APPLYING TO A FOREIGN UNIVERSITY – II

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.

RECOMMENDATION LETTERS
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 mtahirfiraz@gmail.com)

Published in Greater Kashmir on 24.11.2014: http://greaterkashmir.com/news/2014/Nov/24/applying-to-a-foreign-university-ii-14.asp

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Applying to a Foreign University

In the summer of 2012 when I received the confirmation of my admission in International University of Japan (IUJ) i did not jump for joy. My response was a blend of restrained excitement and anxiety. I had received such ‘good news’ emails previously also from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and University of Edinburgh. But the initial excitement of getting accepted at these prestigious institutions was only to be later dampened by my not being able to secure a scholarship to attend my chosen programs. I was even rejected twice by Central European University. Well, I had learnt from my mistakes.

That is why for IUJ I prepared best possible application, by taking help from my wonderful and well-read mentors, Mohamad Junaid and Wajahat Ahmed. They were my teachers at Centre for International Peace and Conflict Studies (IUST) during 2008 and 2010, and later both of them went to the US for their PhDs. So they knew exactly what needed to be done. I drafted my Research Proposal and Statement of Purpose and sent it to them for their feedback. These are two essential documents that largely determine the application outcome (your academic record and work experience is equally important, though). Their feedback enabled me to rework the weaker areas in my documents. And finally, I was ready to apply. On July 11, 2012, I received the ‘best news’ email from IUJ, informing that I was selected for prestigious Konosuke Mastushita Memorial Foundation (KMMF) scholarship. It was time for celebration!
The reason I am recounting my personal story here is to encourage young students in Kashmir who have been long cherishing this dream to study abroad. I want to make it clear at the outset that I don’t own a consultancy, nor do I work with one. Moreover, and frankly, I am not addressing the MBA aspirants who are ready to sell their valuable assets to get a foreign degree and a lucrative MNC job. Rather, I am addressing those young Kashmiri students who have a genuine desire to enhance their intellectual skills and excel in their chosen fields. I am concerned here with those young Kashmiri students who nurture a vision like hundreds of their fellow Kashmiris to improve the academics in Kashmir by reproducing and transmitting the skills acquired abroad to the new generation back home.
I know when it comes to taking a concrete first step of applying for a degree in a foreign university, after toying with the idea in their undergrads years, most of the Kashmiri students hesitate to go through the whole application process. I know this is a generalization based on untested assumption, but I surmise it to be the case from my own experience and observations. No doubt, there are many young Kashmiris who are presently pursuing higher degrees in top notch universities abroad like the US, Europe, Japan, China etc., but most of these Kashmiri students were educated (or had worked) outside Kashmir and hence learnt how the dynamic world of academia works. This initial exposure is essential for a student to get mentally prepared and start the process of application in a systematic manner. Unfortunately, in Kashmir teachers and professors hardly ever mentor or prepare students to apply abroad, not to talk about teaching them how to do it systematically.
In the following sections I will provide you advice on how to go about applying to a foreign university. First of all, you should prepare well ahead of time. That means you should give yourself at least a year to prepare. For example, if you want to apply for an M.A programme in International University of Japan, the course will begin in September 2015 (fall term) and you need to start applying around December 2014. The deadline is February 16, 2015 and results usually come out within a month. The good thing about IUJ is that you don’t need certificate of English language tests like IELTS and TOEFL, because students from those places, where medium of instruction at undergraduate and graduate level is English, are exempt. That will save you around ten thousand rupees. Secondly, there is no interview for international students. However, there is an application fee of 5000 yen (roughly 2700 rupees). This should not be a big deal for the young students given the prices of their Levis jeans, although I cannot say the same for the less privileged ones. Those who aspire to study in Europe or the US are required to sit in IELTS or TOEFL (around 10000 rupees). To get into an American university (except for George Mason), you are also required to sit for Graduate Record Examination or simply GRE. It costs around 7000 rupees. Unfortunately, for these tests you need to travel outside Kashmir, most suitably to Delhi or Chandigarh.
As mentioned earlier, the two important documents are your Research Proposal and Statement of Purpose. There is much material available online on how to write a good research proposal, but I know not all Kashmiri students have access to the internet. So let me briefly summarize the main points. When you write your RP, the first paragraph should clearly state what you want to explore. In this paragraph your research question should come out explicitly. Write in simple and formal English. In your later paragraphs, you should tell your reader why your topic is significant and what are you going to contribute to the existing literature on the topic. For this you got to know what has been written about the topic and what areas are ignored or not sufficiently covered. Next you should explain which theoretical view informs your research. This is usually a difficult part, but you need to come up with a theoretical framework. You also need to clearly say what research methodology you will be employing. For example, are you going to take in-depth interviews, conduct surveys or do archival research?  In other words, how and where you are going to get your data from and how your proposed methodology will enable you to address your research questions. In the final sections, you have to outline a rough schedule of your research, like what will you do in each year of your research and show if it is possible to do within the time frame (this is for PhD research proposals and not for master’s level ones).
Once you have a rough draft ready, show it to an experienced person like your professor or your friend or acquaintance who you think can help you. Get the feedback and work on that. Another thing you can do is google search for good research proposals; you can access several RPs online. But choose wisely; you should be able to separate wheat from the chaff. I would recommend university websites like this one (http://www.ed.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.58205!/fileManager/HowToWriteProposal.pdf). It is always better to look at the website of your target university, because they usually put guideline documents on how to write a good research proposal and most importantly each university has different word limit requirements. You must strictly follow it. If they ask for 2000 word RP, don’t overwrite. Some universities even ask for 500 words RP. So, you have to tailor your RP according to the requirements of your target university.
There is one more thing you should remember. Never apply to any university without first carefully reading about the research interest of its faculty members.  For example, if you want to work on the topic of, say, human rights in south Asia, go to the faculty or people section of the relevant department (in this case humanities and social studies) and then read carefully the research interests of each faculty member. If you find a professor with research interest on your topic, you are successful in the very important first step. Write a clear and professional email to that professor. First, briefly introduce yourself like what is your current position (student, journalist, assistant etc.) and what have you done so far academically. Then, give a brief outline of your proposed research topic, justifying why it is important. Don’t send attachment of your whole RP. If the professor replies and shows interest in your topic, then you have accomplished the most important second step.
It is always advisable to apply to at least five to six universities, because you will be competing at the international level where far many prospective students apply to the same department. That is why you should keep your options. For this you will need to spend hours and hours on internet looking for the right professor. Once you find one, go through his publication list and see if you can tailor your RP to his research interests. After all, most professors take those prospective students under their wings who they think would contribute to their own research area.
Some professors may ask for the latest CV. Don’t rush to send an unpolished one. You should remember that there is a difference between academic CV and regular job hunting CVs. The academic CV should be maximum two pages. Your academic achievement should be listed at the forefront. If you have received Gold medal or highest grade put it there. Highlight any work experience relevant to the proposed research. Interests and hobbies should be brief and put at the end and even can be left out.  If you have any relevant publications, you can also put them in your CV. But remember only the relevant publications, not any musing. In your CV you should come out as capable of insightful writing and ready for a research project. You can show that if you have already accomplished something, which can be well-written articles in newspapers and work experience with a reputed organisation. In short, you should be able to show that you are skilled enough for the job. Be attentive to fonts and alignment. Your documents should always look neat and clear. I will recommend this link for you to see how your academic CV should look likehttp://www.careers.utoronto.ca/progServ/CH01/Creating_your_academic_cv_handout.pdf. In my next piece I will write more about Statement of Purpose, English Language tests and a few more things that will be helpful to you as you prepare for your applications.

(Muhammad Tahir is currently a PhD student of Politics and International Relations in School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Feedback at mtahirfiraz@gmail.com)

Published in Greater Kashmir on 17.11.2014:

http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2014/Nov/17/applying-to-a-foreign-university-8.asp