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Studying in America: What You Need to Know

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi   In the last few days, I have received scores of inquiries from parents and pro...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi
In the last few days, I have received scores of inquiries from parents and prospective students about studying in America. Because I can’t respond to all the queries individually, I have decided to revise and republish an article I wrote on this subject on May 20, 2006. Hope you find it helpful.

The American educational system is driven by standardized tests, although many universities are now doing away with them. For students wishing to undertake graduate studies in the United States, the standardized test that most 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). Their website address can be found here

Students seeking to enroll into MBA and other management-related programs are required to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Check their site here to register for the test. If you want to study medicine (you must have a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to medical schools here) you must take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

 To study law (you must also have a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to read law) you must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and the web address of the body that administers it is can be found here. Note that the LSAT is required only for people wishing to study for a JD (Juris Doctor), which is the qualification needed to practice law in the United States. (Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have JDs). People wishing to study for the LLM degree (i.e., Master of Laws) need not take the LSAT. While the JD is a three-year program, the LLM is a one-year program. Note, too, that the LLM does not qualify you to practice law in the United States and Canada.

(To study for an undergraduate degree, you must either take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which can be found here or the American College Testing (ACT), which can be found here.

Most American universities also require candidates whose native language is not English to take the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL). See the site here. Some other schools, however, waive this requirement for Nigeria (and other Anglophone countries) where English is the language of instruction at all levels of education.

 TOEFL scores are valid for two years while GRE score are valid five years, which means you can use the test scores to apply for admission more than once. It used to be unusual for any university to waive the GRE requirement for anybody, but as of the early 2020s many universities now waive it. Write directly to the schools you want to apply to to ask if they require the GRE for admission. For more information on standardized tests for graduate school in the United States, go to

So what is the GRE? It is basically an exam that tests prospective graduate students’ preparedness for graduate studies in the United States. It 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. (A great and FREE website to help people prepare for the quantitative portion of the test is Khan Academy).
 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. (I heard the scoring system has changed now). 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. (Again, the scoring has changed, and you need to find out the equivalents for the old system). 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. Some schools don't require it at all.

Where do you take these tests in Nigeria? The best place to find out is the American Embassy in Nigeria. But I took mine with a company called Touché Nigeria Limited. It used to be in Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Abuja. I hear it’s no longer there. But the website addresses I provided above do a good job of identifying their legitimate country representatives.

After taking the tests, the next thing to do is to apply to the program you want. Fortunately, all universities 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 $150. 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—her research goals, her professional aspirations, why she chose the school and the program to which she is applying, and what she expects to achieve with the degree she hopes to acquire.
Parts of Kennesaw State University campus
 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 students’ 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. If you did burn your bridges, go repair them.

An area of the requirement for admission that usually presents problems for Nigerians is the Grade Point Aggregate. 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. 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 World Evaluation Service is America's biggest credential evaluation service, and many prospective international students wishing to study in the US and Canada send their transcripts there for evaluation--for a fee. You may send yours there, too.) You can use other independent credential services that are accredited by the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services, Inc. (NACES). Find their full list here.

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 a strength in another. Admission decisions are purely merit-driven and can’t be influenced.

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  1. Thanks for this article. Couldn't have come at a better time for me!

  2. Ur guidelines really helped me. Jazakallahu Khairan!

  3. Trust me when i say this an eye opener for most people especially in this part of the world where i hail from


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