Preparing graduate school applications can be time consuming and very challenging. Having a strategic plan to fulfil all of the requirements could make this process a lot easier. In this article, our contributor Robin Yovianto shares his experience and great tips of preparing applications to top ranked schools.
An unimaginable yet life-changing journey is waiting – This is what I would have told myself back in 2014 if I knew what the next couple of years are going to be. It was close to the end of Semester 6 when I decided that I want to pursue a graduate degree in the United States as my aspiration was to be one of the best Indonesian Civil Engineers. The whole preparation and application process came with dedication and long hours of work, but I will not be where I am now if I did not believe in my goals and take that leap of faith.
Never belittle your goals! Put faith in yourself and make it happen. This might sound cliche but defining my goal was the first step and the most crucial preparation of my voyage. My goal came first, and then pursuing a graduate degree came to serve that vision. Having this mindset gave me the motivation I need to cruise through hours of research, preparation, and the rest of my journey. This sounded overwhelming for me at that time but as I set sail, I could sense that I am in the right direction.
Time is a limited resource, use it wisely and plan ahead. After the goal was set, I started putting the work in! I did broad general research to find the typical timeline and requirements from schools in the US. It was important to know the application requirements and deadline of each school to ensure I was on track. Most schools started their admission around October through February – some could go beyond through April or May. Using these dates as my end target, I started pull planning to define and allocate how much time I need in preparing my application. It took me about 6 months to prepare but I would recommend a year for anyone wanting to apply to schools in the US. The 1-year timeframe makes this application process from preparing essential testings (GRE and TOEFL), writing Statement of Purpose, interviews to asking for Recommendation Letters, less intensive and more enjoyable.
Financial aids and scholarships are abundant
All journeys have their own setbacks – that year unfortunately LPDP just imposed a new policy: students who wanted to apply need to have a diploma (Fullbright was never part of my consideration as their policy had always stayed that way). This policy made my whole plan scrambled as my original plan was to secure the finances ahead prior to applying for schools. However, after doing more extensive research, asking around the admission officers, I found that there are plenty of alternatives – every department in each university is likely to have its own Department Scholarship, Financial Aid, and Teaching or Research Assistant Financial Aid. Beyond these, specific school’s scholarships coming from alumni endowment are also available, i.e. Knight-Hennessy Scholars for Stanford University. In my case, as I already missed the schools’ scholarships, I decided to apply for department financial aid and got a partial tuition grant. For anyone who missed some of the scholarship deadlines, I would recommend doing research on alternative sources of funding. Do not let a detour discourage you. Be flexible, adaptable, and keep cruising through!
After much consideration, I decided to take my chances and apply to the top Civil Engineering schools in the US at the time: Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Texas at Austin. I eventually decided to attend Stanford for it aligns with my goal the best. I was fortunate that decision brought me to Stanford but if I ever were at that position again I would use a more proper framework in deciding which schools I should apply for.
Beyond what you have probably heard before from other source, articles, and tutorial videos, here are some of my tips to help guide you through this university filtering process:
Don’t marry your goal with one particular school
I was too naive then to acknowledge that chances inevitably play a big part in getting accepted into graduate schools. I felt confident about my academic qualification due to a relatively good GPA and decided to only apply to top-ranked schools. Looking back this was definitely not the wisest decision that I made and I would not recommend others to take the same risky approach. Instead, hedge your bets by applying to several top schools, or possibly also applying to one or two medium-tier schools (higher acceptance rate), consider factors that are important to you – in my case it was program structure, university culture, professors, coursework, rankings, and locations, and rank several schools from the most to the least preferred. Never put everything in one bucket – diversify your risk!
Rankings are important but not everything
Truth to be told, in the beginning, I was completely blinded by rankings. I was only going to apply to schools that have good ranks, without knowing how suitable their program was for me. I never thought other factors matter, until some alumni that I connected with through LinkedIn told me program structure, alumni networks, professors are better than ranking at predicting what I will get out of the graduate study. University ranking changes and no one will pay much attention to the ranking every year. And now looking back, having completed my program, I could not agree more with him.
Learn from other success stories
It is very important to network and learn from other people who have gone through this path before. I was very fortunate that I could connect to some of my friends who went to the US during their undergraduate study so I can get a glimpse of what they went through. I learned from these people’s mistakes in the past and tried to capture the X factors that helped them get accepted to the schools they go to, and used this information to constantly find ways to improve my application. I would recommend to not be afraid to establish connections with as many alumni as possible through social media platforms e.g. LinkedIn, info sessions, and networking sessions like the one hosted by Indonesia Mengglobal.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, out of schools that accepted me, I chose Stanford. I applied to and chose Stanford in the end because of its entrepreneurial program and culture. I was glad to find that my experience aligns with, and even exceeds, my original expectation.
The environment at Stanford is unlike anywhere else. All students are required to speak up and have an opinion, which accelerates the exchange and development of fresh new ideas.
Students are not just told to do homework and get good grades, but instead are expected to be engaged in the classrooms and be an active contributor to their own and others’ learning experiences. Stanford felt like a startup incubator for me. No ideas are too crazy to explore – This is the only way we can create new things. Nowhere else in this world I can find a place like this. My time at Stanford was a life-changing journey indeed.
Note that what worked well for me may or may not work for you. Hope this story can broaden your references but not entitle you to do the same as I did.
Choose your own path and create your own journey.