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Masters in the USA

by Mark Bennett

As the world's most popular study abroad destination, the USA has plenty to offer you as an international postgraduate. You'll be one of over 750,000 overseas students, many of whom study on the country's renowned graduate programs.

But America isn't just the most popular choice for international study. It's also one of the biggest. With 50 states, 9.8 million square miles and over 4,000 higher education providers, there's a lot to take in when considering Masters study in the USA.

That's where this guide comes in. We've put together detailed advice on everything you need to know about postgraduate study in the USA. From course structure and grading to applications and visas.

Elsewhere on this site you can read our guide to American Masters fees and funding, learn about student life for postgraduates in the USA or just get started with your search for a US Masters degree.

Why study a Masters in the USA?

It's a cliche, but size really does matter in American higher education. And so does scope.

There are over 4,000 universities and other higher education providers in the USA. Only around 1,700 of them offer Masters-level degrees (which narrows things down slightly). But there's still a huge variety of institutions to choose from.

Some are top global universities, with internationally renowned research and teaching high quality postgraduate (or 'graduate') programs.

Others are much smaller and focus their expertise on a few specialised subject areas.

Wherever you study, a Masters degree from a quality US university will provide you with an internationally respected qualification.

American graduate programs are world renowned for their comprehensive approach to postgraduate education, combining enhanced subject knowledge and research opportunities with the development of a suite of transferrable skills.

What's different about postgraduate study in the USA?

Higher education in the USA isn't that different to other parts of the world. In fact, many countries actually model their university systems on a US template.

But there are a few things that make postgraduate study at American universities quite unique.

'Graduate' vs 'Postgraduate'

First things first: Americans don't tend to use the term 'postgraduate'. At least not in the same way as universities and students in other countries.

Rather than studying as a 'postgraduate' in the USA, you’ll probably be enrolled onto a 'graduate' program. This may also be organised within a specific 'graduate school' (or 'grad' school') at your university.

The word 'postgraduate' (or 'post-graduate') is still sometimes used at American universities. But it normally refers to someone who has completed graduate level training up to PhD level.

Such a person would probably be looking for a post-doctoral or early career academic position, not a Masters degree. So be careful not to accidentally promote yourself up the academic ladder!

For the sake of simplicity, we'll keep using 'postgraduate' on this page. Don't worry if you see American universities using the term 'graduate' instead though.

No pure research degrees

This is probably the most striking feature of higher education in the USA: almost all programs include taught units and assessments.

This may surprise you if you're familiar with a system such as the UK's, in which Masters degrees can be either taught or research focussed.

Masters degrees (and PhDs) in the USA are much more structured. You'll still be expected to think and study independently, but you'll be assessed much more formally and consistently across your program.

This means that you won't be able to study a standalone research Masters such as the MRes (Master of Research) or MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in the USA.

In fact, even PhD programs in the USA normally include initial taught training and examinations before a student proceeds to the final ABD ('all but dissertation') stage and completes their thesis.

This approach has its advantages. You'll benefit from more organised training and will acquire a range of complimentary skills alongside your academic degree. In fact, universities elsewhere are increasingly mimicking the American model, with a structured approach to postgraduate education.

As a Masters student in the USA you’ll be able to have it both ways. You'll experience a ‘modern’ approach to postgraduate study within a higher education system that has extensive experience delivering these comprehensive programs.

Regular assesment and grading

A structured approach to postgraduate training also means that a US Masters degree often involves more continuous assessment.

Masters degrees in other countries often involve a smaller number of large assessments. You might only have one coursework essay to produce for each module, with other work such as seminar preparation and discussion not contributing to your final grade.

In the USA this system is reversed. You'll be set more regular tasks, ranging from in-class examinations on core knowledge to shorter coursework essays. Marks for these will be converted into a Grade Point Average (GPA), reflecting progress across your course.

There are various advantages to this system. With more regular assessment comes more regular feedback and you’ll always have a good idea of how well you’re performing and how best to improve.

You may also prefer for your grade to be determined by a series of smaller exercises, rather than weighted heavily towards one ‘make or break’ assignment.

Don’t worry about losing the opportunity to dig in and undertake more substantial academic work either.Your Masters will almost certainly conclude with a substantial independent dissertation. This will be your chance to really apply the knowledge and skills you’ve developed as a postgraduate.

Continuous assessment can also lead to more in-depth engagement in classes, as students are encouraged to constantly demonstrate their engagement with course materials.

Universities in the USA

If you’re approaching the prospect of postgraduate study in the USA for the first time, the sheer range of options on offer can appear a bit daunting.

Don't worry though. The US higher education system is easier to understand once you can distinguish between the different types of American higher education institution. And the kinds of programs they typically offer.

Varieties of higher education institution in the USA

You’ll come across references to all sorts of institution as you search for a Masters in the USA. From community colleges and liberal arts colleges, to public and private universities and their various graduate schools.

It’s worth taking a moment to look at the differences between these and understand how they relate to each other within the broader US higher education system.


Unlike in countries such as the UK where colleges tend to be pre-tertiary-level institutions, Americans often use the term ‘college’ as an equivalent term for ‘university’; so, ‘going to university’ becomes ‘going to college’.

However, ‘college’ is more often used in this way to refer to undergraduate education. With some notable exceptions, institutions that refer to themselves as colleges are usually smaller, with a focus on a few subject areas. They may not always offer postgraduate programs.

There are two common types of higher education college in the US:

  • Community colleges only offer undergraduate programs (many of which are associate’s degrees, preparing students for bachelors level study).
  • Liberal arts colleges may have postgraduate programs awarding Masters degrees and even PhDs, but the majority focus on undergraduate education through a combined liberal arts and science curriculum.


To be classed as a university in the USA an institution normally has to include a certain number of faculties or schools. Some of these will focus on specific subjects. Others will focus on a certain level of teaching.

In fact, it's common for a large American university to include dedicated undergraduate colleges as well as more advanced graduate schools.

Whatever their make-up, universities are where the majority of academic research occurs in the USA. This means they also have the expertise and facilities to deliver advanced degrees such as Masters and PhD qualifications.

Individual universities in the USA may be either public or private, depending on their funding status.

  • Public universities in the USA are funded and administered as part of state university systems rather than the federal government. They tend to be large and often very prestigious institutions, sometimes operating across a network of sites in different major cities (in which case individual campuses may also specialise in particular academic fields). Most US states maintain a single state university system, but some operate more than one. Because they are supported by state funding, fees at public universities are usually lower than those at private universities.
  • Private universities in the USA are not funded by the state, but neither are they necessarily run on a commercial (for-profit) basis. Instead they sustain their research and teaching activity through external investment (from charities or other organisations), and with the revenues they raise from tuition fees. Private universities are often more expensive than state universities, but most will also offer scholarships and other funding packages to help encourage and support students – including international postgraduates.

Graduate schools

Graduate schools are the academic centres responsible for training students at Masters and PhD level in the USA. In fact, American students may speak of going from ‘college’ to ‘graduate school’ (or ‘grad school’).

Graduate schools often exist as part of larger universities. They draw on their institution's facilities and expertise, but focus on the delivery of advanced degrees through graduate programs.

An individual American university may have more than one graduate school, specialising in different subject areas.

Graduate schools focussing on professional training may also be given titles that reflect this. Common examples include business schools, medical schools and law schools.

Such schools are sometimes referred to in the abstract as ‘professional schools’ to distinguish them from academically orientated ‘graduate schools’.

American university organisations

The US higher education system is home to various organisations and groups of universities, some of which are internationally famous.

You've probably heard of the Ivy League, for example. (Though you might be surprised to learn that this prestigious grouping was originally formed as a sporting association.)

It can be worth knowing a little about organisations like this as you investigate postgraduate study in the USA.

The Ivy League

We may as well start with the big one. The Ivy League is probably the most famous university association in the world. Its name is shorthand for academic excellence and student prestige. But neither of these was actually a factor in its formation.

In fact, the Ivy League was originally set up as a local sporting conference. Eight private universities in the same part of the north-eastern USA set up a 'league' to play sports against each other in the twentieth century.

The Ivy League members are:

It just so happens that these eight universities were (and are) some of the oldest and most renowned in North America. Seven of them actually pre-date the formation of the USA itself, with their origins in colonial colleges established during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Today the Ivy League is associated with academic renown. It functions similarly to the UK's Russell Group, or the Australian Group of Eight: an association of a country's most elite and selective universities.

But, unlike those other groups, the Ivy League doesn't actually admit members based on their quality. In fact, it doesn't admit new members at all.

Ivy League universities do have plenty to be proud of (fourteen of their graduates have gone on to be US presidents). They're also very selective, admitting around 10% of the students who apply to them.

But they aren't the be-all-and-end-all of elite US education. Many of the country's top universities aren't even members.

Public Ivies

The private nature of the Ivy League has lead some top public universities in the US to be referred to as 'Public Ivies.'

The Public Ivies aren't a formal association (and their 'membership' is completely unofficial). But the term is still a meaningful mark of respect.

It effectively means that a public university is regarded as being of Ivy League quality - a significant accolade!

The Association of American Universities (AAU)

The Association of American Universities is a membership organisation comprising leading public and private North American research universities. (It includes 60 US institutions as well as two in Canada).

In practice the AAU is similar to the UK’s Russell Group. Membership serves as a badge of quality and allows universities to collectively lobby on higher education issues.

The AAU includes seven of the eight Ivy League members as well as numerous other prestigious public and private institutions.

The Carnegie Classification of American Universities

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is a well-established system for categorising American higher education providers.

It is based on the number of programs they offer at different levels, and the dominance of different subject areas in their research and training activity.

This means that the Carnegie Classification can be useful for international students trying to distinguish between a number of unfamiliar American institutions. (Though it isn't a postgraduate ranking table).

The Basic Classification groups institutions according to the level and size of their degree programs.

There are three tiers for institutions offering Masters degrees. And a further three for universities with doctoral programs.

Where a university offers postgraduate programs, you can also use its Graduate Instructional program Classification to see which disciplines predominate in its provision.

Masters degrees in the USA

Masters degrees in the USA serve a similar purpose to those in other countries. They are postgraduate (or 'graduate') degrees, following a related undergraduate course.

Some offer the chance to study an academic subject in more depth. Others provide advanced technical or professional training.

The main differences between postgraduate qualifications in the USA and their international equivalents are structural.

Studying for an American Masters degree will usually involve enrolling in an institution’s graduate program.

You'll work towards your degree, with regular assesments and training tasks. But you'll often also receive more general training. This will make you a well-rounded graduate, with a range of transferable skills complimenting your subject expertise.

How long is a Masters degree in the USA?

A Masters degree at an American university usually takes around two years of full-time study to complete (though some courses are shorter).

This is longer than in some other countries (such as the UK) but reflects the greater emphasis on structured training and regular assessment on a US graduate program.

In most cases, the greater length of your degree will be offset by the additional development opportunities and transferable skills you acquire during it.

Possession of an American Masters degree may also shorten the amount of time required to achieve a PhD in the same field.

What's it like to study a Masters degree in the USA?

In some ways, American Masters degrees are a lot like those in other countries. You'll study at a more advanced level and be expected to think and study more independently.

But, as we've made clear throughout this guide, you'll also have a much more structured experience than some other international postgraduates. Assessments will be more frequent and you'll be encouraged (or required) to undertake supplementary training.

Your day to day experience will depend on the type of graduate program you enrol on and what it's intended outcomes are.

It's helpful to divide these into two broad categories: Academic programs and professional programs.

Academic Masters

Academic Masters programs are similar to traditional taught Masters degrees in other countries. They focus upon broad subject areas and conclude with a substantial research task and the submission of an associated thesis.

However, they tend to be less specialised than their international equivalents.

Instead of narrowing their field of study, American Masters students continue to develop a more comprehensive knowledge of their discipline at an advanced level.

This makes sense given the nature of undergraduate education in the USA, which allows students to study a diverse range of subjects before finally declaring a one to ‘major’ in.

For students progressing from such a system, selecting a Masters degree in a broad subject area is itself a form of specialisation.

In most cases, students on academic Masters programs choose from a range of modules. (These may be referred to as ‘courses’ or ‘classes’).

Modules delivering core disciplinary knowledge or methodological training are usually mandatory. Others will be ‘elective’ – giving you the freedom to shape parts of your degree according to your own interests.

The opportunity to pursue your specific interests in greater depth comes at the dissertation stage of an American academic Masters program.

This is similar to the equivalent task in countries such as the UK: involving a significant independent research project, supervised by a scholar with relevant expertise.

Professional Masters

Professional Masters programs do as their name suggests. They provide the vocational skills and technical training required for particular professional careers.

Many are accredited, allowing graduates to work in regulated careers. (Though, as an international student you should bear in mind that US professional accreditation won't necessarily be recognised overseas.)

Professional Masters programs are likely to have fewer elective modules than academic programs. Instead you will be required to complete a stricter syllabus of core training. This ensures that students graduate with the specific competencies stipulated by a profession (and its accreditors).

These programs are often offered by specialist graduate schools with appropriate titles. MBA programs, for example are normally delivered by dedicated business schools. Law programs, meanwhile, are offered by law schools (and so on).

Such schools often have their own external partnerships with businesses and other professional organisations. The presence of these can have a significant impact on the content of a Masters - and enhance its prestige.

Whereas academic Masters programs conclude with a dissertation, professional Masters programs usually replace this with a formal internship in a relevant company or other organisation.

How are US Masters degrees assessed and graded?

Masters degrees in the USA are usually organised into modules. Some will be mandatory and some will be elective. Your final grade will be determined by a weighted combination of the grades you receive across these individual units (including any dissertation project or internship).

This is similar to the system used in other higher education systems around the world.

But what makes the USA unique is its emphasis on continuous assessment and its use of a Grade Point Average (GPA) system (see below).

Masters programs in countries such as the UK are more likely to assess students at the conclusion of modules. The USA, on the other hand, favours regular evaluation and feedback.

Exact assessment practices will vary between subject areas and courses. You can usually expect to be set a series of routine coursework tasks in addition to more substantive assignments. Some graduate programs may also base part of your grade on your participation in group sessions.

Don’t let this more frequent assessment concern you. It isn't intended to overburden students, but to help support them with regular feedback on their progress.

You may also find that the system creates a more dynamic and stimulating learning environment. You'll be prompted to engage more pro-actively with course materials, tutors and other students.

More frequent assessment also supports the use of a Grade Point Average (GPA) system on US Masters programs.

What is a Grade Point Average?

Most Masters degrees and graduate programs in the USA use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system to reflect student performance. This system is also used on undergraduate programs at American universities. Instead of referring to their mark for a degree, US students will normally refer to their GPA.

Put simply, a Grade Point Average is the weighted average of all the grades you have received so far on your course. The weight of each mark will depend on its significance within your course. This usually corresponds with the number of hours of study it is held to represent.

A GPA can be produced at any point in your Masters degree, based on the work you have completed so far.

This complements the regular assessment of US graduate programs. You will be able to see your grade taking shape at any point in your degree. And, if necessary, you will be able to act to adjust it!

Maintaining a strong GPA can also be important if you receive funding for your Masters degree. Scholarships may set performance requirements for financial support to continue or renew during your course.

Calculating your GPA

A GPA is calculated over several stages.

  • Assignments are first marked using a percentage scale. Each percentage bracket on that scale is expressed using a letter, from A to F.
  • Each letter carries a corresponding point score, expressed to two decimal places from 0 to 4.0. In some cases letter grades may be given + or – qualifiers that add or subtract a small amount (usually a third of a point, or 0.33), from their point score.
  • An overall GPA is produced from multiple grades by weighting each according to their credit value (usually through multiplying the point value by the credit number), and dividing the sum total by the number of hours of study corresponding to the classes in question.
  • The end result is your current (or final) GPA score.

Converting a UK Masters grade to a US GPA

At some point, either before or after your Masters in the USA, you'll need to convert a foreign grade into a GPA. Or convert a GPA into a foreign grade.

Universities will normally be able to help you do this. Particularly if you are need to provide a GPA equivalent as part of your application.

The table below provides an approximate guide to the equivalence between Masters grades in the UK and US GPA scores.

UK Degree Classification UK Percentage US Grade US GPA Value
1st 70-100 A 4.0
2.1 60-69 B / B+ 3.0 - 3.33
2.2 54-59 B- / B 2.67 - 3.0
50-53 C / C+ 2.0 - 2.33
3rd 42-49 C- / C 1.67 - 2.0
40-41 D / D+ 1.0 - 1.33
Borderline pass 38-39 D- / D 0.67-1.0

Please note that this is a simplified table and is provided as a loose guideline only.

Your prospective US university should be able to tell you exactly how it equates different US alphabetical grade brackets to the percentage ranges within UK degree classifications.

How to apply

Applying to a US Masters degree can be quite an extensive process. Universities will want to make sure students end up on the right graduate programs and will therefore put a lot of time and effort into their admissions process. They will 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 qualification 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 program.

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 program).

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 programs 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 program 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 programs will often require scores from graduate admissions test. Some will ask to interview you if you are shortlisted.

Academic programs may also ask you to submit a specific research statement with your application. This is particularly likely if you are applying to a graduate program with the opportunity to continue on to PhD work.

You can read more about all of these requirements below.

Academic transcripts

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 programs 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 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 programs 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.

Both the GRE and the GMAT are administered by private companies (the Educational Testing Service and the Graduate Management Admissions Council, respectively). They are not offered directly by universities. Instead you will usually sit these tests at an approved testing centre, which may be located in your home country.

The cost of sitting a GRE or a GMAT may vary between different testing centres, but should be somewhere between $200 and $300 for each test.

Don’t worry if you are applying to more than one institution – you can use the same GRE or GMAT score for multiple applications and your results will remain valid for up to five years.

Your best bet is to put together a shortlist of American Masters courses, establish which test will be acceptable to the majority of them and arrange to sit it before you begin the rest of the application process.

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 programs 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.

The following are some tips for picking referees:

  • If your personal statement refers to extra-curricular interests, it may be worth including a referee with knowledge of these.
  • If you are applying to a professional Masters program and have relevant work experience then it may be worth asking an employer to provide a reference. This is especially true for applications to MBA courses or other business degrees.
  • It can also be worth providing a non-academic referee if applying to an academic Masters program. American universities will often be interested in your extra-curricular activities and achievements. A referee with wider experience of you can be a good way of communicating this.

Personal statements

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.

The following are some tips for completing a personal statement as part of a US Masters application:

  • Don't just use your personal statement to repeat information that's available elsewhere in your applicaton - or simply provide a copy of your CV.
  • Speak about your academic interests and explain why you’ve chosen this particular program. But don't just talk about yourself as a scholar.
  • Introduce yourself as a person. Mention achievements you're proud of (academic or otherwise) and say why you're proud of them.
  • Explain your values and goals and the way in which this particular Masters program will help your realise them.
  • Finally, if you’ve applied for a scholarship, acknowledge its aims and philosophy, explaining why they matter to you and how your work will help express or fulfil them.

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.

Research 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 program.

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 lead 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 ok to be honest when doing so.

Universities will be interested in hearing about the topics that interest 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 program.

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 program 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 programs or other very competitive courses, but can be used to assess candidates for other American 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 program, 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 actually 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.

Language tests

The USA is actually a linguistically diverse country, but the majority of Masters programs 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 program delivered in English may not need to submit an additional test score, but you should check this with your institution.

Student visas

The USA may have a fairly strict immigration system, but the country welcomes huge numbers of international students each year. In fact, over 750,000 people study abroad in the USA. That's more than the UK and France combined!

Provided you're a genuine student, you shouldn't have any problem gaining a visa for postgraduate study in the USA.

What visa will I need to study in the USA?

The US Department of State grants two different kinds of student visa:

  • The M-1 visa is for non-academic vocational training programs.
  • The F-1 visa is for attendance at universities and other higher education institutions.

You will need an F-1 visa to study a Masters in the USA.

What is an F-1 student visa?

If you are studying towards an academic qualification conferred by a US institution, you will need an F-1 visa.

This applies even if your time in the US would otherwise be covered under a visa waiver program or through another existing visa (such as a B visitor visa).

In normal circumstances an F1 visa will be valid for the duration of your program, as defined by your higher education institution.

Note that the F1 visa is usually only granted to students on full-time programs.

What is the application process for an F-1 student visa?

There are several stages to the application for an F1 student visa, but the overall process is very logical.

The following are the normal steps involved in receiving an F1 visa for study in the USA:

  • Be accepted to study at an SEVP approved institution - In order to apply for a US student visa, you must have successfully applied to a higher education institution approved by the US Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
  • Be enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System - This will occur once you have been accepted by an SEVP approved institution, but will require the payment of a SEVIS I-901 fee (usually $200 for an F-1 visa application). At this point your institution should also provide you with a Form I-20, confirming your acceptance and student status. You will need to present this at your interview.
  • Complete a Non-immigrant Visa Application online - This will require you to complete Form DS-160 and print its confirmation page ready to present at your interview. At this stage you will also need to upload a suitable photograph of yourself. Your photo should be in colour, less than six months old and provide a full, unobscured view of your face in front of a white background; further guidelines are available at the US Department of State website.
  • Arrange an interview at a US consulate or embassy in your home country - Interviews will usually be required for all applicants aged between 14 and 79. You will need to bring your passport, together with your Form I-20 and the confirmation page of your form DS-160 (see above). Your interview will be used to confirm that you are entitled to the F-1 visa and that your travel and study intentions are legitimate. In some cases you may need to provide copies of academic transcripts proving your existing qualifications and academic background, but acceptance at a recognised university should usually be sufficient for this. Your interviewer may record a digital fingerprint from you – this is a normal security procedure. Once your interview is complete you will be informed about the process and timescale for issuing your F-1 visa.
  • Pay any additional fees - Depending on your nationality, you may need to pay a visa application fee prior to or at your interview and a visa issuance fee once your visa is approved. If paying for your visa application in advance, you will need to bring the receipt to your interview, above. The embassy or consulate you apply to will be able to provide more information on the requirements and procedure for fee payments. You can also look up fees for visa services at the US Department of State website.
  • Collect your visa - The timescale for issuing a visa can vary between nationalities and from person to person. In most cases your documents will either be delivered to you by recorded courier, or made available for collection at the embassy or consulate that interviewed you. You can see more information on approximate visa wait times here. Once you have your visa you can prepare to begin your Masters in the USA!

What documents are required for an F-1 visa application?

As you can probably tell from the above, you’ll have acquired quite a collection of different documents by the time you’ve completed your visa application.

The following checklist should help you keep track of things.

You’ll definitely need:

  • Your passport - You should already have this. Or your mum might have it. Either way, you need it. Don’t lose it.
  • Form I-20 - You should get this from your university once you’ve paid the SEVIS I-901 registration fee. It basically proves that you’ve been accepted as a student in the USA and recorded as such.
  • Form DS-160 - You complete this online as the first part of your actual visa application. Print out the confirmation page for your interview.
  • Receipts for fee payments - If you’ve paid a visa application fee before your interview, bring your receipt. It’s a good idea to keep hold of other receipts related to visa fees too.

You might need:

  • Academic transcripts - You’ve probably already sent these to your university as part of the application for your Masters. Your visa interviewer probably won’t need to see them once you’ve been accepted as a student, but it won’t hurt to keep copies handy.
  • Proof of financial support - Your interviewer may want to confirm that you can support yourself during your studies. Evidence of relevant scholarships / assistantships or other existing financial resources should demonstrate this.

Additional restrictions and requirements

Most legitimate students will receive a visa to study in the USA without difficulty.

Individuals with certain criminal convictions may be denied a US visa. This restriction covers prosecutions for drug use, serious crimes against person or property, or periods of imprisonment exceeding five years.

Citizens of states regarded by the US government as sponsors of terrorism should also contact a US embassy or consulate to inquire as to whether any additional restrictions apply to them when applying for a student visa.

Careers and opportunities

Whatever your academic field, a Masters degree from a US institution will be backed by the reputation of one of the world’s most popular and renowned education systems.

You’ll come away with a qualification that will be recognised internationally for its academic quality and for the range of transferable skills that are the hallmark of a US graduate program.

If you’ve studied an academic Masters you’ll have gained an extensive knowledge of your subject at an advanced level and be exceptionally well prepared for PhD research in the USA (or elsewhere).

Or, if you’ve studied on a professional Masters, you’ll have gained a well-accredited qualification in the system that pioneered professional postgraduate degrees such as the MBA, and is still regarded as offering some of the best programs in the world.

Whatever you've studied, your abroad in a nation as socially, culturally and geographically diverse as the USA will also enhance your CV in a number of ways.

Future employers will be impressed by your willingness to take on new challenges and experiences.

You'll also be well prepared for careers in international marketplaces shaped by American businesses and business practices.

Your specific career opportunities will depend on the time of Masters degree you have studied in the USA.

Career progression with a professional Masters in the USA

A professional Masters degree from an American university will prepare you well for a career in appropriate areas of work.

Bear in mind, however, that graduating from a professional Masters program won't automatically grant you a work permit for employment in America.

If you wish to work in the USA after you graduate you will need to apply for a temporary or permanent visa, as appropriate.

The website of the American Department of Homeland Security offers official guidance on working in the USA as a foreign national.

If you do not intend to apply to work in the USA after you graduate you should ensure that your Masters degree is appropriate for a professional career in your home country or elsewhere. In the majority of cases this will not be an issue, but some programs may be particularly tailored to US employment contexts (and accredited accordingly).

Career progression with an academic Masters in the USA

Studying an academic Masters in the USA can be an excellent choice if you intend to continue to a PhD.

In fact, the distinction between the two levels of study can be less clear-cut than it might be in other higher education systems.

For some students the dissertation stage of a Masters offers a logical point of transition into a PhD degree within the same graduate program. Likewise, some graduate programs do not take specific enrolments for the Masters as a terminal degree, but award it to students who reach the appropriate stage of a longer PhD program.

Last updated - 17/02/2016

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