A Monster Guide to Masters in the US

Hi! My name is Prathamesh Sonawane and I’ll be pursuing my Masters in Computer Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign starting Fall ’22.
 
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Main Quad, UIUC
I started writing this blog because I couldn't find a singular place where all of my doubts could be solved.

My Profile

(At the time of application, around October 2021)
  • GRE: 329/340 [Quant — 169/170, Verbal — 160/170, AWA — 4/6]
  • TOEFL: 116/120 [Reading — 29/30, Listening — 30/30, Writing — 29/30, Speaking — 28/30]
  • Undergraduate CGPA: 9.6/10
  • Experience: 2 research internships, 4 ML dev internships.
  • No Job experience
Result — Admitted to UIUC, a top 5 CS university.
Before you begin, it’s best to maintain a google sheet for all of the information that you will encounter along the way. There are a lot of things to remember, and at some point, you are bound to forget. Besides, it’ll also help you while writing an article on medium later ;)

1. Examinations

In order to apply for a Masters in the USA, you’ll typically have to submit 2 exam scores, GRE and an English proficiency test score (TOEFL or IELTS).
I’ll be covering GRE and TOEFL in this blog since those are the ones I gave.

GRE

Most students give GRE in the 6th semester (3rd year). Exam preparation for both (GRE & TOEFL) takes 3 months (considering you study for 2–3 hours daily)
Unlike SATs, GRE & TOEFL are given on a computer. I was initially under the impression that they would be on paper.
GRE has been ‘waived off’ in some way, shape, or form in most US universities as of 2022. There are 4 common stances that universities take with respect to the exam. (You can find it easily on the university website)
  • Required — must submit GRE scores.
  • Recommended — They have given you an option, but I’d say treat these ones as ‘required’.
  • Optional — They are giving you an actual option. Not submitting your GRE score won't hurt your application, but submitting a high score may increase your chances.
  • Not accepted — These universities won't consider your score even if you send it to them. So don’t.
You can skip the GRE if most of the universities that you are interested in, take an ‘optional’ or ‘not accepted’ stance.

There are 7 sections in the GRE

Analytical Writing Assessment (2 sections) Time: 30 minutes Avg. essay size: 400 words Standard Structure: 5 paragraphs (Intro(1)+Body(3)+conclusion(1))
Essay 1: An argument is given, and you have to present your opinion. Essay 2: An issue is given and you need to evaluate its validity.
  • The main requirements are Decent typing speed, good grammar, a consistent flow of ideas. Lastly, and the ability to gather your thoughts in the first 5 minutes.
  • Each essay is scored out of 6 marks. A score of ≥4 out of 6 is considered decent by most universities. (I’d aim for a 5)
Final score = average(scores in both essays)
Quantitative and Verbal (5 sections)Time: Quant section(35 minutes), Verbal section(30 minutes)
  • You are randomly assigned either 3 Quant and 2 Verbal sections or 3 Verbal and 2 Quant sections. (I don’t feel there is an advantage either way, although some people may say otherwise)
  • Each section has 20 questions and is also scored out of 20.
  • Out of the 5 sections, one randomly selected section is an experimental section. The score you get in the experimental section doesn’t count toward your final score. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine which one is the experimental section, so just try to do well in all of them.
  • The purpose of an experimental section is for their own ‘experiments’. Rumour is, that they introduce newly formulated sections for field tests before introducing them as scored sections for other candidates (pretty neat).
  • On extremely rare occasions, you may get an un-scored ‘research’ section instead of an experimental section. In this case, they’ll clearly mention that it’s a research section. Hence you’ll know which sections are scored. This section will contain some survey questions, etc. So in this rare case your exam pattern will look like this: 2 Quant, 2 Verbal, and 1 Research section.
  • GRE as a test is adaptive — If you get a good score on your first Quant section then the next Quant section will be harder, and likewise, if you get a lower score in your first Quant section the next Quant section will be easier. (scores are not revealed to you, it happens in the backend). It’s the same drill for Verbal sections.
  • Scoring — Harder sections have a more forgiving marking scheme, while easier sections have a more strict marking scheme. What this means is, although it’s 20 marks and 20 questions, they don't give you 1 mark for every correct question. If it’s a hard section, they may give you 20 marks even if one of your answers is wrong. But if it's an easy section, they may deduct 2 marks for a single wrong answer.
  • NOTE: This marking scheme is mostly speculation of the people on the internet, so take it all with a pinch of salt.
  • In the end, you’ll have two scores : Quant: x/40 Verbal: y/40
  • These are converted out of 340 as follows: Final score = [(130+x)+(130+y)] / 340. (Yes, you can not get a score below 260)
Here is a percentile distribution of marks for 2021 (up till 11 Aug 2021)
 
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  • Scoring 320+ on GRE is deemed very good and scoring 330+ is deemed exceptional. Depending on how much the college emphasises on the GRE, your score may have a good/great impression. Universities especially look into your GRE scores if your undergrad university is relatively less known in the USA.
  • If you are applying for a Mathematics based degree (ex. CS), universities will expect you to submit a near-perfect Quant score(169 or 170). The AWA part doesn’t matter much as long as you don’t get a very low score(<4).
  • NOTE: I’d like to add that, although a lot of emphasis is placed on it, GRE is only a cutoff criterion. A lot of it depends on your overall profile. One of my friends scored 321/340, yet got into Stanford MS CS because she had an exceptional profile, so make of it what you will.
 
Registering for GRE:
  • Go to the website, create an account, and register. It’s pretty straightforward.
  • I had some issues during the payment(as did all of my friends) and had to pay through Paypal instead of all the other transaction methods. Also, be patient with ETS’s website in general, it is quite slow to process at times.
Exam Cost: 205 dollars ~ 15000 rupees. You can also take additional mock tests for 30 to 40 dollars each. (I took one, it’s not worth it. You’ll find free online mock tests easily.)
 
My POV :
  • So how did I study? I studied from February through June (yup ~5 months).
  • Why so long? Pandemic. Didn’t really have an option, so kept postponing it until exam centers reopened.
 
Timeline:
  • Feb — April: 30–50 words (once every 2 days)
  • May: Galvanize (crash course) They provide GRE prep material every day and it was easy to just do that and be done with it for the day. All in all a solid 8.5/10. If you plan on taking it do DM me, I may be able to get you a discount. (No, they aren’t paying me.)
  • June(2 weeks): Self-study
 
I took a relaxed approach giving 3 months to just study words, but it’s really up to you and how you plan it. Studying seriously I’d say even 2 months is enough for all of the prep.
 
The study material that I used:
  • Kaplan Mock tests (4 tests) — 4d*
  • Princeton Mock test (4 tests) — 4d
  • ETS Mock tests (3 tests) — 3d
p.s. did not buy all of the books. Pdfs ftw.*d — days
Financials:18000 (GRE) + 7500 (crash course) + 2500 (books) = 28000 rupees

TOEFL

  • TOEFL is an English language proficiency test. It is to ensure that you’ll be able to cope with native English speakers once you reach the US. You can give TOEFL immediately after your GRE. I would suggest getting it out the way as soon as possible.
  • There are 2 types of exams, Toefl Essentials, and Toefl IBT. For MS you have to give the IBT version.
  • There is also a 3rd version, ‘Toefl Home-Edition’. Even if it’s accepted at your choice of universities, I’d say avoid it unless you don’t have any other option. The reason is, that it doesn’t have a speaking section (it’s the most important section).
  • Even if you skip the speaking section now, universities will require you to take another language proficiency test for RA/TA* roles. So just give the IBT version and those speaking scores will be applicable for RA/TA roles as well.
  • There are 4 sections in TOEFL (30 marks each)
    • Reading — is much easier than GRE.
    • Listening — you’re good if you can understand an episode of Big Bang Theory without subtitles.
    • Speaking — most struggle here.
    • Writing — is much easier than GRE.
  • I found TOEFL to be easier as well as more lenient compared to the GRE. If you scored well in the verbal section(around 160) then you’ll probably end up with a near-perfect score with a few days of practice. Most universities require a score of 100+, with a few exceptions where they expect 110+.
  • Apart from this, universities also have cutoffs with respect to the speaking section for TA roles (so while you can get into the uni., you may need a higher score to be eligible for a TA). The highest I have seen is ≥28 for a TA. On average, the cutoff is 24/30.
  • RA/TA — Research assistantship/Teaching assistantship.
 
The study material that I used:
  • Speaking: Youtube Apart from this, go to the first website that comes up after Googling ‘TOEFL speaking section practice’, and practice until you are fluent. Practicing mocks with a friend is the best way to do this.
  • Listening, Reading, Writing: These sections seemed easy so I didn’t study much for them (around 3 hours combined). You find most of the material by Googling.
NOTE — TOEFL is widely accepted in the US, but if your choice of the university requires an IELTS score, you’ll naturally have to give that. As I understand, the norm is TOEFL -> USA, IELTS -> UK.
 
Registering for TOEFL IBT: The same as GRE (TOEFL also comes under ETS, so the interface is similar)
 
Miscellaneous Info:
  • Immediately after you finish your GRE /TOEFL you’ll have to give them the names of the 4 universities that you would like to send your scores (for free). This happens in the exam hall itself and you won't be allowed to exit the premises before giving them the 4 names. So be prepared with a few names (you can scroll below to the section of university selection for help)
  • I had kept 2 sets of 4 universities in my mind before the exams. One was an ambitious set, and one was a moderate set. Depending on my score I had planned on giving either the ambitious set or the moderate set.
  • Apart from these 4 universities, if you need to send your scores to more universities, you can do that later from their website. It costs 20–25$ (~2000 INR) to send one score of either GRE/TOEFL.
 
Financials:18000 (GRE) + 7500 (crash course) + 2500 (books) + 15000(TOEFL)= 43000 rupees.
… and just like that, you are through the examinations!

2. University Selection

With the exams out of the way, we’re at the crux of the Master's application process, University selection!
 
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Let's begin…

The first step(or more realistically one of n parallel steps) is selecting the universities that you are interested in.
Actually, before you select the universities, you’ll have to decide how many of them you’ll be applying to. I know people who applied to 3 universities and also those who applied to 23 of them. On average people apply to 6–10 universities. That's the sweet spot since it won't drive up the application cost too much while giving you a fair chance of getting selected to the best possible university.
Next, choosing which universities to apply to. There are various things that you may take into account while making this decision. I’ll be mentioning all the things that I personally think have an effect on your overall experience.
  1. University minimum score criteria: This is the first thing you must look at. You won't get into the university if you don't pass their minimum score criteria. Typically universities have minimum (official/unofficial) score thresholds for undergrad CGPA, TOEFL, and GRE (GRE is waived off in most universities these days so this one is somewhat moot.)
  1. Tuition fee & Funding: There are 2 aspects to this, the first one is if you can afford the tuition and the second one is the ROI (return on investment). At a later stage in the process, universities give you an estimate of the yearly expenses while studying there. You’ll have to show this amount in the form of liquid funds (read up on what liquid funds mean) to get an official acceptance from them. This amount can vary significantly, so it would be wise to look into that amount from the offset.
  1. University ranking/Research Ranking: This is a controversial metric, mainly because it may not reflect the true quality of a University, but in my experience, it is a good indicator on the macro. My advice would be to look at multiple rank lists and then do a sort of weighted average. It’s a little time-consuming but it helps a lot when choosing the universities. Another tip would be, to look for rankings in your specific course/specialization rather than the overall rankings. Some websites that I personally found fairly authentic were — CS metricsUS news, and CSrankings. I gave weightage in the same order, with the most weightage to CS metrics because it seemed the most transparent and directed towards my interests.
  1. Courses: Depending on what you are specifically interested in, each university may offer some unique courses. This one takes a lot of research but is quite important. Unlike UG in India, you’ll have to choose your own courses each semester, hence these courses usually are given more importance during interviews.
  1. Professors: Similar to the last one, do your due diligence. Look into what work is being done by professors and if it piques your interest. All professors are great, but finding a match in terms of interests is rare and this can make all the difference. (Especially for those who want to pursue research)
  1. Research scope: This one is in continuation to the last point. Look at what research is being done at the university on a whole (specific to the area of your interest of course).
  1. Internship/Job prospects: You’ll want a great job after you pass out (unless you are going to continue studying, if so, then skip this point lol). Look at where the university is, region often plays a huge role. In my case(for Computer Science) California is the place to go since Silicon valley is there along with most of the startups, MNCs, etc. Given I am writing this after the pandemic(or during?), I have to say remote jobs and interviews are much more accessible now. This point may have become moot, but that's something I’ll let YOU ponder over.
  1. Living expenses & crime rate: Look at the average living expenses in the area. Typically living expenses are lower where the crime rate is higher. Try to balance out those two based on your comfort level. Here is a website I found that shows crime in USA.
  1. Course duration: Some courses are only 1 year long (ex. Meng@cornell). This does not mean you must not take them but you need to know what cons they carry. You’ll have much less time to concentrate on your studies since you’ll start looking for a job as soon as your course begins. Usually, getting an internship is easier than directly getting a job; since your course is 1 year long you won't get time for an internship (students do internships in the summer, after spending one year at the university).
  1. University Region: Apart from job opportunities, the region also affects your comfort. Some people may like colder regions like Illinois/Michigan, others maybe prefer hotter places like California. Some may prefer living in a city, while others may like something more rural. This one is pretty far down on the list for a reason.
  1. Fun things the university has to offer: You are also here to have fun right? So do look into these aspects as well. Personally, this point could be a bit higher on the list but I’ll leave that up to you. Look at clubs, nightlife, beaches, mountains, and all the other things that may want to explore.
  1. Average student profile: This one can be full of personal biases if not done properly so it’s quite hard to get right; hence it's at the bottom of this list. Look into the past/current batch as well as the individual profiles of students. Apart from LinkedIn (the most trustworthy), there are other portals such as admits.fyiYMGradTheGradCafeYocket where you can look at profiles of admitted students. Be aware that most of these websites are plagued by false reports too, so things that sound too good to be true are probably false. Use your best Judgement!
These are the things I considered while finalizing the universities that I’d be applying to. Apart from assessing these things on your own; ask seniors, alumni, batch-mates, and parents what they think. Most of what I am writing has been gathered through similar sources.
Note — Depending on how likely you are to get in, divide your list into 3 types of universities— ambitious, moderate, and safe (1:2:1 is a good ratio). You can get a rough estimate of your chances by looking at past admits and talking to the students at the university.
Note#2 — Do not select ‘very’ safe universities that you may regret going to after getting an admit. This is a very common mistake. You must be at the very least ‘happy’ if you get an admit from the safest university on your list.
Note#3 — You probably won't be able to make a final list of 6–10 universities in the first go, but that's okay. Take your time, you’ll probably have months to make this decision. Your first iteration may have 20+ universities, just keep iterating over it. (I brought mine down from 27 to 10 over the course of 2 months.)
Lastly, for those who’d like to know which universities I applied to, here's my list.
  • Stanford
  • UC Berkeley
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • UT Austin
  • UC San Diego
  • University of Maryland, College Park
  • NYU Courant
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • University of Southern California
 
Financials:43000 (examinations) + 0(university selection)= 43000 rupees.
Now that you have a list of universities that you’ll be applying to, we’re at the most important part of your journey; university applications!

3. University Applications

You’ll have a separate application for each university and you can create that by going to that respective university’s webpage and creating an account. Tip — try to keep the email id and password consistent for all universities.
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Each of your applications will cost you around 70–150$ depending on the university. There are a bunch of things that you’ll need before you send in that application. I’ll try to cover all of them below.

Resume

  • Create your resume in Latex. It looks a lot more professional and you can fully customize it. Sure, it takes more effort to make it in latex but it’s a one-time investment, and well worth it. Use overleaf, it's by far the best platform.
  • Your resume must cover the following key points: - Undergrad university (uni. name+degree+CGPA) - Work experience (Internships/FTE) - Research papers (if any) - Technical skills (languages, etc) - ProjectsExtracurriculars.
  • Limit your resume to a single page. As an exception, you could use a second page but you must really make sure that it’s justified. #NOTE: You do not need to mention all of the internships/ projects/ extracurriculars that you’ve been a part of. Mention only those that are either relevant or recent.
  • You can refer to this pdf shared by Harvard for additional tips on how to construct your resume.

SOP — Statement of purpose

  • What's an SOP? — This is the space that the university gives you to convince them why you must be accepted. Your SOP must summarize your journey, (mostly undergrad journey), up until this moment, and how it has shaped you to be a perfect candidate for higher studies at their university.
  • Give yourself ample time to write your SOP. I’ll describe how I wrote it, you should construct your own version. Realistically speaking there are many ways to write a good SOP. #NOTE: You’ll have to write a different SOP for every university so it’s bound to take time.
  • I kept my SOP to the point, without any throwbacks to my childhood where I discovered my penchant for CS, simply because that would have been untrue. I started off with my first year in undergrad chronologically up till my third year. I explained how I discovered the field I am in, projects, research, achievements, and lastly why I wanted to get a master's. This made up for 2/3rd of the SOP. The other 1/3rd part was university specific, as to why I chose that particular university. I discussed their curriculum, the professors, and the work they were doing. Occasionally if I was very familiar with a professor’s work I’d delve into it deeper.
  • It’s important to mention a professor or two, whose work you’re interested in, in your SOP. The admissions committee may forward your profile to them for a second opinion, and if you’ve done your research well it will work in your favour.
  • Another tip would be, to look for places where you may sound high-handed or boastful. You may not want to do that but English being our 2nd/nth language these things can creep in involuntarily.
  • # NOTE - The university usually specifies a limit, something like a max of 1000 words or 2 pages for the SOP. Also, always use a 12pt font size, you won't be fooling anyone if you reduce the font size to fit more into those 2 pages.

LORs

  • Most universities require at least 2 out of your 3 LORs to be from people in academia. You can ask for one of the letters from your current/past employer.
  • Choose people who can really vouch for your skills and are willing to write you a strong LOR. These must be people whom you have worked with, simply being in your professor’s classes wont make up for a great LOR.
  • Usually, you just need to enter your recommender's email at the application portal. The recommender will then receive an email, with a link, where they’ll have to submit the LOR. While doing this you can either waive/not waive your rights to see the LOR. Waiving your rights is probably the best way to do this.
  • The LORs need not be on letterhead. A simple plain pdf does the work. Since it’s sent via your professor’s email that in itself is proof of its authenticity.
  • Ask your professors/employer well in advance. You must give them time to draft the LOR(~2 months). They may have other commitments and you don't want any last-minute delays. Also, make sure to ask the person if they are willing to send LORs to all of the ‘n’ universities. The email your recommenders receive takes them to a portal where they are also asked a few questions in addition to submitting the LOR, so it can become quite time-consuming. If for instance, a recommender is only willing to send the LOR to ≤6 universities, in this case, you will have to find a 4th recommender.

PHS — Personal History Statement

  • Not all universities ask for this but this is another text document like your SOP. This one is more about your experiences in life, community work, etc. The university usually mentions clearly what they are looking for in your PHS, so do look into that.

Undergrad transcripts

  • Transcripts are different from your mark sheets, although the content more or less remains the same. Each undergrad university has a different process to request transcripts, so you’ll have to enquire about this one at your undergrad’s office.
  • You’ll need one copy of your transcripts (take max 2 if still unsure. I took 4 copies, 3 of which are completely useless now). Scan and upload, that's pretty much it. Your uni will take anywhere from 300 to 1500 INR for each set of transcripts.

GRE/TOEFL scores

  • You may remember that after you gave your GRE/TOEFL, you gave the names of 4 universities to which you’d like to send the scores. For those universities, you can skip this step.
  • For the rest of the universities that you are applying to, you’ll have to send them your scores through ETS’s website. You’ll have to select the university and department from a drop-down list and pay the fee. Sending a score costs about 20–25$.
  • The university will receive an email from ETS and within a few days, it’ll show on your portal that the mark sheets have been received.

Financial Documents

  • It's best to confirm this with the particular university but in my experience, this is an optional section in the applications. Everyone I know submitted their financial docs after getting their admits, and only to the university that they decided to go to.

Deadlines

  • This is quite basic but look at the deadlines for submitting your applications well in advance. There may be different types of deadlines lines like early-admission deadline.
  • Also, look into scholarship programs at the university. Sometimes to be eligible for consideration in these programs you’ll have to submit your application at an earlier date. In some cases, you may also need to submit an additional separate application. Stanford’s Knight Hennessy Scholars program is a good example of the same.

Financials:

I’ve added all the costs for sending GRE & TOEFL scores as well as the university application cost for all the universities. For the 10 universities that I chose, the total came up to 1,03,000 INR. Hence on an average of 10,000/university.
TOTAL: 43000 (examinations) + 1,03,000 (Applications) + 2400 (Transcripts)= 1,48,400 INR.

4. The eternal waiting period

So it’s presumably somewhere around Jan-Feb-March and you can’t wait for the decisions to roll out. You are probably spending most of your free time on Reddit and Gradcafe. While you do that, here are some things you should keep in mind…
 
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  • Even if you’ve received 5 rejects and no admits, wait, many students reject university offers towards the end and you may get an offer late in the process.
  • It is not rare to receive a rejection from a safe university and an acceptance from an ambitious/moderate one.
  • On the flip side, even if you receive an admit from a great university wait for all of the decisions to roll out. You may get a better offer. In case you need time to think beyond the university’s deadline, you can mail them requesting a decision deadline extension. They may give out quite generous extensions of up to one additional month.
  • Once you decide which university you are going to you may have to pay a ‘seat confirmation fee’. This amount may range from 0$ to 1000$. Although this amount is later subtracted from your tuition fee, I’m mentioning this so you can allocate funds for this in advance.

Financials:

TOTAL: 43000 (examinations) + 1,03,000 (Applications) + 2400 (Transcripts) + 0 (it only cost you your sleep)= 1,48,400 INR.

5. VISA

Congratulations! You have just jumped over the biggest hurdle. Now on to getting your VISA approved.
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At this point, the first thing you need to do is join the official groups of your university. Check your emails. Also look for the unofficial groups, usually these are significantly more active. As Indians usually prefer communicating on Whatsapp, you’re more likely to get your India specific doubts solved there.
Many people remain unaware of unofficial groups till the end, so try to be a bit extroverted initially. Talk to people on Reddit, Slack, Facebook, etc!

I20

  • This is probably the first thing that you need to get done. An i20 is the document that your university will give you once you have proven financial capability for pursuing a Masters in the US.
  • How this is done? — you’ll either receive an email or your application portal will ask you to upload the financials docs. Additionally, there may also be a separate form where you will have to fill up the names and general info. of your sponsors.
  • The university will give you an estimate of yearly costs which will cover tuition, living expenses, books and a few other miscellaneous things. You’ll need to show liquid funds worth slightly greater than this amount to the university. (If you are funded then the amount gets reduced accordingly)
  • What are liquid funds? — Fixed deposits, savings accounts, mutual funds, stocks, and the withdrawable amount in PF(usually 50% of the total amt), all count as liquid funds. Gold does not count, it's semi-liquid.
  • To match the i20 amount you can show multiple sponsors and multiple bank accounts (within reason).
  • NOTE — Although you are showing only liquid funds right now, you can still use any other funds during your Masters.
  • For savings accounts, a bank statement may not work. You need to get a letter from the bank where the account holder's name, closing balance, and that the funds are withdrawable at any time are mentioned on a letterhead. Same for FDs.
  • For mutual funds and stocks, you can just submit the report which your broker provides you. For PF, you can get a letter from the organization stating the holder’s name, balance, and that amount of funds are withdrawable at any time.
  • Once you have all your documents make a single pdf out of them. Scan, upload, and wait. If the documents are approved, you’ll have your i20 in 2 to 30 days depending on the university and how busy they are.

Education Loan (optional)

  • I’ve intentionally placed this point before you begin the Visa process. For those who will be taking an education loan, you’ll need to get the sanction letter from the bank at least a few days before your VISA interview. The reason being, for financial eligibility during VISA you’ll have to show 2x the i20 amount during the Visa interview (2x because these are the funds you’ll need throughout your 2 years in Masters).
  • Unlike during your i20, here you are also allowed to show semi-liquid funds in addition to liquid funds. What this means is stuff like gold and loan sanction letters are permitted. Gold can also be shown in your sponsor’s name.
  • Since most students take an education loan of 40–60 lakh rupees, it can cover a big share of the amount you need to show if you get the sanction letter before your interview.
  • There are many institutions that provide loans for students:- - Government banks: Govt. banks operate transparently and have the lowest interest rates in the country(8.5%–9.5%). On the flip side, the sanctioning process may be quite long and tedious compared to private sector banks. Even the loan disbursement may be equally long and tedious. Additionally, you may only get a loan worth 7 lakh INR without collateral. - Private sector banks/institutions: These banks may have hidden charges that are revealed later on in the process, as well as higher interest rates(10%–12%). On the flip side, the user experience is very good and the processes are quite streamlined. You may also be able to get significantly higher loans without collateral.
  • Given this information, you can compare specific banks/institutions and decide what's best for you. Some of the most preferred ones are: - State bank of India - Bank of Baroda - HDFC - ICICI - Axis Bank - Prodigy Finance
  • #NOTE — You can negotiate the interest rates with banks. There are cases where some have managed to get a lower interest rate from the same bank.
  • #NOTE 2— Although I did take an education loan, I will only include the amount I had to pay the bank as upfront charges (processing fee, etc). In my case, that fee was around 50,000 INR.
  • #NOTE 3: Buying insurance gives you a lower interest rate as well as ensures that no one has to bear the burden of your loan in case of untimely death.

DS-160

  • When you first create an application, an application ID will be assigned to you and you’ll be asked to set a security question. Make sure to save both of these things somewhere. You’ll need these two things to retrieve and continue filling out your form, in case you take a break mid-way.
  • The DS-160 is a very comprehensive form and also the most important as far as your visa is concerned. So make sure to cross-check all of the entered details. Things like the name on your passport not matching what you entered in your DS-160 are common mistakes. As a rule of thumb always follow the details on your passport on every form.
  • You don't need to pay anything for this application. Simply fill it out and submit it. Make sure to save the confirmation letter after submission. You’ll need this at the time of your visa interview.

Sevis fee

  • This is a much smaller form, mainly for the purpose of paying a 350$ fee (28000 INR). The primary thing you’ll need is the Sevis-ID mentioned on your i20.

Visa slot booking

  • This is a tricky one. Since there are so many students trying to book visa slots, most of them fill up as soon as they appear on the website. There are chrome extensions, and Telegram/Whatsapp groups that monitor when slots are released. You can join these groups to be a part of fastest finger first.
  • Before you start looking for slots you have to create an account, fill out basic profile information, and pay a 12800 INR VISA application fee. Here’s the link to the VISA website. (You only need to do this once at the time of profile creation)
  • Since they take your passport for stamping purposes immediately after the VISA interviewn(if the visa is approved that is), they’ll also have to deliver it to you (in around a week). So, when filling out your VISA application you can opt-in for premium home delivery or delivery to their local center in your home city (the addresses are mentioned on the website). Premium delivery costs you an additional 800 INR.
  • #NOTE: Usually, people opt for local center delivery, as it's allegedly quicker. But, I opted for the premium home delivery (mostly because I was unaware), and my passport was delivered 2 days after my interview.
  • You have to book 2 slots, and for successfully booking a Visa appointment you’ll need to book both of them in one go. The first slot is for your biometrics — they take your fingerprints and verify. basic docs. The second slot is for your actual visa interview where you’ll face the officers.
  • The biometrics and interviews happen on different days. First, you’ll have to get your biometrics done. After ≥1 day you’ll have your visa interview. Although both of these happen in under a minute, there are a lot of people and you’ll spend around half an hour waiting in lines.
  • Biometrics and interviews are done at the US embassy and hence you’ll have to travel to either of the following places for your Visa — Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, or Chennai. You can choose any place as long as you can reach there on time. # NOTE: I live in Maharashtra and had to go to Chennai for my VISA, as I couldn't afford to wait any longer.
  • For your VISA, on both days, there are 5 documents that you absolutely NEED to take with you:- - i20(signed by you) - DS-160 confirmation receipt - Sevis fee payment receipt - Latest Passport (must be valid for at least the next 6 months) - Visa interview appointment letter.

Visa Interview

  • For your biometrics, you’ll only need the 5 documents mentioned above, but for the Visa interview, you’ll have to carry financial proof documents as well.
  • As you may remember, for your i20 you had shown proof of financials by showing liquid funds equivalent to the amount mentioned on your i20(i.e. for 1-year of study abroad). For your VISA you’ll have to show proof of funds for the whole course of study, i.e. 2 years. So this amount will be 2x the total amount mentioned on your i20.
  • Now how will you arrange for such a huge sum of money? — for your VISA interview you can show semi-liquid funds in addition to purely liquid funds. What this means is stuff like education loan sanction letters and gold are allowed. Gold can be shown even in your sponsor’s name. # NOTE: property doesn't qualify as proof of funding.
  • Considering all of these things you’ll have a lot of documents to manage, hence it's best to buy a harmonium file for proper organization. Print all of the documents mentioned, as no devices are allowed inside the consulate. Then arrange them as follows:-
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The documents apply to you as well as your sponsors. Ex — get the ITR of your sponsors too.)
  • How will the VISA interview be conducted? — reach the center 1/2 hour before the scheduled time. Carry only the harmonium file with you, leave everything else with the person accompanying you. In case no one is accompanying you, you can easily get a locker for 50–100 INR inside the consulate. (I went alone and it’s really not an issue.)
  • Next, you’ll be asked to stand in a few lines, and sit in some, but what matters is you’ll end up in front of the VISA officer in 20 minutes or so. The officer will take your interview and do one final check before approving your VISA. They may ask you questions like:- - Why the USA? - Which Universities did you apply to? - Why this university? - Who is sponsoring you? - What does your sponsor do? - The annual income of the sponsor? - How are you going to show your funds? - How many acceptances and rejections did you get? - Tell me something about the university you have finalized. - Tell me something about your course. - What subjects and how many credits do you plan to take in 1st sem?
  • Given you’ve done all of the previous steps, you will know the answers to most of these questions. My only advice would be to stay confident, answer truthfully & answer precisely.
  • If all goes well your interview will last <1 minute, they’ll take your passport and you’ll have your passport along with the Visa in the next few days.
  • #NOTE — In case they reject your VISA, you’ll be handed your passport and given a slip. You can reevaluate your profile and reapply for another VISA interview after 15 days or more. You'll have to pay the 12,800 INR Visa fee again and rebook slots in this case.
Here is a document that will help you navigate all of the forms included in this step, step-by-step. It has a bunch of screenshots so that you don’t feel lost anywhere.

Financials:

TOTAL: 43,000 (examinations) + 1,05,400 (Applications) + 50,000 (Edu loan processing fee) + 28,000 (Sevis fee) + 12,800 (Visa application fee)= 2,39,200 INR.

6. University Requirements

That was the last hurdle. Nothing can stop you from going to the US now! But you do have other things that you’ll have to set up before you leave.
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Japanese garden, UIUC

Claim uni email id & others

  • At this point, you must have received an email from your university to set up your .edu email. Get that set up first so that you start getting emails for things you need to do before leaving.
  • Apart from that, there can be other things that you’ll have to set up like Teams accounts, and Slack channels. Keep a look out for these things., either way, these things will find you if you don’t.

Medical Requirements

  • Check for any emails you’ve received regarding medical requirements. There are often clauses like ‘take these 2 doses 1 month apart’. So these things need to be planned in advance.
  • For UIUC, I had to do 3 things. - Get a physician’s form filled out by a doctor. It had a list of compulsory and recommended doses. - Submit a TB-Gold Quantiferon test. - 2 covid vaccines + 1 booster
  • For the physician’s form, I had to take an MMR vaccine and a TBP dose. That cost around 1000 INR. The TB-Gold test cost 1500 INR.

RA/TA applications (optional)

  • If you haven't already been assigned an RA/TA, depending on your university, you may be asked to fill out a form for these roles. If that's not the case then you can approach professors on your own. Actually, approach professors either way.
  • Since you have an official university email id now, professors are more likely to respond and take your application into consideration. A simple cover letter, undergrad transcripts, and your resume should do in most cases.

Submitting transcripts and other academic credentials

  • You’ll have to submit your transcripts to the university once again. Unlike during your applications, this time in a sealed envelope, as proof of its authenticity.
  • Your university may also accept transcripts via email if your undergrad university has that service then go for it.
  • #NOTE:- This time around you’ll need to submit transcripts for all 4 years(8 semesters) of undergrad. During applications the universities allow you to submit transcripts for up to 6 semesters since some people apply in their 3rd year.
  • In addition to your transcripts, you may also need to physically go and show your degree certificate and mark sheets once you are at the university.

Selecting courses (1st semester)

  • Some universities ask students to choose courses for the first semester after arriving at the university, while some ask students to choose before arrival.
  • It’s often the case that some courses will be in more demand than others, hence the seats will get filled up quickly for those ones. Moral of the story, keep an eye out for emails and register for courses as soon as possible. #NOTE: You can change courses later if you change your mind, so don’t think too critically about it.

Financials:

TOTAL: 43,000 (examinations) + 1,05,400 (Applications) + 50,000 (Edu loan) + 40,800(Visa) + 2500(Medical Requirements)= 2,41,700 INR.

7. Personal preparation

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Flight booking, luggage restrictions, and student discounts

  • After your Visa gets approved this is the first thing that you must do. The later you book your flight tickets, the higher the cost. #NOTE — you can book a ticket to the US without a visa, but this comes with some risk in case your Visa gets rejected.
  • Flight tickets from India to the US will cost you anywhere from 60,000 INR to 1,20,000 INR (Economy seat), depending on how early you book, flight duration, no. of stopovers, destination, and amount various other factors. My flight cost me 95,000 INR. Here is a document that compares various airlines.
  • Also, check where the immigration is done for the flights. Sometimes immigration happens at your stopover (for ex. Abu Dhabi), and some people may prefer getting immigration out of the way while they wait for their next flight.
  • Most airlines have student discounts or student club memberships. So you’re bound to get some discount. In addition to a discount, being a student may also get you some extra luggage allowance. Typically flights allow 2x23kg kgs for check-in luggage, but some airlines like Etihad and Emirates allow students to carry 3 (3x23kg) check-in bags instead of 2. So do look out for such offers, more luggage is always good.
  • #NOTE: For economy tickets, each bag needs to weigh under 23kg. (there may also be dimension limits, check with the airline.)
  • #NOTE 2: You can get the flight tickets reimbursed from your education loan provider.

Housing

  • There are 2 options. You can choose university housing, which is usually more expensive, or you can go for off-campus housing. The term ‘off-campus’ can be misleading, off-campus doesn't mean these are outside the campus, in fact, they can be closer to your classes than university housing in some cases. ‘off-campus’ just means that the university has nothing to do with these apartments.
  • Housing is another aspect that will take a lot of effort, especially if you are looking for roommates. You may have preferences, people may have their preferences; it gets exhausting easily. Things like dietary preferences(vegan/veg/non-veg), smoking, alcohol, and gender are some of the common ones. Ask around on those slack/WhatsApp/Facebook groups.
  • Looking for apartments — If you have chosen university housing you probably won't have to do a thing, they’ll take care of this step. For the off-campus housing folks, some things that people look for in apartments are - Crime rate in the neighboring area. - Individuals per room - Monthly rent & utility fee - Parking (if needed) - Amenities (gym, etc) - Washer & dryer (if its inside the house or common)(also this one is VIMP) - Carpet area coverage - Average room area (sqft) - Air conditioning (heating & cooling) - Apartment orientation (sunlight, etc) - If TV, microwave, beds, tables, sofa, etc are included. - Distance from your Department buildings - If the apartment is recently renovated? - Property Manager and quality of service
  • Admin fee or deposit? Which one to choose? — At the time of signing your lease, you’ll be asked to choose between an admin fee or a deposit. If you take the admin fee they waive off registration charges and a cleaning fee (which was 70$ in my case). But the admin fee is non-refundable. The deposit is completely refunded when you move out (unless you cause any damages) but you’ll have to pay the 70$ in this case. Admin fee for me was around 250$ and the deposit was 350$. You can choose one depending on your preferences.
  • You can enquire about all of these things with the property manager. You can also ask for video tours of the apartments. Usually, property managers have websites where all of the apartments are listed. Ask your seniors. For example, for UIUC we have Smile student living (among many others)

Forex card & USD cash

  • A forex card is useful for carrying money for the first few days when you reach the USA. After reaching you'll have to open a US Bank account and get a permanent debit/credit card.
  • You can get a forex card from any of the Indian banks. Banks charge a percentage/amount for every transaction and atm withdrawal. They will also take additional money by taking a few rupees above the current exchange rate, i.e. they may give you 1 USD for 81 INR, even if the exchange rate is 79 INR per USD. You’ll have to enquire and compare cards on your own.
  • You can also get a forex card from Niyo, it's a private company that provides forex cards to students. It will give you some of the best conversion rates and no transaction fee will be levied.
  • Another company catered towards international students is Zolve. Usually, you need an SSN to open a US banking account, but Zolve allows you to do that without an SSN. You can open a US banking account and also get a credit/debit card from them before you leave. In addition to this you’ll also get a sim card from them. I personally liked Zolve a little bit better.
  • p.s. Not endorsing Zolve/Niyo in any way. These are the only companies I know of apart from traditional banks. Since these are relatively new there may be more risk involved. Students have successfully used both types of cards but do your own research.
  • What about Cash? — You can get rupees converted to USD at your local bank for some minimal charges. For your flight, you are allowed to carry up to 3,000$ as a student (as of Aug 2022). #NOTE: You can use your forex card in most places, so cash may not be necessary beyond a nominal amount.

Sim card

  • As I mentioned previously, you can get a sim card from Zolve. As of Aug 2022, they give you the first month free. Apart from Zolve, there are companies like matrix sim cardlyca mobile which deliver international pre-paid sim cards to your doorstep. You can also change your current plan to an international one. (Again, fair warning, do your own research)
  • You can also buy a temporary pre-paid sim card at the airport once you land.
  • After landing choose your permanent sim card based on how good its connectivity is in your area. Common providers are Verizon and T-Mobile. You know this drill, I’ll just move on.

General shopping

  • There will be a lot of things you need to buy or arrange for. Fortunately, there are some very comprehensive lists created by students to help you out with this.
  • Everything that you will have to pack and may need in the US is covered here: - List 1 - List 2

Dentists, ear doctors.

  • It’s best to get checked up at your local dentist and ear doctor before leaving. Medical is very expensive in the US.
  • Additionally, many students take prescriptions & medicines from their local doctor, for common diseases like cough, cold, fever, etc.

Financials:

TOTAL: 43,000 (examinations) + 1,05,400 (Applications) + 50,000 (Edu loan) + 40,800(Visa) + 2500(Medical Requirements) + 95,000 (flight) + 20,300(apartment admin fee)= 3,57,000 INR.
So this is how you’ll end up spending close to 3.5 lakhs before you even leave for the US! 🎃
I started writing this article, last year on 10th August 2021. What were the odds of me flying out on the same exact day this year (10/08/22)? It’s excellent closure!
Lastly, thanks for reading along. Please applaud the article if it served you in any way!
For now, ┏( ◣︡ ͜ʖ ◢︠ )┛
—Prathamesh Sonawane