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Culture shock!

Understanding cultural differences and preparing for culture shock are critical for your academic success when studying abroad.
Cultural differences are hard to grasp. We live in our own world and have a hard time imagining a social world that is so different than our own. Moreover, globalization and the internet lead us to underestimate cross-cultural differences across different parts of the world. But in fact, basic behaviors related to speaking, eating, personal space, manners and more, are different in different countries. When travelling to study in another country, cultural shock is unavoidable. But the good news is that culture shock follows a predictable pattern, and knowing it can minimize its negative impact and reduce its duration.

The Pattern of Cultural Adjustment

When going to study abroad, people will go through a natural process of adjustment that will include the stages of: Honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment.

The Honeymoon phase:
In the beginning, you will be excited about the new country and everything it has to offer. You will likely think the locals are friendly and welcoming, and maybe over-estimate how easy it will be for you to integrate into the new society.

The Crisis Phase / Culture shock:
As time goes by, you will begin to feel more how your perceptions and social responses are not in line with the local culture. This often happens due to objective situations, such as a small accident, a suitcase that does not arrive, or one of the million other small annoying things that sometimes happen in life. Then you find out that you do not really know how to take care of things that were so natural and easy in your home country. You may try to be nice and assertive, yet come across as overwhelming and aggressive. You may try to be polite, but come across as cold or weird. Worse yet, you will probably not be able to understand the social cues that tell you that you are doing something wrong. Accumulating negative experiences like these causes an internal crisis and deep frustration. This "culture shock” can result in sleeping issues, appetite changes, and in many cases sadness. But this is a natural response to a dramatic change in your life. And this is only a stage in the cultural adjustment pattern. It gets better from here.

Recovery and adjustment:
As you begin to admit that you don’t know the new social codes – you open up to learning them. Your language becomes better, you start to know people, and you begin to feel more comfortable with the culture. During recovery and adjustment, you will begin to expand your social networks and obtain support of your old and new friends; you will understand what you love about the new culture and how to balance it with the traditions and customs of your home country. You will gain more and more positive experiences that will boost your confidence and make you feel more at home.

Jacob Bacon, a Change-Management expert and GradTrain co-founder, explains that the attitude towards change depends to a large extent on people's personality traits. “It is common to point to seven factors that would determine a person’s ability to cope with change: Positive perception of yourself, positive perception of the world, focus, organization skills, proactiveness, flexible-thought, and a flexible-social attitude. People who have these traits will likely have an easier time going through change.”

Be prepared for cultural differences

The cumulative expertise of the GradTrain team produced some practical tips for people who go through culture shock. “We are five people who came from five different countries and studied five different fields,” says Lital Helman, GradTrain VP. “We have a quite broad experience in dealing with cultural shock, and know that the hardship is worth it.” Here are some tips that can help other people who go study abroad and are going to have a cultural shock:

1. There are quite a few amusing yet real and useful examples of differences in the way people speak in different countries here and here. The scholar Geert Hofestede also summarized some key differences between countries. This is really helpful.

One case that we heard of at GradTrain is of someone who moved to study in the US from a country that has a significantly more direct and explicit culture. People would tell her ‘let’s have lunch sometime’ and she kept inviting them to lunch. It ended up being OK and she actually made many friends this way. But she would have had a much easier time had she read some of these guides and known that in American culture, when people say ‘let’s have lunch sometime’ they actually mean ‘it was nice to meet you – and maybe we’ll meet again at some point’.

2. Stay positive and remember that these feelings are temporary. Look for the positive things in the new culture and look to connect with other people who are currently going through this process.

3. Remind yourself of the long term goals of why you are here. As said above, focused people have a better resilience to change.

4. Be proactive. Don’t wait for things to happen to you! Reach out to other international students from your own country that already have experience from the country you are going to study in. Connect with a GradTrain coach (starting August). They can help you cope. It is easier to go through it when you see that others are - or were - in the same boat as you. 

5. Be organized! Plan what you can do to better adjust, and follow this path.

6. Remember that even when the culture shock is strong, recovery and adjustment will follow. Don’t despair! It is much easier to recover and adjust when you understand that this is a natural and normal process!

Do not forget, that while culture shock is hard, it is also a blessing. Being exposed to other cultures opens your mind and allows you to gain a greater understanding of the world, expand your social capabilities and cope in more complex situations in your life.  Understanding cultural differences is just one of the many important skills that international education will provide you. Make sure you embrace these differences!

We know that many of our readers have experience with studying abroad. Why don’t you tell us about your “cultural difference experiences,” whether they be funny, interesting, profound, sad, irritating, or all of the above.

How to write your statement of purpose, personal statement and essay for American graduate programs

Whether you are applying for an LLM, MBA, PhD, Masters, MSc, or any other graduate degree, and whether this is to Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, University of Florida, New School or any other School for that matter, you are most likely asked to submit a document that shows that you are the perfect candidate for their program. In Law School, this document is typically called a “Personal Statement”. In business school, this is the “MBA Essay”. In Engineering, Education, Social sciences, and the Sciences, the relevant term is “Statement of Purpose”. The name is, of course, not the only difference. Each school, program, and degree requires what THEY think is relevant. The common feature of all, though, is the need to show that you and the program are a perfect match. Some general tips to achieve this goal can thus be highly relevant. So let’s get started:

1. Use the guidelines that the program provides. In order to write an effective Statement, you must know what the Admissions Committee wants to read. Most – if not all – programs, have detailed guidelines for the Statement on their website. Read them. They will tell you if you are expected to discuss a research question (quite likely for a PhD application), or to focus on your personal and professional development path (the typical MBA Essay). Follow the instructions. Stick to the page or word limit they set. In some countries, word limits are just recommended. In America they are actually enforced. Schools also ask you to write your Statement yourself, alone. Please follow this rule. Some schools have recently started to send all Statements to an external company to check the originality of Statements. An unoriginal Statement will disqualify you. This would be embarrassing. Please be careful about it. You will thank us.

2. Do your homework. In order to show that you are the right fit for the school and program, do some research. Learn what the main focus of the program is, who the leading scholars are and how it may fit your background and goals. You can find this information by searching through the program’s website and faculty directory. Look at the course names and publication lists of the professors and seek out fields that interest you and are aligned with your goals. Mention these points in a clear manner in your statement.

3. What should the Statement entail? Again, your Statement should explain why you and the program are a perfect match. Except when a program’s guidelines suggest otherwise, in the Committee’s eyes, this depends on things like: why you chose the degree and the specific program, and most importantly, what you plan to do after graduation. If you can convince the Committee that you have a clear vision of the contribution of this program to your future career, a more advanced degree or your life trajectory, you are likely to get their attention. Try to be specific. You may discuss a specific research project or an idea you intend to develop during your studies. This will help you stand out from the crowd and will give the committee a feeling that they know you and your abilities.

4. What there should be less of. One common mistake by applicants is to write little of what was stated in the above point, and more on previous achievements. While you may want to briefly state past academic and non-academic achievements, too much of that would make your Statement look like a long version of your CV. When you do state your past achievements, try to point out how you will build on these past experiences to excel in the program you are applying for and for your future career development. Try not to repeat things that come up in your CV, transcript or letters of recommendation. Think of specific points that you want them to know, but are not reflected elsewhere in your application package.

5. Be positive. In general, you should only say positive things about yourself in your Statement (but hey – don’t brag!). If you are like most of our readers, you have very high self-standards. This may make you want to discuss and try to explain points that you see as weak. But this is almost always a mistake. The committee itself might have not even noticed this point or might have not interpreted it negatively at all (until you brought it up). There is also some psychology at play here: if you say bad things about yourself, the committee may conclude things are even worse, because their assumption is that all candidates are trying to portray themselves in the best possible way. So try to avoid it. If there are exceptional cases where you are absolutely confident that you need to explain some failures, try to present those in as positive a light as possible (for example: I managed to average B+ in my second year, despite a disease my brother had, which compelled me to divide my focus, and help my family as much as I could. My family was thankful for my help, and I got back to my A average in the next semester). Oh, and one more thing. It goes without saying - you should also only say good things about others, such as former professors and colleagues – if you mention them at all. Your Statement is not the right forum for settling personal accounts, and you do not want to come across as unpleasant or tactless. We recently wrote a whole blog post about this subject

6. Language and culture. Your Statement is tested not only on its content, but also on its style, structure and language proficiency. Don’t use words you don’t know. Don’t assume you’ll be forgiven as a foreigner. You need to assure the committee that you will fit the program. And the program, after all, will probably be held in English. If you are struggling with the language, make sure you have a native English speaker who can read over your letter and correct grammar and phrasing. You may also ask the person if the content of what you are writing is culturally appropriate. There may be things that are commonly stated in one culture, but not in others, and you want to make sure you are culturally appropriate.

7. Fit the narrative of your application. As we have mentioned in past blogs, your application package should present you in a consistent (though well-rounded) way. The Committee should get the impression that they know you, and be confident that they would like to see you on their campus.

The Statement is probably the most difficult part of the application process for any student. Yet, for international students it is particularly difficult, because of language barriers, cultural differences and lack of a personal network that can help and guide them. But the journey is worth it. Oh, yes. It is. Use these tips and do your research to make sure that you position yourself in the best possible way.

We hope these tips help you in the application process. Feel free to write below any question you might have, or visit us at Good luck!

Survey reveals gap between needs and solutions in international applications to grad school

Regardless of which country you are from, international education will likely take you a long way towards achieving your career goals. Yet, as anyone who has gone through this process knows well, and as we have written previously, the international application process is complicated and stressful, and solutions for prospective international students are under-developed or non-existent. 

In order to better understand the difficulties international students face and the kinds of help they need, GradTrain launched a survey of prospective, current and past international students. This survey was designed by sociologist Dr. Sharon Sznitman, to identify gaps between applicants’ needs and available services with regards to the international graduate application process.

Data was based on an online survey. The sample consisted of 217 respondents from 50 countries. The largest group of respondents had applied to Master's programs abroad and the majority of respondents had studied business, sciences, engineering/manufacturing/construction or law.


In line with reports from the OECD, the largest group of international students in the survey originated from Asia (26%), and the second largest group originated from Europe (24%). The third largest group of respondents in our survey originated from the Middle East and Africa (24%).


Also in line with reports from the OECD, the largest group of international students in the survey studied in the USA (56%), followed by the UK (13%) and other European /OECD countries (12%).



What services are prospective students currently using?

The survey shed light on an interesting question regarding the current tools prospective students utilize to enhance their applications. Interestingly, from a variety of potential tools that are available on the market, the survey respondents mentioned using primarily the following services: 33% used chats/forums with students/graduates from their home country, 17% used social media, 15% used a predictor for program acceptance probability, and 12% used individual counseling with education experts.

Based on these results, and on the results outlined below, it appears that current solutions are partial at best and are utilized by a minority of international applicants, despite the need for help in the application process.

Applicants know what they need

One of the interesting findings from the survey is that applicants know what they would need and what would help them during the international graduate application process. Accordingly, 81% of respondents rated an online tool that helps them understand where to apply to and their chances of acceptance as useful.

Apparently, planning and managing the application process itself is another area where international applicants need help. 90% of respondents rated an online calendar of application schedules and reminders to help the applicant plan ahead as useful.


Additional help international applicants may need is the ability to chat with other applicants who are going through the same process to share experience and advice. 81% of respondents rated an online chat/forum with international applicants (from the applicant’s home country) as useful.


A similar number of applicants expressed interest in getting advice from somebody who has already gone through the process. Indeed, 86% of respondents rated an online chat/forum with international graduates/current students from applicant’s home country as useful.


Survey results also pointed out that 76% of respondents rated online individual counseling with an education application expert as useful.


To sum up

Our survey revealed that there are many services that international applicants rate as useful. Unfortunately, most of these services are not available to most students today and are not being utilized by the students to enhance their application process . While some of the difficulties in the university application process might be relevant to domestic university applicants as well, international applicants are unique in both the extent of the information problems they face and the little sources of help they have.

We believe that the survey results should raise the awareness of universities whose graduates continue their studies abroad, as well as universities that recruit international students, to better understand the needs and solutions for the applicants. Furthermore, these results and other findings we identified in the survey demonstrate the wide gap between the solutions that are available today and what is actually needed. This gap should become known to any person who finds international education important, to work and strive towards better solutions in this field.

What are the services you think would be most helpful in the international graduate application process? Tell us in the comments box below.

*If you are interested in the full survey results, please contact:

The 10 Commandments of Recommendation Letters

One of the main mistakes international applicants make in their application process involves getting the wrong letters of recommendation (or ‘references’) from the wrong people, or managing the recommendation process poorly. Use the cumulative experience of the GradTrain team and follow these rules to choose the right references and learn how to manage the process in order to avoid some common mistakes that can become the “kiss of death” for your application: 

  1. Get references who know you well. This is more important than to get a reference who is a“big name” but can barely spell your name. Try for a moment to look at the application process from the point of view of the admission committee. They face a big information problem: they receive many applications and know basically nothing about any of them. Especially for international applicants, it is likely that the admissions committee will not know your current or past school’s name and reputation, and not the names of your professors. Whatever you can do to give the committee more information about you, will make their work easier, and they would feel more confident about your candidacy. They are likely to get this information from a reference who knows you well, rather than from someone who knows you a bit but is a “big name” (if you can find a reference who knows you well and is a "big name", that is ideal of course). 
  2. Choose references who can make you stand out. The committee assumes you put forward the best case for your candidacy. Therefore, they assume that you picked as references people who think the most highly of you (well, besides your mom, maybe). If you send a letter from somebody who kind of likes you, but is not really impressed by your skills and academic competence, the committee would assume this is the best you could find. They would not invest the time and energy to try to read into your strategy or psychology of why you picked this reference over someone who could have written a stronger letter. Therefore, make sure you have people who can write really strong letters. It is best if they can write things they cannot write about more than one person, such as: “The BEST student in her class”; “The HIGHEST grade”; “The MOST creative”; etc. This conveys that you are really outstanding in their eyes. 
  3. Choose wisely: Academic vs. professional letters. Remember you are applying for a university degree, and you will be judged by academic standards. Therefore, your current or former professors and lecturers (the terminology is different in different parts of the world) are the most natural references. However, in some cases it is a good idea to diversify, and get one letter from an employer. These cases include, for example, if you have substantial, relevant and impressive work experience or an internationally well-known employer. But limit yourself to one professional letter. The rest should come from your professors and lecturers. If this employer is affiliated with or is teaching at a university – see if he or she can mention it in the letter. Try to also be relevant to the specific school you are applying to: if your references have any personal connection to one of the programs or schools you are applying to (for example, if they studied there, visited there or taught there), it would be good if they mention it, and say that based on their personal acquaintance with both you and the school – you are a good fit. 
  4. Be relevant. Choose references who can describe relevant skills. Remember: the admissions committee is not your psychologist. You – and your references – do not need to focus on irrelevant traits you might have. You need to show that you are what THEY are looking for. Of course, if you have outstanding achievements, honors, certificates of excellence or extra-curricular activities that are not relevant to your studies – do mention them. It is important that the committee will perceive you as a well-rounded, motivated person in general. But in the end, you must ask yourself: what do the committee members look for in the field you are applying for? Who is the perfect candidate for them? Somebody intelligent? Analytic? Creative? Passionate? Somebody with some specific life experience? Choose as references people who can demonstrate that you have those skills and traits. 
  5. Don’t be shy. Despite our wishes, professors rarely offer to write letters of recommendation at their own initiative even for outstanding students. You will probably need to take the first step in this dance. Many applicants feel uncomfortable turning to former professors they lost touch with in order to ask for this favor. You don’t need to feel uncomfortable. Professors view recommending good students as part of their job. They are also often used to hearing these requests from former students who lost touch, and are happy to help. Our suggestion is to send a short, polite email to the professors you target, remind them who you are (and how they liked you / what your grade or ranking was, etc.), ask to consult with them about your application, and make a face-to-face appointment (if possible). When you meet, consult with them generally about your application (they may just give you good advice), remind them (tactfully) how good a student you were and then ask politely if they can write a letter for you. 
  6. Read the signs. If a professor tells you things like: “sure, I would love to write for you… just be aware that another student of mine is applying and I am very committed to help her get in;” or “I would love to help, but do not feel qualified to evaluate your work”, or “weren’t you much closer to Prof. McGonagall from that other department,” this means their letter will probably NOT BE STRONG. Don’t deceive yourself. Try to find somebody else. 
  7. Allow your references enough time and make their lives easier. Be considerate and polite and don’t impose an uncomfortable timeframe. 4-5 weeks is a reasonable timeframe for most people. After you meet with your recommenders, send them an email that specifies the deadlines and what exactly they are asked to do. If schools provide forms, or ask to address it to anybody specific – you should be the one pointing that out to your references. Don’t just send your references links to the school’s website and let them figure it out. Be active and control the process. You will need to remain in touch and may need to send a friendly reminder 2 weeks before the deadline (and if the letter is not sent, send more polite reminders during the last week before the deadline). 
  8. Fit the narrative of your application. Your application package should present you in a consistent (though well-rounded) way. If you are trying to come across as an experienced manager and an outgoing leader, it may really not help if your references portray you as a quiet, introvert geek. You cannot, of course, control what your professors and other references are writing. But you can help them get a better picture of you. We already suggested you meet with them in person, and describe where you are in life. Also, send them your CV, transcripts, a paper you wrote in their class (that they graded high), and your personal statement, when ready. You can also write a (short, please!) summary of key points and achievements from your academic track that your reference may choose to mention in the letter. They want their letter to be helpful, and they would feel more confident recommending somebody who they feel they know better. Of course, tell them when you meet that you will send them all of these materials and let them confirm that it is OK for them. Don’t just throw it all at them! 
  9. Be appreciative. Make sure to thank your references and keep them posted about your progress. Keeping in contact with your references is important. You may want to consult with them on other issues in the future or use them as references for scholarship applications later on. The level of communication that makes sense depends on your relationship with each individual reference. You should contact them at least once in the end of the process to update them with the results. When you do, always present the situation in a positive way, if possible. So phrase it as “I got accepted to X and Y and both offered me scholarships,“ rather than ”I applied to 10 different programs and only heard back from X and Y, and the scholarships they offered is lower than the one school Z offers to those they accepted (not me).” Don’t forget to thank them. And feel free to stay in touch once a year to keep them updated with your progress. 
  10. Don’t ever use a reference without their permission. Anytime you write somebody’s name as a reference – they need to be asked in advance. Even if they were your reference in the past. Even if you know they would agree. Even if it’s hard to get a hold of them. You do NOT want anybody to be contacted by schools without asking them beforehand. It makes you look unprofessional and reduces the chances of a good recommendation. 
We hope this helps. We’ve been in your shoes and know what you are going through. One thing we can tell you at this point is – try your best. Get our help if needed. This process is stressful – but it is definitely worth it. You won’t regret it. Feel free to write any comments or questions you have below! For any personal question you might have, please visit us at GradTrain and post your question. We’ll write back within 22 hours –hopefully with some good advice!