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Applying to a U.S. grad school as a U.S. citizen living abroad

Applying for graduate school while you are abroad adds time and effort to the admissions process, but it is possible. This article aims to provide assistance. While you may have to jump through extra hoops to succeed, remember that your international experience makes you a hot commodity. The fact that you are spending time studying or working in a foreign culture, learning to view the world through a new lens, and/or speaking another language will all increase your appeal in the eyes of many admissions committees.

Whether you are currently in another country or planning to travel and/or live outside the United States while applying for grad school, here are some steps to take to make the process as painless as possible.

General advice:

Advice on special challenges:

General advice

Plan ahead and stay organized

Allow yourself as much time as possible to complete the application process if you are living abroad while you research and apply for programs. Especially if you are in a developing country, you may experience delays in mail service, your ability to register for standardized tests, hearing back from potential references, and completing other pieces of the application process.

Action steps:

  • Request letters of recommendation as soon as possible, giving your references clear deadlines, details about the program and your motivation for going to school, and instructions for what to do with the finished letter.
  • Have a permanent and reliable address for mail correspondence, either your own address in your host country, or that of a willing and reliable family member or friend back home.
  • Whenever you send application materials, consider using a certified courier service (like DHL, FedEx, UPS) or the local postal service's fast and traceable options. You don't need to use the overnight option, but express service can be beneficial, and tracking your important materials is helpful if you experience a delay.
  • Regardless of where you are when you apply, make sure you understand every step of the application process and keep a good checklist, including due dates. Often a school's admissions website will offer a chart or graph with admissions requirements or an application checklist.
  • If you haven't left home yet, and are planning to be abroad during the application process, try to take care of as many details now as possible.

More advice on applying

For a detailed overview of the process of applying and dealing with admissions staff, see our article "Admissions and the application". Also be sure to check out our other articles on applying to grad school.


Remember that if you are feeling overwhelmed, a good way to reduce your stress is to extend your own timeline—you may be better off aiming to apply next fall, and join the following year's incoming class. If you know that you are a procrastinator, however, be careful not to use the extended time line as a reason to put off applying indefinitely, especially if you need the graduate degree!

Stay in touch with the school(s)

Although you are abroad, you cannot afford to lose touch with your admissions and financial aid contacts at your target schools, the people writing letters of recommendation for you, and others. Enlist the help of phone cards, free computer communication tools like Skype, email, instant messaging, and (yes) snail mail to help you communicate questions and concerns, keep up with deadlines, and submit your materials. Also note that many graduate admissions staff travel throughout the world to recruit new students.

Action steps:

  • Find out what the best ways are to stay in touch, who the right people are, and when you can contact them considering the time zone difference.
  • Find out if admissions staff from your target schools will be visiting your area. You can find the admissions office travel schedule on its website.
  • Let them know early and often that you are out of the country so that they understand any unavoidable delays in your paperwork or email response time.
  • If you don't have regular access to email, let them know that as well.

While it's best to read your target school's website thoroughly—including any Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)—before writing your admissions and financial aid contacts with questions, know that you will not make a nuisance of yourself if you correspond with them.

Note that every correspondence with the admissions office will be considered as part of your application, so be polite, avoid using their first names until invited, and use proper grammar and an appropriate tone (i.e., don't abbreviate your spellings as you would in a text message).

Avoid the obvious excuses

Being abroad is a valuable experience, but it's no excuse for a sloppy application
Although you are abroad, do not use this as an excuse to miss deadlines or lose touch with the admissions office or your department. You will impress the admissions committee by living abroad especially if your application arrives complete and on time like everyone else's.

  • If you are collecting the application materials yourself, find out how much time a letter takes to travel from the United States to your host country so you will know if your requested transcript or recommendation letter is unreasonably delayed (you need to follow up with your undergraduate institution or with a recommendation letter writer). Also make sure you mail your application materials and financial aid forms in plenty of time for them to arrive by the posted deadlines. Note that mail traveling to you from a small town in Florida, for example, might take longer than a letter coming from Manhattan.
  • Find out if alumni of your target school may be living or working in your area, and are willing to meet with you.
  • Find out the exact time zone difference between your current location and that of your school, recommendation letter writers, or others, in case you need to telephone someone to follow up about any piece of the admissions process.
  • Sign up for standardized tests as soon as possible if your school requires these. You may not have much control over testing dates, but you will want to include your scores with your application.

Advice on special challenges

Taking graduate admissions tests abroad

Depending on your situation, taking a graduate admissions test adds other challenges like finding study aids, signing up for the test(s), paying for the test, and traveling to the test site. The good news is that students in many countries around the world may be preparing for the same exams you need to take. And the fact that these tests are standardized means that you will be taking the exact same test you would take if you were in the United States.

If you have not left the United States yet, take your standardized tests before leaving if possible. Scores are good for several years, so if you plan to apply in the next year or two, your scores will still be valid.

Online resources for test preparation

If you have ready access to a computer and an internet connection, your best bet for test preparation may be online. Online resources—especially from reputable sources like the makers of the tests themselves and test prep companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan—may be more up-to-date than print materials you have access to. Online resources may include the following:

  • The maker of your test will have free information and sample tests for you to study with. For example, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has many resources for takers of the GRE—a standardized test many graduate schools require for admission. ETS offers an 80-page test preparation booklet including a sample test, software that runs samples of the computer version of the GRE (not compatible with Macintosh computers), scoring guides, and review materials for the three test sections.
  • Trolling test preparation search results from your favorite search engine will afford you resources that may or may not help you prepare.
  • Purchase a study guide that an online bookstore like Amazon.com or Powells.com will ship to you.

For a fee, you can enroll in online test prep courses through companies such as The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and others.

How to find good print study guides in your host country

If you prefer studying from print materials, or simply don't have easy access to a computer with an internet connection, here are ideas for locating test prep aids:

  • A visit to a good foreign language bookstore in a major city or university campus in your host country may turn up some great study guides. Even if you aren't literate or fluent in your host country's language(s), you may be able to study mathematics in local materials, through the language of numbers.
  • Your local consulate or embassy may have a library with a study guide or two.
  • Likewise if you are a Peace Corps Volunteer or participant of another international service program, your host country headquarters may have a study guide in its resource library.
  • Your expat friends may have a copy stored away somewhere—make sure it's up to date before memorizing it.
  • Ask for a study guide in your parents' next care package, or for your birthday.
  • Purchase a study guide that an online bookstore like Amazon.com or Powells.com will ship to you.

Taking test prep classes in your host country

Additionally, depending on which country and city you are in, you may be able to enroll in regular test prep courses offered through local businesses, or companies such as The Princeton Review or Kaplan. These test prep courses may or may not be offered in English and are probably pricey for the local market. It might be worth checking out, though, if you have the ability, both lingual and financial, and a preference for this option. Ask friends who are preparing for the same tests you are, or check the websites of test prep companies you trust.

In addition to refreshing your math skills and learning new vocabulary, make sure to practice taking the entire test several times in the months leading up to your big day. Taking a full three-hour (or longer) test can be exhausting, and you'll want to practice.

Registering for and taking the exam in your host country

The website for the maker of your test(s) should tell you how to sign up for a test in your host country, if that is possible. You may be limited concerning the dates you can choose for taking the test. The earlier you sign up, the better chance you have of getting the date you want. You will definitely be limited in your choice of places where you can take the test: it will probably only be offered in relatively large cities, so you may have to travel to take it. The test may be available in more than one format—paper and/or computer—so find out what format the test will be in and study accordingly.

If worse comes to worst, you may have to delay taking the test until you can go home (either after your time abroad or for vacation). If you have already applied for school and your school is awaiting your scores, make sure to email the appropriate person to explain any delays. A benefit of computer testing is that you get your scores immediately, so you can share those unofficial results with your admissions contact as soon as the test is over.

Even paying for the test can be a challenge

Details for paying should be available on the test maker's website, and options may include credit card, check, money order, and wiring services. If necessary, bring a host country friend to translate if you plan to get a money order or to wire money. If paying is a challenge because you are an international volunteer, note that some test makers are now offering fee discounts for students whose financial need is documented.

Traveling to the test site can be tough

Especially if you are living in a remote town in a developing country, you may want to consider the following:

  • As with everything, plan ahead. The earlier you sign up for the test, the more likely you will be able to choose the date of your test—and schedule the test for vacation time!
  • Take a train or bus to the test site city instead of flying if you have limited funds.
  • If possible, stay with a friend to save money. Otherwise, most countries have youth hostels where you can stay on a budget. It might be worth upgrading to a private room the night before the exam to make sure you get a good night's sleep.

Collecting application materials

Beyond reference letters, your statement of purpose, transcripts, writing samples, and other standard application components, you may have to submit additional pieces to be considered for graduate assistantships, fellowships, etc. For example, if you hope to serve as a teaching assistant for a Spanish language class, you may be required to submit language test scores or even a recording of yourself speaking in Spanish about your decision to apply for that school or assistantship.

Action steps:

  • Be sure to find out early on what you need to submit, so that you can prepare—arrange for tests, borrow equipment, or write supplemental essays. Again, do what you can now if you haven't left the United States yet.
  • If you are concerned about collecting all the disparate pieces of the application, you might ask a very responsible parent, relative, or friend at home to collect letters of reference and other application materials for you, so that the many pieces don't have to make it abroad and then back again, especially if the application must be mailed to the school entirely in one package.

Visiting schools

Visiting the grad schools you are applying to is a good idea so that you can meet with admissions staff and students, sit in on a class or two, and see the library. One of the best reasons to visit campus is to get a sense of the student culture. Do people look happy? What kinds of lectures and events do you see advertised on bulletin boards? Do members of the faculty greet or ignore you in the hallways? Without visiting, you'll have to find alternative means of investigating the qualities that are most important to you. If you are able, visit schools on a trip home to the United States, but if that's not possible, you can make do by speaking with as many people as possible, like alumni living in your area, and tapping into the school's marketing materials.

Action steps:

  • Prepare specific questions about aspects of the on- and off-campus atmosphere that are important to you, such as green lawns, library hours, meeting places for study groups, well-lit coffee shops, information technology support/labs, or campus athletic facilities.
  • Seek opportunities to address these questions to people familiar with campus, such as alumni living in your host country or admissions staff visiting for recruiting events. (Obviously you can also get in touch with admissions staff, current and former students, and friends who know the campus, by email.)
  • Finally, schools may have a DVD that reflects campus life which they can mail you. It's not ideal, but at least you'll get a better sense of the feel and look of the campus.

Conclusion and further resources

Applying to grad schools from another country can be challenging and time consuming. When applying to grad school, the best thing you can do to save yourself stress and ensure that you submit a great application is to give yourself plenty of time. If you haven't left the United States yet, take care of as many details as possible before you take off.

The good news is, your international experience will doubtless be an asset to your application. Admissions people will admire your stamina, keeping up with deadlines and correspondence, and of course the work you are doing abroad. They will understand that your perspective will be valuable in the classroom, too!