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Higher Education in the US – Part 2

In the previous article, we saw how Satish got his doubts cleared by Rajesh regarding the procedure for applying to institutions of higher education in the US. Now, he has some queries about terms such as 'SOP' (Statement of Purpose) and Recos (Recommendation letters). So he goes to an Internet café and browses various sites for relevant information. 

There he learns that India is the leading country to send students to the United States for higher studies. There are 66,836 Indian students enrolled in colleges and universities in the US. He learns that to go to the US for higher studies, he has to shell out at least $ 15,000 towards tuition fee and living expenses. He also learns that the right time to search for suitable academic programs is 12-18 months before the date of enrollment. 

As he also wanted to know about the tests, he searched for and gathered information on the various tests: 

TOEFL: Students all over the world whose native language is not English are required to take Test Of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL). A few institutions may accept scores obtained in other English language examinations.

Students aspiring to pursue undergraduate studies in the United States are required by universities to take:
· SAT I - Scholastic Aptitude Test 
· SAT II subject tests

Most graduate departments require students to take one or more of the following:

· GRE - Graduate Record Examination (general test) 
· GRE - Graduate Record Examination (subject test) 
· GMAT - Graduate Management Admission Test 
· TSE - Test of Spoken English

Programs in law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine require:
· LSAT - Law School Admission Test 
· MCAT - Medical College Admission Test 
· DAT - Dental Admission Test 
· PCAT - Pharmacy College Admissions Test 
· VCAT - Veterinary Aptitude Test
A few other tests
· USMLE - United States Medical Licensing Examination 
· CGFNS - Council for Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools 
· CPA - Certified Public Accountant Examination 

Well, after browsing for quite some time, he goes to his friend's place. There he meets his senior Raghu, who is studying in the US. He asks Raghu for information about the recommendation letter. Raghu replies with a smile, "In India, we always think of recommendations as negative influences on right decisions. But, in the US universities, these are viewed as very correct opinions of a qualified person about you. So, it is very important to have good recommendations in your application packets. Most Indian college teachers ask the students to write the recommendation letters themselves. They then read them, sign across the envelope and give it back to the students. 

As you will be writing your own recommendation letters, you should utilize the opportunity judiciously (remember that the university considers them to have been written by professors)."

Satish is a bit confused, and asks Raghu how many recommendation letters he should take.

"It is always good to get recommendations from at least three of your professors or lecturers. Approach those in whose courses you scored the highest grade or the ones in whose field you are applying. This automatically makes them either very positive or very relevant. Now there are two options — either they write the recommendations themselves or ask you to write them."

Satish: Whom to approach for the recommendation?

Raghu: First of all, do not go to a lecturer for a recommendation unless you are sure that he/she is going to give you a positive recommendation. A mediocre recommendation from a famous person is not as useful as a good recommendation from a less known person.
Some important points: 
· a valid recommendation letter should be sealed and signed across the seal.
· all the three recommendations you get should be highly appreciative of your potential.

Now I request you to evaluate well the people from whom you want to get recommendations. If you know that a particular professor has contacts in the university of your choice, he should say something like "he is a sincere student and I feel he will be able to do a good job in your school". Then it will have more effect than an unknown person saying, "He is amongst the top 1% of the greatest people I have ever met".
If the other areas of your application are strong, go ahead with an application from a known person. If the other areas are average, try to have at least one reco that says you are the best. Describe at least one personal experience where the person recommending you has realized your depth in the area of your special interest. Describe it in detail (remember, these people are looking for a very close appraisal). So, you should make your letter bring out the close interaction that you have with the person. Don't fill it with generic statements. Most people do that anyway. 

Similarly, the recommendations should justify the rest of your record. You can intelligently use them to counterbalance your weakness. You should have no problem in getting recos from professors in whose subjects you have scored well. 
The purpose of a recommendation is not just to complete the application package, but to tell the university professors who are going to read your recos about your deep interest in your subject. The more interesting and insightful you make the recommendation, the more the chances of your being accepted.

What is SOP then?

Well, SOP stands for Statement Of Purpose. It is the single most important document in your application. This document should bring out your personality, passion and seriousness. Most Indian students do a very bad job of it by making it dull and monotonous. Follow the simple guidelines mentioned here to make your SOP very different from the rest.

A good SOP should present you to the selection committee as an interesting, committed, and hardworking student. 

Let your words show your personality 
Most people take pains to hide their personality in their writings, little realizing that as in speaking, in writing, too, a lack of personality bores the reader. So, don't make your SOP look dull or superficial. 

What then should you do? Let your letter show your personality. 

That is what is going to make you unique. Just look into yourself and highlight that feature of your personality that would make you most interesting for the selection team. If you have really worked hard, don't say: "I am a hard-working student. I am amongst the first few to complete assignments before the deadline..." There are many students who do that. 

This is something that you should do when you write a heading for an SOP. Consider the following:
"The process that gave me a different perspective to education",
"How I realized the most important truth about myself" and
"Statement of purpose"
Obviously the first two get more attention from the readers than the third one.

Use a quotation in the beginning

This is almost like a recommendation to your SOP. It should lend credibility to your theme. It is optional and not doing it correctly might actually make it look silly. However, correct usage makes your statement much stronger. 

If you are going to tell the reader how interested you are in the learning of science, you can start with a quote like "Those blessed with the curiosity to learn are forever young". If you are going to tell the reader how anxious you are to contribute significantly to a field, you can say "fulfillment is nothing but knowledge issuing out in action".

Decide the theme of your SOP (zeal for learning / zeal for teaching etc.). Start with a saying or your own phrase that provides credibility to your theme.

Write as you speak
Imagine this. If you were to talk to the professor directly, how would you do it? You will talk about yourself. Your interests. Direct speech, active voice and personality. Unfortunately we are trained to hide them in writing. Unlearn that and explode.

Lay it out neatly
Divide your SOP into 4 or 5 sections. Divide the material into a number of paragraphs. See that no paragraph has more than 5 lines. Use short sentences. Bold type the important sentences, headings and sub-headings. Color the important points differently. Make it pleasing to the eye.

The readability of a document is as important as the design of a website.

Now that Satish is equipped with relevant information, all he needs to know is about the financial aid. Well, let us see how he manages it! 

Continue .......part3

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