Application Advice!

Hello reader,

I was pretty intimidated by the US graduate school application process.  A personal statement?  A four-hour standardized test?  Three references?  The cost of study?  Wow.  It’s a lot to consider and there are a lot of hurdles to get through in applying.  Attending university in Australia is fairly straightforward in comparison: did your entrance score meet the requirements of your program?  Yes – then you are in!

When I did decide to be brave enough to apply, it was already quite late in the year.  In a blur, I spent the weekends re-learning maths, drafting and re-drafting my scholarship application and personal statement, scouring websites for advice on graduate school applications and finding people to write references.  The whole process was set on fast track mode because of all the competing deadlines.

Here are a few tips which you may find helpful.

1. Believe in yourself and stop the self-doubt

You are considering applying for Harvard: that speaks volumes.  It’s a self-selecting applicant pool.  Chances are, you have a compelling story to tell about why you want to work in the field of education, have done some amazing things in the last few years, and have an equally good reason for wanting to complete further studies.

I struggled so much with not feeling “good enough” to get into Harvard.  I realized I should at least give myself the chance.  In the end, you have to take the risks to get what you, and as American as it sounds, just go for it!  Seriously.

2. Use your support networks

The graduate school application is a pretty lengthy process, especially as an international student. I asked so many of my friends and mentors to help me with my applications. I am eternally grateful for my support network. Luckily, I had two Australian friends from law school also doing US graduate school applications, so we helped each other out and edited each other’s applications.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people are more willing than you think.  Make a list of people who can help with different aspects of your application.  Even within your close family and friends, there will be people who you can talk through your personal statements, proofread your work…  I actually asked one of the English teachers at the school I was teaching in to provide some feedback with my application.

It’s a time of reflection. Treat it as a fun process – if you’re a teacher you’re probably a nerd and like learning. I came home after teaching and liked reading through my flashcards of words for vocabulary GRE study.

3. GRE – start early

Buy a GRE prep book and study it thoroughly.  One of my friends studied two books intensely and did very well, despite not having a strong quantitative background.  It’s a hurdle requirement and not the defining part of your application.  Even though you might be worried about your score as I was, it’s still possible to get in as long as the rest of your application is strong.

If you have any friends who are good with math, perhaps they can tutor you.  I found having someone explain concepts was so much easier than reading from a book. Then practice, a lot. If you have time, there’s usually an associated website with the book which has practice exams you can do. And there’s always Khan Academy of course is a great jewel of a site to learn new words.  Practice typing an essay in 20 minutes.  There are several little tricks the GRE does to try and trip you up.  Learn to avoid them.

4. Personal statement – be honest and sincere

As an international student, writing the personal statement is a process of figuring out exactly why you want to uproot your entire life to go overseas and spend upwards of $65,000 to do so. It takes a lot of time and you’ll probably end up rewriting it again and again. The writing process helps you clarify your thoughts and vision. It’s also a chance to look back on your experiences and see how they have shaped you.

Share it with people you trust who have good editing skills and can give you solid advice. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and authentic. I wrote in mine that I like meditation and that I went through some tough personal problems. It’s weird thinking that strangers on the other side of the globe will be reading it, but the difficulties you may have struggled with end up illustrating that you are resilient, emotionally mature and can handle challenges.

Be strategic. What exactly is the university looking for? List out the requirements they have set out and how you or your references can have specific examples about each of the requirements to write about.  As a visual learner, a table format helped me to organize thoughts.  There’s not enough room to write about everything so you have to select the strongest parts of your story. If you think in stages, that helps: early years, university, working life…

Make sure you have a really strong starting paragraph. I must have revised mine over twenty times and started from scratch again and again…. This is how I started:

The transformative power of education has led me to become a migrant, a lawyer, and a teacher. Yet these labels are not supposed to define us. In guiding my life, more important than my ethnic or professional identity are my values of integrity, respect, compassion, and commitment to social justice – and whether I live by them. I left the lucrative profession of corporate law to become a teacher in a disadvantaged school. In doing so, I let go of others’ expectations of myself which allowed me to pursue my true passion working in education.

Show that you’ve thought about exactly what the program you’re applying for is the one you want. You could cite certain professor’s courses you wish to take, how a specific course/think tank they support directly aligns with your goals… Ultimately they want to see that the investment they’re making in you through the education you get is going to be beneficial for them too. Professor Fernando Reimers was in Melbourne and I was lucky enough to see him talk about international education policy.  That solidified my decision to apply.

5. Choosing your referees – go for quality, not their job title

Choose someone who can speak about your achievements and qualities in detail, who you have worked with closely and who knows you well.  Ask them directly if they’re willing to write a strong statement. Americans, I was told, are free with praise – make sure they understand this.

Once they’ve agreed, manage the process for them to make it as easy as possible for them to focus on writing your reference.  Remember, they’re doing you a HUGE favour.  I read a tip  from someone who sent each of her references a package of material which I adapted for my references.  Send this package to them, either by email or printed out in a nice folder, with a cover letter.  Label each of the attachments with the accompanying number, or tab them inside the folder.

Here’s an excerpt of my cover letter that I drafted:

Dear X,

Thank you so much for agreeing to write the reference. It is due by January X. To help you with this and make it as easy as possible, I have provided for you:

  1. my draft personal statement (this is only a draft that I wrote for a scholarship application and will change);
  2. my current CV (two pages or less for the US);
  3. my academic transcripts of my marks;
  4. a list of extracurricular activities I was involved in at school (I wrote this with dot points of what I had done outside my teacher duties to expand on my role);
  5. the report for my teaching practice (this was specific to Teach For Australia); and
  6. information for you about writing the your recommendation (including what they are looking for).

As an example of the last point (no. 6), on information, I provided answers to the following questions for them:

  • What is Harvard looking for in a recommendation letter?
  • What is Harvard looking for in me?
  • What should the letter look like?
  • What are activities you could potentially write about? Be specific here to remind them about what you’ve worked on together and what impact you made.
  • What is the program I’m studying?

6. Scholarships – apply!

Studying overseas is really, really expensive.  You should not let that put you off applying because there are a lot of scholarships out there to help you.  In Australia, there is a scholarship search database JASON.  Globally, there are many others.  Harvard as a general resource on scholarships.  Spend time tailoring your application to each scholarship. Some of the scholarships have interviews and you need to make sure you practice, practice, practice for those so you come off confident, polished and poised.


Lisa Qin is a 2014 graduate of HGSE’s International Education Policy program. She aims to create meaningful and sustainable reforms to address the complex issues of education inequality. 

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