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applying to PhD programs as a foreign student


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Hello there, 


I was wondering if anyone had an insight on how differently applications of foreign students are evaluated (if they are evaluated differently at all)? Specifically, I wonder whether GRE scores matter as much, whether we (foreign students) are penalized for having letters of recommendation written by professors the Graduate Committee's never heard of and for having fewer opportunities to work on research projects (especially in areas of social science). 

I'd really appreciate any advice since I graduated from an Italian university with GPA equivalent of the American 4.0 in both undergrads and M.A.; my TOEFL score is 116/120 (still have to take the GRE) and my letters of recommendation are very flattering, yet I worry that the fact I have only one publication (and it's not peer-reviewed) and limited research experience (merely the second year of my M.A., which I dedicated to research) will preclude me from high-ranking universities such as Yale, Columbia or even Minnesota so I may be just wasting time and money and should aim lower. I know the "fit" is important but what about experience with research and the GRE scores? Also, could anyone suggest useful resources for those of us who have virtually no support systems regarding the feedback on the quality of our writing samples and SOP? 

Lastly, since my field is Political Science, are multiple foreign languages (advanced levels) valued or should I refrain from stressing their importance? 

I'd really, really, appreciate an answer :)


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Whether foreign students are evaluated differently depends on the school and program. Here are some differences that I know about, in order of most significant/widespread:


1. International students might have higher tuition rates than domestic students. For almost all public schools, this will be true. Therefore, for programs that fully fund their students, it costs much more to pay for an international student than a domestic student. The result is that admissions are much more competitive for international students at these schools. Public schools tend to have an international graduate student population of about 10%. At one public school I applied to, the program accepts about 5 or 6 new grad students per year, meaning that on average, they only accept one international student every two years. 


The application advice I would give based on this is to apply to private schools! Don't let the name/prestige scare you. Your application profile sounds very strong. For me, I am currently at a private school that is generally considered "better" than public schools that rejected me. This is because private schools generally charge the same tuition for everyone, so there is no cost discentive to take on an international student.


2. Whether it's appropriate to do so or not, professors have told me that they consider the reputation of the applicant's school (and school system) when evaluating GPA and test scores. For example, a high GPA from a school or country/system known for grade inflation would mean less. Also, some countries / school systems places a ton of focus on test preparation and this is taken into account when evaluating test scores from candidates from these systems. From experience, professors have learned that sometimes test scores are not a good indicator of ability, especially if some people are better test takers than others.


3. I think professors will consider the opportunities made available to each applicant when evaluating profiles. In some countries/school systems, research is not a major component of undergraduate education and I do think this is accounted for. After all, they aren't just looking for a grad student that will tick off all the boxes on some list. They are looking for indicators that this applicant will succeed in graduate level research. For students in circumstances where they would have very little research opportunities, the admission committees would use other indicators to determine research ability potential. (On the flip side, if you attended a research institution but did not manage to do much research, that would be questionable!)


4. Finally, you are right that LORs by people that the school knows is better. However, I would say this is more of a "bonus" than a "requirement" to get into top schools. It's rare for American students to have LORs from superstars in their field too, and I don't think a letter from someone they don't know in Italy is going to be much different than a letter from someone they don't know in America.


That's all I can really say that is general about graduate education in America from the point of view of another international student applying! I really want to stress that the number one difficulty you will face is that you will cost more. This should be a factor in where you apply (check what % of the grad population is international). It's likely that top international applicants will get into more higher ranked private programs than lower ranked public programs.

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