What is a Scholarship?
In this post, we’re going to take a look at scholarship and funding opportunities for an MS in the U.S. A very important and often a very exciting topic, something many of our readers care deeply about.
Before we begin, we would like to say that an MS in the US in itself is a fantastic opportunity. Studying abroad will broaden your horizons and you should base your decision on the opportunity that you get and scholarships or any funding should ideally be an added bonus.
So just because you don’t get a scholarship doesn’t mean you should not look for ways to fund yourself because the opportunity of doing your Masters there in itself will be fantastic.
What is a Scholarship?
A scholarship is an award that the university decides to give students that it has admitted based on various criteria. For one it could be on academic excellence namely the GPA that you obtained in your undergraduate degree program and it could also be based on any talent that you have demonstrated.
This might include very interesting projects that you’ve done – hackathons, awards won, accomplishments and so on. In addition to these factors, a university may also decide to award you a scholarship based on certain other factors such as your ethnic background (which is mostly relevant to American citizens), your field of study and so on. The financial need and the background are particularly relevant for Americans.
Scholarships for international students in the USA can come from different sources – colleges and universities can award you the scholarship and that is predominantly the type of scholarship we speak about when we talk to international students.
So if you are not an American or Canadian citizen, then you’re unlikely to get other sources of scholarships. For example the government or private organizations usually fund people who are native to the place.
Public & Private Universities
A quick differentiator between public and private universities. You must know that in the U.S. you have two kinds of universities- public and private universities. It’s important to mention at this point that neither is a better option – both public & private universities in the US maintain high standards.
For example the University of California at Berkeley is a fantastic public university. It’s a State University. Stanford University located just a few miles away is a private university and they are both extremely highly ranked.
A public university is primarily funded by a state government and they tend to be larger in terms of their student strength, they have large class sizes and they have a wide selection of topics and subjects you can major in including a lot of stress on liberal arts programs. Liberal arts, one would normally do in their undergrad in the US and they include subjects like humanities and sociology.
Private universities tend to operate as Educational NPO’s – nonprofit organizations. They are usually smaller than public universities and have a smaller selection of majors but can offer a lot of specialized academic programs.
Merit Based Scholarships
Both types of universities do award scholarships and typically when you think of scholarships for international students in the US you think of merit-based scholarships. In order to qualify for a merit-based scholarship you have to demonstrate excellence in a particular area. In terms of ethnic background, merit scholarships are limited to typically native Americans.
This is a very important table you see above. The chances of funding if you apply for a PhD program and if you are admitted is almost 100 percent. It’s very rare that you are admitted to a PhD program without receiving a full scholarship – for international students and native students alike.
For an MS or an MA, it’s highly likely that if you try, you will find something.
For an MBA it’s a bit harder, full scholarships for international students are hard to come by. People usually fund themselves through loans but you should definitely still try. At the very least, you might be able to get some kind of a Partial scholarship.
Types of Scholarships
Different Types of Scholarships for Indian Students
First you have a fellowship. Fellowship can be fun they don’t expect you to do any additional work for the fellowship just study your course really well. But they are very hard to get.
Everybody wants a commission right so a university has a certain amount of budget every year that it will award as fellowships to admitted students and these fellowships are typically announced during your acceptance letter or very shortly thereafter.
The next type of scholarship available to Indian students is what is called a teaching assistant-ship or a TA-ship. A TA is expected to work 20 hours a week and it always includes a tuition waiver.
The stipend is meant to cover your living expense – expenses such as your rent or your food, bills, electricity – all of that. So you need a little bit of money every month to spend on your living expenses and then there’s the tuition free that you have to pay the University. The tuition is usually waived. That means that the university tells you ‘hey you are teaching, you’re working as a TA in our school therefore you do not have to pay us out the tuition’.
That’s what a tuition waiver is. A stipend is also possible – often they are granted together. In a research assistant-ship again the workload is quite similar although it can be a little higher depending on the projects that you’re working on. These also a very similar to a tuition waiver and typically include a stipend to the extent possible.
These are the three types of funding that are available as scholarships to Indian students. We also want to clarify that in the US you are not allowed to work outside the campus during the regular semesters. Only during the summer term can you work outside the campus for an internship.
Even if you’re working on campus as a TA or an RA, you’re allowed to do it for twenty hours a week. This is called ‘halftime’ or the half workload. The full workload is considered to be forty hours a week.
A fellowship is the one that they typically grant you along with your admission letter. It provides financial support to students. Essentially, the university is saying “here, you’re so awesome you don’t have to pay a tuition fee, we might give you a stipend as well and you don’t have to do any work in return.” But fellowships are typically merit based.
If your application profile is so impressive and universities like you and think they’re going to love having you come on board and study with them because you’re so you’re promising – then they are likely to award you a fellowship.
You don’t have to do any work for it typically.
Teaching Assistant (TA-ship)
Let’s move onto a teaching assistant-ship or a TA-ship as it’s often called. This one of the best sources of funding. You are kind of like a mini teacher in that you assist the faculty who conducts the course by being an assistant.
For instance, let us say the faculty comes in and teaches a course, they lecture students. Now students will want to have somebody to whom they can ask questions if maybe they did not understand what was being taught. You are their go-to person for that if you are a Teaching Assistant. Obviously this implies you will have to know that course in and out. You will have to have complete mastery over that entire course for which you are TA-ing.
It will look very bad if students come and ask you questions and you don’t know the answer to their questions. In that case, they’re going to know that you’re not suitable to be a Teaching Assistant.
Typically you are likely to get a TA-ship for undergraduate courses because you are going for a graduate degree program – a Masters. They will thus safely assume that you are likely to know the material which is taught in undergrad programs. Perhaps an ‘introduction to biology’ class or perhaps ‘CS101: Programming in C and C++’.
You will be expected to spend twenty hours a week on your Teaching Assistantship job.
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What will you be doing?
Any administrative help that the professor needs with the course, you will be expected to provide. For example, making sure all the handouts are given, making sure that homework is graded on time. Depending on the course and the size strength, you might be the one grading the homework or you might have another graduate student known as a ‘grader’ help you. ‘Graders’ are paid on an hourly basis and that’s an additional source of funding although it’s a very meager source of funding. Graders will be assigned to grade classes where a lot of students are taking that course.
As a Teaching Assistant, you will grade homework and exams, you will assess projects, you will also help clear their doubts, you will help them do their homework.
Every course has what are called ‘TA office hours’. When people take a course they will have access to you during those ‘TA office hours’. You will have to sit in the office during those hours and help whoever comes with any question on any topic that is being taught in the class up until that point. You will have to help them understand it.
If they come down there, needing some help understanding the homework, you will help them. You’re not going to solve the homework for them but you will help them understand the homework a lot better.
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Clearly because you will be speaking and explaining to a lot of students from different parts of the world your spoken English has to be really really good which means your TOEFL score – especially your speaking section score – counts a lot. Even if the TOEFL speaking score is high and they have awarded you the TA-ship, some schools will require that after you arrive at the University you take another speaking exam just to make sure that you can speak clearly enough so that all the other students from different countries can understand what you’re saying.
Research Assistant (RA-ship)
Let’s move on to a Research Assistantship or an RA-ship. They are very common, particularly in research oriented universities. As a Research Assistant, you are not required to help other students understand the material but you are required to work under a professor or under a group of professors on a particular project.
Professors are typically given ‘grants’ which can be used essentially on projects they’re working on. So once they’re given a certain amount of money in the form of a grant, they can use that money to fund their projects and pay their PhD students, their Post-Doc students if any, to fund any conferences they need at attend.
They can also decide, if they have sufficient money, to get Research Assistants to help out in the lab. This is essentially how research grants are distributed.
You will have to approach professors who have grants with sufficient funding. Naturally, they must have enough in their kitty for them to hire you as an Research Assistant.
What would you do for this professor?
You might be expected to run experiments, to help with projects often with any programming or research papers that need to be written. You might also be expected to set up labs, help their Post Docs or PhD students conduct their research – there’s a lot of things that you can do as a research assistant. It’s very varied and it depends on that particular professor. Typically this results in a tuition waiver and covers your living expenses as well.
There’s something very important we have to point out here – if you happen to be good at computer programming, data analysis or statistics, you can also find RA-ships outside your department. A lot of other departments including the Departments of Physics or you know molecular biology require computation nowadays. There is a lot of data that needs to be crunched, they need to make sense of it and there may be some programs that can be written to help make sense of the research that’s happening in their field.
It’s not necessary that you must find a nice RA-ship in your own department – you can actually approach other departments and offer to do projects for them. Especially if you have the skills that are needed here.
For example, you could approach the International Language Processing department. They may be working on something in collaboration with the Computer Science Department. If you have a background in Computer Science and speak English, you can offer to help them with their project.
As you can see, you will have multiple options if you know where to look. Do not limit yourself to the department in which you’re enrolled. Look around and see how you can combine the multiple skill you have to offer to get yourself an Research Assistant-ship.
Importance of GRE Test Scores
What do you need to get a graduate scholarship as an international student?
Your GRE test scores are very important. Specifically your GRE score if you’re going for an MS or a PhD. Students have a greater chance of getting financial aid if they have high GRE scores.
Take a look at the table below. This is the table that is published by ETS- the organization that conducts the GRE- and here’s what the percentiles look like. Now what do we mean by a ‘percentile’?
Let us say that on the Verbal Section, you scored a 144 on 170. That sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not really because on the GRE, a 130 score is actually zero.
So your verbal score of 144 puts you at the 22nd percentile. This means out of every hundred people, only 22 people were found to perform worse than you. This in turn means a full 78 people performed better than you.
Similarly, if your score is a 154, then 63 people out of every 100 performed worse than you. That’s what these percentiles tell you.
Looking at Quant, a score of 160 in Quant isounds good but it puts you in the 78th percentile which means there are still 22 people out of every hundred who performed better than you.
Always look at your GRE score not in terms of the absolute score which is what you will typically share. Universities however get this percentile number in the score report that ETS sends. Most people typically look straight at the percentile, they don’t look at your absolute score alone.
Why do universities look at percentiles?
Universities look at percentiles because the percentiles will give you very interesting information. For example a lot of GRE test takers find Verbal harder than Quant. A 162 on Verbal and a 162 on Quant correspond to entirely different percentiles – 90th in Verbal and as 83rd in Quant. That means that are out of hundred people 90 are worse than you in Verbal but in Quant it means that only 83 are worse than you.
The same GRE score can mean two quite different percentiles. Similarly if you were to look at the 150 to 155 range, it’s not such an awesome score in the sense that this is the average. You can see that the percentiles they correspond to here are roughly right between 0 and 100. These are the fifties. A score in this range means that you are better than 40 to 60 percent of all test takers. So we strongly urge you to try and get as good a GRE score as possible. This will prove to be very important.
Other Criteria for Scholarships
If you’re hoping to secure one of the limited-availability graduate scholarships for international students – You should have a decently high GPA, you cannot have very poor undergrads scores and then expect to impress the department that has given you the admits. On what basis will you claim you deserve a scholarship?
You must show evidence of a high GPA. We’re not saying it should be the highest in your batch but you should have a competitive GPA.
Submit a strong statement of purpose (SoP), the essay that you will be submitting to the University. They will read this and base a large portion of their decision on this.
You should have fantastic letters of recommendation (LoR) from professors or your superiors at work.
Good projects, paper presentations, internships are always good to have. High quality samples of any writing that you’ve done, of publications, conferences attended – all of these things add tremendous value to your profile and make you a better candidate.
If you specialize in a field or have a research interest and it’s that’s very closely aligned with that of the department and the faculty there has sufficient funding, then that also increases the chances of an RA-ship. Make sure that your application has all of these. We understand if some of these are hard to come by but you can compensate by making some of the other parameters stand out.
4 Scholarships Search Mistakes
There ARE mistakes that you can make when looking for scholarships so let’s now take a look at what you should AVOID in order to give yourself the best chance at getting a scholarship. There are 4 main mistakes.
Getting a late start and limiting your search can make life very hard for you so the moment you receive your acceptance letter from the University, if you haven’t received a scholarship, start writing to various professors in the university. Let them know you received an admit and that you’re wondering whether to accept this admit or not. Let them know of the skills you bring to the table and how they’re relevant to what the professors are looking for. Talk about the work they’re currently doing, letting them know how your skills can add value and help them further their research.
Start looking for funding as soon as you’ve received your admit, preferably even before that. Most professors however will ask that you get in touch with them once you have an admit in hand but it can’t hurt to try. Bottomline is, don’t put this off until it’s too late.
Do not wait till August or September when you are at the university to start looking for funding because everybody else is going to be hunting for the same stacks of funding that are left. A lot of the funding will already be allocated before that so the moment you get your acceptance letter start talking to various people at that institute and try and get your money.
Do not start too late, do not limit yourself only to the department that you are enrolled in or only the minor research field that you are in unless you’re very confident. In addition to RA-ships, look for teaching assistant-ships in any course that you are very good at.
Let us say during your undergraduate you topped the class in control systems or microprocessor lab and you understand the ins and outs of that really well. Once you’ve checked out the corresponding course at the university, the teachers, their material, the syllabus and you are confident you know all of that, start applying for TA-ships for all of those courses.
Another very important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t write a cookie cutter application and expect it to work.
What is a cookie cutter application?
You know how cookies are baked – you have the the dough that’s laid out on the pan before you put it in the oven and based on what shape you want – round, square or a star shape, you place them in a mould and all the cookies come out looking exactly the same.
That is a cookie cutter metaphor for you and in this context if you ever copy and paste on your applications and send them in, your chances reduce drastically.
It doesn’t make sense for multiple professors to get the same application from you. You have to modulate and customize your application for the particular department or the area of research that you’re interested in applying for.
Don’t expect to get everything right on your first try but don’t relax after you’ve gotten your acceptance letters – that’s when the real work begins. Try and reach out to people and get funding in case you’re not one of those lucky people who get a fellowship along with the acceptance letter.
So keep trying and send multiple emails. If people have rejected you, ask very politely for a reason. Be courteous and remember they do not owe you an answer. You could say you understand and respect their decision not to give you the assistant-ship but that it would help you become a better student and professional if you knew on what grounds you were rejected so you could do better next time.
Not everybody will respond to that but some people might and that feedback will be very useful to you in formulating subsequent applications. Some departments might even ask to have Skype interviews with you– one of our students had multiple rounds of Skype interviews with all the post-docs from that professors department. She had to sit through six hours of grueling Skype rounds – they made sure she knew everything that she said that she did in her resume. They made sure that she would be a top contributor to their project from day one and only after that they gave her a beautiful little offer including a full tuition waiver, full stipend and asked her to join their research group.
They will make their decisions based on how strong your profile is so don’t quit, keep trying.
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now it's your turn
I'd like to hear from you
Which type of scholarship from today’s guide do you think is a better option for you?
Have you started applying for scholarships yet?
Or maybe you’re still unsure of whether a TA-ship or an RA-ship is right for you?
Either way, leave a comment below right now letting us know where you stand.