Captain's Log

En route USA #05 – Visa.

So here’s what we should have so far – an admit, the I-20 form and hopefully a passport that doesn’t expire until after your course duration.

The American Visa interview process is about as vague as it can get. All their website states as “requirements” is a passport, the I-20 and the appointment letter you get when you book an interview as proof of payment. Then their website says this –

visa

There are no set restrictions on what each of those documents even need to be. However, if you generally google what to take for the interview, the lists you get can have as many as 20 different items. It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? This is why the people standing in queue outside the embassy often hold in their hands file folders thicker than Kim K. The process is made to sound like this mythical trial of combat where they are out to get you. Well there have been instances of people being denied quite unreasonably, especially in the current stance that most countries are starting to take on “foreigners” and I guess paranoia of coming this far only to fail is acceptable. But I don’t know, it didn’t really feel like I was being scrutinized beyond reason there.

Anyway, here is everything that I did. You can start booking a visa interview slot almost as soon as you get the I-20. You create an account in the US gov. website and confirmation comes like a day later upon which you can log in and start filling in the many many forms and eventually choose your dates. Yes, dates. You’ll need to pick two dates, one for the bio-metric registration and one for the actual interview. The minimum requirement is that you finish bio-metrics at least 24 hours before the interview date. In case you got a very late admit and the only dates available are after first day of classes, worry not – you can pay a little extra and apply for the emergency queue or the better alternative, pick the earliest date you could get and then check the website every now and then (mostly close to Friday evenings) to see if earlier dates open up. I think you’re allowed to change your dates for free up to three or four times before you need to start paying extra. The actual form filling process is pretty straightforward and assuming you filled all your college applications on your own, you should be able to complete this with your eyes closed and an arm behind your back.

An additional requirement for a student visa is the SEVIS registration. I’m kind of lazy to google what the acronym expands into but I’m pretty sure it’s something neat. It’s a very quick little procedure to register yourself into the US government’s database of foreign students and it used to cost $200. I guess it’s now $250. A printout of your SEVIS fee payment is also mandatory in the list of documents to take to the interview mentioned earlier.

To come to a conclusion on what a reasonable set of  “additional documents” should include takes us to a discussion on the purpose of this interview process itself. Foreign students are actually an asset for most countries because we bring in a lot of money (International student tuition is often 3 to 4 times the in-state tuition) and we add “diversity” to these universities that they just love to brag about on their admission pamphlets. Then why are there so many hoops to jump through to get the visa? Why aren’t we just confirmed a visa automatically when we get an admit? Turns out we are only to blame. Or a section of us is. There are innumerable cases of people getting an admit in some weird niche course that nobody picks in a low-tier university just to get their ass to the country and then begin working part-time illegally and try to make money and/or become a permanent resident. So visa officers tend to look for admits in reputed institutions and a clear motive to pursue education. If you have a 5.2 GPA in mining studies and an admit to study nutrition sciences in some Morris College, then you’re gonna be put under a lot of scrutiny. If you have decent scores, a little bit of work experience maybe and a believable motive for “studying”, you’re pretty much good to go. So primary important documents to carry are all your high school and college transcripts and mark sheets. These are your “academic documents”.

Next thing is to prove that studying and not earning is your first priority. So you need to prove that you’re equipped to deal with all the finances of an international education. You must be able to afford full tuition and cover living expenses for the complete duration of the course right when you appear for the interview. This total amount is traditionally taken to be the amount mentioned in your I-20 times 1.5 or 2. But unlike the case of applying for I-20, you don’t need to show this full amount purely as liquid cash. You can show property you or your family owns and claim that if needed, you can liquidate this property and survive without needing to earn in USA. You can show surrender values of your insurance policies, valuation documents of jewelry you or your family might own, shares, mutual funds, anything that you can show to prove that you’ll never end up “solely” depending on a job in USA to survive. In case you are going to show that you have taken a student loan, you still need to show some partial valuations to prove that you won’t end up needing a job in the country to pay back those loans. So now you need to put together a set of “financial documents”. In most cases they won’t even bother asking for proof but it’s just safe to have them. Since these financial documents can include pretty sensitive paperwork, you don’t need to carry any originals. Copies of property/jewelry valuations, bank statements, income slips or IT returns (usually the past 3 years’) of yourself or your parents’ and loan sanction letters should suffice. Additionally, you can also show all these to a Chartered Accountant beforehand and get a “CA Certificate” which would list everything and tabulate them into a neat, readable column showing your net worth. But most CAs charge anywhere from 2-5 thousand rupees to do this. Luckily my best friend’s a CA and I got it done completely free. So, suck it. 

Thirdly, you need to have what’s called “ties to home country”. USA is happy to have you as a student who’s paying tuition but if you’re planning to work and settle down here and make money and send it back to your parents in India, they feel naturally threatened. So it is important to have some form of believable intent to return to India upon graduation. Things like owning a family business or having property here helps. This area depends more on how you answer certain questions and documents can’t really be of much help here.

The interview itself is basically a process to test you and see if you slip up and tell them you plan on emigrating to USA. So basically you need to appear excited about studying and studying only and have long term future plans that are grounded in India. Most students however tend to go overboard here and fail miserably. The biggest tip I can give will be well meaning honesty, I guess? Different people have different opinions on this. I read up so many “interview experiences” online. I attended a bunch of mock interview sessions conducted by IDP consultancy. Some of them told me to answer to the point. Some told me to “take control of the narrative” and make your case even if the question doesn’t necessarily require it. For instance if the officer asks you what is your current level of education? Would you just say B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering? Is it better to say B.Tech in Mech Engg. from so and so reputed university? Or go one step ahead and add your GPA to it? Or maybe your GPA sucks but you have a strong GRE score. It is very less likely that the officer specifically asks for your GRE score, so should you not bring it up or sneakily find a way to push the number into a different answer? I went for the second option, but you do whatever your common sense tells you to. You can also judge this based on the mood of your interviewing officer too.

While I wouldn’t advise memorizing answers, it does help to be prepared for what’s most likely to be asked of you. Helps with the confidence. So here’s what I was told are the most common interview questions in decreasing order of likelihood –

  1. What is your purpose of visit to the United States/ Why did you choose US for your education?
    Just a simple straightforward answer mentioning your course and university should suffice. Try to mention the advantages of a US degree without dissing on India’s educational system. Don’t be that guy.
  2. Why this specific university/course?
    You can pretty much sense this question coming the moment you namedrop the university in your previous answer. It helps here to peruse your university’s website beforehand and know about their famous sports teams, and if the college had been in the news recently. This is where you sound all excited about the college and the course. So if you are going to say, Michigan State and the officer says, “Oh I’m looking at a future Spartan, huh?” and you look wide-eyed, it’s not gonna seem well. Michigan State students call themselves Spartans, U of Iowa are Hawkeyes, RIT has its tigers. Its best to know these basic things about your college. Also if you have a scholarship with your admit, absolutely mention it without fail.
  3. Why this specific program?
    Again, you could just as easily mention this already in your previous answer without them having to ask for it. Maybe this program is your passion, maybe this program is the most prestigious in the particular university, maybe this program is the one thing that stands between where you are and your dream job. Be earnest and not too dramatic, I guess?
  4. What are your qualifications?
    Try to push as much of your strengths as you can and completely avoid any low scores. Do not try to justify them unless explicitly asked for. Top scores, coding contest wins, great quant score on GRE, go nuts. Brag unashamedly.
  5. How do you plan on funding your education?
    Even if you had mentioned earlier, rub any scholarships awarded in their faces again. If you have a loan, that takes precedence next. Then state your savings/assets and annual income of parents and that cumulatively you have more than enough to completely fund your tuition and living for the next 2 years.
  6. What are your plans after masters?
    This is where our boys tend to go overboard and instantly start with “I’ll come back to India and …” These officers know exactly what you’re trying to do and will not buy it. So try to mention the general career prospects of the course and find a way to organically tie it into India’s requirements or to some big company that works on the field here. It doesn’t happen often but in case they specifically ask you if you’ll accept and offer for a job in the US, there is a dilemma. Do you say no and risk sounding like you are too good for the country or say yes and risk being rejected on account of “potential immigrant”? I’d say the latter. Say yes and that any work experience you get is going to be super valuable in the long run when you plan on starting your own business in your hometown and boom, there’s your “ties to home country”. Be sneaky with some common sense.

Again, this is in no way an exhaustive list of what could happen. Anything can happen. For example, I wasn’t asked to hand in a single document other than my passport and I-20. Not a damn thing. I spent a month collecting them all painstakingly and not even a word. My consulate officer was a super young, super pretty, super-duper nice lady and her being so smiling and chirpy instantly put me so much at ease. That may not always be the case. The officer in the cabin left to mine was such a hardass and the kid practically left in tears even though his visa was accepted. So yeah, a bit of luck is needed. My interview was a super chill conversation. She asked me why I chose physics and why RIT. Her eyes lit up as soon as I said astronomy and she started saying how cool she thinks space is. I might have fallen in love a little there. However I did get into a slight hiccup when I mentioned my bachelor’s degree is in aerospace engineering and I worked on a project on drones. See now certain courses come under their “red alert” list and aerospace is pretty high on that. Plus me talking about drones implied I might have ties with the military. I knew all this and still slipped up. Maybe that was the point of her putting me so much at ease! Anyway after answering something twenty questions about all the details of my drone project, I was deemed harmless and granted the visa.

So, that was fun. That concludes the last step in the journey en route USA. Of course there are some minor details left regarding booking flights and what to pack and getting housing but I really want this series to be done so that I can go back to my self-indulgent posts all about me and a bit of my trademark, cheesy-bordering-on-cringe-poetry. So if you’re one of the seven people who knows my blog exists and you have questions, drop a comment maybe.

Although Flight 101 seems like a good idea for the next post…

Fight me.