Applying to a US Masters degree can be quite an extensive process. Universities want to make sure students end up on the right graduate programmes and therefore put a lot of time and effort into their admissions process. They expect you to do the same with your application.
This doesn't mean that it's harder to get a place on a US Masters degree. But you will need to provide more material and more detail about your existing qualifications than you might be asked for elsewhere.
Remember too that you'll also need to secure a student visa alongside your university place.
When should I apply for a Masters in the USA?
You should try to begin your application to study abroad in the USA early – ideally before the end of the second year of your undergraduate programme.
In most cases you should aim to have submitted your full application by the end of March in the academic year before you expect to enrol. (If you are proceeding directly to postgraduate study this will be the final year of your undergraduate degree programme).
Some institutions will also accept applications in the previous December. Meeting this earlier deadline may be advantageous if you wish to be considered for some scholarships and other funding arrangements.
How should I apply for a Masters in the USA?
Applications for US Masters programmes are made directly to institutions.
There is no limit on the number of courses you can apply to simultaneously. But bear in mind that US graduate schools will often ask for a lot of supplementary material with your application. Most will also charge an administrative fee.
You'll therefore be better off selecting a small shortlist of institutions to apply to. A good way to do this is to search and compare the US Masters degrees listed on this website.
What qualifications will I need?
Admission to a US graduate programme will require an appropriate undergraduate degree. This should be in a similar field to your Masters, but it may not need to be in exactly the same subject.
Universities will set their own minimum requirements, but you'll normally need to hold a 2.1 or its equivalent. Very selective universities will have much stricter requirements.
Whatever your degree result, it will normally need to be converted into a GPA before it can be used for an American graduate school application. (A UK 2.1 is roughly equivalent to a GPA of at least 3.0).
What else should I submit with my application?
American universities will require more from you than an undergraduate degree result. You may need to submit a full academic transcript as well as academic references and personal statements. If English is not your first language you may also be asked for a language test score.
More selective graduate programmes often require scores from graduate admissions tests. Some will ask to interview you if you are shortlisted.
Academic programmes may also ask you to submit a specific research statement with your application. This is particularly likely if you are applying to a graduate programme with the opportunity to continue on to PhD work.
You can read more about all of these requirements below.
An academic transcript is a more detailed summary of your undergraduate degree. It includes information on the modules you've studied and your performance on individual assignments.
American universities will often request this in addition to your overall degree result. A transcript lets them see how relevant your experience is to the Masters you are applying for. It also demonstrates how you have developed as a student. More competitive programmes may also ask to see how your results compared with those of other students in your cohort.
As a rule, your undergraduate university should be able to produce a satisfactory transcript for you upon request. But you should allow plenty of time for them to do so. If you have yet to complete your undergraduate degree, your university should be able to provide a projected result.
Any transcript you do provide must be officially verified. Submitting marks or other information yourself won't be acceptable and may delay your application.
An important part of your academic transcript will be the conversion of your undergraduate degree result into a Grade Point Average.
American universities may do this themselves (based on their knowledge of the grading system in your previous country of study). Or they may ask your undergraduate university to do it.
Where neither option is possible, you may have to pay for an approved third-party credential evaluator to produce a GPA conversion for you. This is unlikely if your undergraduate degree was earned in the UK or another well-known higher education system.
Graduate admissions tests
Graduate admissions tests are a more common requirement in the US education system than they are in other countries. They allow your university to assess general skills such as abstract reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking.
A number of tests are in use, but the two most common are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).
- The general GRE test is not specific to any particular discipline (though some subject-specific variants are offered).
- The GMAT is generally associated with applications for MBA degrees at graduate business schools.
Your prospective university should be able to tell you which test it requires. some programmes may accept either a GRE or a GMAT score. You should not need to sit both unless you are applying to multiple institutions with preferences for different tests.
You can read more about the GRE and the GMAT, as well as a range of other less common tests, in our guide to graduate entry tests.
Academic and personal references
Masters programmes in the USA are quite likely to ask for references from people who know you as a student. These may be referred to as 'letters of recommendation' or 'recommendation letters'.
You will usually be asked to provide two or three such letters. Try to select a range of referees who can speak about various aspects of your character and experiences.
As a rule, you should include at least one academic referee with relevant experience of you as an undergraduate. A good choice might be a dissertation supervisor or the tutor for an elective module relating to your postgraduate interests.
Additional referees could be other academics, or people who can speak of your character in a different context (such as a work colleague).
Along with references, personal statements are another good way of providing a university with additional information about your background and interests.
If you are asked for such a statement, make sure you take it seriously. This will be your main opportunity to communicate with your university directly about your qualities as a candidate and your potential as a Masters student.
And if you do succeed in being shortlisted for an interview, you can expect your personal statement to be the basis for part of that discussion.
For more information on writing a personal statement for a US Masters degree, see the detailed advice available at the website of the Fulbright Commission or read our guide to postgraduate personal statements.
American graduate schools may ask you to submit a research statement.
This is more likely to be a requirement for students applying for a PhD. But it may also apply to Masters degrees with the option to progress to PhD research within a broader graduate programme.
Being asked to provide a statement of your research interests may seem a little daunting at this stage. But don't worry. This is a statement, not a proposal.
You won’t be expected to decide the topic of your Masters dissertation at this stage, or to ‘sell’ it to your prospective tutors.
In fact, the research statement is more of an opportunity for you to express your academic interests and demonstrate the aptitude and engagement that have led you to consider studying a Masters degree.
By the same token, you won’t be expected to demonstrate an exhaustive knowledge of the academic work in your field. Nor will you need to explain the technicalities of every different methodology applied to it. Prospective PhD students aren't required to do this, let alone prospective Masters students!
You should show some knowledge of your discipline and its methodologies of course, but it’s okay to be honest when doing so.
Universities will be interested in hearing about the topics that occupy you and the way you think you might go about researching them. But they’ll also be happy to hear what you still want to learn about those topics – what you hope to gain from studying their Masters programme.
With that in mind it’s also a good idea to show some appreciation for the aims and research culture at the university department or graduate school you’re applying to. Why is this institution and programme a good fit for you and your interests?
Whatever you include in your research proposal, remember that you may end up discussing it at an interview. Speaking of which. . .
Interviews are slightly more common for admission to MBA programmes or other very competitive courses, but can be used to assess candidates for other kinds of Masters degrees.
Don’t be intimidated at being asked to attend an interview. It’s always a good sign and will be a great opportunity for you to discuss other aspects of your application.
This could include saying more about your transcripts and statements, or just demonstrating your interest and enthusiasm in person.
You may also be relieved to hear that you won't necessarily have to travel to America for a Masters interview.
Many universities will be willing to speak to your over Skype.
Some may also arrange for an alumni interview. This involves meeting with a graduate from your prospective programme, in your normal country of residence. They'll discuss your application and goals with you before reporting back to the university. Chatting with them can also be a great opportunity to ask questions about what it's like to study this Masters degree.
You can read more about the interview procedure for Masters degrees in the USA on the Fulbright Commission website.
The USA is a linguistically diverse country, but most Masters programmes at American universities are delivered in English.
If English is not your first language you may need to submit a score from a recognised academic language test.
Both the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) are commonly accepted by American graduate schools.
You can read more about them (as well as other common language tests) in our guide.
Your prospective university will be able to tell you which test it prefers (many will accept more than one), and the minimum score, or scores, it requires.
Students who have already completed (or are enrolled on) a degree programme delivered in English may not need to submit an additional test score, but you should check this with your institution.