"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Studying in America: What You Need to Know

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Studying in America: What You Need to Know

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on May 20, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
It appears that my series on education in America resonated with a lot of people, especially young people who are desirous of leaving the shores of Nigeria to get advanced degrees. I have received scores of private emails from readers asking for counsel on the steps to take to study in an American university.

Because I cannot respond to all the private inquiries, I have decided to address these concerns in a separate column.

It is amazing how so little a lot of Nigerians know about studying in the United States—at least judging from the emails I receive daily from readers. It is important to note, however, that the tips I am going to give in this page are purely the product of my own personal experiences; expert counsel is available at the American Embassy in Nigeria.

I pointed out earlier that the American educational system is driven by standardized tests. For students wishing to undertake graduate studies in the United States, the standardized test that ALL universities in the United States require from ALL students—whether they are American or international students— in most disciplines in the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences is the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

However, students seeking to enroll into MBA and other management-related programs are required to take the GMAT. Prospective graduate students in engineering and the medical field also take a different test.

Most schools require candidates whose native language is not English to write the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL). Some other schools, however, waive this requirement for Nigerians (and other Anglophone Africans) because English is the language of instruction at all levels of our education.

The University of Louisiana, for instance, requires all non-native speakers of English to take the TOEFL, even if their language of instruction is English. I had an interesting experience with this.

After I was admitted here and scored A’s in every single class I took, one of my professors—actually the graduate coordinator of the communication program here—told me how inappropriate and “ethnocentric” it was, in retrospect, for them to require me to take TOEFL.

When I was applying for my Ph.D. in another school, which also requires all non-native speakers to submit scores from TOEFL (TOEFL scores are valid for only two years, so mine expired last year) the graduate coordinator here insisted I not take another TOEFL. I asked him what he wanted me to do since he had no control over what other schools require from their prospective students. He simply told me to wait and see what he would do.

While we were discussing, he looked up the phone number of the school to which I applied and called them up. “Am I speaking with the Ph.D. admissions coordinator in communication?” he inquired. The voice at the other end answered in the affirmative.

And he continued: “I am calling in respect of Farooq Kperogi. He has applied to your Ph.D. program, and I understand you require all non-native speakers of English to take TOEFL. Well, even though Farooq is Nigerian, he is a native speaker of the English language.”

That was false. I made signs to tell him he was being factually inaccurate. I guess the receiver must have also had a hard time coming to terms with a Farooq Kperogi as a native speaker of the English language.

Then he changed. “Look, this guy is the best student we have ever had in our program in a long while. He wrote the best thesis in the department and, I tell you, he speaks and writes better English than me, a native speaker. And I don’t say this lightly. If you insist he takes the TOEFL, you might as well make all Americans take it.”

I blushed. That was too much praise for one person in one minute! Well, the end of the story is that the TOEFL requirement was waived for me. And the moral of the story is that it can be waived for people who make a convincing case that they speak and write as good English as any college-educated American (remember that’s how Americans call university-educated people).

All these tests are administered by the Education Testing Service in the State of New Jersey. As I pointed out earlier, TOEFL has a lifespan of two years, and GRE has a lifespan of five years. It is unusual for any university to waiver the GRE requirement for anybody. For more information on standardized tests for graduate school in the United States, go to www.ets.org.

Now, what is GRE? It is basically an exam, which tests prospective graduate students’ preparedness for graduate studies. (Note that that Americans don’t use the phrase “postgraduate studies” to refer to advanced studies after the bachelor’s degree, unlike us, the UK, Australia, South Africa, and other former British colonies.)

The GRE has three segments. The first segment tests students’ familiarity with verbal reasoning. You need to have an impressive reservoir of intellectually fashionably vocabulary to be successful in this section. The second section is the nightmare of numerophobic journalists like me: quantitative reasoning. As the name suggests, it tests students’ skills in mathematics.

The third segment tests students’ skills in analytical reasoning and writing. Here, test takers are given two tasks: to critique the logical inadequacies of an essay and to write a logically coherent and conceptual response to a subject-matter that will be presented during the test.

The verbal and quantitative sections are worth 800 points each, and are usually combined. The analytical writing segment is a stand-alone section. Different schools have different cut-off points for entry into their programs. However, the minimum requirement to be admitted into graduate programs here is a combined score of 1000 in the verbal and quantitative sections of the test. Competitive programs have higher requirements.

The analytical writing segment is graded differently. The lowest point a candidate can get is 1.0 and the highest grade is 6.0. Most schools require at least a 4.0 score in the segment to consider a candidate for admission, especially in the humanities and the social sciences.

Most Nigerians have fallen victim to ruthless scammers in the writing of these standardized tests. The best place to find out about these tests is the American Embassy in Nigeria. Because of Nigeria’s notoriety as a nation of scammers, (I wrote my thesis on the rhetorical strategies of Nigerian 419 email scams) our credibility is at unbelievably low ebb.

A lot of people distrust and resent Nigerians because of the activities of 419 scam artists. So it is difficult to pay for these tests when you are a Nigerian. Credit cards with a Nigerian billing address, however genuine they are, are rejected here. People who have traveled outside Nigeria can testify to the profound scorn in which we are all held because of a few unscrupulous bastards among us.

In light of this, (Americans don’t say, “in the light of this”!) it is usually better to go through designated agents in Nigeria to pay the fees for these tests. It bears repeating that the best place to get information on this is the American Embassy in Nigeria.

After taking the tests, the next thing to do is to apply to the program you want. Fortunately, most schools now accept online applications. However, unlike in our system, American universities require applicants to pay application fees. This can be as low as $30 and as high as $100. Payment of the application fee does not guarantee admission, but it must be paid before a candidate’s file can be acted upon. The fee is used to process candidates’ application.

American universities also require applicants to submit what is called the statement of purpose. It is a personal essay that outlines the candidate’s reasons for applying to the program—his research goals, his professional aspirations, why he chose the school and the program to which he is applying, and what he expects to achieve with the degree he hopes to acquire.

Doctoral programs require students to identify professors they want to work with, and give reasons why the professors are the best people to provide mentorship to the prospective student’s research. (Americans use “dissertation” for the doctoral treatise and “thesis” for master’s treatise; they reverse our—that is, British—usage of these terms).

Another important requirement for acceptance into graduate programs here is the reference or recommendation letter from people, usually your former university teachers, who are capable of commenting on your academic and professional preparation for your proposed course of study.

So don’t burn your bridges with your teachers just yet! Their opinions are respected in the admission process here.

An area of the requirement for admission that usually presents problems for Nigerians is the GPA. Because we use the British grading system, most American universities are not usually impressed with our transcripts. As I said in an earlier write-up, in the American system, A starts from 90 to 100; B from 80 to 89; C from 70 to 79; D from 60 to 69; and F from 0 to 59.

This means that even our First Class degree can look like a “C” average here—that is, just a step away from the bottom. However, things are improving now, though. Most universities now use the services of educational experts who help institutions compare and contrast transcripts across the different educational systems of the world.

The other good news is that in arriving at a decision whether or not to admit a student into a graduate program, most American universities look at the whole picture: GRE scores, GPA, recommendation letters, and statements of purpose. A weakness in one area can be offset by strength in another area.

I hope this helps, and that it is sufficient to save me from persistent inquiries about studying in America.
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