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How to Apply for a Masters in the USA: an Admissions Guide

How to apply for a masters USStudying in a different country can be an exciting and worthwhile experience but navigating the admissions process can be difficult.

American university applications and admissions can differ from those of other countries in that the US universities often employ a more holistic evaluation process when looking at applications. This means they may put a lot more emphasis on factors beyond academic qualifications, such as work experience and sporting achievements, to enable them to gain a comprehensive understanding of the applicant’s potential and suitability for the program.

Having a clear understanding of what is expected from applicants is crucial for a successful masters application. In this guide, we will provide you with a comprehensive overview of how to apply for a masters in the USA, addressing the key points you need to know and giving you a step-by-step guide.


1. Researching universities and programs

Before beginning the application process, it is essential to research and identify suitable universities and programs. Factors such as rankings, faculty expertise and location will all play a significant role in determining the right university for your academic and personal goals. To narrow down your options start by utilising resources like university websites and ranking figures to gather information and gain insights into the institutions and masters programs that align with your aspirations.

When considering rankings to help you make your choice look to reputable sources such as the US News & World Report which publishes annual rankings of the best US universities nationally, as well as the best graduate schools on a subject basis. The US News & World Report tables are calculated using different methodologies, for example with the top US business schools information, half of the rankings formula evaluated institutions on the successful placement and earnings outcomes of graduates and the other half is a combination of academic metrics about the achievements of entering students and opinions by business schools and recruiters on the overall program quality.

When considering rankings figures it's important to note that rankings should not be the sole determining factor, however they are a good way to get a general idea of a university's reputation and academic quality. It is then a good idea to look at the masters programs available, faculty expertise, research opportunities, location at MS tuition fees.

Top US Business Schools


MBA Fees

Full-time Enrolment

University of Chicago (Booth)

$77,841 per year


Northwestern University (Kellogg)

$78,276 per year


University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)

$77,500 per year


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)

From $82,000 per year


Harvard University

$73,440 per year


Dartmouth College (Tuck)

$77,520 per year


Stanford University

$76,950 per year


University of Michigan – Ann Arbor (Ross)

$68,196–$73,196 per year


Yale University

$79,000 per year


New York University (Stern)

$82,326 per year



2. Understanding admission requirements

To increase your chances of being accepted onto your dream MS course in the US, it is crucial to understand the admission requirements.

These entry requirements typically include:

  • Academic qualifications
  • Standardised tests – eg GMAT and GRE
  • English language proficiency – eg TOEFL and IELTS
  • Passing prerequisite courses
  • Application fee
  • Proof of adequate financial means

Evaluate your eligibility by comparing your qualifications to the stated requirements on the university website and plan accordingly.

Additionally, pay close attention to application deadlines, as missing the deadline may result in disqualification and disappointment.

Preparing for standardised tests

Standardised tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) are commonly required for masters applications in the USA.

  • The GRE measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills.
  • The GMAT assesses analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning skills – this is primarily required for business-related programs.

Preparation is key if you want to perform well in any of these tests. Make the most of resources like practice exams and study guides to make sure you’re on track. Be sure to schedule your tests well in advance to secure your preferred test date and location.

English language proficiency tests

In the case of non-native English speakers, English language proficiency tests like Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) may be required. US universities will often have a minimum IELTS or TOEFL score that the applicant needs to meet to be considered for the MS degree.

It is a good idea to practice for these tests too and to schedule them well in advance.

Masters application fees

US universities often require an application fee as part of the application process and this amount varies by institution. For example at Temple University in Philadelphia it is $60 for an online masters application and $65 for a paper application; at UCLA in California each masters application fee is $135 for US citizens and permanent residents and $155 for all other applicants; while Suffolk University in Boston charges a $50 graduate application fee with waivers available to US active military and veterans, Suffolk alumni and currently enrolled Suffolk degree students.

Application fees are non-refundable, so are an important financial consideration when applying to multiple universities.

How to apply for a masters US

3. Prepare application documents

When applying for your US masters you will need to submit several documents – these typically include:

  • Transcripts – official transcripts from all previously attended educational institutions.
  • References / Letters of Recommendation – you will usually need two to three letters from professors, employers or professionals who can speak about your academic abilities and overall potential.
  • Personal statement / Statement of Purpose – this is a written statement outlining your academic and career goals, relevant experiences and motivations for pursuing the masters program.
  • Resume/CV – a summary of your educational background, work experience, research, publications and other academic, professional and personal achievements.

Start gathering this information as early as you can, in particular make sure you give your referees plenty of time to provide you with the letters of recommendation.

Once you have written your personal statement and resumé – ask a friend to read them through to make sure they don’t include any typos as these will reflect badly on you and could instantly put off the admissions panel.

Documentation checklist

Here’s a checklist of all the documents you are likely to need to apply for a masters degree at a US university.

  • Completed application form
  • Application fee
  • Official transcripts from all previously attended educational institutions
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Statement / Statement of Purpose
  • Resume/CV
  • Standardised test scores (GRE, GMAT)
  • Proof of English language proficiency if applicable (TOEFL/IELTS)
  • Financial documentation or proof of funding (for international students)
  • Passport or other identification documents

4. Write a statement of purpose

Your personal statement gives the university a better sense of who you are, it’s an opportunity to write about something you feel is of value – not what you think an admissions tutor wants to read. Share your views on a topic that interests you, allow your personality to shine through, and enable the people who read your statement to feel they know you better.

In the United States the personal statement is often referred to as a statement of purpose (SOP). This is basically an application essay that provides applicants with an opportunity to showcase their academic and professional goals, relevant experiences, life achievements and their fit for their chosen masters program.

The SOP allows admissions committees to gain insights into an applicant's background, aspirations and potential for success in the program. This is particularly important in a US application as the universities tend to take a more holistic approach to applications.

Structuring a statement of purpose

When structuring your SOP keep the following elements in mind:

Introduction – begin with a compelling introduction that grabs the reader's attention and is related to your field of study. At this stage, mention why you are interested in this particular masters degree.

Academic background – discuss your educational background and highlight any relevant coursework, research projects or academic achievements, demonstrating a clear connection between your academic experiences and your chosen course.

Professional experience – describe any relevant professional experiences, internships or employment history that has influenced your decision to pursue this masters and explain how this course will help you achieve your career goals.

Research interests – explain any areas of research interest within your field of study, highlighting any prior research experience or projects you have undertaken.

Suitability for the program – explain why the specific masters program and university are the right choice for you.

Conclusion – end your SOP with a strong conclusion that summarises your main points and conveys your enthusiasm for the course.

Once you’ve finished your statement read it through a few times and make any necessary tweaks. Then get a friend, colleague or family member to read it through to check for any typos or other silly mistakes and to provide you with honest feedback.

Finally, make sure the SOP adheres to any guidelines provided by the university regarding word count and formatting – there is no point providing a 2,000-word SOP when the university has specifically requested a 1,000-word document!

5. Consider work experience

Relevant work experience can greatly enhance your application for a US masters degree in several ways.

  • If it is relevant to your chosen graduate subject it demonstrates that you have demonstrable practical skills and experience within this field and showcases your ability to transfer academic concepts into practical settings – this is highly valued by admissions committees. You may have even gained some relevant specialist knowledge while working that could be a valuable addition to your graduate classroom.
  • Work experience also provides you with a wide range of transferable skills that will impress the admissions committee, including teamwork, communication, problem-solving skills, leadership and project management.
  • Whilst undertaking work experience you are likely to have made a good professional network and these connections can help carry you through your graduate course and may even provide you with your letter of recommendation.

When mentioning your work experience, make sure you link it to the masters degree that you are applying to study.

6. Preparing for an interview

Although the prospect of having an academic interview can be daunting, bear in mind that only a small percentage of the people who apply for a postgraduate course are selected to attend an interview. 

The interviewer is not interested in catching you out; they just want to establish whether you are right for the program. The best way to ensure the process runs smoothly is to prepare well in advance. Take care to research the US university and the course you are applying for, and consider what career you’d like to pursue afterwards. 

Enthusiasm is highly prized by interviewers, so a little background information can go a long way. You’ll almost certainly be asked questions relating to the answers you gave on your application form, so reread your application form from a critical perspective and consider what you may be asked about. Finally, have a few questions ready for your interviewer to show that you are engaged with the process.

7. Get good academic and personal references

Most universities ask for at least one referee who knows you in an academic capacity; the best person to ask either your personal tutor or course tutor on your first degree. If you got on particularly well with a project supervisor, you might consider asking them. 

It’s important that you have had more than a fleeting relationship with the person who acts as your academic referee, because as well as commenting on your intellectual abilities, they will also be asked about your personal attributes – so they do need to know you well. 

When you have selected a person who you think would be suitable, ask their permission before you list them as a referee. If they agree, give them a helping hand by supplying a copy of your CV and a cover letter with more information about you and the course you are applying for. This ensures they can go into detail about your past work and create an accurate description of your academic strengths.

Your personal reference refers to the type of character you are and is usually written by a mentor or former employer. Although they are inherently personal in nature, these references cannot be written by a family member or friend. It could be a person you have known for six months or someone who has acted as your personal referee for many years having employed you in an early job. If their knowledge of you is applicable to the course you’d like to take and they can provide details that are relevant, then they are ideal.

How to apply for a masters in the USA

8. Complete the application form

Application forms vary between institutions but most take the form of a job application

You’ll be asked for your personal details, along with your academic grades and job history. Give complete answers in each section, but always try to be concise. 

The most important questions on the form will be competency based, usually beginning with a phrase such as “Describe an achievement you are most proud of…” or “Give an example of when you influenced others…”. 

Compose your answers to include the skills you know will be needed on the postgraduate course you are applying for. Bear in mind that although some people believe they work best under pressure, when it comes to filling in a postgraduate program application form, it’s best to allow yourself time to reflect on your answers over several days.

You will usually be able to click through to an online application form from the web page of the course you are interested in applying to, and don’t forget you will also need to upload all the other necessary documents alongside the completed form. These documents will include:

  • Official transcripts
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Resume/CV
  • Standardised test scores (GRE, GMAT)
  • Proof of English language proficiency (TOEFL/IELTS)
  • Financial documentation or proof of funding (for international students)
  • Passport or other identification documents

It is important to complete the application form in a timely and accurate way, adhering to all instructions – e.g. word count, format, deadlines, etc. If possible, complete it well in advance of the deadline so you have time to reflect on what you’ve written and can revise the content if necessary.

Popular US universities

This table shows the 10 best universities in the United States according to recent Times Higher Education rankings 2023.

US Ranking

World Ranking


US State



Harvard University




Stanford University




Massachusetts Institute of Technology




California Institute of Technology




Princeton University

New Jersey



University of California, Berkley




Yale University




Columbia University

New York



University of Chicago




University of Pennsylvania



Studying a masters degree at a US university opens the doors to a world-class education system renowned for its academic excellence and cutting-edge research – as you can see from the previous table, US universities are world leaders when it comes to global rankings with seven of them achieving a place in the THE world rankings.

Universities in America attract highly renowned lecturers and scholars from around the world, providing you with an opportunity to learn from the best minds in your field. They also offer a fulfilling campus life and superb networking opportunities to enhance your future career – so make sure you get your US masters application right.


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