My last column generated a lot of response. I received over two dozen emails from aspiring students. Some of them were asking the same thing which I had already explained in my last column. Some were asking about specific programs and the ways to apply for them. Well, contents of most of these emails vindicates my assumption that though Kashmiri students really want to pursue studies abroad but they lack confidence and feel unprepared because of lack of proper guidance and mentoring. Now that we know the problems, let us talk about some practical things.
Last time I wrote about preliminary steps like how to find a suitable supervisor, draft your research proposal and academic CV. Now I will explain a few other things in detail.
PREPARE YOUR DOCUMENTS
All those who have finally prepared their mind to apply to a foreign university get these things done first: scan all your transcripts (mark sheet), work experience certificate/s and other relevant documents. Nowadays, scanning can be done by smart phones also. So, this will be your first task. After scanning all your documents, transfer them to your PC, convert them into PDF format (some universities are ok with jpeg format also) and keep them in a separate folder. Always retain a copy of the documents on your flash or hard drive. You never know when your PC might get infected.
Second task: if you do not have your passport, apply for it now. Do not leave things for the last moment. Once you get your passport (if you are lucky enough! You know what I mean) scan it too and keep it in your DOCUMENTS folder. Keeping all scanned documents in one folder will make things easier later on. You will understand once you reach that stage. And remember to convert them into PDF format.
HOW TO WRITE A STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Now let us talk about Statement of Purpose (SOP). SOP is very important document because it is the first thing admission committee members grab when they assess your application. Remember admission committee has to read hundreds of SOPs and if you write a boring and unimpressive one, they would probably not even look at your other documents. So write your SOP with utmost care. Different universities have different requirements, usually 200, 300 or 500 words. I would recommend dividing your SOP into 4 or 5 paragraphs with first paragraph being more personal. By personal I mean you can mention what prompted you to pursue the proposed research. You can say, you attended a seminar somewhere or any particular professor taught you a course or any particular event ignited your interest in the subject. Let me give examples of attention grabbing first paragraphs:
“During my undergrad studies, I got a chance to demonstrate my heat-trapping model at National Science Exhibition…”
“In 2008 I was pursuing Masters in Political Science at Kashmir University. In the class of International Law, our professor would often say, ‘Peace processes are ploys to further entrench the occupations’”
“As a teenager I was sent to study in North Indian state of UP, because political turmoil in Kashmir was claiming many lives. I enrolled for B.A in English literature…”
An account of personal experience in the opening sentences like the ones mentioned above should connect logically with your proposed research. Example 1 suits a person who is applying for MSc or PhD in Physics. It demonstrates consistency of interest in the subject. Example 2 gives indication that the applicant’s interest stems from a particular International Law class he attended in Kashmir University and is logically connected to his proposal if it would be on a peace process. Similarly, example 3 can be used to pitch a research proposal on literature of exile. You can work it many ways. But do not make it up. Just be creative.
Also, mention about any course, conference, publication, work experience related to your proposed research project. In case your academic progress has suffered in terms of receiving lower grade in a course/s due to some event, like natural calamity, political turmoil etc., do mention it. If you have done your previous study in one field (for example BSc, MSc) and you are applying for MA or PhD in another field (say International Relations or Journalism), you should tell your reader why and how this transition from one field to another took place and how you are prepared enough to pursue the program. It is always better if your master’s thesis or your work experience (or something you have done previously) and the proposed research for PhD are same or similar, because it is a good way to show the consistency of your interest. And lastly, write why you have chosen the school or department you are applying to. For that go through the department’s website and read about it, scan through its publications and most importantly read your proposed supervisor’s profile and publications. In your SOP you can then say ‘I chose this department because it has strong expertise’ on (your chosen field) and, particularly, (your proposed supervisor) has done a considerable work on your proposed research theme and can provide you better guidance. You can highlight the supervisor’s achievements. In short, you should be able to convince the admission committee why you are the most suitable candidate out of hundreds of other applicants. For that, write in simple English. Don’t try to impress by inserting complex sentence structures and difficult vocabulary. It will not impress them, but rather put them off as you are writing for an admission committee, not for the jury of a literature festival. Your SOP should look coherent and most importantly portray you as a capable candidate (because of your previous studies or work experience) who has real passion in the chosen subject, has shown consistency and can undertake a rigorous academic research. Click on the following link to find examples of well-written SOPs:
http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/statement/samples.htm. You can imitate them, but don’t copy verbatim. Just learn how you have to draft the whole thing. Use consistent font throughout (preferably Times New Roman, font 12, 1.5 line space).
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TESTS
In one of the emails I received, someone asked: is there is provision of exemption from English language tests like TOEFL or IELTS in European universities? Yes, there are some universities with exemption clause, but these exemptions are either for those students who come from English speaking countries or for those students who have studied for a long time in an English speaking country. So, you are required to sit for English language test. Test score requirement varies from university to university. But most upper tier universities ask for the score 7 (in IELTS) and over 100 (in TOEFL). It can be lower than this in some universities. But it varies even within the departments of a university. So, be sure what your department is asking for. Personally, I would recommend IELTS over TOEFL. Although, both are rigorous and ask for a lot of hard work, but still IELTS is less complicated than TOEFL. For example, in TOEFL you get distracted while talking to the computer in the Speaking section of the test because there are other test takers speaking around, but in IELTS you speak to a live person alone in a room and feel much more comfortable with the test format. You need to register for English language tests as soon as possible, because slots are quickly filled. Those applying for September 2015 session should start registering now. The test score will be valid for two years. The nearest IELTS test centre is in Jammu, and the next available date for test is December 6, 2014.
So far I talked about Research Proposal, Statement of Purpose, English language tests and transcripts. But this is not all you need to prepare for your application. You still need academic reference. In one of the sections in online application, you will be asked to register names, addresses and emails of your academic referees. You can choose the professors who have taught you in the last three years. But choose the ones who know you well enough to write about you positively. Get their addresses, their phone numbers and, if available (which I am afraid is not), their institutional emails. Some universities do not accept email ids like Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail etc. But, you can still send an email to your target university and tell them about this problem. Many times they just sort it out. Once you choose who are going to be your referees, send your RP and CV to them so that they know what to write in their references. By the way, reference and recommendation letter are same things. So don’t worry if you are asked to submit the later than the former. Universities will contact your referees directly, so you just need to remind them (your referees) about the submission deadline in case they forget. If your chosen referee is a close acquaintance or an approachable senior professor, you can also show him or her some good recommendation letters to just give an idea how it is written. It is not necessary that every professor knows how to do it.
HOW TO WRITE EMAILS CORRECTLY
Most of the emails I received addressed me as ‘Sir’. I understand this is academic culture in Kashmir or for that matter in much of South Asia, but when you write an email to your proposed supervisor or any professor, don’t use this honorific. Just use his or her last name. For example, if it is Dr John Nash, write ‘Dear Dr Nash’. That is it. No John Sir or Nash Sir. This whole business of ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ has come down to us through British colonialism and we still suffer from the hangover.
In my next column, I will talk about a few more important things and also provide some links to scholarship sources. In case I have forgotten to write about other aspects, let me know. And please do not address me as ‘Sir’!
(Muhammad Tahir is a PhD student of Politics and International Relations in School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published in Greater Kashmir on 24.11.2014: http://greaterkashmir.com/news/2014/Nov/24/applying-to-a-foreign-university-ii-14.asp