One factor to boost an international applicant’s profile for top graduate programs

Every year, from July onwards, such posts by prospective master’s applicants flood social media groups:


GRE: 330 (Q: 168, V: 162, AWA: 4.5)

IELTS: 7.5 (R:8, S:7.5, W:7.5, L:8)

CGPA (VIT University, Vellore Campus): 8.85, Computer Science

1.5 years of work experience at Amazon India

2 internships at major IT companies in India

3 publications in international journals/conferences with college (VIT) faculty

Is my profile strong enough for MS in CS programs at US universities in the top 30 with financial aid?

Seems like a strong profile, right?

Ummm, not exactly. Such a “macro” profile (assuming well-written statements and excellent recommendations) would unlikely be strong enough for this applicant’s target programs, especially in the post-COVID era.

There are hundreds of Indian applicants with brilliant “profiles,” similar to the one above. However, it truly breaks my heart to see such hard-working applicants receive a pile of rejections. Even if they manage to receive offers of admission from a couple of great programs, there’s no financial aid, and hence, the tuition fees alone can amount to over INR 50 lakhs for the entire program.

Since the time I applied (back in 2015), consultancies would suggest prospective master’s applicants focus more on improving their GPA, studying hard for a 330+ GRE, or even getting a couple of publications out. While these are relatively good pieces of advice, cracking the most selective programs simply needs more.

Let’s consider another applicant’s “macro” profile:

GRE: 324 (Q: 167, V: 157, AWA: 4.5) – A far more achievable score

IELTS: 7.5 (R: 7.5, S: 8, W: 8, L: 7.5) – Comparable to the previous applicant

CGPA (Delhi Technological University): 8.9 till the 6th semester, Computer Science – Comparable to the previous applicant

No full-time work experience – Big difference

1 publication in an international journal, 1 in a conference proceedings

4-month internship with a research group based at the University of Florida, USA (first publication) – Big difference 

6-month remote internship with a professor at the University of Hong Kong (conference) – Big difference

This applicant is far more likely to receive offers of admission from at least a few computer science master’s programs considered within the top 30, and even more likely to receive some financial aid upfront. Why? If it wasn’t obvious yet, the key difference between the two profiles is the set of international experiences, which is the “x-factor” that made the second applicant stand out or have an edge over most other applicants. 

Having been a higher education consultant for the past 5 years, I’ve found that applicants with such first-hand international experience tend to receive admission from their top preference universities, typically considered “ambitious” or “dream” universities. From chemical engineering to computer science and even literature, the data certainly indicates that highly selective universities (depending on the field, but typically including big name universities such as the Ivy League universities, public universities such as the University of California campuses, the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, Purdue University, etc.) value such exposure. Although this article largely describes the advantages of international exposure broadly as research, even semester exchanges or full-time work experience has proven to benefit such applicants I have had the privilege of working with.

There are 5 key reasons why I believe such applicants tend to see more success in graduate program applications:

1. Garnering experiences closer to “home”, i.e., the destination country:

By working with professors and students at big-name universities, such applicants gain first-hand experience that is typically more advanced and rigorous than most universities in India. This is irrefutable proof of skills, a familiarity with the culture, and higher quality research outcomes, which admissions and faculty consider important. 

In fact, I once worked with an applicant who mentioned that one of their professors of interest (in a major Canadian university) was seeking students who could operate specific instruments (besides other desirable qualities of a strong student). The applicant had extensive experience with those instruments through a summer internship at a major university in Canada, which helped them receive admission and a spot in the professor’s research group.

2. The potential of gaining powerful recommendation letters:

Going abroad for a brief internship, working diligently, and impressing your supervisor will quite likely help you secure a strong recommendation letter. Such recommendations are vital in highly competitive fields, and can potentially tip the decision in your favour!

Further, in my experience, people abroad are generally less likely to compromise on ethical factors (backing out at the last minute, copying portions from another recommendation, etc.) when providing recommendations. This further bolsters the impact of their recommendation.

3. Evidence of drive, commitment, and ability:

The offer to work with a professor and their research group, or an organization based abroad comes after much effort. For advertised or structured programs, there’s always fierce competition. Getting through demonstrates several positive and desirable qualities.

For positions that are not advertised, a candidate who approaches faculty and manages to receive an offer to work also demonstrates drive and commitment to developing as a researcher and in their field. Why would the professor choose an international candidate over someone from their university? There must be something appealing about the candidate!

4. Networking and collaborations:

International research or internship programs provide opportunities to meet and collaborate with experts in one’s field. This can include international researchers, industry professionals, and other graduate students from around the world. These connections can be valuable for future career development, which can then enhance the applicant’s profile.

5. Communication:

Ever heard of that student returning with an accent after a 2-month internship? Jokes aside, it certainly is proof of better communication. When I was a graduate student, I came across professors who would urge certain students with thick regional accents to work on their accents. It’s not racism; you can’t expect the professor to try and understand your accent without you putting in some effort to change it.

Besides, communication is also about non-verbal cues, cultural factors, written deliverables, and more. There’s no doubt that some experience abroad helps with improving your overall communication.

In conclusion, if you plan to apply to highly competitive programs, gaining international professional or academic exposure can be an incredibly strong factor. However, a relevant and solid background, top-notch academic and professional performance, demonstrating a clear fit with the program, and clarity in terms of how the graduate degree will dovetail with your career goals remain paramount in your application.

Disclaimer: The profiles included in this post are made-up examples, but they reflect very similar profiles of real applicants the author has worked with. Although the example profiles are for students with a background in computer science, the post is generally applicable to several competitive STEM fields.

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