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What’s it like to study in an Ivy League masters program (UPenn) as an international student

MS from Ivy League international student experience

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is among the top 3 universities in the world – Harvard and Stanford being the other two – to have produced the highest number of Fortune 500 CEOs in the world. So, what’s it like to study in a masters program at an Ivy League university as an Indian student?

Life as an Ivy League MS student at UPenn

by Rahul Krishnan

Ivy League student India low GREHey guys, I am a Robotics Master’s Graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. I know what you’re thinking, “Well that’s amazing, advanced degree in an Ivy League institution!” 

Well, while it’s the most common thought that pops into one’s mind ( It was the same for me when I thought of applying to Penn too), the journey before, during and after hasn’t really been smooth sailing as such, far, VERY far from it for that matter.

Pre-MS experience

Let’s start with my pre MS experience. Low on self-confidence after an average performance in my entrance exams, like all Indian kids, I was given a “choice” to choose my Engineering stream. All I had to decide was Electrical or Mechanical  (I didn’t particularly do well in my local entrance exams and hence, Electronics or Computer Science wasn’t  really an option 😀 ). 

Four years of Mechanical Engineering, which I completed from RV College of Engineering (RVCE) in Bangalore, and I was ready to move on to my next level of education. By the end of my 3rd year in RVCE, I had a fairly good idea of what my strengths were.

Always perceived as a fun-loving, cheerful individual amongst my friends, there were two things that primarily stood out about me amongst Engineers in India – communication skills and a gregarious outlook. I was not your typical number crunching/video gaming Engineer and I loved socializing and meeting new people from various backgrounds and cultures. 

We now come to the part about deciding to do my Masters. By the end of the third year, I had a cool IT job offer in a big firm and they were offering a good monetary package too. I wasn’t a 100% sure at the time, which one to consider (MS or work) and went around talking to people about which choice to pick.

The common consensus was it would be difficult to get back to studying, once I start working, since I would be earning for the first time and it would be a big difference compared to the pocket money I’ve been receiving as a kid all these years. A decision I probably regret today, but that’s a story for another day. After putting some thought based on the same, I decided to prepare for my GRE.

GRE prep and MS application strategy

Self-Studying and exams had never really been my biggest strength through the years and hence for my GRE prep, I had joined GRE coaching classes where they pitched to help with my GRE, application essays and school shortlisting. Sold by the offer, I enrolled with the coaching institute and began my GRE prep.

About half-way through my prep, I realized that I wasn’t quite up to the mark in terms of the exam mindset and that I was struggling to come to terms with the syllabus and mock tests. Without making too much of it though, I went on to complete my coaching which lasted for about 3 months. 

My prep strategy wasn’t solid but sedate. I had put in about 2 hours a day along with my weekend classes of 4 hours. The exam back them in 2007 was on a scale of 200-1600 and about 1400+ was considered a good score amongst Indians for a decent graduate school admit.  

I was fairly confident of getting a good score on the GRE and went on to give my exam only to see a shocking score of 1060/1600 on my first attempt and 1160/1600 on my second attempt, far from my 1400+ “decent” score. In terms of the new score equivalent, that would be 298 (verbal 142, math 156) in the first attempt, and 306 (verbal 146, math 160) in the second.

I was terribly demotivated for a few days and had no clue what I should do with my scores. Part of me said, go on, give up your Masters dream and take up the IT job that you already have.

After coming to terms with my performance and accepting it, I realized that most ambitious Indian students have solid GRE scores, but what do they have that’s different from each other?  I realized that I had those two strengths that stood out and which, in my experience at the time, wasn’t a very common one amongst engineers.

So, instead of pondering taking my GRE a third time to improve my score, I decided to put my strengths to use and it was then that I was introduced to the term that’s thrown around tremendously during foreign degrees and job searches – NETWORKING !!!

I reached out to the university professors at all the universities I applied to, explaining my academic background and highlighting my academic goals in terms of what I wanted from my Master’s degree. I spent a significant amount of time researching professors and their academic interests and made sure that I contact professors who align with my research interests. 

The time I put into identifying the right professors and speaking with them about my research interests was something that significantly helped me gain some recognition amongst these professors and I ended up applying to UPenn as one my 6 schools.

Ironically, I had just the one admit and UPenn was the highest ranked school amongst my applications.  I got rejects from both tier-2 and tier-3 schools and I then realized that schools in the US look for a student-school fit which goes way beyond just your academic and GRE scores. 

I am not for a minute suggesting that high scores are a deterrent, but rest assured that a 330-340 GRE score on today’s scale coupled with a 95 % academic score DOES NOT guarantee an IVY league admit. EVERYTHING is important.

MS in UPenn experience as an international student

Let me now talk a little but about my experience at Penn. For starters an Ivy League institution, massive reputation, beautiful campus and insane number of facilities.  All overwhelming at first, I was extremely impressed with the infrastructure and how easily things can get done.

My first introduction to how digitization can make things extremely simple for the common man ( web security and knowledge of digitization apart, of course 😀 ).  Primarily used to filling out paper application forms, attaching photographs, running around looking for glue-stick and staplers (massive pain by the way), I expected about a week to settle in at Penn. 

But “HOLY COW BATMAN”, it took just a day for all the procedures – ID card, bank account, student registration, classmates introduction, EVERYTHING was done in a day. After settling in at Penn, I started my first semester where I had “just” 3 courses.

My thought to self, “Aah, I did 8 courses each semester during my Bachelor’s what is 3 courses. I can do an extra course, find a part-time job and I will have enough time to party as well”, right? 

Well not even close, those 3 courses were full of weekly assignments, project work, quizzes and “GREAT SCOTTS, ROBIN” – application based questions (have to use your brains, I tell you). 

All my life I’ve been used to studying the textbook questions and memorizing the example questions in those world famous engineering textbooks and the exams were never a great challenge, but here the story was very different.  

Hectic to the core, coursework in the first semester was nothing short of a nightmare for me. The biggest challenge for me was to match up with the caliber of students that I was competing with. Having been an above average student throughout my school and bachelors in India, I had never experienced a major challenge in terms of competing with fellow students.

But UPenn was definitely a major step up. I could see why Penn’s reputation was amongst the best just by interacting with the kind of students I met. It got to a point where despite being an above average student throughout my life up until that point, my self-confidence dropped tremendously.

It was a classic case of coming from being “best among the average” to being “average among the best”.

However, with loads of hard work and 3 hour average sleep nights, I somehow managed to get past my first semester with a reasonable GPA.  It took me that one semester to settle in and understand the education system and what I would require to do to finish my Masters in good stead. 

From the second semester onwards, the sailing was a bit smoother. I managed to find time for academics, relaxing and some minimal sightseeing around the country. After doing reasonably well in my Master’s program, it was now time to tackle the biggest fish – FINDING A JOB!!

Job Hunt after MS and Return to India

Let me now talk about the final piece of the puzzle, the job hunt.  Once again, having been used to the placement styles in India, I didn’t expect the job hunt to be as challenging as it turned out to be. 

This is the one thing I think significantly stands out in terms of ease in India compared to the West. 

In India, lead up to the final job offer is fairly straightforward.  Look at the companies that come to your college campus in the 3rd year of Engineering, give their written round, give a fairly straightforward interview and before you enter your final year in engineering, you have multiple job offers to choose from.  With the employment and IT economy specifically booming in India, jobs are almost served to you on a platter.

The job search experience in USA on the other hand was a very different. For starters there is nothing like company campus recruitment days. They have what they term “job fairs”, where the companies each have a table for themselves and you have to go have a conversation with them to understand if your goals align with what the company is doing.

Just like the student-school fit I had mentioned earlier, companies are specific about company-employee fit too.  

When you approach the company table during the job fairs, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for at that company. This in turn involves a lot of pre-job fair research through their website about their business model, value proposition, interested job functions etc.  

It wouldn’t be wise to turn up at the event with a resume and ask them directly whether I will get a job at your company or not. It’s important to keep your conversations extremely specific .

Unfortunately at the time I had no idea what these events required and I pretty much failed miserably at my job search in the US. Coupled with peak recession at the time (Back in 2008-2010), my job search pretty much fizzled out very quickly in the US. I gave about 3 job interviews in the US and nothing really worked out. I had only a 3 month authorization after my graduation from Masters to find a job, else I had to return to India.

As expected, I had to return to India since I couldn’t find anything in the US at the time.

After my return to India, once again I faced a major challenge –  NO WORK EXPERIENCE. A scarcely talked about topic – work experience  is regarded very highly amongst employers all over the world. Since I had gone for my Masters immediately after my bachelors, I did not have any work experience and that really affected my probability of finding a job even in India.

After a couple of months of job searching, I landed a job interview at a massive multinational. Fairly confident about the brand names I had on my Resume, I went into the technical round with the Group head of the team whom I was interviewing with, unaware of another shock I was about to receive. I entered and sat comfortably on their office chair as the Group Head looked at my resume. His first question –

“What is this Ivy League ( I had mentioned that it was an Ivy League institution on my resume)?  Is UPenn the same as Penn State?”

I was completely taken aback by the question and for a couple of minutes I wasn’t even sure how to answer the question. Should I mentioned how the Ivy league term was coined? Should I mention that it’s in an elite group of institutions? Should I mention its ranked above the IITs in India on a global ranking scale?

It took me so long to process the question and how I need to frame my answer, that he immediately moved on to say “Alright forget that, It’s a foreign MS degree, let’s move on.”

That one hour was probably one of my worst performances in an interview setting, coupled with a terrible HR round too. “Oh what a surprise”, I didn’t get that job.  It took me a few days to recover from the fact that he did not know what UPenn was. 

But then I thought to myself, “why should he?”, there are loads of smart interviewees who don’t rest on their brand name laurels, who in fact have probably done far more significant work, relevant to the job profile.  

After a couple more months I landed a 6 month internship at the Indian Institute of Science, where the work was great but it’s far from the 6 figure salary I was expecting to get after UPenn in the US.  The work was great and since then my professional career has been fairly smooth.

Closing Thoughts

Since IISc, I have been working in Engineering roles with about 40-50 % overlap of what I had studied. Not ideal, but nothing in life really is if you look at it, it’s still optimal. Today I work as a Senior Engineer at a major multinational and when I look back at those experiences, I realize that it’s taught me far more than what I would probably have learned if all my expectations were met immediately.

Given a choice I would gladly go through that entire rough phase again, because nothing teaches you more than what you learn through failure. My advice for all you aspiring international applicants-

  1. Academic Scores and Brand names DO NOT guarantee anything. Do your research, understand the industry demands, know what you’re getting yourself into.
  2. Be ready for challenges and don’t expect smooth sailing without hard work. Remember, there is always someone better than you who’s waiting to jump on opportunities too, so never rest on your laurels and never take anything for granted.
  3. Look for a differentiating factor, Identify what you have that other candidates don’t. If you cannot bring something new to the table, then you’re just as good as another candidate, not ideal in this highly competitive world.


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3 thoughts on “What’s it like to study in an Ivy League masters program (UPenn) as an international student”

  1. Nothing too spectacular in this story. Somebody got lucky with his admit at U Penn, admission committees make mistakes. If you have not studied abroad, you would not know this, almost nobody fails a master degree in North America.

    I would say the true strength of an applicant is his undergraduate degree.

  2. The biggest problem with this person is his ignorance of the companies and job market in America. But we need to cut a lot of slack as he graduated in the peak of the recession. As a recession masters Grad in America (2011) we had the odds stacked against us like no internships and competing with people much more experienced than us.


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