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Today a friend asked to see a copy of my statement of purpose for my graduate school application. While searching through my mail for a copy, I came across an email I had written in reply to the request below:
“Hi Rose
I have a friend in Ethiopia who is trying to get into graduate school in the USA – since you were so successful in getting into Vanderbilt could you tell him what you did and give him some guidance on the application process? I would really appreciate that. He is copied on this email.”
I am posting my reply to the request because I realize that while I had a glut of information before my applications, not every student will be in the same position. But please note, this is just an account of what worked for me for a biomedical research program, different programs might have slightly different processes and requirements:
Graduate School Application and Preparation Process:
1. Check program ratings and come up with a list of highly competitive, medium competitive and safety schools (aim to apply to at least 7 programs or more if you can). The US News and World Report website is an excellent resource for getting information on program rankings and program requirements: As an example, click on the search results below for graduate biology program rankings

Best Biological Science Programs | Top Science Schools | US News Best Graduate Schools.

You also need to note that the application deadlines for the really competitive programs are alot earlier than for the less competitive programs. Schools like Yale, Duke, Johns Hopkins all have deadlines in the first week of December. Other schools have deadlines stretching into January and even February so, pace yourself.

2. Compile the requirements of entry to each program vis-à-vis your grades all the way from your undergraduate. Actually, especially undergraduate! You need to be realistic about your chances! However, it doesn’t hurt to be optimistic and hence the applications to a few competitive programs.
3. Please keep in mind that each school and indeed each program has its own TOEFL and GRE score requirements- these scores are especially important if any of your GPAs were low so please allow yourself enough time to study for the GRE especially.
Also to note is that while some schools consider the overall score, others look at the separate scores, i.e. quantitative (math) and verbal (english) separately so there’s need to score highly in both. Try and get as high a score as possible in your GREs and TOEFL. They can determine whether you get a scholarship besides securing admission. 
Also, there is always a lot of debate over how long you can expect to prepare for the exam but really this is student specific. I would advice that you get the prep material, gauge how long you need then work really hard. If you’re determined the exam is not super hard.
4. Your personal statement is critical. Program admission committees have a lot of respect for articulate students, what’s more, the personal statement is your opportunity to ‘show case’ yourself. It also gives you a chance to explain any slips in your grades etc, so please take it very seriously, you can use it to step yourself apart from your ‘competition’.
Give yourself ample time to write a general version and have someone who knows you professionally edit it. It is actually not a bad to have one more person read it as well. Be sure to tailor your statement of purpose for every application. One ‘size’ doesn’t fit all plus that’s just lazy lol.
5. Make sure not to miss any deadlines! You also need to note that some schools like UCSD require that you submit a pre application before getting them the application itself so make sure you’re on time for that. 
6. You will need to have your former schools send certified copies of your academic transcripts and degree certificates- make sure this is done on time! I would certainly to use DHL or FEDEX just to be sure they get delivered and on time. Also NOTE: While some universities can mail out your transcripts for you, my experience in Kenya was that you had to personally handle the shipping yourself. So I went to the registrars office for certified transcripts and degree certificate, then I had the envelops “sealed.” This assures the recipient programs that you did not tamper with the contents. I then sent the packages by DHL. This way you are in charge of the process and not at the mercy of your former university. However, other institutions might be more reliable on this. 
7. Please note that some schools like UTMB will require to have a third party like WES (World Education Services in New York) evaluate your credentials, this is an extra fee plus, you need to send your certificates to WES way ahead of time….


8. Prepare adequately for your oral interviews. Keep in mind that a lot of US students do their interviews in person which can be an advantage. In my case, I had SKYPE interviews since I was in Nairobi at the time. But I imagine the preparation process is pretty much the same. I had 3 different interviews. One with a program coordinator and two with different professors one of whom was in the department I was proposing to join.

The interviews weren’t particularly academic, as a friend put it, “at that point, they just want to gauge whether you can tie your shoe laces.” Meaning they already have your academic credentials and they know a bit of your personal story from your personal statement so this step is just to establish if you’re a good fit as far as character goes. It however does not hurt to do some background research on the people interviewing you especially their research interests so you can better impress.

When making appointments for the interviews, they will consult you. Be sure to take in to account the time difference between your country and the US. Also, make sure that you have a reliable internet link for the interviews!!!! This is critical. You want to come across as effective! And of course, you must look presentable.

Cost: Overall, it is extermely expensive buying the prep materials, paying for the GRE and TOEFL exams and also sending your transcripts by DHL. Or getting evaluations from WES. On top of that, the application fees can be prohibiting and generally, the more prestigious a program is, the higher the application fee tends to be. So you also need some financial planning! Actually sometimes the number of programs one applies to is limited by finances more than any other reason.
A trick would also be to shop around for programs that do not charge application fees! A great example of this is Vanderbilt! See: Admission into the IGP | Interdisciplinary Graduate Program.
Additional Info:  Please not that Education USA which is a part of the public affairs section of the many US Embassies is a great resource as far as getting more information on graduate programs is concerned. They have their finger on the pulse of programs where you have a higher chance of getting in. They do charge a consultation fee though but I would consider it as money well spent. They really are an excellent support system also emotionally. They also offer practice sessions for GREs etc if you prefer tutored sessions.
For Kenyan students, here’s a link for the office: EducationUSA | Find an Advising Center.
Other thoughts: 
The process can seem tedious but don’t get dispirited if this is something you really want. Just remember that procrastination is a thief of time, the earlier you start, the sooner you can get in to that program you’ve been coveting! Er, as some interesting characters would advice, ‘do not forget to remember’ that in this process, google is your friend! There are so many resources online to help you prepare. For instance, I was able to compile a list of 20 most likely questions for my oral interviews and went over them with my ‘mentor.’
Last but not least, never ever forget the quote below by Wayne Gretzky. 
Credit: Pixteller.com

Credit: Pixteller.com

Don’t let fear paralyze you. Get to applying! Feel free to post questions below this article. Good luck!