3 Concerns of International Grad School Applicants

Learn how your GPA and undergraduate degree translate when you apply as an international grad student.

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Check with admissions officers to understand how your academic credentials will transfer to U.S. institutions.
Check with admissions officers to understand how your academic credentials will transfer to U.S. institutions.

During my years as an admissions dean, I recruited and enrolled thousands of international students. In working with these students, three questions repeatedly came up during the application process.

Students frequently wanted to know how to tell if their undergraduate degrees from institutions in their home countries were equivalent to a U.S. bachelor's degree. Another common question was how they could convert a GPA to the 4.0 scale commonly used in the U.S.

Students also expressed concerns about how they should approach the standardized test required for the graduate program to which they were applying.

Below are answers to these common application questions from prospective international graduate students.

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1. How is academic equivalency determined? If you received your bachelor's degree outside the United States, an evaluation will be performed by the admissions office to confirm that you have earned the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree.

In some cases, you are asked to apply before an evaluation of your educational credentials is conducted. In other cases, an evaluation is required before you apply. Clear guidelines about what constitutes academic equivalency are provided in the application section of a program's admissions website.

If you disagree with the decision by the admissions office, let the staff know you believe you have an extenuating circumstance that merits special consideration.

Put your request in writing as a short inquiry, but include all the facts and thank the admissions office for taking the time to consider your situation. Offer to provide any additional information, and make it clear that you will abide by the decision.

For example, if the institution to which you are applying requires four years of college work following high school and you have a three-year degree, but took additional course work, conducted additional research and received high academic honors, you might consider asking for your situation to be given special consideration.

But understand that arguing about an equivalency determination you believe is unfair or does not take into account your particular situation will only make matters worse. Students who argue with and badger the admissions director to make exceptions end up drawing negative attention to themselves.

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2. How is GPA converted to a U.S. scale? Each admissions office has a procedure for "converting" an academic record from an international college or university into the equivalent GPA at the graduate school to which applications are being submitted.

The procedure for doing this is set, and based on my experience, is never altered or changed. No exceptions are made. However, there are steps you can take to ensure that your GPA will be accurately converted.

Send transcripts for all undergraduate work with your application. If you took course work at two other institutions before enrolling at the institution from which you received your bachelor's degree, you should submit three transcripts in total.

Do not provide your own GPA calculation. Rest assured that admissions directors and committees are as diligent about this part of the application process as they are all other parts.

At the start of each academic term, the admissions director is usually asked to provide demographic and academic information for the incoming class. In order to provide accurate information, he or she will be very careful about the conversion of international GPAs.

3. How many standardized test scores should I submit? In addition to demonstrating one's ability to communicate well in English, all applicants, including international students, will have to submit standardized test scores. Depending on the program to which you are applying, you will take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or Medical College Admission Test, known as the MCAT.

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Taking the test twice or three times indicates that you are making every effort to provide the best application you can. Taking it more than three times looks desperate, and that does not help.

If the admissions committee is genuinely looking for the best students, it will evaluate your application in its entirety and will not place undue emphasis on your test scores. During my years at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Northwestern University and Columbia University, the range of test scores for the applicants I admitted was quite large, because I found that test scores alone do not predict success as a graduate school student.

Communication skills, motivation, initiative, hard work and working well with others – along with academic ability – are, in my experience, much better predictors of success.