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To say 'it's that time of the year again' is a bit of a cliché. It's true, though. This is when eager students everywhere begin their yearlong process of trying to get to a 'good' American university. What surprises me is that, over the years, the method has changed. Graduate, undergraduate or Ph.D programme, the means to that end are now similar around the world: the Internet.

It is something I learned too, blindly relying on my modem from the day I began my application process, a year ago.

It was the GRE bug that bit me first, sometime in March 2000. I bought the necessary books and checked out the official GRE, TOEFL and ETS sites. The latter was especially useful for its truckload of info on all possible exams -- from the GRE and GMAT to TOEFL, SAT and TSE -- with links to official sites for each. It had pages on everything from rules and examination basics, to books, downloadable forms (for additional score-reports), online registration and help-lines.

By the time July arrived, I began the tiresome task of pre-applying and research. Pre-application is the request email one sends to universities, asking for their brochures and application forms. It is important to mention, clearly, the course you want, along with your name and postal address. For those wondering where to send requests, USNews is a perfect resource.

Most universities reply to requests (I sent around 120) via email, along with URLs for printable forms or online registration. Some simply post application packages, which arrive between two weeks and two months from the day of your request.

Research alone could take weeks, thanks to the thousands of universities in America. USNews has a special section for education, comprising useful tools (like a fee calculator), rankings (top 50 for most programmes), and financial data. It also has a comparison centre for reports on up to five schools at a time. There are other in-depth reports as well, covering in-take rates, overall costs, official Web sites, recruiters' ratings, post-education salaries and more.

During this part of the process, it is important to keep in mind details like climate, costs, how good the school is for a particular program and coursework involved. Sites like Embark should also help. Your final shortlist can be completed only after you get your test scores, when you know where you stand in terms of an overall profile.

I started sending completed applications by October. There were ten universities on my list, based on GRE score, course, and university rankings. For the next three months I lived in limbo, as the applications were processed.

What I did in the meanwhile, however, was explore FALL2001, an e-group for Indian students going to the US in the same academic year I was. The community branched out into sub-groups, depending on different programmes like an MS in computer science or Ph.D in psychology, to name a few.

Once my replies (admits or rejects) started rolling in, by March 2001, I went back to the Internet. Most universities correspond via email, many have online status tracking facilities, and contacts for all departments and offices are also easily available.

It was time, now, for that all-important issue of funding. Fastweb was a great help, along with Scholarships.com and Scholarship Pages.

Next on my agenda was the visa, and a hundred other doubts. I found that the best sources of information were students who had done it all before. Fall2001's bookmarks had pages on all kinds of data, put up by students who had managed these formalities successfully. The e-group also had sub-groups of universities, making my life so much simpler.

When I last logged in, the FALL2002 e-group was alive and kicking.

The visa finally arrived. There was shopping to be done, email to seniors, and sites like Rediff USA to turn to for help. Maps.com helped me get my bearings, and then, I was ready.

I'm off in a short while. If you're interested in doing the same thing, you now know where to look.

 --Dr Know on how to study in the US
 --Studying Abroad: 10 sites that make it happen
 --Seven sites on campuses abroad

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