Advice for international student adjusting to a U.S. graduate school

Coming to the United States to study has become increasingly competitive for an international student with stricter visa regulations and application procedures. Nonetheless, U.S. universities remain a popular option for many. If you are among those foreign students who come to the U.S. for graduate school, the same wonderful opportunities of years past will be available to you for advanced study, cultural exploration, and building relationships with friends and colleagues.


Do be responsible for your own success

One of the underlying principles of the American educational system is that the student is responsible for his/her own success; this is even more stressed at the graduate school level. This means you may not be reminded of when assignments are due, or even if there are changes in the class schedule. If you have questions about any aspect of class, be sure to visit the professor’s office hours or to see if you can have a short discussion after class to clarify your queries. Often there are informal study sessions formed by students in the program or seminars that you can join in order to go over material, share ideas, and perhaps even study. These informal networks can be as powerful as the in class instruction time, so try to take advantage of them as much as possible.

Do attend lectures and seminars

Although you will be very busy with your regular studies, there are a variety of free lectures and seminars, offered by your own department and those of others on campus, that you will want to avail yourself of in order to broaden your general knowledge as well as meet more people. Make a particular point of attending department specific events, especially if you’re in a small department, as this will help make you more familiar with the other students and faculty. These types of social gatherings are important to establish those relationships which might be helpful later when it comes to asking for a letter of recommendation or other need.

Do turn your assignments into research opportunities

Particularly if you are in a humanities field, the seminars, papers, and other assignments you have in the first few years of the program can be used to develop your thesis project or idea. This is also a good way of finding faculty with whom you may want to work later on for your advisory committee or other piece of research. Be sure to pay attention to the topics of the courses, as well as how they allow you to fulfill your degree requirements, as this will make the process of choosing your final project for the degree much smoother. Remember, you may likely need someone outside of your department to serve on your committee as well, so electives and good general relationships through which you can ask for a referral can help in this regard.

Do think of life outside the classroom

If you are traveling and studying with your family, it can be important to find a community organization with which you can participate in regular activities. Often these are groups organized by interest, such as sporting clubs, or by ethnic background, such as the Asian Student Organization. These can be great groups to help you with orientation and understanding your city or particulars about your campus when you first arrive. Even if you are studying abroad as a single, you can benefit from such a network to achieve more of balance between your studies and recreational interests.

Do keep your visa current

The busyness of student life can sometimes mean you forget about the world outside the university. But it is very important to keep informed about the government’s regulations for student status. Failing to keep your visa current could result in major consequences including expulsion from the university or inability to apply for jobs after graduation. Be sure to check in with your International Student office as they will be likely to have the latest information.


Do not focus only on your grades

American Higher education places an emphasis on skills and knowledge acquired, many times over the letter grade assigned by faculty. While grades are important, they are earned; so rather than asking your professor what to do to get an A, ask him/her how to improve your performance. These types of conversations will have a more detailed response and help you get the information you are seeking for a better performance.

Do not spend all your time in the library

A large part of studying abroad, even at the graduate level, is experiencing the culture and people in your foreign setting. Whether it’s football games or other sports, campus performances, or clubs and activities, university life offers many opportunities you may not have time for later in your career or back in your home country. Try at least a few in order to get the full experience.

Do not isolate yourself

Living away from your family and friends can be very difficult; use the conveniences of modern technology to stay in touch with family and friends. Also reach out to others in your cohort or other interest groups as you’ll be surprised to find that you may not be alone in your experiences.

Do not do not plagiarize

Using someone else’s work as your own, and often passing off your previous work as original work, is considered a serious academic offense. You can fail an assignment, the course, or even be expelled from the university, depending on your institution's particular rules. It is better to turn in mediocre work than to be caught using someone else’s.

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Studying in the U.S. as an international graduate student has become more competitive than ever. But if you choose an American campus as your destination for further study, you will be rewarded with a enriched learning experience, both inside the classroom as well as out.

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Photo Credits: Move In Day 2012 by Flickr: NazarethCollege; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Mohanalaskhmi Rajakumar, PhDWriter

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a writer who has lived in Qatar since 2005. She has a PhD from the University of Florida with a focus on gender and postcolonial theory. Her dissertation project was published as Haram in the Harem (Peter Lang, 2009) a...

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