but most of the materials are available online. My recommendation would be to buy Princeton Reviews’s GRE Test Prep and Kaplan’s Test Prep. GREs are expensive tests, so I strongly recommend you do not spend more money than needed. Reach out to friends or cousins you might have taken the test before, they will still have their books. Or get used books from Nilkhet. Most importantly, Google — you will find tons of materials online.
I scored in the 90th percentile for Maths and 95th percentile for English in the GRE General Test (how the GRE works and how scores are distributed). This was well within the range of acceptance for the schools I was considering, so although I wasn’t super impressed, I didn’t invest more time in this.
I used my sister’s old IELTs book to prepare for the exam. As I mentioned before, English has been my language for instruction for 16 years between kindergarten and finishing my undergraduate program. I scored 9/9 on my IELTS, however anything above a 7.5 is good. I know for a fact most people struggle in the listening and speaking sections. The best way to prepare is by connecting with friends to practice speaking with and listening to audiobooks. Yes, they are both free.
- Drafting a kick-ass personal statement
The most important document in your package, because here, you can tell your story. This is probably true for both undergrad (essay) and grad programs (personal statement or statement of interest). Admission committees at U.S. schools want to know how you got to where you are, why you did what you did and why you chose to apply in a particular program.You can brag about your achievements, indulge in your failures and what you learnt from them, and most importantly, highlight on how this journey led you to apply for the program — not the school — you are applying to.It’s always very helpful to get at least another pair of eyes on your personal statement. I had wonderful friends who reviewed my statement and we had conversations about what story I wanted to tell vs. what story was coming through in my writing. My biggest suggestion for writing personal statements is to be authentic. Don’t make up things because it sounds good, don’t drop names because they are big names and don’t only talk about how awesome you are.
Admission staff read hundreds of statements every year, and everyone who applies to a top program basically has a grand success story. Not many however, are willing to admit where they made a mistake and what they learnt from it. Write about those, and what you hope to learn from the program. Highlight on your weaknesses and explain how a particular program will help you overcome those. Schools want to be a part of your story — by showing them how, you can increase your chances of getting in, or at least, writing a statement you can be very proud of.
Personal statements are also great places to talk about your ECAs. This again, is true for both undergrad and grad programs. Most schools do not ask for your certificates. In fact, most schools don’t care. Nada. Zilch. Certificates do not matter. What they do care about is whether you are someone who has a balance between your academics and hobbies, whether you are passionate about anything in particular and how you pursued it. Having 10 million things and subsequent certificates for your ECAs will not help. Focus on a few, preferably just one or two things you really care about and invest time into it. Your statement will reflect on your experiences, your passion and how you spent after-school hours doing something that mattered to you.
- Refining my resume
Nobody cares about the number of pages.[to be continued]