Time to decide (applying to universities)

So you have decided to apply for a scholarship lasting one year or longer. This implies a long, difficult and exhausting process. We have put together a time schedule that should help you work your way through the application jungle. Your preparation should start more than one year in advance than the date when you actually want to start your studies. When building this schedule, we have taken into account for reference a university that starts in the autumn (August – October), but many universities around the world admit students also in January and April. In case you are going for one of these dates, please take into account the intervals explained below rather than then the dates provided in this schedule.

Summer, one year in advance

Since you want to study at a university, the first and earliest step should be deciding where you want to study. In some cases, you have friends that went abroad earlier and from the info you have gathered from them and other sources you are certain about the place where you want to study. Happy you. You just saved a lot of work. Let’s see what happens if you don’t get so lucky. First, you should figure out what subject you want to study, like anthropology, mathematics, etc. It should have some connection with the subject you have studies so far, or have a good argumentation for the change of direction you intend. Also decide the kind of program you want to follow: undergraduate, master’s, PhD, etc. If you don’t have a master, you still can apply for a PhD directly, but usually your first years of study will be a master. In US, Master’s programs (MA – Master of Arts, MSc – Master of Science, differs according to the subject) typically last for two years, while in the UK the program lasts for twelve full months, with the summer reserved for writing your thesis. You will of course meet exceptions from this classification. In both cases you will have to write a thesis as part of the graduation requirements. The MPhil is a degree strongly oriented towards research, usually done as the first part of PhD studies. The MBA – Master of Business Administration – is a graduate business studies program with a strong practical orientation. A few years of job experience are normally required when applying for an MBA.

Once you have identified the subject and the kind of program you want to go to, you can start searching for universities. It will be relatively easy to find on the Internet a ranking of those programs at universities in the US or UK. Such a ranking is useful for two reasons: first, you can use it as an index that directs you to the websites of the programs/universities listed. Second, it gives you a fair idea about how competitive those programs are. The logic is simple: the more competitive those programs are, the more prestigious your title will be. Famous universities are rich, so more money is available for financial aid. On the other hand, competition for admission and financing is tough. You will make the decision that suits you best, but we suggest you a few tips on how to make that choice. Choose more universities, it means more work with the application papers, but it increases your chances. We know cases when students handled up to 20 applications, but over 10 it usually gets tough. Split the ranking in top 10/15 and what’s under, and choose universities from both categories. Your scores at the standardized tests should influence the final proportion of universities from each category. Compare your results with those listed as average by the respective programs. students

Read carefully the information posted on the websites and application booklets. You will find a lot of reasons to influence your options there. Identify the financial aid possibilities – make sure you are eligible for a number of scholarships that can give you full financing. Check the applications/admitted ration and the scores at the standardised tests to get an idea about competition. Check the classes offered and the research interests of faculty in order to make sure they match your own interests. Last but not least, read about the living conditions in the universities. It might seem this doesn’t make much difference when you’re applying, but you’re applying to get admitted, don’t you? Remember, you’re going to spend a year or more in that place. You might end up in a campus or in a city-center skyscraper, in the desert or at the ocean, amid corn fields, in a cosmopolitan city or in a rural area. You should chose in such a way the destination that you won’t get bored to death in the environment where you are going to study.

A section you should read with special attention is that containing admission information. Find out whether you meet the conditions that make you eligible for the program, and read until you have understood well the admission process. Write on a sheet of paper the deadlines and the tests required, plus any unconventional requirements. In the end, when you have decided upon the programs, make a list with them, the deadlines and application documents. It will help you meet the deadlines and not miss any application documents. You should have this list ready by October, one year in advance from the proposed date of starting the study.

September, one year in advance

Once you have the list with the programs of your choice, you have completed a long, resource-consuming and more difficult than usually considered phase of your application process. Somewhat simultaneously, you should take care of another one: the standardised tests (TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.). Universities use such widely acknowledged tests in order to assess your potential and knowledge in different areas. Tests cost (TEOFL – USD 100, GRE general – USD 125, and so on), and is practically impossible to avoid them. See what tests you need, go on the websites related to those tests, and read about costs, scheduling, scores interpretation, etc. Try a few sample questions, or even mini-tests. If the results don’t look to well, it is a good idea to schedule one of the tests in spring, one and a half years in advance of your proposed course of study, in order to have enough time for preparation. Tests tend to be difficult and preparation in advance is strongly recommended. You should start as early as two months before the testing date and dedicate 2-3 hours daily to practice in order to be well-prepared for the test. A good knowledge of English language is required for any of them. Plus, each of the tests will present you with a few types of problems. The main goal of the preparation is to familiarize you with that kind of problems. Some preparation material is available on the Internet, while books tend to be expensive, but generally unavoidable. Essays are part of most of the tests, so practice on writing them as well, and take a look at our guide about how to write a structured essay. After taking the tests, about a month is needed in order to have the scores reported to universities. This means you should have taken the tests until the end of November, since the first big round of deadlines comes in January. The ETS, the organisation running those tests, reports your scores for free at 4 or 5 universities, depending on the test. That is, on the condition that you are ready to specify those universities on the day you are taking the test, so be ready! Attention at TOEFL, universities in US are arranged according to the state, so do some research before taking the exam, unless you want to spend endless time on the computer after taking the test, checking your geography knowledge. Any score reporting after that day costs. You can try to avoid the extra costs, by attaching a copy of your own score reports to the application, and explaining that you cannot afford to pay to have the scores officially reported. Still, in some cases, you will have to do that, eventually.

Scheduling the tests takes time, unless you have a card in international currency. When you apply by mail and use a check to pay, you can’t even fix the date, but you only can write a number of dates when you would like to take the test, and the final option will be made by ETS. Allow, therefore, some time for the processing of your request. If you want to take the tests in November, as we recommend, send your check and application around mid-September, at best.

October and November

Once you’re done choosing universities, and while you are preparing for the tests, start working on you application essays, including the statement of purpose. They are difficult to write, and almost for sure some intensive re-writing will be needed until you get a good final draft. For detailed advice on writing them, see our sections on how to write a structured essay, and how to write a statement of purpose.
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In November, close to taking your tests, talk to the professors about letters of recommendation. Allow them 2-3 weeks to write those letters, but not more, since they might forget. You ask for ten days, but be ready if it takes more. See our guide on how to handle this delicate proceeding.


In December, with your essays almost written in final draft, your tests taken, and the forms for the letters of recommendation given to professors, start filling in the application forms and request transcripts from your current school. Make copies of the application forms and fill those in first, to avoid mistakes. Use a computer, if possible, or write in block capitals. When attaching transcripts, or any other documents originally issued in another language than English, you need to have them translated by an authorized translator and that translation authenticated by a notary. A few tips on this: make the translations yourself, if you feel confident. It will save you time and allow you to try to negotiate a price deduction with translator. Give him/her the original and a floppy disk with the translated document to allow any modifications needed. You can ask the translator to seal the documents with “true and certified translation”, and avoid the notary, also saving time and money. Don’t do that if the University expressly requires “authenticated translation at a notary”. We know one case where the home university accepted to sign transcripts in the English language, making them documents originally issued by the university and which did not need translation. Try your chance with the dean and see if it works. If it does, have each transcript signed and sealed, put in an A4 envelope sealed and signed over the seal, in a way similar to recommendation letters. In case you attach translations after any document, have the translator put the seal on a copy of the original document in your language, and attach this copy to the translation. It will increase the credibility of your application. Pay attention to the number of copies in which the university requests each document and attach the right number of copies.


At the end of December you should have your application ready for those programs which have deadlines in January. Be careful with the way in which the deadline is specified: if it is the date of postage, your application has to be sent by the specified date. In other words, it needs a post seal with the date prior or equal to the date of the deadline. If it is the date if arrival, your application should have arrived at the university until that date and if you are sending it from Eastern Europe to the US, this may last as long as three weeks. Send the package in due time and prepare to restart the cycle for recommendations, essays and application forms for programs with later deadlines.


Once you have the application put together and sent, you might think there isn’t much left to do than wait. You still should know what and when to wait. For programs with the deadline in early January, answers can come as early as March. In some cases you will receive a place and financial aid offer, in other the financial aid comes later. Universities send offer letters in waves, so don’t get scared if the answer comes later for you than for your friend who applied for exactly the same thing. This does not mean a no, automatically, you can receive offer letters until early summer.

If you get more offers and have to make a decision, first look carefully at the financial aid offer, in order to make sure there are no hidden costs that are not covered, like flight, medical insurance, etc. Or even if they are, that you will be able to cover them somehow. Then, just choose what you would love most to do. Even for when you have received the offers and made a decision we have a suggestion: start your fight with the bureaucracy early. Apply for a visa well ahead of your date of departure, search a place to stay on or off campus, fill in and send quickly any other documents the university asks you to. And, good flight!

Your future just started!






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