A Rough Guide to Applying Abroad

by Nirakar Neo

The first two batches of NISER have done a commendable job in getting placed at good to jaw-dropping institutes in both India and abroad. This post, asked by some friends in the junior batches, describes some general information regarding preparation of GRE and TOEFL exams, specifically aimed at NISER students.

Disclaimer – Since the title says “rough”, I would like to assert that I may be leaving out some important information which you may have to fill on your own. Also, don’t forget to cross-check the facts given over here. I’ll polish this post with time. I’ll add a FAQ if you got some questions.

The first thing is to make sure that you want to go for a PhD in you subject area. Then you need to ask yourself whether you really want to apply to abroad. This choice may vary from person to person and also remember that applying to US universities will require ample monetary backup. If you are okay with this and want to apply to a university on the foreign soil, you need to do some research on where you want to do your PhD – at the US, or in Europe. Both are attractive options and your choice may depend on research areas and future prospects. In any case, I leave this aspect for you to decide. Also, one should remember that the preparation part is not just for the GRE/TOEFL exams but also to prepare you to handle the US environment more smoothly and to instill confidence in using English fluently.

For better preparation and to avoid last minute panic, you need to decide quite early. Invariably, you need to decide well on this matter in your 4th year, or at most by the end of 4th year. The smart way will be to decide these things by the end of 3rd year. You need not have to have a clear opinion on your choice of universities, but some idea will suffice.

Studying abroad requires that you need to appear for at least three tests – two GRE tests and a TOEFL test. And foremost, you must have a passport. If you don’t have it, close the post and open passport.gov.in.

For the uninitiated, GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination and TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. GRE primarily tests verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills, as the website puts; whereas TOEFL tests individual’s ability to use and understand English in an academic setting. Both tests are administered by ETS and are standardized. Standardized means that the test is designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and are administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner. Both test scores are asked by the US universities for graduate admissions. Some universities may leave out the Subject GRE score.

I shall first focus on the GRE exams. There are two types of GRE exams – one is called the General GRE and the other is the Subject GRE. The general GRE assesses the above mentioned skills, whereas the subject GRE tests the knowledge and skills acquired in a particular subject and it covers standard undergraduate syllabus. The skills acquired in the first three years of NISER are more than sufficient to appear for the exam.

So, we first focus on the general GRE exam. It can be tougher than expected. It will be wiser to begin preparing well before the actual exam. Give yourself at least six months to prepare leisurely for the general GRE exam. You need to focus on two things – to understand what’s written and to write with full understanding. The rote-learning of word-meanings is secondary, though somewhat necessary. If you have confidence that you have good command over words, start with a self-test.  There is high frequency word list which you should be acquainted with. You need not remember all the near-thousand words, but reading one should strike in your thought, and at least you should be able to decipher it from the context. It’s also available on the internet, for example here. If you believe that your grasp on words is poor, use the high-frequency word list to learn these new words. Since the list usually contains a short meaning to the word, it will be better to take the extra pain to write each word in a notebook with its meaning and a sentence which illustrates its usage.

The next step is to get hold of a copy of this book published by ETS –


If you can’t buy, you should be able to get the book in the library, or get a copy from a senior. But I would recommend that one should buy. Having a personal copy helps in marking texts and adding notes in the books itself. Plus, if it’s a second hand, then many practice questions would have already been solved a priori, adding to your disadvantage.

Then simply follow the instructions given in the book. Following the book will be more than enough for the preparation, lest you really read it carefully, understand the tasks given and complete them. Remember that you have to close your mind, and just focus on what it’s being asked. That’s the key. Just follow logic and the details given in the question. Do not add your own assumptions in answering them.

** If you find the above way boring, then you can choose an alternative, better way. Read some dense texts, like articles in the Frontline magazine, or editorials of the Hindu. Don’t just read, but try to understand what that article wants to say. And write the meanings of the words that you encounter but do not understand. Finally, close the article and write about the article you just read in your own words. It needn’t be long but should be well-organized. This is arguably the best way to prepare and does give results, believe me. You can start following (**) for the first three months, and you’ll notice later that you won’t have difficulty at all in following the ETS book. Thereafter, in the next three months focus entirely on the tasks given in the book. Use the last two months to hone your writing skills.

For the quantitative section of the exam, focus especially on the probability and statistics part, the other parts are relatively easy.

For the subject GRE exam, again get a book and practice it. Plus you can take help of the internet in the absence of the book (like physics).

Once you have prepared enough for GRE exam, it will be a breeze to ace the TOEFL exam. These days most students take TOEFL iBT test. It’s an internet based test. There are four sections – reading, writing, listening and speaking. But the tasks given usually have mixed tasks. Like you’ll have to listen to a group discussion and then write something on a topic relevant to the discussion.  Here, you’ll have to practice especially these parts.  There are only a few catch points. In the speaking section, you’ll be given a specific topic to speak or place your arguments. It will be better to practice this part. Having a good score on the speaking section is important to get TA at US universities. For preparation, a book is available, but it will be better to get hold of the CD which comes together with the book and complete a sample test.

While registering for the GRE and TOEFL exams you have to give a list of four universities to which the test scores will be sent. Sending scores to universities usually costs additional 18 to 25 dollars for each university. It will be beneficial if you select four universities beforehand.

Taking the tests in the beginning of the fourth year, will spare you the pain and tension in the last year (you could focus on your thesis work better and other aspects of applying abroad), and also leaves you an opportunity to take them again if you need again to improve test results. Remember that GRE scores are valid for 5 years and TOEFL scores are valid for 2 years.