Pursuing your Master’s in the U.S. How can you accomplish that?

Many people have asked me how I got my Master’s degree in the United States. I am writing this article to share part of journey with you. Once we start thinking about applying for a Master’s degree in another country, it’s common to feel scared to start the journey, insecure about your capacity to be successful abroad, and specially to fear not having the resources to afford your tuition and living costs. I hope that my experience will encourage those who wish to pursue this dream.

Before sharing my whole experience with you, I want to make it very clear that everything I will include here is part of MY experience pursuing my Master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). It’s important to keep that in mind because different institutions may have different admission processes.

The beginning of the journey

I first went to the United States as a Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant to teach Portuguese in an American college for 9 months. Then, after my 6 month I started dreaming about pursuing my Master’s in the United States. I had no idea how to do that, who to talk to, how to apply, how much it would cost, no idea at all. I just knew that I had no money to afford the tuition, so I would need some kind of financial support. There were many questions in my mind, but no answers. At this point, I started asking people for help to understand where to go and what to do to achieve my goal.

TIP: Don’t be afraid of asking for help!!! If you know somebody who is studying or already got their degree abroad, contact them and ask how they did it. Applying for a Master’s degree abroad can be a very stressful process. So, if you have people who can guide you on this journey, don’t hesitate to ask them questions and clarify your doubts.

Choosing the university

At first, I looked for universities in different states and also different programs related to international relations and language teaching, especially the ones that offered scholarships. To be honest, the more I searched for information online, the more lost I got. I emailed some institutions, but couldn’t get any information that could help me. That was when my coordinator gave me an excellent advice: if you don’t have much money, look for small universities instead of the big and famous ones.

TIP: Small universities are less expensive and less competitive. For this reason, they may have more opportunities not only to start your Master’s program but also to get a graduate assistantship or work on campus.

Contacting universities

I was lucky to have an excellent networking while in the Unites States and, of course, I was very determined to make my dream come true. That said, my eyes were wide open to find opportunities around me and also to create opportunities. However, there are times during our journey when we lose hope, when we think we are not able to make things happen, when the doors seem to be all closed. That’s how I started feeling as I kept trying to find a way to study in the United States. Until one day I went to a training session with a Pearson representative and I shared with him my desire to get my Master’s degree in the U.S. What I didn’t know was that he had got his Master’s degree in TESOL at Eastern Michigan University. Then, he asked me to email a specific person in the World Language department to see how I could apply for the program. That’s when I felt hopeful again to continue pursuing my dream.

TIP: Make sure you are talking to the right people. There are MANY departments in a university, which can make us feel overwhelmed, especially when we are from another country. If you know the program that you want to pursue, try to find out the department responsible for that. For example, at EMU, the World Languages department is responsible for the TESOL program. Once I got this information, I immediately contacted the TESOL advisor and asked him how to apply for the Master’s program.

Admission process: documents and English proficiency

Eastern Michigan University required my transcripts from middle, high school, and undergraduate school as well as my undergraduate degree certificate. They didn’t require certified translation, so I could translate my transcripts myself instead of hiring the services of a certified translator. The admissions department also required that my undergraduate transcripts were submitted directly to an approved evaluation service for a detailed, course by course report. I had my transcripts evaluated by Educational Perspectives and, of course, I had to pay for that.

Some institutions will require additional tests, like the GRE. That was not the case to apply for the TESOL program at EMU. Proof of English proficiency must also be provided. To be accepted at EMU, I needed to score at least 80 on the TOEFL test. Different universities may require a different score.

TIP: Make sure you know the deadline to submit your documents or any other deadlines established by the university. Also, ask about how you should submit your documents. They will probably ask you to submit them through the university system instead of sending everything by email or regular mail. Get your documents in order as soon as possible because unexpected situations WILL happen.

Affording tuition and living costs

I was able to get all my documents in order but one question remained unanswered: how would I afford the tuition? I really needed some kind of financial support. Once I contacted the TESOL advisor, he scheduled an interview with me. In this interview, I asked him about scholarships. I came to find out that what I really needed was actually a Graduate Assistantship (GAship) instead of a scholarship, which means that I would work for the university in exchange for a stipend (a kind of salary) and having my tuition paid. The advisor informed me about the departments who had available positions for new GAs. Bingo! That’s all I needed to know!

Here is another reason why communication and networking is important: it’s much easier to get information from someone who is already working in the university than looking for it online. I immediately contacted the department who had a position available and they informed me about the documents I needed to submit, the requirements for the position, etc. To make a long story short, I got a position as a Graduate Assistant to teach the Introduction to the University course to freshman students. It was a full ride, which means that all my tuition was covered and I got a stipend every 15 days, enough to afford my expenses living in the U.S.

TIP: You need to be accepted in the university first before getting a position as a GA because the department who is offering the GAship will ask for your letter of acceptance at some point. So, when you find a GA position, go ahead and contact the department to get more information about the position and show that you are interested, but keep working on your application for the Master’s program because you need to have it done to start working in the university.

Additional documents

The TESOL advisor required 3 letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose to have my application completed. Letters of recommendation are usually submitted through the university system. So, before asking someone to send you a letter of recommendation by email, make sure you know how it should be submitted. Otherwise, you may have to contact the person again to ask them to send the letter through the system. Regarding the statement of purpose, I will have another article with some tips on how to write it.

TIP: Ask the right people for letters of recommendation. Some people may have a lot to say about you, but they may be lazy or too busy to write your letter. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, make sure the person understands what you are applying for, why this is important for you, and by when they should send you this letter. My suggestion is that you give them an earlier deadline, just in case something goes wrong and they need to make adjustments to the letter or maybe to give you time to get a letter from another person if you don’t feel comfortable with the one you got.

Financial statement of responsibility

This was the requirement that almost gave me a heart attack. I was only informed about it when I had already got my acceptance letter. The financial statement of responsibility basically proves that you have the money to afford all your expenses during one academic year while attending the university. In my case, I had to prove that I had about $36,225 on my account. At this point I thought “well, the dream is over.” In moments of desperation, we need to take a deep breath and think about solutions.

The solution for me was to talk to my supervisor in the department where I got my Graduate Assistantship so that I could get a document proving that my tuition would be all covered. The problem was that a GAship contract is usually only valid for one semester. Then, I had to explain my situation to my supervisor and ask her if it would be possible to create a 1-year contract for me. And she did! After all that, I still had to prove that I had $5,000 on my account. If you are living in the U.S. on another type of VISA you don’t need to go through all this process. This is only required from F-1 or F-3 student VISA applicants.

TIP: Make sure you know how much each semester will cost and how you can pay for that. At EMU, I could pay in 4 installments until the end of the semester.

Health insurance

As an international student at EMU, it was mandatory to have the health insurance provided by the university. I was just informed about it towards the end of my admission process. In the end, although my tuition was covered, I didn’t study totally for free because I had to pay my health insurance every semester, which was almost $700,00, and also the university fees.

TIP: Before you begin your admission process, send an email to the office of international students to ask whether you are required to have a health insurance. You need to include this expense on your budget.

VISA required for international students

When I first went to the U.S. I had a J-1 VISA (exchange visitor). When I received my letter of acceptance, I had to travel back to Brazil to apply for the F-1 visa, which is a visa for international students. If you are living in the U.S. with another VISA type, you don’t need an F-1 visa to apply for the Master’s program.

TIP: To apply for an F-1 visa you will need a document called I-20, which will be provided by the university as soon as all your admission process is complete and another document called SEVIS. Contact the office of international students to receive a checklist of documents you need to apply for the F-1 VISA and also contact your Consulate for specific documents required by your country.

My journey was far from easy. It required a lot of determination, patience, and money, but it all paid off. If you plan to pursue your Master’s abroad in the near future, start saving money now because you will be having some expenses along the process. Learn from people who have already gone through this journey and don’t be discouraged by lack of resources or lack of confidence. You can make it!

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. You can find her on facebook @languagenextlevel and on her website www.languagenextlevel.com. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session for free and check how she can help you improve your communication in English.