Saturday, December 28, 2013

Graduate Application in Public Health: A Personal Insight into the US Application System

Applying for a graduate degree in public health in the US: My few cents on the application process.

The application process for a PhD in public health has changed considerably since I applied last, about 8 years ago. If this is how arduous it was when I applied, I don’t think that I’d have had the energy or the money to apply then.

Back then

·         You went through school websites and made a list of schools you wanted to apply to, based on the fit between the school and your research interests.

·         You took the standardized exams (GRE and TOEFL).

·         You paid an application fee for each school, that varied anywhere between $30-$60.

·         You applied separately to each school. Wrote a customized statement of purpose (SOP) for each school. You sent them your standardized scores and transcripts. You sent them the letters of recommendations from your professors. You prayed for a few months that you made it to the school of your choice, with financial support, of course.

And now

Most of the schools of public health (SPH) have a central application system now- The Schools of Public Health Application Service (SOPHAS). Theoretically, it means that instead of making six separate applications to the six schools you apply to (six being a fictitious number), you make one central application and specify the names of the schools you want your applications to be sent to. You apply once, you pay once (the application fee depending on the number of schools), and you are done. Ideally, this is supposed to make your life easier. But there are several reasons this is not the case.

Why SOPHAS does not always make your life easy?

1.      Not all institutions are a part of SOPHAS

For example, if you apply for a DrPH degree at Johns Hopkins, you need to make a separate application, pay the fee separately, and send in the documents (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.) separately. So if you are applying to six schools, five out of which do not participate in SOPHAS and one does, SOPHAS will not help you much. Note that if a particular school goes the SOPAHS way, you have to apply through SOPHAS. It is compulsory.

2.       Application fee

Just because you apply once does not mean that you pay once. There is a two-pronged challenge to this situation. First, your application fee increases non-linearly based on the number of schools you apply to. You pay $120 for the first school, and then pay an additional $45 per school (Link). Again, from the previous logic, if you are applying to six schools, five out of which do not participate in SOPHAS and one does, you will incur a financial loss. Second, just because you pay a SOPHAS fee does not mean you are exempt from the application fee. Many schools will charge you a separate application fee, although you have paid the SOPHAS fee. For example, University of California at Berkeley mandates you to pay an additional $80 application fee along with the SOPHAS application fee. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an additional $85 application fee. If I am making a centralized application system, I do not see why I need to pay additional money to schools individually. Of course not all schools do that. For example, the University of Texas at Houston requires you to pay no additional fee.

3.      Dual application

In addition to the SOPHAS application, many schools require you to fill out an additional application form. This means that you go through the same process of filling out the application form, twice per school. Many of us who have gone through the process are aware of the huge amount of time and patience this requires, filling out mundane information like name and address, courses taken, GPAs, etc. Each school requires a separate SOP customized for it. Doing an application twice isn’t remotely funny. It beats the purpose of applying through a centralized application system.

4.      Timeline

The way things work is, you apply to SOPHAS. SOPHAS verifies all your information and mails your application to the respective schools. In the meantime, you make separate applications to schools (if required). Now here is the catch. SOPHAS will not mail your applications unless they are complete. For example, SOPHAS has to receive ALL the official transcripts and at least two out of three recommendation letters, and your application needs to be complete before it will mail your application. So if your school has an application deadline of December 1, you cannot proceed based on a December 1 timeframe. SOPHAS will have to receive the complete application, application fee, and supporting documents (transcripts, 2 recommendation letters, etc.) weeks in advance to be able to process it and make it on time for the December 1 deadline. What this means is, a December 1 deadline does not mean that you have until November 30 to make an application. What it means is, to be on the safer side, you must finish the application by October, and then SOPHAS will take a few weeks to determine that your application is complete before it will mail your applications by the December 1 deadline.

5.      International transcripts

If you are an international student, you need your transcripts evaluated by the World Education Services. It is mandatory. What this means is, you send a sealed, official copy of your transcript to WES weeks in advance, pay an application fee, and wait. WES evaluates your transcripts, converts it into American grades, and mails them to SOPHAS or the non-SOPHAS-participating universities. The good news is, you do not individually need to mail your transcripts to separate institutions (unless you get admitted to a school, which is when you send that school an official copy of your transcript again). The bad news is, transcript evaluation takes time and money, and is mandatory, no matter how many additional US degrees you have piled on. For example, if you have two master’s degrees, one from a foreign institution and one from the US, you have to get the foreign transcript evaluated. You cannot say that since I have a master degree from the US as well, I want them to consider my US transcript and not my international transcript. Also, you pay $160 for the application, and then for each institution to want these transcripts sent to, you pay an additional $30/school and $7/school postage. If you want to expedite the process, you pay more. Then there is Fedex/postage fees. If you want to add more schools after you initiated your $160 application process, you pay more. WES takes a few weeks to evaluate your transcripts, after which, it sends the evaluation report to SOPHAS, after which, SOPHAS sends it to the respective schools. If I were to show this process diagrammatically, it will look like:

Applicant à WES à SOPHAS à School

With each extra arrow, you add a few weeks of processing time, and a few hundred dollars to the application process.

Why SOPHAS works?

I feel that SOPHAS complicates your application process. Despite this, the only advantage to this system is- The recommendation letters need to be sent just once. Even if a school wants you to make another application in addition to SOPHAS, it does not require those recommendation letters to be sent again. But then, if you have a lot of non-SOPHAS-participating institutions in your kitty, the recommendation letter advantage does not work in your favor.

What it should be ideally?

A centralized application system should mean applying once, and paying once. Either all schools use SOPHAS, or none of them use it.

My two cents:

Cent one: Start early.

With the number of steps it will require to complete your application, and the amount of jumping through the hoops, I’d strongly recommend that you start applying at least 2-3 months before the deadline.

Cent two: Be prepared to spend a lot of money.

SOPHAS needs its application fees, which increases with the number of schools you apply to. Then, many schools require you to pay additional application fee. WES will require additional fees to evaluate your international transcripts. Then there are costs for postage, fedex, and other miscellany. If you are applying to six schools, be prepared to be staring at a ballpark figure of $1000 dollars, give or take a few hundred.

Note: I do not vouch for the factual accuracy of the information presented in this article. The views and opinions expressed here are solely mine, based on my examination of the SPH application process for professional interests. I have no professional affiliation with any of the organizations or institutions mentioned in this post. This article should only be used as a guideline to time your application.


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