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The International Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s Degree in the U.S.

Earning a master’s degree in the U.S. can be an appealing option for international students who wants to study at some of the best universities in the world; however, uprooting yourself and moving to the U.S. can be challenging. This guide covers all you need to know about choosing a school, creating a new life in the U.S. and everything in between.

Andrea Subitoni Antonio cried in her home in São Paulo, Brazil, when she received her acceptance letter to a graduate program in the University of Nevada, Reno. Andrea applied to the university when she learned her sister would be teaching there.

“I rushed to complete all the tasks in time: submit required documents, buy new Havaianas (common flip flops from Brazil that are more expensive in the U.S.), find a nice, cheap place to live in Reno that also allows dogs, and, more importantly, figure out a way to travel to the U.S with dogs.”

Just weeks ago, Andrea graduated with her master’s degree in journalism, and she calls the experience “the best decision I could have made.”

If you’re dreaming of earning your degree internationally like Andrea, grab your Havaianas (or whatever item is cheaper in your home country than in the U.S.) and keep reading. This guide will help you choose a school, learn about visas, financial aid, and more. Andrea’s story is a reminder to all: Your dream is within reach!

Start Here: Choose a School

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 1 million international students studied in the United States in 2020, the majority of whom were pursuing graduate degrees. So, if you are considering doing the same, you’re in good company! The first step to pursue your degree abroad is to choose the best program for you. Use the following information to help narrow your choices, all while being mindful of your status as an international student.

Shop Around for Affordability

Traveling and living abroad can be an expensive undertaking, making tuition cost a primary consideration in your search for an optimal program. So, spend some time comparing tuition costs as you compile a list of possible schools. You may want to consider public universities because they are typically more affordable than private institutions. And keep in mind that some programs’ tuition costs vary significantly between resident students vs. non-resident students.

Compare Best Programs for Your Degree

Not all degree programs are equal, and now’s the time to really delve into the specifics of the programs you’re considering, including the support and resources offered in these programs. A great way to compare programs is to read student reviews, as these are first-person experiences. However, keep in mind that just as all degree programs aren’t equal, neither are all students. So, you should also consider graduation statistics, career counseling opportunities, and other quantitative outcomes of a degree in your specific program.

Look for Schools with Strong International Communities

Some universities pride themselves on their global outlook and multicultural approach. Take the University of Southern California, for example — touts that “citizens of more than 130 countries comprise 24 percent of the university’s student body.” When you find a school that proudly documents its strong international population, you’ll likely find a university dedicated to caring for students who are from diverse cultures and countries of origin. The possibility of organizations dedicated to international students are stronger, as well. These organizations will make your transitions into the U.S. easier since you will have people in similar situations or backgrounds.

Find Schools That Offer Resources & Support for International Students

If a school offers abundant resources for international students, including robust offerings from the international student office, you can rest assured that you’ll feel supported at the prospective school. Cornell University, for example, created the nation’s first university office for international students, so you’ll easily connect with other students and resources through its Office of Global Learning. Spend time researching the possibilities and strengths of the international community support at potential universities, and incorporate it as a factor to help you narrow down your list.

See if Your Home University Has Any Reciprocal Programs

A reciprocal agreement is an exchange program where students from each institution spend either a semester or year at the host institution as a non-degree seeking student. One of the primary benefits: Students pay tuition to their home university while attending classes abroad. Research your home university to see what kinds of reciprocal programs you may be able to consider. But keep in mind that most reciprocal programs are limited by time, whereas students who aren’t on a specific exchange program often choose to stay in a host country for their entire degree program.

Explore Schools That Offer Incentives for International Students

Some universities are actively pursuing international students in an effort to break down barriers and increase cognizance between cultures. Some schools attract students through language programs, like the Global Launch English Language Program at Arizona State University, which offers immersive education in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Others are on a list of top-producing Fulbright institutions, standing out for having the highest number of accepted applicants to Fulbright programs.

Submitting Your Application

With the list of schools narrowed down, now it’s time to tackle the details — specifically, the application. Each university has an admissions office, and your best bet is to inquire about international requirements at your specific school. But in general, you must be prepared to submit the following:

Letters of Recommendation

You’ll want to put your best foot forward on your grad school application, so carefully select your sources for your letters of recommendation. It might be helpful to consider teachers, supervisors, or character witnesses who can speak to your adaptability, considering you’re applying to school in a foreign country. Regardless of whom you choose, allow them plenty of time to write the letter, and remember that most schools require letters to be in English. Columbia, for example, requires that if a letter is written in a foreign language, it must be translated by the recommender’s coworker or a certified translator.

GRE or Equivalent Test Scores

Many graduate programs in the United States require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). This test is available in more than 160 countries, and 700 test centers around the world administer it — meaning you should not wait until you reach the U.S. to take the GRE. The test includes verbal reasoning, qualitative reasoning, and a writing section. Be sure to research testing requirements at your specific school to see if they accept GRE scores or scores from an equivalent test. For more information and exam-taking locations, visit the official GRE website.

Proof of English Proficiency (TOEFL Test)

If English is not your native language, you’ll need to submit proof of your English proficiency as part of your application to graduate school. Most schools accept official results from the industry standard Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), but some also accept scores from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or Duolingo, among others. You may be able to waive proficiency requirements if you meet certain qualifications, like the University of San Francisco offers. To be certain, check with your university to inquire about its requirements.

Research Proposal

Sometimes called a Research Statement, your Research Proposal is a common requirement for research-based postgraduate degrees. In it, you’ll identify topics, do a cursory review of literature, develop a research question that you want to study in school, and propose an initial plan of action. Many graduate schools offer guides or examples of effective proposals, like this overview from the University of Utah’s Writing Center. Just remember that this proposal will be refined if you’re accepted, so it’s more important to have an intriguing idea than a perfect one. Follow these tips from Cornell University, or reach out to your PhD program for university-specific directions and proposal samples.

Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

Almost every graduate student must submit a personal statement when they apply for a master’s or doctoral degree. You already have a leg up on your competition, considering you’re an international student embarking on global travel to fulfill your educational dreams. Use this unique value proposition, and your unique qualifications and achievements to paint a picture of why you’d like to study in the U.S. And be sure to research tips and examples from graduate programs, like this guide from University of Southern California Online.

Undergraduate Transcripts & Degree Certificate

Grad school applicants will need to submit official records of their credentials from all universities they’ve attended. An official transcript from each of your past universities that includes courses, credit hours, and grades — most often validated by a school administrative officer, such as the registrar — should be submitted, together with a photocopy of the degree or diploma received. Check with your school admissions office for other specific requirements.

Financing Your International Master’s Degree

How to pay for your master’s degree is an important consideration, and as the saying goes: Forewarned is forearmed. This means that it’s imperative to spend time researching all costs associated with studying in the U.S., so that you can have a clear financial plan in place before you arrive. Below are popular ways to help finance your master’s degree.

Possible Financial Aid

Most foreign citizens aren’t eligible for federal financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. However, as colleges and universities are becoming more aware of the value of a diverse student body, some are developing desirable financial aid options specifically tailored to international students. Start with this international financial aid fact sheet, then reach out to the financial aid officers at your specific school for their insights into any programs offered exclusively to visiting students.

Scholarships

Many scholarships are available specifically for international students, some of which encourage you to tell your unique story through a personal essay or statement. The most renowned international scholarship is the Fulbright Foreign Student Program; however, individual schools may have their own scholarships for foreign students, like the University of New Haven’s Dean’s Scholarship Program. Additionally, funding may be available for specific nationalities, like the Onsi Sawiris Scholarship Master’s Degree Program for Egyptian students applying at top U.S. universities. Be sure to research specific international scholarship opportunities, and check the scholarship office at your school for any resources they may have.

Assistantships & Fellowships

One way to fund a graduate degree is through a teaching or research assistantship, during which you’ll either teach undergraduate courses in your program or undertake projects or experiments. With assistantships, you’ll often receive a living stipend and/or a tuition discount — sometimes making your graduate study very affordable. Another school-based option is a fellowship; as Cornell University describes it, “Fellowships are generally merit-based internal or external awards to support a student in a full-time course of study” — without associated teaching or research responsibilities. Inquire with your school’s program to see if these are options to help you fund your degree.

Work-Study Programs

UCLA describes work-study as ”…a federally subsidized hourly-wage job program awarded to college students through the federal government.” However, because these positions are federally funded, international students are typically not considered eligible for work study. Keep in mind, though, that many locations on campus are willing to hire non-work study students. Make sure you check the standards set forth on your visa (F-1, M-1, or J-1, more on that below) to determine if your visa has any work restrictions.

Private Loans or Funding

Because of citizenship requirements, private loans secured in the U.S. can be challenging for non-resident students. Most lenders require international students to have a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. However, you can still apply for private loans in your country of origin, or consider asking for support from invested family and friends. Many international students even set up a GoFundMe to raise money. Check out this list of domestic private lenders known to loan to international students, or consider securing funding in your home country.

Save up & Pay Cash

If you’re like some students, you’ve planned to study abroad for graduate school since your very early days of schooling. In these cases, you may have saved up money from employment during high school or your undergraduate study. This is an obvious best practice, but it also takes the most long-term planning to make it a reality.

Apply for Your Student Visa

You’ll need a visa to study at a U.S. graduate school. This document, which is placed in your passport (issued by your country of citizenship), allows you to enter the United States. Applying for a visa also includes an interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country, so you’ll need to allow for plenty of time for scheduling purposes. Below, we’ll discuss common types of visas, which you’ll apply for through the U.S. Department of State; fees vary and sometimes include application and issuance fees. Learn more about fees from the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Visitor B Visa

Visitor B visas are generally for people who want to enter the United States temporarily for business or tourism. Therefore, this is not a valid student visa, and students who want to enroll in coursework on this visa type can only do so for non-credit, recreational courses of study — not toward any degree or academic certificate. Study leading to a U.S. conferred degree or certificate is never permitted on a visitor B visa.

J-1 Visa

The exchange visitor (J) non-immigrant visa category is for visitors approved to participate in work- and study-based exchange visitor programs. You must first be accepted into an exchange program through a designated sponsoring organization; then, you’ll be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

F-1 Visa

The F-1 visa, commonly called an F visa, is for academic students. It allows you to enter the U.S. as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, or other academic institution or a language training program. You must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma, or certificate, and your school must be authorized by the U.S. government to accept international students. This is the most common visa type for international graduate students. You may work up to 20 hours per weekon campus, while off-campus employment is typically only allowed for international students who can show economic hardship and with prior approval.

M-1 Visa

The M-1 visa, also called an M visa, is for vocational students. This variety of documentation is for students in vocational, technical, or other non-academic programs, other than language training. You will not be permitted to work during your studies if you’re in the U.S. on an M visa, and applicants must have evidence that they have funds immediately available to pay all tuition and living costs for the entire period of their stay.

Setting Up Student Life in the U.S.

Now that you’ve dealt with the technical facets of choosing your school, applying, and getting a visa, it’s time for the fun part: the logistics of your move! Here are some of the most basic yet important things you’ll need to do to set yourself up for life in the U.S. — some you can do before you arrive, while others you can accomplish as soon as you’re here.

Open a Bank Account

You’ll need a place to keep your cash while you’re here (and hopefully the occasional funds wired from home!), so it’s important to establish a bank account early. To get the lowdown on what you’ll need to do, check out this guide to U.S. banking for international students from one major bank. Then research which bank you’d like to call your financial home, gather your documents, and open your account. Tip: Check for student benefits when you’re researching bank options.

Set up Housing

Of fundamental concern when you’re planning to study in the U.S.: Where exactly will you be living, and with whom? Some colleges have graduate housing, some have international housing, and still others can connect you to off-campus opportunities. Most universities have student housing offices that will assist you and even offer resources, like this guide from the University of Colorado Denver that offers a comprehensive look at off-campus living for international students.

Health Insurance Options

If you’re studying in the U.S. as part of an exchange program (on a J-1 visa), you’ll be required to have health insurance. For international students on other visas, many prefer to be safe rather than sorry — especially given the U.S.’s notorious reputation for exorbitant healthcare costs. Be sure to research if your school has automatic enrollment into a university plan. Otherwise, review these health insurance tips offered for international students studying in America.

Getting Around

For many grad students, your physical world will be primarily defined by the confines of campus, and most U.S. campuses are extremely walkable with abundant transportation options. But for those times when you want to venture out into the world beyond campus, research the various ways to get around — from public transportation on buses and trains to bike/scooter rentals to ride-sharing options like Uber and Lyft.

Learn the Language

In order to gain admission to grad school in the U.S., you’ll need to demonstrate a basic level of English language proficiency on a standardized exam. Might as well learn the language well before you leave your home country, and you’ll have a variety of ways to do so. Most students begin with a basic prep course, and you can also find practice exams and online guides. A great technique for learning English is to read an English version of a book you know well in your native language, and you can also listen to TED Talks and podcasts in English.

Cell Phone

Communication is key when you’re a grad student — especially if you’re far from home and missing family/friends. This makes a cell phone an essential part of the study abroad experience. Check out this 2-minute video from ApplyBoard about how to choose a plan when you’re an international student coming to the U.S. to study.

Connect With an Advisor

Many U.S. schools offer robust advising resources — like the University of Minnesota, which devotes an entire web page (and video) to the importance of advising and mentoring international graduate students. Connect with your school sooner than later to set up a free session where you can ask academic questions or inquire about documentation, multilingual learning, funding, and any other facet of your grad school experience.

Resources for International Students

Looking for practical ways to find more information on being an international grad student in the U.S.? You’ve come to the right place! Below, find resources including blogs, podcasts, online forums, websites, organizations, and YouTube channels — often directly from the perspective of an international grad student in the U.S.

  1. Being an International Student at U.M. | Grad Student Explains – This YouTube series, presented by Michigan Engineering graduate student Aileen Ouyang, covers everything from how to stay sane in grad school to grad student gaffes — and everything in between!
  2. “Don’t Use ChatGPT. You Could Lose Your Study Visa.” – This article, on Study International’s blog (explore the full site for other blog content), talks about the dangers international students face when they use artificial intelligence in classrooms.
  3. EducationUSA: This U.S. Department of State network of more than 430 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries and territories promotes higher education in the U.S. to students around the world. You’ll find current information about opportunities to study at accredited postsecondary institutions in the United States.
  4. How to Practice Self-Care While Studying Abroad – The Institute for the International Education of Students, or IES Abroad, is a non-profit study-abroad organization for college students. This post on their blog offers self-care tips — for international students, by international students.
  5. Institute of International Education – IIE offers resources and services for international students, including scholarships, fellowships, and grants. This website provides comprehensive information on studying in the United States.
  6. International Student Stories brought to you by Study in the USA – Listen in on this podcast to hear current and former international students share their unique and diverse experiences in higher education.
  7. Khan Academy YouTube Channel: “Providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” is the mission of Khan Academy. Their YouTube channel hosts thousands of videos, and you don’t even have to create a Khan Academy account to access them.
  8. National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA): Student Resources – You’ll find resources for financing graduate study as an international student at this site, as well as a career center and networking/professional development opportunities.
  9. Not-so International – This podcast follows an international student as she navigates life in the U.S., with episodes about imposter syndrome and how to answer the ubiquitous “where are you from?” question.
  10. r/IntltoUSA: This subreddit on the popular user-generated platform Reddit focuses on the experiences and challenges related to international students applying to study in the United States.
  11. The Best Way to Learn English Fast: 20 Tips for Learning English – This article, hosted on the Udemy site (a global leader in online learning), offers insider tips on learning English. You’ll also find popular English language courses peppered throughout the list that users can take.
  12. The International and Foreign Language Education Office: Travel Abroad Safety and Health – Here you’ll find information about and links to travel resources provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
  13. The International Careers Show – Get advice from TEDx speakers, higher education professionals, and coaches on this podcast, which focuses on international students and job searching, networking, using LinkedIn, and more.
  14. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Student Guide to Studying in the States: International students can input their visa type (F-1 or M-1) and level of study, and you’ll find information about preparation, travel, study, student benefits, departure, and more.
  15. “What I Wish I Knew as an International Student in America” – International student Katie Tracy, who was born in the Philippines, studied abroad at Cornell University in New York. She unpacks her experience, complete with tips and tricks.

Interview With an International Student

Andrea Subitoni Antonio

Andrea Subitoni Antonio recently received her master’s degree in journalism with a media innovation specialization from the University of Nevada, Reno. She was born and raised in a small town in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, where she graduated from Universidade Paulista with a bachelor’s degree in social communication – journalism and specialized in strategic people management. She served as vice president of membership recruitment and retention for the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and is a member of National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Her master’s thesis, called the “Global Campus” project, is a public relations campaign to recruit undergraduate and graduate international students to UNR.

Q. What was your educational background before coming to study in the U.S.? Why did you decide to pursue your master's degree in the U.S.? How did you choose to attend UNR?

A: I finished my bachelor’s degree in social communication, emphasizing in journalism, in 2011. And I completed a specialization in strategic people management in 2017. I was looking for a master’s program in Sao Paulo, four hours from my hometown, and my sister got a job offer at UNR. So, I decided to look at my options here. I applied only to UNR.

Q. What was the most difficult thing to adjust to in terms of the academic expectations in your master's degree program in the United States?

A: Probably the culture. Brazilian people are more informal, funny, and relaxed. We talk to everyone about everything. And the American people have many boundaries. Also, the language. Some professors need more time to be ready to teach international students. They speak too fast and not in an accessible way.

Q. What are the best strategies for international students to manage the stress of pursuing a master's degree in a foreign country?

A: Find international friends. You can have fun sharing your daily challenges and learn a lot. At UNR, we have an international students WhatsApp group, and every day, I see people helping friends.

Join clubs and organizations. Today, UNR has 264 communities. There is a place for everyone. Just choose yours.

Don’t get upset with ignorant people. Unfortunately, some people have no culture or knowledge about other countries. Lucky you that you do have that!

Q. Can you offer some advice on how to build a strong relationship with professors and advisors while pursuing a master's degree in the United States?

A: Talk to them. Be honest. Be yourself.Their job is to support students — all of them. Make a list of questions and ask for advice. Participate in events outside the classroom. Be connected with the university’s official channels on social media.Create an excellent LinkedIn profile and add your professors. They look for relevant connections. Share interesting content. Don’t be shy. And use all resources the university provides!

Q. How did you build your professional network while studying for your master's degree? Do you think it helped or hindered your network considering you're an international student?

I’m a journalism student passionate about public relations. So for me, talking to people and making connections is super easy. I joined PRSSA as a board member and participated in several events, many of them as a volunteer. I created my business card using Canva and printed 500. Everyone that I talk to, I give my card to. I constantly develop and share professional content on my LinkedIn page and add connections.

Q. Did you find that there are common cultural misunderstandings that international students may encounter while studying for their master's degree in the United States?

A: Yes. But, for me, it was not annoying. Of course, 99% of the questions people ask me, they can check on Google. International students need to have patience and a good sense of humor.

Q. What are some tips for making the most out of a master's degree program in the United States and achieving your academic and career goals?

A: Find things you like to do. Find places that you like to go. Take some time to have fun. Life is not just school and work. Be focused on getting summer internships; it’s your opportunity to make more money and connect with people.

Check all graduate assistantships and scholarships you can apply for. Share with your professors your interests and your goals. Ask for help. They are here to support you. Talk to senior international students and ask many questions.

Q. Any advice that you would like to share with future international graduate students who are wanting to come to the U.S.?

A: Have patience and read all information on the university’s websites and social media. Try to connect with current international students in the U.S. Don’t be afraid. The U.S. universities have many free resources; use all of them!

Keep in mind that you are fantastic. Less than 22% of the American population speaks a second language. You know at least two! You are brave to move to the country to pursue a better education. Remember that!

Don’t do illegal things. Keep attention to immigration rules and deadlines. Talk to the international students’ office; they will answer your questions and guide you.
Come and have fun. The U.S. is fabulous!