You know when to apply, you know the admissions and financial aid process, you know the criteria, you know how to target colleges, and you know how to improve your chances of success. You are all set. Almost!
We have said it before, and we will say it again: You must understand the college-specific process for applying for admission and financial aid for each one of your target colleges. It is your responsibility to ensure that your application, with all required documentation, reach the school in a timely fashion.
We repeat this because it is important: You should apply no later than December in the year prior to the Fall session of the year in which you will start your program of study. You should take the entrance exam before submitted your application, so that you can identify target colleges in an informed manner.
A few comments on some terminology are in order. You will come across colleges that ask you for your GPA and "official transcript." The transcript refers to a record of your academic performance. The analogous term for India would be your Marks Sheet. The Marks Sheet contains your Marks (called points or score in America and Canada) on various courses you have taken. The transcript in America or Canada contains your Grades on the courses you have taken. The Grading System in America and Canada translates your actual Marks (or points or score) into a Letter Grade for every course. While the Grading System may have variation across colleges and universities, the most common Grading System uses the letter grades A, B, C, D and F. Each grade is assigned points (or Grade Points) to calculate the Grade Point Average (GPA).
Table 3B. Typical Grading System in America and Canada
Table 3C. An Illustrative Example for Calculating GPA
The grade point average (GPA) for the example in Table 3C would be 13/5 = 2.60, since the total grade points score is 13 for 5 courses. This example, however, assumes that all 5 courses are of equal weight or value; that is, each course has the same maximum score. What if they weren’t? Well, then you would have to account for "relative weight" of each course. Table 3D demonstrates how you can compute the GPA. Take the lowest maximum score on a course; it is the basis score. Compute the Relative Weight of each course, by dividing the maximum score for the course by the basis score. The Weighted Grade Point is the product of Grade Point and the Relative Weight for each course.
Table 3D. An Illustrative Example for Calculating GPA, When Courses Are of Different Weight
The GPA in this case is 34/12 = 2.83. Note that the GPA is typically rounded to the two decimal places. As you can see, the relative weights of the courses do impact the GPA.
The translation of Marks in India to the Grade Point Average System, as shown above, does not fairly reflect performance. The direct translation tends to downgrade the actual performance of a student from India. The Grading System in America and Canada "inflates" the performance of local students in relative terms. For example, the First Division performance of 60% or 65% Marks in India, considered good performance, translates to a mediocre C grade performance in America and Canada. Similarly, a Distinction in India at 75%, considered an outstanding performance, translates to a merely good performance under the Grade Point System. Thus, when the minimum GPA requirement for admission is 3.0, which it is for most graduate (Master's or PhD) programs, we believe that a First Division performance from India is the comparable threshold for eligibility (which does not necessarily mean that the student would be accepted).
Given all this, does it mean that students from India are treated unfairly - in terms of evaluating academic performance - relative to other students in the admissions process? The simple answer is no. Most colleges that admit international students have a reasonably good understanding of the evaluation system in India. They do not use the literal translation of Marks into Grades as shown above. They also take into account the reputation of the college from which the student graduated. Although they make every effort to be fair, they may not be familiar with your particular college or university, so it is your responsibility to provide them with all the relevant information.
So what are you supposed to do? When the admissions application asks for your GPA, provide your Marks as well as the GPA (using the above translation scheme). Also attach to your application a write up which explains the performance evaluation system, giving such details as: passing marks, marks required for the First Division and Second Division performance, and marks needed to achieve Distinction in a single course as well as overall. A write up on the reputation of your college or university would also be appropriate, particularly if you can quote from an objective, third-party source.
Now let us address the term "official transcript." We have already explained what a transcript is. It is a common practice in America and Canada to ask for a copy of the "official transcript," which simply means that the transcript from your current or former college should be sent directly to the school to which you are applying. A variation on this theme is that the prospective college requires you to obtain the transcript in a sealed envelope from your former college and then forward it along your application to the prospective college. The applicant is required to request his or her former academic institutions, which typically charge a fee, to send the "official transcripts." This practice generally does not exist in India, and the academic institutions in America and Canada understand that. Your best bet would be to attach to your application a copy of your Marks Sheet which has been "attested" by an official - such as the Registrar - at your academic institution.