I recently made a big decision in my life as an international student in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.
I enrolled in graduate school.
This was a decision two years in the making. Since 2018, I had wanted to become an attorney after reading Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.” I felt that the law could be a force for good, and had taken two LSAT courses and a million cups of coffee on my way to change the world.
Long story short, that didn’t work out. I realized that the uncertainty I would face securing a job on a student visa wasn’t worth taking thousands of dollars in private loans (because international students can’t get federal loans) to finance a legal education.
So then, I continued working full-time upon graduation in the non-profit sector, and along the way, decided that I still wanted to pursue higher education. With the help of one of my best friends, I prepared for graduate school applications in September 2019 and sent them out by November.
Boom. Done. Let’s wait and see.
And then acceptances came around January and February, and I was ecstatic. I was so grateful to have received acceptances from five out of the six international affairs programs I applied to, many offering at least 50% in scholarship award.
But then, this virus came along. And the world sheltered itself. Borders were shut, and families were torn apart.
I was worried. What would happen if I lost my job and had to go home after my 60 day grace period would end? How could I return to the country for graduate school if U.S. embassies and consulates were closed?
Though I am a proud San Diego State University alum, I decided to enroll in the nearby University of San Diego – largely due to the MA in Social Innovation program I wanted to enroll in and the generous scholarship they offered.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I no longer have to leave the country and worry about applying for a new student visa. This is thanks to the SEVIS transfer process in which you can stay in the country as long as your last day of OPT (work) is less than five months away from the first day of your new program (grad school).
For example, if I ended work in March 1, it would be 6 months until the master’s program would start in September 1. If that were the case, I’d have to leave the country and apply for a new student visa.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. And I want other international students to know that there is still hope. Here are four pieces of advice I have for you to make the most out of the graduate school application process.
1. You can still apply now!
Due to COVID-19, many graduate schools have extended their application deadlines; some until July, some indefinitely.
This means that if you were on the fence, you can apply now to broaden your options. For undergraduate international students, this can give you a cushion to stay in the United States without having to go home and risk being unable to secure a new visa.
Also, many schools are now waiving the GRE/GMAT requirement. For students whose strengths lie outside standardized testing (like me), this is an incredible opportunity for you to highlight your soft skills and work experience. For MBA applicants, check out this free guide from Menlo Coaching.
If you have any questions on how to create a strong application, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help.
2. Prioritize geography
When applying to graduate schools, geography is going to be crucial for your safety.
You can check out this CNN tracker to see which cities are most affected by the virus. Keep in mind that some homeowners are not as willing to accept new tenants, so be sure to do a lot of research on nearby housing.
Many schools offer resources on housing such as Facebook groups or Craigslist postings to assist you along the way. They want to make sure that their students are taken care of.
If you get to attend a program in the city you’re currently in, you’re in a great situation. I was so close to moving to the East Coast in July, but figured it would be risky getting acclimated to a new city that I couldn’t even explore. Plus, who would I be able to rely upon if I ended up in urgent care?
That’s why geography is so important.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for more financial assistance
I believe in you, so you should believe that you are a qualified candidate.
Once you are accepted into a grad program, do not be afraid to ask for more financial assistance if it’s not within your budget. It’s easy to wonder, “Will they think I’m ungrateful if I ask for more help?”
They won’t. I’ve been there. Just be sure to ask in a diplomatic way. A simple way you can do so is by asking if they have a process for reevaluating applications. If they say no, then you can move forward knowing you asked. If they say yes, they may ask if you have other competing offers or request for you to write a letter to the scholarship committee.
Don’t be afraid to ask! Believe in your qualifications and know that schools are just as eager to help you. Think about it. The job of admissions is to recruit qualified candidates (you) who will give them value with the amazing work you will do.
4. Find ways to stay productive once you finish OPT
Once you successfully enroll in a program, you will most likely have a few months of free time – largely due to not having work authorization anymore.
During this time (likely the month between May and September), start preparing for ways to continually increase your value in the job market.
As a freelance writer, look for opportunities to write for big time media outlets. If you’re a charismatic techie, create a YouTube account and teach kids how to code. Love writing poems? Create a WordPress account and start publishing your writing.
The internet has opened a world of opportunities. Don’t limit yourself just because you won’t be on OPT. You’ll be a more experienced and seasoned professional by the time you start graduate school before you know it.
If you’re in a difficult situation, don’t forget to take the time to breathe and take it all in. Call your friends and family and make sure your loved ones are safe and healthy. Then go out there, find solutions, and come back even stronger once this situation ends.
I believe in you.
Feel free to email me if you have any questions!