Captain's Log

En route USA #04 – Finances.

Click here for Part 3 - Essays.

Assuming you’re done applying by say, December 31st, you have about 2 to 3 months to wait before the admission decisions start rolling in. While some do get a response as early as end of January or mid-February, the general consensus is around the beginning of March all the way till May or sometimes even June. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that colleges with earlier deadlines will respond faster. What goes behind the screens inside the admission committees is a mystery we’ll never unearth. I did find universities in UK responding much faster though. Most of them had deadlines open till late March or even rolling deadlines that never closed. Glasgow replied to my application literally the next morning. Bath, Leeds and Queen Mary took less than 3 weeks, as stated in their website. Imperial stated a wait of maximum 4 weeks but responded in the 6th week only. Still, all of them were mighty faster compared to US.

My point is, you got time to kill now. And this is usually when the mind starts to ruminate about what you’ve been doing the last few months and the reality of what’s to come. A big bummer in that reality is money, how much you’ve spent and how much you’re yet to spend and will it all be worth it and will you ever make it back. Here’s how much I spent.

Application costs.

The cheapest application fee was, in my list, that of University of Florida – a cool $37. I don’t think it can get any cheaper. The most common application fee is $75. The most expensive were all universities from Texas – $100. I don’t know what’s up with that. You can’t work your way around this at all. Interestingly, no universities in UK required an application fee. I can respect that. There are places in US too, like the popular Carnegie Melon University, which do not require a fee but then those are super rare. For 8 university applications it cost me $582.

Exams.

I took the General GRE, Physics GRE and TOEFL. So just for applying to those exams the cost was $205, $150 and $170. So that’s another $525. One absolutely cruel thing these standardized testing companies do is make you pay to have your scores sent “officially” to each university. While they do “generously” offer to allow you to choose 4 universities to send the scores for free, this must be done before you take the test or before you can see the scores. That’s $27, $27 and $19 for each uni for the General GRE, Subject GRE and TOEFL respectively.  So often students tend to under/overestimate themselves and send the scores to highly ambitious or highly stupid universities that they then end up not applying to at all, thus wasting a sweet chance to save some bucks. So the ideal thing is to plan your final list before you take any exams, which I understand is very very impractical. But that’s just how it is.

Out of the 4 universities I chose to send my GRE score for free, I ended up applying to just 2. Out of the 4 I chose for TOEFL, only 1 made it to the final cut. Physics GRE was the last exam. So my list was pretty solid by then but still, out the 4 I chose, I applied for only 3. (Had to drop one due to abysmal scores, sad story). So that means I had to spend (276)+(207)+(27*4) totally just to report my scores. That brings us a total of $403. I will admit that this number needn’t have been this high had I planned my shit out better. Also this number will be at least $100 lesser for most people because fewer and fewer colleges are demanding a subject GRE these days.

Random costs.

You never know what new ways universities will come up with to make money off of you. While most universities have gone all electronic for their entire application process, a very few still ask that attested copies of your transcripts and certificates be sent to them via international courier. That’s ₹2000 on a good day but can nearly double or triple if you delayed and need to send it via express delivery or something. Another interesting burden here is that your college of graduation, here in India, will ask you to pay them to get additional copies of transcripts officially attested. Yay. Luckily for me, only U of Florida asked for my documents to be couriered and I had a month to do so. So I chose the cheapest option possible. My alma mater here only charged ₹100 per copy of transcript and ₹500 for the degree certificate, which believe me is as cheap as it can get. 

Grand total.

So basically, before you know anything about whether you will get an admit or not, if this whole exercise is going to be fruitful or not, you would’ve spent close to (drum roll please) $1134 ≈ 79,490! Cha-ching! Roughly 10k per college. That’s the kind of amount you’re looking at. 

We’re just getting started, my boys. 

So let’s say the months roll in and you receive, hopefully, a bunch of admits and you’ve chosen the university of choice. Here’s what comes next. You will most likely be instructed to pay an initial “Acceptance deposit”. For me it was $300 but worry not, this will be deducted from your first semester tuition fee. It’s sort of how you confirm that you’re taking your admit.

You will then be instructed to send attested copies of your official transcripts, degree certificates and semester-wise mark sheets via courier even if you had uploaded them electronically earlier. Some colleges do allow you to hand the copies when you finally get to the university too. Then comes the I-20. Also everything from here on only applies to USA.

The I-20 is a form that the university assigns you, which you then can use to apply for a US visa. In order to get the I-20 from the college, you’ll need to accept your offer, pay the deposit and then show proof of financial ability. Usually the college sends you an estimate of how much you’ll need for the first year with both tuition and typical living costs included. Any scholarship offered will be subtracted from it as well. Now you need to show proof that you have this amount in your or your sponsor’s bank account(s). This is where some very smart Indians hugely fuck up. There are even specific organizations that do this as a service for a fee. For instance, I was required to show savings worth $30,278 to apply for I-20, which comes close to 21.5 lakh rupees. I had to take copies of my parent’s bank statements from as many of their accounts as it takes to bring the total to that amount and get them attested by the bank. I also had to get a “sponsor letter” stating that my parents will be paying for my studies and notarize the document. (However, I’ve heard most universities accept just a printed letter with your sponsors’ signatures even if it’s not notarized. I just didn’t want to take any chances.) I had to attach everything with a form provided by my university and then email it to them. I lucked out ’cause we had just barely the right amount of money. There are many who don’t and what they tend to do is, borrow money from friends or worse, go to some shady finance company and transfer a sum of 25-30 lakhs in their accounts, take the bank statement and then return the amount. While this seems super smart and will get you the I-20, you are highly likely to get caught during your VISA interview where you’re required to provide your last 6 months worth of bank statements. Any such large sum transfers will be scrutinized then. More on that in the next post.

So hopefully you don’t do anything shady and you’ve shown the uni that you got cash in the bank to support you for the first year. They will then courier you the I-20. This is the shit. You can never ever lose or damage this piece of paper. This along with your passport will be your sole savior in America. So, handle with care.

Now that you got the I-20, you can start applying for visa. I’ll go through the details of them in a following post. Considering just the finances, like how the college required you to show proof for their 1 year estimate, you will need to show proof that you can support yourself for the whole 2 years (or whatever your period of study is) while going for your visa interview. This amount is usually up to you to estimate but 1.5 to 2 times the 1-year estimate mentioned in your I20 is a safe bet. Luckily, you don’t need to have this amount as hard cash in the bank. This amount can be shown as a net sum of bank savings, insurance policies, jewelry savings, property valuations, shares, investments, student loans and income certificates.

The US Visa website will give you no “list of documents to be brought”. All they say is “have any document to make your case”. So it is entirely up to us to choose how we want to prove our financial capability. A very smart thing to do here is to get a “CA Certificate”. Mind you but CAs charge anywhere from 2 to 5 thousand rupees to sign this certificate. What you essentially do is make a list of all your assets that you want to show. For instance, added to our bank savings, I was also going to show our savings in jewelry, real estate holdings and my student loan. So I needed a valuation letter from a registered jeweler (any jewelry store should be able to do this for a nominal fee. I went to a GRT showroom and it got done in a day.), a property valuation letter (you can easily google property valuers in your neighborhood and they’ll usually take a look at your house or land or whatever, take a copy of the original documents and draw out a valuation certificate, again for a fee. Could easily be another 3000 rupees.) and finally my loan sanction letter. I gave all these letters, and my father’s ( the sole earning person in my family) last three year’s income certificates and tax return forms (this is why paying your taxes is important) to a CA and they put all this data in a consolidated form and stamped it. I have some opinions on the necessity of this process in the first place but I’ll cover it in the next one. I just wanted to show that there is money involved everywhere and all these little 2000, 3000 rupees in fees that you pay out add up. When you’re applying abroad, everyone assumes you must be rich.  

Student Loans.

An important rite of passage that any normal student goes through to pursue grad school is get a huge debt dumped on their head to start eating away their life the instant they graduate. Especially if you’re looking at a country like USA, and should you end up in the west coast or states like New York, your costs are going to be through the roof. Easily expect to spend 40 lakh rupees over the course of two years unless you have a crazy scholarship. So taking such a huge loan means you need to be smart about it.

Essentially you have your government run banks and private banks. The key differences are govt. banks usually have low interest rates for education loans in the 9.8 to 10.5% range which is as good as it can get while private banks typically start at 12%. It also slightly varies case by case. Govt. Banks usually take about a month or more to process your loan while private players do it in about 2 or sometimes even one week. Also most govt. banks have this method of “co-pay margin” where basically they hold the sanctioned amount and pay for it whenever you request them to providing a proof of requirement, like a bill from the college to pay the fees or your lease showing the rent for your period of stay. When they pay this amount, they only do so partially and ask you to pay to cover the rest. So if you have a 52% margin, every time you request a part of your loan to be disbursed, they pay 52% of the amount while you pay the rest. Private banks are more hassle free – you ask for money and they put it in your account. Done.  There are also private education financiers who sometimes provide loans even if you have no collateral to show for but then again, your interest goes up. The sheer number of options you have to get a loan from will overwhelm you. Or at least, it did for me.

I went with a private bank because I didn’t have the time or patience to go with a govt. bank. I did try for edu financiers but either their interest rates were higher than what my bank offered or they downright denied my profile seeing I was switching my major from engineering to science. Why that matters to a loan provider continues to baffle me. For me they initially took a shit ton of copies of my documents from me including my 10th, 12th and college marksheets, my GRE and TOEFL scorecards, my offer letter and I20, my dad’s income details, details of whatever we were providing as collateral and I think at some point I even had to send my birth certificate. Anyway, after collecting all that, they told me I qualify for a loan of up to 48 lakhs. How they came to that number, nobody knows but it was the number given to me. I told them how much out of that 48 I’ll be needing. Then began the long negotiations on rate of interest and once that was settled, they gave me a sanction letter detailing how much amount I’ve taken and the procedures regarding paying it back and such. The math here did make me lose my mind a little and question this entire process because I’ll basically be bankrupting my family if this doesn’t work out. Once you’re done freaking out, you’re asked to sign a bunch more documents, there are a lot of verification done (people from the bank showed up multiple times to our house and to my dad’s office and asked random questions) but finally it was done. I could apply for visa showing this sanction letter and once my visa was confirmed, we can then proceed to “disburse” this amount which basically means they’ll put it into my bank account.

Additionally here we were asked to pay 1% of the loan amount as processing fee and another 30k rupees as “commission”. Which was a bit shady but what option did I have. Once my visa was confirmed, we requested they disburse half the amount initially, just calculating my first year’s tuition fee + rent for my accommodation. ( Choosing housing is another sweet sweet headache in itself but it varies hugely based on which state you’re living in and it didn’t really make sense to me to put it all down here because what I did will only apply if you’re moving to the state of New York, that too far away from Manhattan. I’ll be happy to answer doubts in the comments if you have any.) What the bank did was send the amount that we spent on my flight tickets to my dad’s account, give a small amount in cash in dollars for me to use when I got to US and put the rest on a Forex card that I can use to pay tuition with and can later transfer to a US bank account once I got here. This is actually smart because had they transferred all the money we asked to be disbursed to my dad’s bank account and I had to then wire transfer it internationally here to pay tuition and rent, I’ll be losing a whole lot of money as “processing fees” or “internet handling fees” and also due to exchange rate fluctuations. Not all banks follow this but maybe you can ask them to do so. Forex cards are cool.

So what is the number?

Considering that before any of this started the number was close to 80k and all of this cost somewhere around 50k just in little amounts of fees and commission, add to it the cost of applying for a US Visa and this little thing called a SEVIS registration which is another (160+350) dollars and finally the cost of your ticket which can range all the way from 45k to 1.2 lakhs depending on how early you book and what kind of airlines you’re looking for, before you ever set foot on America and start your education, you would’ve spent an amount of 2-3 lakhs. It is inevitable. You spend so much to get here, and then you spend another 18-20 times that in an extremely short period of 2 years and then the sharks come collecting for the money. Scary shit, eh? Well, we all need something to keep us motivated.

A slight note of hope.

It is not all downhill though. Because firstly, the amount you are asked to show on your I20 will be vastly overestimated and hence what the college or visa officials expect you to have as your 2-year estimate will never end up actually being the amount you spend in the 2 years. Unless you are a spoiled dick who likes to live voraciously. 

Secondly, there are tons of opportunities here to bring down the tuition and living costs. While it is illegal to work off campus when you’re a student, you can apply for so many positions on campus and work up to 20 hours a week during the academic year and 40 hours a week during vacations. Even at whatever minimum wage is in your state of residence, that amount helps a lot. You can also apply for Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships or Graduate assistantships which usually come with a stipend and tuition fee reduction. Some get assistantships with their admit, some colleges let you apply only after the first semester but they always have positions open. You can also work in labs during summer break and get stipends. You can get a co-op or internship in your final semester and earn good money too. Most importantly, you can choose to live ultra frugally and save money. So while money is a super daunting factor, its not all downhill provided you got some talent and are willing to put in work. Literally everybody I know here has an on-campus job. (Dining positions are almost exclusively all Indian students here. It’s weird) You can make money being a librarian’s assistant, designing posters for the college journal or being a note-taker for a specially-abled student. There are always chances, you just need to look.

In the next and final post of this series, I’ll go through all the dirty ins and outs of the visa application and interview process. Cheers!

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