I know it's pretty late but it's always nice to hear from other international students' perspectives on grad school applications. It seems like lots of you guys are interested in health / medical science related biology fields. For me, I am into ecology fields (a quantitative ecology). I am currently finishing off my undergraduate degree at a small public liberal arts school in the US and will be going to a grad school for a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and behavior this coming fall.
I only applied 4 programs that showed me an interest (especially the POIs whom I contacted showed me an interest and had a Skype interview before applications). All of the programs that I applied said that most of the admitted students have average 3.7 GPA and some of them don't look at GREs anymore but they require high GRE scores (I didn't do well on GRE). But they said, "don't let those requirements scare you!, talk to your POIs and apply if they told you to!" They said I still have a chance to get admitted and I did so and got accepted.
For GRE, we as international students have a disadvantage since most of us are not native English speakers and thankfully, lots of schools nowadays decided not to look at GREs because it shows a bias between native English speakers and non-native English speakers.
I got 2 offers and 2 rejections (One said she was really impressed with my application and recommended to other programs at her institute that she would like to advise me but it was too competitive that all of her potential students didn't make it).
My overall GPA is 3.1 (I know it's super low compared to all of you guys, my major GPA is 3.8 tho). I didn't do great academically (Got 2.0 GPA in my freshmen year) and took 2 years off of college and decided to work instead in my home country after my sophomore year. After working + doing research, I realized that what sub-field of ecology I wanted to do for my life and decided to become a quantitative ecologist.
I came back to the school and changed my major to Statistics and tried so hard and finally achieved all As in my first semester after coming back from the break. And I continued to work hard to get As until my last semester while working and doing research every semester. For me, I continuously contacted so many faculties at different schools 2 years before I even applied to grad school. Some people didn't even reply to my emails, Some people were nice enough to tell me that they were not looking for grad students that year. Some of them encouraged me to keep in touch with them and that's what I did (Every 4 or 5 months, I just updated them what happened to my life). And that finally opened my opportunities to work with some of them.
People told me that For Ph.D., it doesn't matter how talented and great you are in academics but if you don't contact any POIs at your top choice programs before actual applications, they will reject you no matter what because they do not know you.
I did 4 research and 3 jobs related to my field throughout my undergraduate years. The faculty that I did research with last summer is now my advisor for Ph.D. (She wrote a recommendation letter for me) And now we are writing a paper on our summer research to publish. I also had a great relationship with lots of faculties at my home institute and that helped me a lot with recommendation letters and they proofread my personal statement as well.
For Ph.D. in pure biology programs, I strongly believe that they care more about your experiences and who you are rather than looking at your grades (Often times, we as international students care too much about GRE and GPAs) But honestly, from my perspectives, what grad school wants from us is our independence + creativity and motivation to work with others and learn. They want to see our passion and we need to show that somehow through our personal statements or improvements in academics or research experiences or meeting them in person during the welcome week. I believe if you keep knocking the door, it will eventually open. That happened to me!
For the funding, Don't ever apply to the programs that don't offer you fundings. (That's what I heard from some of the grad students at least for pure biology programs). That is not worth it. We have to pay more than US students and even US citizens struggle with paying tuitions for their graduate programs (especially Master's).
That's why they emphasize you to contact your potential advisors at the programs a few months before you actually apply. They will let you know if they have funding for potential students or their programs offering you funding once you get accepted to the program. So the best way is contacting your POIs and they will let you know with all the info.
For me, the Ph.D. program that I got accepted offers a 5 yrs guaranteed funding. They said once a student gets accepted, they will give the student guaranteed funding for 5 years. Some of the international students get funding through Fullbright scholarships from their home countries, getting funding through their advisors or TA or RA ships.