International Students: Taking the TOEFL

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an important part of applying to schools in the U.S. In order to prepare for the test, find out when, where, and how you’ll be taking it, you can search the TOEFL website . The website will tell you the dates the test is offered and whether they offer the internet based test (iBT), paper based test (PBT), or both.

There are tools available on the ETS website to assist you in studying for the test, so take advantage of them. You will have to pay extra for some of these tools, but the TOEFL iBT Tips and TOEFL iBT Sampler will be available to you when you register for the iBT. The Free TOEFL Practice Tests-Volume 1 will be available when you register for the PBT.

On the day of the test make sure you bring your registration number and a valid photo ID. Depending on your location, different types of ID may be required, so make sure you check the website to ensure you have the ID required for your area.

You can send your scores to up to four different institutions. Ask each school that you are applying to about their TOEFL requirements, because the requirements can differ from school to school. Scores are sent out about five weeks after you’ve taken the test, so make sure you plan enough time to study, take the test, and apply to the schools of your choice.


Graduate Student Financial Aid: Show me the Money!

While financial assistance at the graduate level is not as prevalent as at the undergraduate level, there is aid available. Universities usually offer assistance based on two factors: need and merit.

The federal government has made applying for need-based aid fairly simply. You should visit and fill out the free application. This application will get you a very quick analysis of your eligibility for aid. One important thing to remember is to make sure you list all the schools to which you want to apply for aid. Each school will have a code for you to use to make sure they get your application. Fill out the FAFSA form …you never know what aid you will be eligible for.

What is merit-based assistance? This is very popular in graduate school and is based on previous academic/professional experiences, standardized test scores, and matching between your knowledge and the program’s needs. If this sounds vague, it is. Graduate schools will often use merit-based scholarships in varying and, in fact, completely different ways. Some schools have a magic number, others use such programs to attract specific types of students, and still others use it as a last minute way to meet target enrollment numbers. Fortunately, the latter is not very prevalent. A graduate school will not always tell you they have scholarships available. ALWAYS ask. What is the worst that could happen? They say no…big deal. Often times they will say “yes” or be able to refer you to other sources.

The new graduate admissions website at Mason has a great listing of places to look for external aid. There are many agencies, organizations, and sources of non-university or government-based aid which may be available. Check out those sites and get to work. Persistence definitely pays off and in this case, it can be pay-off with actual money!

How to start finding the right college for you

As a recent comment makes clear, the process of deciding what makes a school “right” is anything but simple.  Unfortunately, a lot of the material out there just makes things more confusing.

The colleges and universities will send you brochures that rival the best magazines, online movies of their schools, podcasts…even, as I noted in a recent post, take out personal ads about you locally.  In every case the campus looks BEAUTIFUL and the students pretty much look like the cast of Gossip Girl.  From the descriptions, it looks like every school has everything you could ever want, and of course declares that this institution is probably the ONLY one for you. 

Then you get to the rankings, search engines, websites, etc.  The numbers are confusing, and don’t match, and many make no sense to you at all.  Do you really care as an undergraduate applicant how many books they have in the library?  Aren’t you more interested in the access to documents from the connection in your room (or anywhere else on campus).  And, as I’ve described elsewhere (and will likely do so again), the colleges have all kinds of ways to make some of their numbers look better, making you wonder how you really tell the difference.

Then you also have to wonder, especially on the rankings and lists, how much weight is placed on things you don’t care about.  Do you care as much about faculty salary, for instance, as US News and World Report does? 

College counsellors and admissions officers talk a lot about fit, and as a result we’ve reached an intensity of stressing you out to find the RIGHT school.  Here’s the start of my two cents on the issue (maybe even a nickel).  You need to start by deciding which factors matter to you, not just taking a list you were handed.  Part of that is going to visit schools every chance you get, even those not on your radar, so that you can hear our propaganda and decide if there are some new things to add to your list or some old ones to take off.  You also need to keep in mind that there is no perfect school, that every study done finds name recognition wildly overrated in proportion to your future job/income, and that you are looking to find a bunch of schools that would be great to attend, not an ultimate dream school.  Over the next few days I’ll get into some examples – questions to ask and things to consider.  But in the meantime, and here’s my best advice, don’t just go to the college because you fall in love with the girl/guy on the brochure.  No…really.  Be seeing you.

Transfer Students: Community College Agreements

Community college enrollment has ballooned in the last few years with good reason.  An increasing number of four-year public and private colleges have established transfer articulation agreements with their two-year partners that virtually guarantee the transferability of coursework.  There are numerous models of acceptance but most are based upon the completion of an Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree comprising up to 60 hours of general education and lower level elective courses.  Community colleges offer reasonably low tuition rates and have an open enrollment admission policy.  If you’re not certain that you want to “go away” to a four-year institution after completing high school, your local community college may be the answer for your educational needs.

Shameless plug: Mason’s Center for History and New Media gets funded for expansion

Mason’s Center for History and New Media received a large increase in funding from the U.S. goverment to expand their amazing array of activities. Check out the story at WJLA TV.

Financial Aid Options for International Students

Financial aid for international students is very limited and availability varies from school to school. There are a small number of universities that are able to offer scholarships to all admitted international applicants, others that do not offer any form of aid, and many that provide a range of financial options. If you are an international student seeking financial aid, it is important to familiarize yourself with the different options and resources available.

There are several different types of financial assistance to explore and consider:

  • Merit-based scholarships are highly competitive awards based on your academic performance during high school.
  • Need-based aid grants are rare but may be awarded after a review of your family’s economic situation.
  • Athletic scholarships are offered at NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II and NAIA institutions.
  • Talent-based grants or scholarships may be awarded for exceptionally gifted students in music, theater, dance, etc.
  • There are very few universities that offer loans to international students, however many can assist you with obtaining a private bank loan. You are required to have a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in order to obtain a loan.
  • Outside scholarships such as Fulbright grants, Organization of American States scholarships, or funding through your Ministry of Higher Education often provide full or partial support for studies in the U.S. You may learn more about outside sources of funding by visiting your local EducationUSA Advising Center (

Each university has their own policy regarding financial assistance for international students as well as their own financial aid/scholarship application process. Be sure to read the application instructions carefully, make yourself aware of the deadlines, and explore all of your options. While financial aid is limited there are a number of resources out there to help you finance your education.

Can the admissions process be done by computers?

I was in a fascinating and scary meeting today. A company has developed a REALLY elaborate computer program that can be used to decide which students should get into college.

The idea is that there are, of course, way more qualified applicants at highly competitive schools than there are spaces. Many colleges have moved to a method called “holistic admissions,” which is code for considering everything that you can on an applicant. It includes essays, recommendations, and extra-curriculars, but also, at times, income level, ethnicity, or location, just to name a few.

While admissions officers like to talk about how we read every scrap of paper in an application in great detail, and some even brag about multiple readers, all of that effort gets expensive. So along comes this new program that will take GPA, SAT, and data on everything else and run it through a program for the schools preferences (I want 50 architecture students, and we want more students that dye their hair blue!) and select the right students to admit.

I’m still pretty skeptical, most of all that it will save time or money. After all, someone still has to evaluate the essays and recommendations, IF the school is really going to take all of that information into account. There are schools, however, that are using the program for next year! So you can rest assured that at a few schools your application will be carefully evaluated..BY ROBOTS!!! Just kidding…mostly. Be seeing you.