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How to get into PhD programs abroad | Admission process for top universities

A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

The greens of the Ivy are greener than what most universities have to offer. The resources, the faculty, the peers and the brand of it all. Evidence is in the wide eyed aspiring students and hopeful parents, flocking at what seems to be like a shrine of a bronze John Harvard at Harvard Yard. He sits there, as if on a throne with his toe rubbed by hundreds every day, not so much as a tradition but for almost a spiritual inspiration towards achieving success.

Last year nearly three quarters of a million students applied for higher education in US Universities, out of which about 28% [1] comprised the Indian student population, the rest of the foreign applications being mostly from China. It won’t be surprising if even sheer probability could account for the massive proportion of student applications from these two countries.

The numbers are impressive until one decides to take a closer look at the number of students that manage to enter the gateways of the crème de la crème, aka Ivy Leaguers, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, UPenn, and Cornell or the equally green Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Duke, Northwestern, UWashington, UMich, Berkeley, and so on.

Such are the statistics, from the same year, showing MIT admitting only 8% of the regular students that applied and about 4% of internationals that applied [2]. If one does the math, the number for Indians would certainly seem much smaller.

What is it that makes getting a chance, to be a Class of a 2000 something ‘elite’, so rare? After all, only the smartest decide to apply to these schools. How do the top notch schools decide who to choose? It shouldn’t be like The Hunger Games, one would hope. We have, not yet that is, reached a dystopian future!

The answer lies in, what these schools like to call, a holistic admission process.[3-4] Not to be confused with holy. It doesn’t mean that the admission committee sits in a room chanting for a spiritual connection with the applicants. It means the applicants are considered as a whole, not to be defined by any one equation or model.

Then what, you may ask, is important for such a holistic approach? Each of the next few suggestions are to be taken somewhat subjectively. The one thing to realize is that this process is, after all, a subjective process.

There is no trained hiring committee but only members from faculty and a few administration personnel [4] who sit in a room, granted a much cozier room than most universities have to offer, and individually go through the selected applications.

Hence keeping in mind that there is not one formula, bias and presumptions are part of the decision making. Fortunately that very subjective approach sometimes works in favor of certain applications.
Also read Admission process for PhD abroad

How to get into the top PhD programs abroad | Admission process


The academic grades

It won’t be surprising that a basic threshold, one needs to meet, is a good academic record. High GPAs from well known universities are obviously a positive. But often students have a few blemishes in an otherwise glorious record. A bad grade in high school, or a second tier undergrad university.

As a former Harvard law student says, “A 3.78 from Yale is almost always going to be viewed as more impressive than a 3.9 from Kansas State. This is the simple reality”[5].

However, most admitters only really care about what you did last [6]. The safest way to secure a second look at your application, in such a circumstance, would be to compensate.

ETS provides an opportunity at qualifying Subject GRE examinations that could add that lacking shine back in your armor. It shouldn’t stop at that though. The rest of the factors here could be just as redeeming and helpful.

Your Test Scores

Flash cards, synonyms, word associations, and for those who fear numbers, the quant section. Anyone who has gone through a GRE remembers at least a few nights with a Baron or Kaplan by their side.

Test patterns and scoring may have changed over the years but scores have and will remain important. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine how important they are but the easiest mantra is to keep the scores high.

Studies[4] have shown that committees often use a test score cut-off to separate the ones they won’t even glance at from the ones they would. Often a high score in TOEFL is unconvincing to the committee and sometimes they set up interviews to review one’s comprehension of the English language.

Extra Curricular Research

This is probably an aspiring PhD’s holy grail of admission to an elite university. US has, what they call, feeder universities that create the necessary halo around a student’s head for that touch of the exceptional.

In other words, these feeder schools are often either these elite schools themselves or other schools with impressive undergraduate departments. A lot of foreign universities are either unknown to the elites or the grading system is unconvincing to them.

A good way to increase faith would be to garner that extra edge. You should start exploring these research opportunities early in your undergraduate years.

The best way to begin is to look for a faculty, with excellent credentials, in your field. Guidance under such a faculty and a completed project or two, with published papers in your name, would give you the edge compared to your fellow applicants.

A little research would also lead you to opportunities for Summer Internships to US through various fellowships [7-9], the crème of them being Fulbright. These internships are a great opportunity to mingle with the academically elite, get clarity on your research field and also the potential to get recommendations from faculties that the committees know and hopefully love.

Statement of Purpose

It is a statement, so it needs to make one. A pointless lengthy essay is a waste of their time and your effort. An SOP should be used as a tool to make a first impression sans a face to face meeting. Hence it needs to have that touch of you.

This would be a good place to tell your story. You came through a difficult time in your life that left a dent in your record. Or the circumstances that you overcame to come to a place, in life, where you are driven for only the best.

As a former professor and director of graduate programs said [10], when a committee is looking at your statement, they are looking to find out about you, your achievements, your accomplishments, and how will you be able to contribute to that University.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, at Harvard, posted a fivology in New York Times [11]mentioning, among other things, the need for students who will be fellow educators who will contribute to the growth of the student community. You get the idea. You need to look like you are going to take to their university like fish to water.

Your statement or research interest should also be clear about your research field. I want to do cosmology because I like looking at the sky is going to be dismissed.

The best way to frame the research interest would be to visit the faculty page of the University and comprehend the kind of work the individual faculties are doing. It would be helpful to read their papers and get a better understanding where the research is headed.

So if you find a faculty working on Inflationary Model in Cosmology, you can indicate your interest in General Relativity, Numerical Analysis and Cosmology. And if you have had a summer internship project in the same field, you can show them that you can talk the talk and walk the walk.

It is generally not a good idea to drop names of faculties in the department you are applying to. Unless they know you or about you already. Generally speaking, indicating your area of research interest, backed with some papers and recommendations, gives you credibility and room to choose between departments as well.

For example, being interested in material science can land you in either in the Engineering or Physics Department, increasing your chances of admission as against saying I want to study transport in materials under the guidance of Prof. Jekyll. Extra-curricular awards, badges of merits, publications, conference proceedings all add stars to your application.

Also read,
Sample resume for MS and PhD applications
How to write an SoP

Letters of Recommendation

Recommendations provide the stamp of credibility to any application. Hence almost intuitively one can tell the credibility, of the recommenders, matter. An ideal recommender’s profile should be an active researcher, well known in his/her field, with a prestigious academic lineage and one who has worked with you closely.

Also important is the language of the recommendation. A former Harvard Assistant Professor has been heard saying that only the students, whose recommenders claim them as among the top 5%, are considered. LORs, therefore, need to be specific about your achievements and glorifying, without being vague. Highlighting research achievements such as saying Mandeep did the project independently and published in XYZ Journal is an incredible boost for phd applicants.

Applications are to be considered as windows to your profile. So when the committee gathers to decide, give them your best and that’s what they will see. The charms and values of one’s alma mater become a part of one’s character. And when it comes to these Universities, Dickens can sum it up for us.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.

Also read,
PhD in USA for international students
How to choose your PhD university, program and research topic
PhD after MBA
Fully funded PhD, with stipend in Europe

If you need help with your PhD application, drop us a note: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com.
References: [1]American Bazaar Online, [2]MIT Admissions, [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11]

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7 thoughts on “How to get into PhD programs abroad | Admission process for top universities”

  1. Hi Sameer,
    I am an IT professional in India with 12 Years experience. Doing Part time phd in Strategic management from one in the top 10 Private management college in NCR.
    Once I finish this degree, I want to go for full time PhD (through GMAT). But I will be near to 39 years of age till I complete the current PhD.
    I am not sure if doing a full time PhD at this age will valued by perspective colleges and what will be the post PhD prospects. Though I am open for both academic and Industry positions. Please suggest.

  2. persu8ng persuing my in biological sciiences n m intersted to go further till phd….kindly help me by suggesting me colleges in abroad fit for my career …thankyou..

  3. Hi Sameer.
    I am into academics as an Assistant Professor in Delhi University for the past three and half years. Now i am inclined to shift myself in Business Management. I seek your advice about which courses should i enroll myself into to pursue my ambition. I teach Political Science and have done my PhD in Political Science from the same University. Will I be eligible for Executive Programmes. Rather You suggest me any programme that would help me in my endeavour.

  4. @Harbir: You are right in having those thoughts. Unlike other degrees with a fixed duration, the PhD can become open ended. If you are starting now, do you have enough patience to wait till the journey if over?

    @Anubha: The choice of programs will depend to a large extent on your area of research interest. Don’t rely on others to tell you where you should go.

    @Ashutosh: Insittutes offering executive management programs won’t stop you from applying. But here’s some food for thought before you take that decision.

    Business management is a practical discipline. Academic degrees can only help if you can base it on a solid foundation of practical experience. Without that, you’ll probably find yourself competing with freshers for the entry level positions. Are you ready for that?

  5. I am interested in PhD in Entrepreneurship
    MY present Academic qualifications
    Bachelor of Engineering Hons
    Master of Business Administration
    Master of Transport management


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