Postgraduate study in the US


Getting started

(18 months before your studies commence)

Consider your reasons for doing postgraduate study and the type and level of study you want to undertake, e.g. masters, taught, research-based or combined, academic or professional or a PhD. Consider:

  • How will this qualification help you achieve your long term career goals?
  • How does it compare with going directly into employment?

Once you are clear about why you want to do postgraduate study think about why you want to study in the USA and what this will contribute to your development and career goals. This will help you identify the best places for you to apply to.

Choosing your postgraduate programme

(14 - 18 months before your studies commence)

There are over 1,700 higher education institutions (variably called universities, colleges or schools) offering graduate level education in the USA. Most are public but about 25% including Harvard and Princeton are private, although as an international student this distinction is not of great significance as you will be ineligible for public funding. The key factors to consider when deciding which institutions and study programmes to apply to are:

  • Is the subject you want to study offered?
  • Are the institution and programme of study accredited? (See Resources)
  • Does the duration and content of the programme match your needs and interests?
  • Do you meet the academic admissions requirements?
  • Will a graduate degree from this institution/department be well regarded by the international academic community and your target employers?
  • What are the tuition fees and the services fees?
  • What funding are you eligible to apply for? What are the terms?
  • What are the facilities like, e.g. library, IT, international students services?
  • What is the cost of living? Is there graduate student accommodation, is it on campus or will there be travel costs?
  • What is the location like as a place to live for one to eight years?

Aim for a list of up to fifteen institutions/programmes which you can assess more in-depth for their match with your interests, needs and goals and your match with their admissions criteria and academic specialisms.

It is unlikely you will be able to prepare quality applications for fifteen schools, between four and six is both more realistic and affordable (application fees range between $50 and $150). A careful assessment will help you produce your short list and provide a strong foundation for your applications.

Getting ready to apply

(12 - 14 months before your studies commence)

The primary source of information on application requirements, processes, deadlines and fees are the institutional and departmental websites for the programmes you are considering applying to. As a general rule you will be expected to provide, at least, the following:

  • CV or resume, completed application form and Statement of Purpose
  • Degree certificates and transcripts - if you don't already have these in the required format it will take time to get them
  • Test scores, e.g. GRE
  • Letters of recommendation – see below, you will need to select and brief your referees
  • Health certificate – you may need to book a medical
  • Evidence of available finance for tuition fees and living expenses - unless you are going to be self-financing you will need to allow time to find and apply for funding

Letters of recommendation should come from academics who know you well and are able to comment on your academic performance and potential particularly in relation to your peers. If they are not familiar with your work and career goals then discuss these with them, perhaps using your Statement of Purpose to brief them. Recommendations should be written in a positive and personal tone.

* The most commonly required score is from the GRE General Test but this can vary. Take time to prepare for this and be aware institutions will see all your scores from the past 5 years. Results can take a month or more to be posted. If you are applying for a Graduate Teaching Assistantship then a Test of Spoken English may be required.


(9 - 12 months before your studies commence)

Application deadlines vary but may be as early as the November before your studies commence. Although much of the application can be completed online you will need to mail, by registered post, the supporting documentation, e.g. transcripts and letters of recommendation. The basis for admissions decisions, which are usually made between April and July, will be your academic record, your Statement of Purpose, the quality of your letters of recommendation, the security of your financing and your GRE (and other required test) scores.

Useful Information


The biggest source of funding for postgraduate international students are the universities, colleges and schools themselves. This primarily comes in the form of:

  • Tuition and/or fee waivers and/or stipends in return for up to 20 hours a week working as a Graduate Assistant (teaching, research or administration).
  • Fellowships awarded on academic merit. See institutional and departmental websites for this information. As a general rule you can apply for this at the same time as applying for the programme of study but, even if granted, it may not be enough to cover all your costs so you will need to ensure that you provide evidence of being able to fully finance yourself in your application.

Independent scholarships and grants are another source of funding. The eligibility criteria for independent funding are usually very specific so you will need to check each funder's website to see if you match their criteria.

It is the exception rather than the rule for an international student to be able to finance all of their graduate studies and living expenses through university, departmental and independent grants and scholarships; up to 50% is likely to have to come from personal or family sources.

Funding is often awarded on an annual basis so it is not unusual for postgraduate students to have to start making funding applications for future years soon after they start their studies in the USA.