Applying for graduate school while you are abroad adds time and effort to the admissions process, but it is possible. This article aims to provide assistance. While you may have to jump through extra hoops to succeed, remember that your international experience makes you a hot commodity. The fact that you are spending time studying or working in a foreign culture, learning to view the world through a new lens, and/or speaking another language will all increase your appeal in the eyes of many admissions committees.
Whether you are currently in another country or planning to travel and/or live outside the United States while applying for grad school, here are some steps to take to make the process as painless as possible.
Allow yourself as much time as possible to complete the application process if you are living abroad while you research and apply for programs. Especially if you are in a developing country, you may experience delays in mail service, your ability to register for standardized tests, hearing back from potential references, and completing other pieces of the application process.
For a detailed overview of the process of applying and dealing with admissions staff, see our article "Admissions and the application". Also be sure to check out our other articles on applying to grad school.
Remember that if you are feeling overwhelmed, a good way to reduce your stress is to extend your own timeline—you may be better off aiming to apply next fall, and join the following year's incoming class. If you know that you are a procrastinator, however, be careful not to use the extended time line as a reason to put off applying indefinitely, especially if you need the graduate degree!
Although you are abroad, you cannot afford to lose touch with your admissions and financial aid contacts at your target schools, the people writing letters of recommendation for you, and others. Enlist the help of phone cards, free computer communication tools like Skype, email, instant messaging, and (yes) snail mail to help you communicate questions and concerns, keep up with deadlines, and submit your materials. Also note that many graduate admissions staff travel throughout the world to recruit new students.
While it's best to read your target school's website thoroughly—including any Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)—before writing your admissions and financial aid contacts with questions, know that you will not make a nuisance of yourself if you correspond with them.
Note that every correspondence with the admissions office will be considered as part of your application, so be polite, avoid using their first names until invited, and use proper grammar and an appropriate tone (i.e., don't abbreviate your spellings as you would in a text message).
Being abroad is a valuable experience, but it's no excuse for a sloppy application
Although you are abroad, do not use this as an excuse to miss deadlines or lose touch with the admissions office or your department. You will impress the admissions committee by living abroad especially if your application arrives complete and on time like everyone else's.
Depending on your situation, taking a graduate admissions test adds other challenges like finding study aids, signing up for the test(s), paying for the test, and traveling to the test site. The good news is that students in many countries around the world may be preparing for the same exams you need to take. And the fact that these tests are standardized means that you will be taking the exact same test you would take if you were in the United States.
If you have not left the United States yet, take your standardized tests before leaving if possible. Scores are good for several years, so if you plan to apply in the next year or two, your scores will still be valid.
If you have ready access to a computer and an internet connection, your best bet for test preparation may be online. Online resources—especially from reputable sources like the makers of the tests themselves and test prep companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan—may be more up-to-date than print materials you have access to. Online resources may include the following:
For a fee, you can enroll in online test prep courses through companies such as The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and others.
If you prefer studying from print materials, or simply don't have easy access to a computer with an internet connection, here are ideas for locating test prep aids:
Additionally, depending on which country and city you are in, you may be able to enroll in regular test prep courses offered through local businesses, or companies such as The Princeton Review or Kaplan. These test prep courses may or may not be offered in English and are probably pricey for the local market. It might be worth checking out, though, if you have the ability, both lingual and financial, and a preference for this option. Ask friends who are preparing for the same tests you are, or check the websites of test prep companies you trust.
In addition to refreshing your math skills and learning new vocabulary, make sure to practice taking the entire test several times in the months leading up to your big day. Taking a full three-hour (or longer) test can be exhausting, and you'll want to practice.
The website for the maker of your test(s) should tell you how to sign up for a test in your host country, if that is possible. You may be limited concerning the dates you can choose for taking the test. The earlier you sign up, the better chance you have of getting the date you want. You will definitely be limited in your choice of places where you can take the test: it will probably only be offered in relatively large cities, so you may have to travel to take it. The test may be available in more than one format—paper and/or computer—so find out what format the test will be in and study accordingly.
If worse comes to worst, you may have to delay taking the test until you can go home (either after your time abroad or for vacation). If you have already applied for school and your school is awaiting your scores, make sure to email the appropriate person to explain any delays. A benefit of computer testing is that you get your scores immediately, so you can share those unofficial results with your admissions contact as soon as the test is over.
Details for paying should be available on the test maker's website, and options may include credit card, check, money order, and wiring services. If necessary, bring a host country friend to translate if you plan to get a money order or to wire money. If paying is a challenge because you are an international volunteer, note that some test makers are now offering fee discounts for students whose financial need is documented.
Especially if you are living in a remote town in a developing country, you may want to consider the following:
Beyond reference letters, your statement of purpose, transcripts, writing samples, and other standard application components, you may have to submit additional pieces to be considered for graduate assistantships, fellowships, etc. For example, if you hope to serve as a teaching assistant for a Spanish language class, you may be required to submit language test scores or even a recording of yourself speaking in Spanish about your decision to apply for that school or assistantship.
Visiting the grad schools you are applying to is a good idea so that you can meet with admissions staff and students, sit in on a class or two, and see the library. One of the best reasons to visit campus is to get a sense of the student culture. Do people look happy? What kinds of lectures and events do you see advertised on bulletin boards? Do members of the faculty greet or ignore you in the hallways? Without visiting, you'll have to find alternative means of investigating the qualities that are most important to you. If you are able, visit schools on a trip home to the United States, but if that's not possible, you can make do by speaking with as many people as possible, like alumni living in your area, and tapping into the school's marketing materials.
Applying to grad schools from another country can be challenging and time consuming. When applying to grad school, the best thing you can do to save yourself stress and ensure that you submit a great application is to give yourself plenty of time. If you haven't left the United States yet, take care of as many details as possible before you take off.
The good news is, your international experience will doubtless be an asset to your application. Admissions people will admire your stamina, keeping up with deadlines and correspondence, and of course the work you are doing abroad. They will understand that your perspective will be valuable in the classroom, too!