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Graduate Matters

Grad school application and funding tips for international students

An international grad student and university staff member shares her best advice.


The enrollment of international students in Canadian higher education has increased steadily in the last decade. In 2021, more than 66,000 international students attended graduate schools. This number is expected to rise because of Canada’s reputation as a safe and stable country, quality of education, and diversity. Having experienced the educational path of an international student myself, where it was overwhelming, confusing, and navigating through the systems was challenging. I offer prospective graduate students from abroad five steps to apply for graduate admission and funding at Canadian universities.

1. Search early

It is important to create a schedule and start your research at least one to two years ahead of your expected enrollment target. After researching countries that you are interested in applying to (e.g. Canada) then explore about programs that align with your skills and knowledge advanced by your undergraduate degree. Once you narrow the list of programs and schools of interest, the next step is to carefully read about the admission process, eligibility, required documents, and any special funding opportunities available. Deadlines for international application submission are sometimes earlier than domestic dates.

2. Become familiar with admission processes and funding opportunities

Usually, the funding opportunities for graduate programs are publicly available on the university’s website. For example, you may find these on the department website or school of graduate studies pages. Look for specific contact information so that you may initiate a conversation with the interested department, graduate school, and/or program coordinator/graduate program assistant for more information. Be aware that each institution may have different requirements for admission and funding. It could be useful to create a summary overview of deadlines and requirements. Sometimes, internal funding, based on merit, is available from the department/faculty that is automatically considered (no need to apply).

3. Prepare your documents

Here is a list of commonly requested documents to support an admission application. Check your institution of interest for their specific requirements:

  • Statement of interest(s). Discuss who you are, research interests, career interests and what expertise you will be bringing, and your expectations;
  • Research portfolio. Explain your current/past research project(s) and future research plans. Communicate clearly and discuss values, experiences, and skills you acquired that align with that of the department/research cluster at the institution;
  • Cover letter. Summarize your undergraduate program, skills that you have acquired, and your interests in the program and institution;
  • Curriculum Vitae. Create an in-depth document with fundamental information about your education, professional work experiences, skills, publications, conference presentations, volunteer work.
  • Transcripts. Include verified credential evaluation of transcripts from international institutions [a common evaluator is World Education Services (WES)].
  • Reference letters. Carefully select faculty members or industry professionals who know you well and who have supervised your work. They should also be willing to write positive letters to support your application.
  • Standardized tests. Prepare well in advance for required standardized test(s). A common requirement for international students is language proficiency proof. Some commonly accepted English tests at Canadian institutions include IELTS, TOEFL, and Duolingo. In addition, some graduate programs may also require GRE or GMAT.
  • Financial documents. Compile financial document(s) to show that you have enough funds (personal finances or funding package) to support your duration of study in Canada. Your financial information is usually required for visa applications.

4. Network with current and past international students

Connect with professors, researchers, or peers in the department or institution you are interested in applying to. Spark a conversation with those in your specialization on professional sites such as LinkedIn or informational interviews, to build relationships and to enhance your visibility. In this way, you can learn about prospective professors’ current projects, research the culture that exists in the department, and the career trajectories of past students. Similarly, making contacts early connects you with peers and starts building relationships and friendships. Read more about how to network here and here.

5. Contact professors you want to work with

Information about faculty members’ research, expertise, current and past projects, and open spots for graduate students may be highlighted on their personal webpage or the department/university sites. Take time to peruse these websites to learn about their research, how the team/lab functions, and current students they are supervising. These all give you a sense of what it could be like to work with this researcher. Once you finalize the list of potential supervisors, write to them directly to convey your interest and ask for a short meeting to discuss research fit. Faculty emails are usually on their personal or department websites or in the institution’s directory.

Keep in mind the following email etiquette when you email the potential supervisor(s):

  • Create a clear, concise, and direct subject line (e.g., Inquiry from a Prospective Master’s/Doctoral Graduate Student or Graduate Student Seeking Supervisor in ABC Research);
  • Use professional salutations (e.g., Dear Dr. Last Name). Do not use hello/hi Madam/Sir
  • Introduce yourself briefly in a few sentences;
  • Include a signature block at the end of the email. This should include your full name, email address, current job title or student status, organization name and address;
  • Attach your CV, transcript, cover letter, research portfolio, and/or statement of interest;
  • Proofread your email twice (or three times) or ask someone else to read it. The quality of your email serves as a sample of your writing ability;
  • Do not use too many exclamation marks.

Sample Email: To: email address of a potential supervisor Subject Line: Inquiry from a prospective master’s graduate student interested in XYZ research topic Dear Dr. [Insert Last Name], My name is [your name] and I am currently [include brief details of yourself]. I am interested in joining your research lab because [give reasons why you will be a good fit. Think of putting your elevator pitch in here]. I have attached my CV, transcript, cover letter, research portfolio and/or statement of interest [pick two to three documents] for your reference. [Write two to three sentences of diverse skills, experiences, and background you will be bringing to the research lab and team. This will also give the potential supervisor an idea about your research skills and academic experiences]. I am excited to discuss my research interests with you and how they fit with your current research. Would you have availability for a 15 to 30 minute conversation? Thank you for your time and consideration. Regards, [Your full name] [Email Address/Phone Number] Current Affiliation as a Student/Researcher/professional Organization name and address [if applicable]

What are your strategies to apply for graduate funding or admissions as an international student? Share your experiences in the comment box below.

Merab Mushfiq
Merab Mushfiq is enrolled in the PhD program in education at York University. Her research interests focus on internationalization, international students, support services, teaching and learning.
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