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Applying for Electives in USA (Part 1)

By Dr. Farkhanda Qaiser
MBBS session 2009 - 2014

Seeing the overwhelming response to my previous blog on clinical electives, I have decided to create a series of blogs pertaining to different aspects of this topic. My first blog was about the list of universities which accept International Students (to read it, go to )

Be quick in applying but don't forget the essentials...!

This second blog will be about the application process and the various documents that are required. Also there will be a brief paragraph about how to apply for Step 2 CS because it is prudent to take this exam in the same visit as the electives.  

The Plan:
As I mentioned in my earlier blog, you should start applying for electives 8-10 months before the proposed start date of your electives. For most universities, it means that you should ‘post the application’ 8-10 months in advance. As you will see in the following flow chart, ‘post the application’ stage comes way down in the order so it’s best to kick start the ‘Electives khap’ approximately a year before your scheduled electives. However this timeline is not written in stone. In fact it is quite flexible and you can even get electives by applying just 6 months before if you are persistent in your correspondence. The subsequent plan is definitely ideal and judicious but it is not mandatory to follow.
       Schedule Toefl

Send emails to universities

  Prepare the documents

   Post the Application

  Keep correspondence with the elective coordinators

       Get Acceptance (hopefully)

This is an English proficiency test which is required by most US universities. Its test centers are present in various cities in Pakistan. In Lahore, the test center is FC College. Go to Toefl Website to schedule your date for toefl. It takes a few weeks to get the exam date in bigger cities like Lahore so it is best to apply in advance.  The application fee is $160 and you have to pay via credit card. The preparation time for this exam depends upon your previous mastery of English Language. You are tested in four categories:

Reading           30
Listening         30       
Speaking         30
Writing            30
Total score       120

If you have done Olevels English and you were good at it then you barely need 3-4 days for preparation to get used to the computer-format of toefl. However, if you have done matric then I would suggest, keep a longer prep time. It’s not that I’m biased against matric people but the format of matric English is quite different from that of toefl.
The study resources are Barron’s Toefl book and CD (both cost around Rs. 800-900) which explain the test procedure and also contain a few practice tests. Each practice test is 3-4 hours long.
In the ‘Reading’ section, there are a few comprehension passages with questions at the end. The questions can be direct or inferential and test your grasp of the text. Good point is that you can go back to the passage while answering the questions but you don’t have too much time to deliberate the answer because all parts of the exam are timed. These passages are quite similar to the Olevels English comprehension passages. And as we know, practice makes you perfect so try to do as many practice tests as you can to improve your score in this section.
In the ‘Listening’ section, you listen to several conversations and lectures and then answer the questions at the end. The English spoken in this section is easily understood and is much like that in English news channels. So if you’re fluent in English then just do a few practice tests to get used to the format. Unfortunately you can’t go back to the audio section while answering questions, so you rely on memory and your notes to mark the answers.
The ‘Speaking’ section is often considered to be the most difficult by the majority of people. You are made to read comprehension passages and listen to conversations and then asked to comment on something mentioned in them. You have to speak for only 45 or 60 seconds. Fortunately, my exposure to parliamentary debates helped me a lot in this section. To get a high score in ‘speaking,’ you not only need to have fluent, understandable English but also the ability to speak impromptu on any given topic. Please don’t try to fake your accent. They are not concerned with the accent as much as they are with the content and comprehensibility of your speech. The preparation time is hardly a few seconds so you need a lot of practice to ensure that your discourse is relevant to the question. There are two tips to ace this section: watch video lectures of Mr. Joseph on you tube and record your voice while doing ‘speaking’ section of practice tests. Keep listening to your recorded voice and try to assess your speaking. Are you speaking too fast or too slow? Can you understand yourself? Are you answering the question? In addition, Mr. Joseph’s videos provide excellent guidance especially in regard to management of timing and content of your talk.
Moving on to the ‘Writing’ section of toefl, this was the easiest for me because writing is my forte, so to speak. If I were to choose one word to describe Toefl preparation then it would be ‘practice.’ If you’re weak in any one section then simply do more practice tests of that section. That is all about Toefl.
I prepared for toefl in only 3 days but I had the benefits of Olevels and Parliamentary Debates under my belt so that is why I was able to score well. My score was as follows:

Reading           28
Listening         29
Speaking         28
Writing            29
Total score       114

            Most universities have a lower limit for acceptable toefl scores. Generally, above 100 is considered a good score. However, some institutes like National Institute of Health require high scores of 28 in Listening and Speaking.

Sending emails to universities:
            There has to be some kind of record for the huge number of emails I sent last year. But if you follow the list I gave then there would be no need to send so many emails. Just focus on a few institutes and keep up correspondence with them. I have been asked a lot about what to send in the preliminary email to elective coordinators. So here goes:
o   Letter of Intent
o   Curriculum vitae
o   Personal Statement

Letter of Intent is your introductory communication with the university. It is basically an email which consists of a few paragraphs. In the first paragraph, write your name, class and institute’s name. Then mention your preferred department and the time period during which you would like to attend the electives.
            The second paragraph is the one which will need to be changed for every university. Here, you should explain why you chose to apply for electives at this university? You can read up information from their official website and decide what is it that really appeals to you? Is it their advanced research and clinical facilities or the multicultural environment? If you are applying for faculty sponsor then it is a good idea to read up some of your sponsor’s research publications. Try to find a common ground and explain why you want to work with him.
            The next paragraph is about you. How are you such a good candidate that your application should be accepted? Here, you can mention your clinical and research expertise. If you have previous electives and/or publications then that is a huge bonus. If not, then you can mention your extracurricular skills which show that you are a team person, punctual, responsible, good speaker etc. Lastly, just sum up and request for your application to be accepted.
            I would highly recommend sending your CV and personal statement along with your letter of intent. It shows that you are a serious candidate and have done some work. Both these documents are not to be taken lightly at all. There are many articles on the internet which explain how to write your CV and personal statement. Go through them just to get an idea but kindly do not indulge in plagiarism. You can take templates from google for your CV but personal statement should ALL just be about you. Why did you choose medical profession? Why do you want to go to USA to pursue your career? Who are you as a person? Try to answer these questions with the most focus on the second question. Take time to write your personal statement. It is the ONLY thing which defines you as a unique individual in the eyes of the elective coordinator. They get hundreds or even thousands of applications every year. You have to prove that you are worth it. One of the faculty sponsors at UAB School of medicine said that he had received 800 applications for electives and he selected only 6 out of them. So work hard on your application if you really want to get accepted for electives.

            I will try to write the Part 2 of this blog as soon as possible so that all those who are applying for electives this year can benefit from it.

            Best of luck to all who are going through the grind. I have been through it and it is definitely not pleasant. However, good results are very rewarding. When you do electives in USA, you realize two very important things.
1) Dunya bahut aagay pohanch gayi hai.
2) Hum technology main tu bahut peeche hain lekin rishton ko nibhaanay me bahut aagay hain. 
There are two sides of every coin. I am glad that I am seeing both the sides during my stay in America.

P.S. Special Thanks to my friends Humaira Sarfraz and Seemab Sheikh for helping me out with this blog.

Read my blog on clinical electives here:


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