Step 7: Finalize your Application

Go back to Our 7-Step Approach

By Rajkamal Rao 
Our journey has finally come down to this all important step:  creating a package that represents you and communicating to individuals 8,000 miles away who will make decisions solely on what you put together.

We know this can be tough.  Finalizing your application is one of the best examples of the challenges that you will face in life.  As we often counsel youngsters, it is not sufficient to be good in what you do.  It is more important that you market yourself so that someone else buys the idea that you are good.

But marketing yourself does not mean that you should exaggerate your achievements.  Or lie.  Or be unethical.  We have all heard of the expression - "To sell a fridge to an Eskimo".  We know that an Eskimo is surrounded naturally by snow and ice.  Food doesn't rot so easily because Eskimos have the best natural freezer there is all around them.  If you are trying to sell a fridge to an Eskimo and he actually buys it based on what you say, it means that he is either stupid or that you are an extremely smooth salesman.

We are not asking you to be a smooth salesman at all.  Instead, we would like you to be completely truthful but pay intricate attention to the entire process and create such a high-quality application that it meets your objectives.  As you have seen so far, this has been the central theme of our approach.

We all understand the concept of supply and demand, and this principle applies to school admissions as well.  There is supply (hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world).  And there is demand (hundreds of thousands of university seats waiting to be filled).  In the ideal world, we need to get these two sides to meet so that the transaction is optimal and a win-win.  Until now, we have mostly focused on the demand side of the equation:  we know who you are and what you want to be, so we spent time to narrow down the potential schools that you believe are the best fit for you.

In this step, we will focus on the supply side of the equation.  We will help you create a package that is so good that the school should want to choose you over the competition.  But as we have maintained throughout this website, we need you to be in charge.

Luckily, the entire application is not all marketing.  There is an objective side to the application.  This is data based on facts.  Your GRE score, for example.  You can take the GRE again to try and improve your score - but you can't market a 160 Quant score as being 165!  It is what it is.  [On the subject of retaking your GRE, click here for an honest post].

And then, there is the subjective or creative side to the application:  Your Statement of Purpose (SOP).  A Cover Letter.  Resume.  Not everything that you say in this set can be measured as accurately as a GRE score.  But this is precisely why the subjective set of the application is so vital.  Universities want to better understand who you really are, what you want to be and how you can express yourself.  Click here to read an excellent article - "A Perfect M.B.A. Candidate" - by Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal.  This shows that schools are going to extremes to test how creative students can be.

[It is always a good idea to write a cover letter to the school and attach a resume with your application packet.  Excellent free tools to develop your cover letter and resume are at JobHero.   Samples are provided too].

The subjective side humanizes the student beyond a set of numbers and certificates.  Schools want to estimate how well you can communicate thought when you are studying.  And after you graduate.  Remember that schools have a vested interest in selecting the best student.  Because today's student is tomorrow's successful alumnus that can be a brand ambassador for the school.

Most international students have never experienced having to write about themselves because societies in Asia - the main source of international students - measure achievement through objective means such as marks on an exam.  Creative/professional writing is not encouraged in high school or college. In India, for example, this problem permeates society at all levels.  Even English language textbooks written by Indian authors are fraught with errors including poor construction and grammar.   The average Indian newspaper article is unreadable - context is absent, background is omitted, analysis is poor and opposing points of view are rarely provided.  It is no wonder that many students we talk to have lost interest in reading.  The advent of social media - Twitter, Facebook and SMS  - has diluted writing skills even more.  And like Sarita Rai of the New York Times says, Indians are polyglots - because to complete thought, many of us string sentences in English by inserting words from multiple Indian languages.

The net result is that the subjective side of the application becomes difficult to complete for the average student.  And because the student doesn't understand the importance of the subjective side he pays less attention to it.   The result is a weaker overall application package that forever commits the student to a sub-standard or mismatched school.

We believe that an outstanding subjective side of the application is not only crucial but can even overcome weaknesses on the objective side. 
Before you jump to our tips for Step 7, you may want to review your understanding of how the school admissions process works - behind the scenes.

Finalizing your application is not quite as simple as going online and submitting a form.  There are exams to be taken.  Essays to be written.  Cover letters to be developed.  Resumes to be polished.  Recommendation letters to be obtained.  Grades to be submitted.  And many of these activities have to be well choreographed, like in a project plan, as there are deadlines to be met.  If you are a student applying to go to the US for a graduate degree (MS, Ph.D), our chart below illustrates a timeline of various activities assuming a college start date of Sep 1, 2014. [If you are planning to earn a BS/BA degree, click here to see the undergrad timeline].

What does all of this mean to you?  Your application must be so strong that you should stand out from the competition.  Your aim should be to be in the top part of the admit pile and your hope should be that the student above you in the pile - who may be offered that coveted assistantship - decided to choose another school, so that you are offered the same award.  The only way you improve the odds of being in this position is if everything that you say or do differentiates yourself from the next student.  Our tips follow.

  1. Do not use "boiler-plate" Statements of Purpose
  2. Do not plagiarize
  3. Don’t write your own recommendation letters
  4. Exploit networks with friends and family
  5. Consider an internship
  6. Pay attention to your final year project
  7. Consider enrolling in a MOOC course
  8. Check and re-check the final package
 We have always been inspired by leaders and one of the greatest leaders in the modern era to have inspired us is Ratan Tata.  His "Six Ethics" below are relevant no matter what you decide to do in life, but particularly relevant as you seek to go to the United States.

As we wish you the best, we leave you all with a Sanskrit prayer:

Shri Saraswati Namastubhyam Varade KamarupiNi
Twam Aham Prarthane Devi Vidyaa Daanam cha Dehi Me

A rough translation is:  "Goddess Saraswati (the Goddess of Learning), I pray you to bless me with the power of education".

  1. Go back to "Rao Advisors - Home".

    A Note About Premium Services

    Our promise is to empower you with as much high-quality, ethical and free advice as is possible via this website.  But students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions to complete this and other steps.

    Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors and involves a fee.   Even if you take advantage of our services, you are still ultimately in charge.  This principle is ground in our fundamental belief that you alone should be responsible for the career decisions you make.

    We suggest that you review our Note on Premium Services for more information.  Or you may
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