The Game: Applying for Graduate School

This post is about my progress in applying for a finance graduate study in North America as an international student, some of you may relate and hopefully found things that is helpful in your journey.

It has been a while since I posted “How to get GMAT 660 in 3 Months by Yourself“in the second semester of last year. For the note, I also retook TOEFL iBT exam and got score of 111/120, a significant improvement from 98/120 I got on January 2016. I did my GMAT at October 31st and it took two weeks for my score to be sent to the school I registered it to. I knew it because Syracuse University (in New York) sent an email two weeks after the test, telling me that they got my score and invite me to begin my admission process. I register my score to one top school in Canada and four second tier school in US. In reality, I only applied to three school, the one in Canada and two other in US, Syracuse is not one of them (I found it too expensive and the living cost is high as well). I filled the required data, upload my undergraduate degree academic report, ask for recommendation letter to two of my lecturer, and paid the admission fee before November 15th, the first deadline for one of the school I applied to.

Days passed by, then months, and eventually year. During the 2016 Christmas holiday, I spent my time with my father traveling to Cambodia, while my mother visited my sister in Omaha, Nebraska. We rode a bamboo train in Battambang, join the crowd at New Year’s Eve in Pub Street, and saw the first sunset of 2017 in Angkor Wat. It was a personally refreshing trip for me, after taking (and passing) CFA Level 1 exam earlier in June and FRM Level 1 exam in November, not to mention doing my Master of Management degree in Binus Business School.

For two and a half months, or 78 days to be exact, there was nothing. I checked on my application every week or so, only to find that the status was always “submitted” instead of “decision made”. Then, on Wednesday, February 1st, I’m anxious to found two email from two of the school I applied to. One is an admission interview invitation, coming from the top school in Canada. The other one is an acceptance letter, along with scholarship offer, coming from the school in US. I was really, really excited that morning and share the excitement with my mother in the kitchen. Later on, I learned that the scholarship will save me half of the tuition fee, in exchange for my time and effort in the graduate assistantship program. I am already happy and excited for getting accepted, so a scholarship adds up tremendously to my excitement. It was an accomplishment for me personally, something I have never achieved before in my life. For the note, I am just an average student in my undergraduate study (medicine), with no significant academic accomplishment.

Anyway, for the Canadian school invitation, I did the interview the next day with one of the university professor via Skype. He told me to give an introduction and asked me how I select stocks for my equity portfolio. The rest of the conversation was more casual and laid back, then I was given a chance to ask few things about the program itself. I think I did good on the interview, but let’s see at the result announcement next week. I only have 10 days to accept/decline the admission and scholarship for the school in US, so I have to make a quick decision if I got admitted in the Canadian school. Up to this time, I whole-heartedly want to study at the Canadian top school, even if that means sacrificing the scholarship from the US school. The program and practical approach would complement my heavy theoretical study I have been doing. On the other side, taking the scholarship would ease the financial burden significantly. But what about the present value of higher future earnings? Going to the top school might enhance my salary base significantly once entering the workforce, hence it might be having higher Net Present Value (NPV).

Now, my mind focus on the chance of getting accepted given that I got admission interview. Articles in the internet varies in their conclusion, some said that once you got an interview offer, you have at least 50% chance of getting admitted. Even others said that the chance could be as high as 75%, which gives me a high hope for admission. Now that I’m almost at the end of the “searching and applying to graduate study” phase, there are several points that I would do if I could do it all over again (although I don’t want to):

  • Prepare earlier, the earlier the better. I prepare from zero 5 months before the first admission deadline, beginning with looking for school (1 month), studying GMAT (3 months), and uploading transcript (1 month). Note that I didn’t work at the time, so for those of you having daily job, it will absolutely takes at least twice my number. Ideally if I spare more time and do it in 8 months before the admission deadline, I might get higher GMAT score than 660 (perhaps 700-ish?) and have more time to upload the transcript (sending the official transcript from outside US to US takes about 1-2 weeks).
  • Be selective with your school choice. During the first month of preparation, I listed all the school with Master in Finance program in US, Canada, and Western Europe. Then I eliminated the school based on the study period (I want a 1 year only program), tuition cost (US$ 40.000 is the maximum amount my family could afford), and lastly the rating (I want it to be in the top 100). It left me with less than 10 school, and I choose three among them to avoid making too much essay and asking too many letters of recommendation, which could be frustrating sometimes. My choice falls into one top Canadian school, then 24th best and 73rd best for MS in finance program in US.
  • Know your GMAT score target. After selecting the school you want to apply for, look at their student profile (age, % of international student, GMAT, GPA, work experience). There is perhaps nothing you could do to improve your undergraduate GPA, but there are lots you could do to improve your GMAT score. If the school average GMAT score is 670, then it is safe to assume that score of  above 650 is not a disadvantage for you. However, if the school average GMAT is 720, then you may want to get at least 700 for your peace of mind.
  • Write your essay by tailoring it for each school. This is why it is counter-productive to apply to as many school as possible, focus and unique selling proposition are the name of the game. Read and adhere to the essay requirement, make sure it is easy to read (play with the space and margin).
  • Ask early for letters of recommendation. Almost all school ask for two recommendation letters, although few ask for three. I asked mine to my thesis supervisor and a close lecturer, who both gladly agree. They have to sent their recommendation directly to the university’s email, so make sure you have bought the admission form and register their email as your recommendation giver.
  • Be VRIN (Valuable, rare, inimitable, non-subtitutable). No bragging, but here’s my profile, your profile will most likely be very different, but that is what makes you unique as well.
    • Valuable: I passed CFA level 1 exam 4 months before applying,  I like to think it is a prove that I’m serious in learning finance. Those that participate in CFA program knows how rigorous and challenging the material is, and that is a valuable asset for me.
    • Rare: How many medical student pursue career in finance? It is a major shift in my study, getting out of my comfort zone was not easy at the time, but when my passion is calling, I know it may not give me a second chance if I didn’t take it at the time. I’m glad I did.
    • Inimitable: I have been involved in equity trading since I was in undergraduate study, by the time I’m applying for the admission, I have been managing equity portfolio for over 4 years. I’m 22 years old by the way.
    • Non-subtitutable: I always believe that nothing is as important as hard work and determination. I know what I want and I know what it takes to get it, the next question is, am I going to do what it take to get it?
  • Ask yourself “Why” from the start, then you’ll manage any “How”. Be honest on why you want to pursue further study, that way, every time you are tired and missing on your study target, you’ll be motivated to catch up.
  • Drop the weight that chained you down. Having as little burden as possible is a big plus for me, whether it is a mandatory work hour, spouse, home chores, etc. Remember that it won’t be permanent, perhaps only for 4-12 months.

And lastly, remember that “Hope” is a powerful ally. Imagine the possibility you could unlock afterward, things you could only think of previously. Think of your journey not as the phase of applying for graduate study, but as a progress toward making your dream comes true. Because it is.


About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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