A Perspective on Graduate Admissions for International Students
- What is an applicant file and what is our process?
- How do we review a file?
- Students who do not meet our standards
- Follow-up after admission
- Common problems in evaluation
- A few good hints
International students represent approximately one quarter of our graduate student body and contribute greatly to our mission of achieving excellence in research and education. As communications and technology have advanced it has become increasingly important for admissions to provide an information framework regarding developments in global higher education.
The Wisconsin Directory has served faculty and departments for more than 10 years and now profiles more than 500 institutions. More than 50% are profiles of schools from which we get the most applicants. Included is an explanation of how UW-Madison Graduate School evaluates international credentials. As educational changes take place around the world we update our existing profiles. We add new profiles as we encounter new schools.
The Directory is a guide for UW-Madison graduate programs to use in evaluating international credentials. We believe that the institutions in the Directory or a subset take the most time of evaluators at graduate institutions. The Directory may also help evaluate other legitimate institutions which are not profiled. For example, you can derive information about higher education within a country by looking at other schools within that country. Caution: remember that each school is different.
Credential evaluations are a behind the scenes process to help departments select the best applicants and give fair consideration to each individual. Evaluations require meticulous attention to detail. Even though there are established evaluation procedures, it is not a science. Although there are placement recommendations from American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and National Association for Foreign Students Affairs (NAFSA), each U.S. institution can follow its own evaluation practices. Our practices evolved over the years through observation and tracking.
The Graduate School also creates and maintains a local database used by departments to generate worklists and for electronic communication between the the Graduate School and the departments.
The Graduate School generates an online student status check. Applicants can use the personal website to check on their application status, to see whether test scores have arrived or to check on their I-20 status.
Applicants must send all paper documentation, including transcripts, academic records, and reference letters, to the departments. Hence, the sifting and winnowing of applications takes place at the departments -- there are more than 110 at UW-Madison. Each department coordinator creates applicant files, and the departmental admissions committee makes the decisions, whether to review, admit, refuse or defer, based on their own unique criteria for admission.
The local database provides each department with a list of their applicants. By selecting an individual the department can view applicant information. It also provides links to schools profiled in the Directory; it flags low English proficiency test scores and allows a department to view requested evaluations. Departments can also view decisions made by other departments to which an applicant may have applied.
Upfront. When a department recommends admission or requests an evaluation, paper academic records are forwarded to the Graduate School. Upon departmental recommendation/evaluation request and receipt of academic records Graduate School creates a “paper” file.
At this point Graduate School evaluators review files to ensure an applicant meets the institution’s admission standards. (For details, see How do we review a file.) Minimum admission requirements, e.g. academic performance, degree equivalencies, documents required and English proficiency are listed on the online application and catalog. Our online application information is detailed and country specific. Department websites direct applicants to review admission requirements before applying. When evaluators find required academic documents or test scores are missing, applicants are informed via the status check. Processing stops until we receive requested material.
After an international applicant passes through credential and English proficiency review, financial information is requested by the Graduate School through the status check. Whether funding is from the department, a third party, or from the applicants themselves, financial documents submitted are reviewed for sufficient dollar amounts. If an applicant cannot come up with sufficient financial resources processing stops.
Once the necessary financial documents are submitted and approved an I-20 is generated.
We check each application to make sure we have all information needed for evaluation: applicant's name, applicant's other names (different spellings or name changes), social security number (if available), date of birth, gender, country of citizenship, country of permanent residence, semester for which they are applying. We also check previous schools attended and whether we have received the proper credentials. We require that academic records be issued in the native language with official English translations. On our application we also ask the applicant to self-report a grade point average (GPA) or quality of academic work, rank in class, and standardized test scores with projected date or date taken.
Our application asks for the names of all postsecondary, graduate, and professional schools with dates attended and degrees granted. We determine whether the schools are recognized higher educational institutions (see section on Problems in identifying schools and degree programs). We look at the schools the applicant has attended and whether the applicant has received a degree (or other qualification) that we consider comparable to a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution. This is the minimum level category in the profiles.
Our next step is calculating the GPA or average to determine that the minimum quality has been achieved. UW-Madison Graduate School requires applicants to have achieved a strong academic performance—at least the equivalent of our "B."
If an institution is not in the Directory, and a department asks us to do a written evaluation, we provide and explain the grading scale. We also give the department an official class rank if provided by the school. For many international institutions grades are absolute. Therefore, in addition to a grade average, class rank is a helpful indicator of overall academic performance.
Every applicant whose native language is not English and who does not have a degree from a school whose language of instruction is exclusively English is required to present an official TOEFL or other approved English proficiency test score prior to admission. The Graduate School is responsible for monitoring these assessments. Some applicants whose scores are low may be required to take an English placement test once they arrive on campus.
In our evaluation we state whether the applicant meets the minimum admission requirements. If applicable, we describe quality of postgraduate work. We also indicate if an official English proficiency test is required, and if available, whether the score meets the Graduate School's minimum requirement. We avoid giving subjective information about institutions; we do not rank schools.
When an applicant is recommended for admission or if an evaluation has been requested, we check whether the application is complete. If an application is not complete, we inform the applicant explaining what is missing or what requires explanation via the online status check. Files are incomplete if there are missing transcripts or degree certificates, gaps in information, unknown institutions, questionable documents (poorly sealed, illegible text), or name or birth date discrepancies.
At UW-Madison Graduate School the department makes the recommendation for admission but the Graduate School makes the final decision. If an applicant does not meet Graduate School minimum requirements, we notify the department. The department may then refuse the applicant or justify admission with full standing, admission on probation, or admission on condition that deficiencies are made up soon after enrolling. The department supports its position with letters of recommendation, test scores, awards, work experience, or other documentation.
After the Graduate School has approved the applicant for admission (which includes review of financial documentation), the official letter of admission and U.S. Immigration form I-20 are sent. Those who have finished their degree programs and have submitted complete and official documents are granted final admission; degrees and diplomas with dates awarded are recorded. This information becomes part of the UW-Madison transcript if an applicant matriculates here. Those who have submitted "to date" records without a completed degree are told that they must send the official final documents after they receive the bachelor's equivalent degree. We notify applicants of the deadline for submitting records and do not allow them to register for their second semester if the file is incomplete.
Problems in identifying schools and degree programs. The rate of change in international higher education can be bewildering. New institutions are created, some formed by merger of existing institutes, others by upgrading, and a few by financing from billionaires. In addition, degree programs throughout the world have been evolving. One trend shows that degrees of five or more years are being shortened to three or four years.
These changes and language differences may lead to multiple names for a single institution. We have a cross referencing name list to help identify schools. For instance, one of the most frequently misidentified schools, University College, Dublin, of the National University of Ireland, is often labeled as University of Dublin.
If we have no information on an institution and further follow up is required, we tell departments that it would be wise to request an evaluation. When one is requested, we begin the search for more information by contacting the applicant and the school in question.
"Recognition" and "validation" are terms we use when inquiring about an unknown institution's status in its country. A ministry of education usually determines higher education standards. After official information documenting an institution’s history and status has been received, we add the institution to our data base.
Variations on patterns and assumptions about international education. As you scan the profiles in the Directory, you will notice patterns in systems of education. These patterns can be deceiving. Even though Portugal and Brazil share the same language, their educational systems are different. Most schools in Brazil follow a credit and semester system whereas most schools in Portugal issue grades annually. These two countries also use different grading scales.
A common misconception is that members and former members of the British Commonwealth follow the British educational system. Many have similar degree classification systems but admission requirements vary. Hence, the Indian three-year bachelor's degree, which follows twelve years of education, is not considered an admissible level at UW-Madison, but the three-year degree from the United Kingdom, which follows thirteen years of education, is.
Even within a single country institutions may have different traditions. For example, Switzerland, the Universitat Zurich follows the German system while the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne follows the French system. In Belgium some institutions are on the French system (Universite Catholique de Louvain) while others are influenced by the Dutch system. Some institutions in the province of Quebec, Canada (for example, Laval University), adhere to the French system whereas others such as McGill University and Concordia University are influenced by the British system.
Variations among students. It is unwise, even dangerous, to generalize and make assumptions about an applicant's background. Experience proves that citizenship, for instance, is no guarantee of English language proficiency. The language of instruction at higher educational institutions is key. For example, many institutions in Puerto Rico are bilingual; therefore, additional English language assessment may be required from their applicants even though they are U.S. citizens. Proximity and common language do not make applications easier to evaluate.
Does this school offer the bachiller, the baccalaureat or the bachelor's as a first degree? If so, what does this term mean for this particular school? In some schools these terms represent completion of secondary rather than university-level programs.
Does this school offer the licence or the licentiatura as a first degree? Is the holder of the licence or licentiatura admissible to graduate study? Check duration of university studies. For example, four-year programs are admissible to graduate study whereas three-year programs may not be.
Does this school offer the candidature as a first degree? Is the holder admissible to graduate study? The program duration can range from two to more than four years.
Does this school offer the gradue as a first degree? The duration is two to three years following secondary education (Universite de Lubumbashi). Does this school offer the master's as a first degree (see University of Edinburgh)? Note that gradue and maitrise may be translated as graduate or master's degree.
Does this school require an "honours" degree for admission to graduate study? In some countries the honours degree is required for admission to their advanced degree programs. This is also the Graduate School's requirement.
Postgraduate degrees are in the Advanced degrees entry. Note that there are a variety of doctorates and that many international doctorates are first degrees; this is especially true of doctorates in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine.
It is important to determine whether a doctorate is earned or honorary. Many earned doctorates are granted with just a diploma indicating successful completion. There may be no description of course of study, duration, or quality of performance for an earned doctorate, and yet the degree is worth consideration as comparable to a U.S. Ph.D.
Partial degree programs. Many Latin American institutions use the term "egresado" to describe students who do not complete the degree requirements but successfully complete course work. Incomplete degree requirements can include social service, project, and/or thesis; it is important to separate incomplete academic work from other, more practical, types of work. We handle the few "egresado" applicants we see on a case-by-case basis.
We also have a number of applicants from Germany and France who have not completed their degree programs and who apply for graduate study. In their cases we have clearly defined minimum levels, which students are expected to document.
Grading system equivalencies. Although we have provided suggested U.S. equivalencies for grading systems, we strongly advise you to evaluate a record by using the school's own grading system. Rank in class and information about grade distributions should be used in conjunction with grade averages. We advise applicants to self-report their performance on their own system of grading. When doing an evaluation or checking a recommendation for admission, we compare the self-reported average with our calculated average. The difficulty comes when students (and sometimes institutions) devise their own U.S. equivalency, e.g. a "C" or a "D" may be the minimum passing mark. Some institutions do not report failures on student records.
Credential language. In reviewing records in another language, we have found that it is important to focus on certain key words such as degree and diploma names. English translations are not always accurate. It is extremely important to compare the translation to the official record in the native language. While you do not necessarily become proficient in the language, you acquire enough vocabulary to read numbers, dates, degrees, titles, and key phrases.
We always evaluate international credentials on an individual basis. Established benchmarks help but do not always provide all answers. Use references and make use of such outside sources such as the Fulbright country advisors. Be rigorous in requiring official documents from the applicant and from the institution(s) attended.