"Don't be shy to contact people," Zhang recommends. "They're more willing to help than you think."
Connecting with a school representative is especially important for prospective Ph.D. students, who will work closely with a faculty adviser through the entirety of their education, says Yale's Vasudevan.
"It's much easier if you're in the United States, because you actually get to go and meet professors around the country [who] know once they meet you if it's the right fit," says Vasudevan, who recommends international students try to contact faculty from abroad. "If you just apply to a graduate program without contacting anyone there or without knowing anyone there, I think your chances are lower."
Understand the application process: Unlike admissions processes at international schools, U.S. graduate schools require a variety of materials that showcase a student's strengths—not just a test score.
Instead, engineering applications typically require letters of recommendation, usually written by former professors or employers, as well as an essay known as a personal statement (or statement of purpose).
[Find out more about the engineering school application process.]
"It took me a lot of time to figure out that the statement of purpose is really important to apply to grad school in the U.S.," Vasudevan says. "You have to spend a lot of time writing a statement of purpose and showing that you balance many other things than your scores on tests to apply. That's the most difficult thing to negotiate if you are coming from another country to the U.S."
Prepare early: Though your entrance exam is only one component of your application, it's still crucial to study well in advance for the GRE. The test's vocabulary and quantitative skills sections require advanced preparation by most students, and can pose an even tougher challenge if you're not a native English speaker. Still, studying for a significant amount of time—six months, some students recommend—can markedly improve your test taking ability.
"I think the GRE is more about practice than what you know on the date of the test," Vasudevan says. "If you have six months of practice, you'll probably do better than if you have one month of practice."
[Prepare for the exam with the U.S. News GRE Test Prep Center.]
Unlike domestic students, international applicants may also have to take the TOEFL examination that evaluates English proficiency and will need to allot enough time to apply for and obtain a visa.
Still, the end result of attending a U.S. engineering school is likely worth the time it takes to navigate the front end of the process, according to University of Rochester graduate student Raghav Mohan, who hails from India.
"Always, the value you get for a master's degree from a recognized school in the U.S. is really good to go for, even though you have to pass these hurdles, like the visa process and the GRE process," he says. "That doesn't matter [when,] finally, you'll get what you wanted to get."
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