How to get into a graduate school abroad

Deciding to study abroad has got to be one of the major decisions you will make in life (next to, maybe, deciding to have kids???). It’s a huge academic leap for anyone, not to mention a huge financial investment. (Small wonder that this had made into Facebook’s major events time line. ^_^)

For us Filipinos, “abroad” is almost always the United States of America, although with the recent popularity of scholarships becoming widely available online, such as EU’s Erasmus Mundus (, or UK’s Chevening (, it now could mean any university in Europe, Australia, or Singapore or Japan, in Asia.

If you’re interested in knowing how to cop a scholarship abroad, or gain entrance to a top university, or better, both, read on!

1. Check out official websites of your prospective school/s.

Tons of information, from admission requirements to course offerings, are provided online, crucial knowledge of which gets your foot in their academic door. Pdf forms are freely downloadable and let you begin the process of applying. Easily accessed, navigated, and visited in the comfort of your home, most websites are virtual universities waiting to be explored without the travails of travel (yet). Some even include live photos of the school!

The minimalist website of Brooklyn College is easy on the eyes.

From time to time, embassies or foreign organizations sponsor education fairs; take advantage of those, too. Go out and explore, especially if entrance to these fairs is free of charge.

Fill out an online application form to get an electronic ticket, which serves as your pass to the live scoop in US universities.

Websites also allow you a peek into the politics of a particular school. Equal opportunity schools do not discriminate on the basis of sex, age, ethnicity, class, etc., and it is of course comforting to know your rights are respected abroad. But how does one know? Look for “Equal Opportunity/Affirmative  Action” tag on their websites or on their communication.

Admission letter from the Office of Graduate Education of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Notice “An equal opportunity/affirmative action institution” seal.
Admission letter from the Office of Graduate Education of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Notice “An equal opportunity/affirmative action institution” seal.

2. Allow a year to complete the process of application. (Which does not include the psychological preparation that may take longer.)

Universities in the US begin in late August, and online applications open September 1 for Fall Term of the next year, and May 1 for Spring Semester. Prepare well ahead of these dates. I have nurtured this dream of studying in the US for as long as I can remember, but did not begin to hunker down until about a year ago, when I decided to apply at a few universities, and concurrently, for a scholarship at East-West Center.

Standard requirements are application forms which may be accomplished and submitted online (and at USD100, which you pay by sending in a form containing your credit card numbers and signature, is your very first expense!). Transcripts of records, resume, letters of reference, statement of purpose are normally sent via courier service. Some universities only accept transcripts sent to them directly from origin schools. English proficiency exam scores are sent electronically to your chosen university by ETS, the outfit that conducts testing worldwide. A TOEFL score that you sent in yourself is not going to be valid. (More on this below.)

Requesting letters of reference from mentors or employers will require a dose of intuition: will this person give me a glowing recommendation, or a so-so recommendation? It is not an exaggeration to say that success lies partly in their hands, so make sure that people you approach have your best interests at heart. The University of Hawai’i at Manoa requires referees to fill out prepared forms, and this vastly takes pressure off referees, too. Other universities, such as a few schools in Thailand, and most EU universities will want a narrative evaluation of your character, academic achievement, and potential for graduate work.

Applying for a scholarship in the European Union? Prepare your resume using Europass, a form-fillable bio-data that conforms to the shape of a resume that they like. Check it here.

Getting the right information on visas will also require time and a bit of research. The US embassy website has an excellent site devoted to answering tricky questions regarding visas; check it here.

By far the most challenging to accomplish is the Statement of Purpose (also called Statement of Objectives), which summarizes in 1500 words where you are academically at that particular juncture in your life, what you want to study and why, and what benefits you think you will derive from getting an additional degree. Forget Filipino rhetoric: the more straightforward you are, the better. Statements such as, An additional degree will help me land the coveted Deanship in my college, assure the Graduate school committee of the singularity of your purpose than will, An additional degree will surely help me academically. Below are two sample statements of purpose which got the prospective graduate student entry into the University of California at Berkeley, and me, an East-West Center GDF, respectively: ^_^

1. “Luscious fare is the jewel of inordinate desires,”1 cautions2 the author of The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673), one of many early modern conduct books I surveyed this past year for an honors thesis entitled “‘Chaste, Silent, and Hungry’: The Problem of Female Appetite in Early Modern England, 1550-1700.”3 As indicated by the title, this project explores a provocative but as of yet scarcely studied facet of early modern gender constructions: female food desire.”

Note how the opening statement hooks the reader into reading some more. (Parsed, the complete text identifies the main points that have been addressed, and also notes its stylistic and literary strengths. Read it here. )

2. “Armed with a degree in Education, I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, not forgetting for a second that, without the crucial first degree, I would not have stood a chance in life or in a higher education setting. Archimedes’ quote is a favorite mantra: Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

I NOW gag on this last line in the first paragraph of my Statement of Purpose, but I bet it helped me land both the scholarship and that slot in the Department of SLS. ^_^

Kidding aside, writing a statement of purpose requires that you be candid, clear in purpose, and brief, qualities that should shine through in that essay, perhaps the most important instrument that they will consider to get a measure of your suitability for graduate work. Most importantly, proofread your essay to make sure that there are no erorr, typographic, grammatical or logical. (Yup; it should read, “that there are no errors”.) Better yet, have someone you respect proofread it for you. A fresh set of eyes going over your work, especially if you have been passionately writing it and are loathe to delete any word, is invaluable help.

Do check out individual websites for specific points evaluators will look for in your Statement of Purpose:


3. Ace your language proficiency exam!

Many universities abroad, our own included, require a TOEFL/IELTS of its international students, although there are universities in the US that don’t require any test of English proficiency. Take note also of cutoff scores that vary from university to university, and sometimes, even within colleges within the same university. Brooklyn College, a community college of the City University of New York, (CUNY) requires a high of 114 and a low of 79 on the TOEFL iBT  on certain fields.

Time was when English proficiency was not required of us; alas, times have changed, as did, sadly, our proficiency in English. We are less able to competently speak and write in English as we did, perhaps, 50 years ago. Thus, Filipinos should not flatter themselves by looking at TOEFL as a walk in the park. It is still best to practice the four modalities of reading, listening, speaking, and writing, in real-time online for internet-based testing. So prepare well and prepare smart. The good news is that there are many free TOEFL practice exams online that simulate the real thing.

TOEFL exam centers are strategically located throughout the country so finding one close to you should not be a problem. Check out for more information, especially on the number of times that you can re-take the exam, in the event that you do not meet the required score the first time. (Unlimited, that is, until you get to the desired cutoff score, except that you will be barred from taking it 12 days immediately after your last one.) A caveat: at USD195, (GRE is USD 185) re-taking it a number of times is one way of throwing money away better kept for spending as living allowance abroad.

4. Who will finance your graduate study abroad?

Submitting documents via commercial couriers will cost money. Applying for a US visa will cost money as well. Even with assured scholarships, schools look for proofs of financial stability, and some scholarships are contingent on your admission to a graduate school. While you don’t need to have a name like Jeane Napoles, it would be very crucial for admission that you show proof of financial liquidity, either in the form of personal funds, or support from third-party sources (relatives, friends, or institutions.) Universities provide form-fillable pdfs which shortcut the process of providing evidence of funds, hard copies of which are only required when the institution is ready to send you your DS 2019 or I-20 (as the case may be) for visa application. Graduate or Research assistantships may become available during the course of studying abroad, but they are not an assurance, so take that year of preparation to prepare financially as well.

Sample support form from Hunter College. Note that forms as well values may change depending on individual schools.
Sample support form from Hunter College. Note that forms as well values may change depending on individual schools.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
As soon as you have made up your mind to study abroad, and have begun the process of applying, approach the task as you would all your undertakings, that is to say, with courage, purposefulness, and determination. There will be setbacks, but nothing that cannot be surmounted by talking to the right persons, and by being creative in problem solving. Establish connections with your prospective schools by sending e-mails to ask for more information or clarification. If you are able to communicate your intentions clearly, you will definitely be responded to.

I had initially only wanted to apply for a Certificate course at the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, but was told by the Program Specialist, through an e-mail, that the Fellowship to which I was concurrently applying, does not support certificate courses. That e-mail was a lifesaver because it had allowed me to modify my application in the nick of time.

You are duty-bound to communicate your intention to register as soon as a decision had been reached regarding your application. Do not leave schools hanging. A simple, I regret to inform you that I will not be able to register this semester, is an ethical way of closing the process. Expect a slew of forms that needs accomplishing.

A Statement of Intention to Register (SIR) is required of prospective students to assure them of a slot when registration period comes round.
A Statement of Intention to Register (SIR) is required of prospective students to assure them of a slot when registration period comes round.

Information here is nowhere near comprehensive, but when I was starting out to apply, the above are crucial pieces of information I had learned in the course of learning about studying abroad.

Some sites that prospective scholarships hunter might be interested in:

Happy school- and scholarship hunting!


(Note: Screenshots of websites are used here for illustrative purposes, while other photos are the writer’s own.)



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