October 10, 2023

My Master's Experience at Yale with a Full-Tuition Scholarship as an International Student

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nazerke_m from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Campus Image of Yale University
My Master's Experience at Yale with a Full-Tuition Scholarship as an International Student

Nazerke Mukhlissova is a European & Russian Studies M.A. student at Yale University, with a focus on the political history of the Soviet Union, Eastern European, and Central Asian states. Particularly, she is interested in memory politics, intellectual history, nation, and tradition building. 

Nazerke was born and raised in Kazakhstan, where she received a Bachelor's degree at Nazarbayev University with a double major in History and Political Science. Prior to coming to Yale, she was involved with many research projects focusing on the behavior and policymaking of Central Asian states, as well as regional integration. She has completed several internships with the most remarkable Central Asian think tanks. Her undergraduate thesis, “The ‘Great Steppe’ narrative: origins, politics, and aspirations of Eternal Kazakhstan'', explored how Kazakhstan, as a newly independent country, created a state ideology instrumentalizing Eurasian Steppe with an attempt to distance and differentiate itself from the Soviet past. Another published piece of hers, “Reclaiming Historical Past and Collective Public Memory: The Case of Valikhanov in Kazakhstan”, highlights the tendency of modern Kazakhstani authorities to bluntly accommodate the memory policy inherited from the Soviet past.

Why I chose Yale

During my undergraduate studies, I double-majored in political science and history. One of the problems I faced during my bachelor's was that I liked both, and I couldn't decide what to study further or where to work. What attracted me to the US was that there were many interdisciplinary programs. For instance, the program I'm studying currently at Yale is called European and Russian Studies. I can choose any subject I like, whether it's history, literature, ecology, or something else. Also, what attracted me to Yale was, of course, the faculty. I feel that the faculty is an amazing gathering of intellectuals. The second thing that attracted me to Yale was the resources. The university has extensive archives and libraries, and if you're interested in studying different languages, Yale can provide that.

I believe the reason I was a good match for Yale is that I had a strong background in Central Asian and Soviet history. However, when I arrived at Yale, I realized I lacked background in Eastern European history. Yale provided me with that, as well as a variety of classes on Imperial Russian history.

Apart from the curriculum, I feel that Yale is trying to diversify its cohort and represent students from different countries. So I thought I was a great match to come here to contribute with the skills and knowledge specific to my region. In that way, it was a mutually beneficial relationship with Yale.

Admission process for Master’s

The admission process was interesting for me. When I was finishing my bachelor's degree, I had no idea about my chances. I didn't know if I would be accepted anywhere because I was so uncertain about my profile. I decided to apply to as many schools as possible for my master's degree. I believe that was a good decision because, by applying to many schools, you increase the potential for multiple acceptances, allowing you to choose where to go. I think I applied to around 7 or 8 universities. If you're planning to apply to grad schools, I would suggest you either start saving money, since applications are expensive with each costing around $100, or alternatively seek fee waivers. Fortunately, I was accepted to most of the schools I applied to. I don't recall the specific schools, but I categorized them as safety schools (where I was confident I would be admitted), target schools (which were reputable but also competitive), and top-tier schools (primarily Ivy League). Categorizing your choices helps set realistic expectations.

The other factor that really mattered to me was money, as I didn't have the finances and couldn't take on student debt in the US. Thankfully, Yale awarded me a full tuition scholarship, as did other universities like Georgetown. When you apply, you can submit your main statement of purpose and then provide an additional essay explaining your need for financial aid. This was crucial for me because I outlined all the reasons I couldn't afford to pay.

For my application, I submitted a writing sample, which reflected work I'd completed up to that point. I worked closely with three professors, and each of them provided letters of recommendation, which I believe is the second most important component. I also submitted my transcript. The last component was the GRE. When I applied, it was during the height of COVID. I spent the summer preparing for the GRE, but by September, many schools waived their GRE requirement due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. Even though the pandemic has since subsided, many schools have discontinued their GRE requirement, recognizing it might not effectively represent an applicant's potential to succeed in graduate school.

How to improve your application profile

Regarding the letters of recommendation, I advise you to speak with your professors in advance. What I also did was talk to my professors and ask them to emphasize my academic side more. Even though you can't write your letter of recommendation, you can give them a sense of direction for writing it. Also, choose your recommenders carefully.

The second piece of advice for getting accepted is to have a strong resume, which is very important when applying to grad schools. You have to be strategic in how you present information on your CV. For instance, grad schools are a bit more academic, and you could place relevant coursework or languages you know at the top and prioritize your academic and research experience over work experience. In my resume, I included all the jobs I've had, but I emphasized the research projects most.

The third aspect of the application, likely the most difficult, is the motivational letter. For me, writing a motivational letter about myself was challenging because I felt like I was bragging. In your motivational letter, the most important thing is to address three questions. The first is “What is your intellectual journey?”. You can write about how you became the person you are today, what influenced you, and perhaps mention a book you read or professors with whom you worked. The second question is “What do you plan to do in the future?”. Write about your future academic plans, such as how you hope to use the skills and knowledge you gain at X university. The third part of the motivational letter is “Why are you and that particular school a good fit?”. For example, when I applied to Yale, I mentioned professors I wanted to work with and highlighted archives and specific classes I wanted to attend. The third section will require the most modification depending on the institution to which you're applying.

To craft a good motivational letter, I suggest starting early, perhaps five or six months before the deadline. You don't have to work on it constantly, but after drafting it, you can revisit it after some time. It's similar to a diary. You write self-reflections and might later feel differently about what you wrote, leading to revisions. I also suggest showing your motivational letter to as many people as possible. Perhaps your teachers or friends who are good writers could help make it more coherent.

Building a strong resume starting from undergraduate years

When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I often felt lost because I didn't know what I should do, but I felt like I should be doing something. In my freshman and sophomore years, many internships and opportunities I pursued were out of panic and anxiety simply because I needed something for my resume. But as I progressed to my junior and senior years, I began to discern things I enjoyed and those I didn’t. So, my advice to students is: in your first and second years, try as many things as possible. It's important to identify not only what you like but also what you don't, so you can better direct your energy in the future. By the time you're in your third and fourth years, you should have a clearer sense of direction. In my case, I felt a stronger pull toward academia than the professional field. I had pursued internships in Kazakhstan, and while I respected the work these organizations did, I wasn't passionate about it.

To find research opportunities in your junior year, approach a professor, express your interest in their course, discuss your research inclinations, and ask if there are any research or job opportunities available. They might not offer pay, but the experience will be valuable for your resume. In my sophomore year, I began working with a political science professor who became a mentor to me. I acquired many skills and developed several interests under her guidance. In my junior year, I began collaborating with history professors, and that felt right. I was doing challenging work, but I enjoyed it. It takes time to discern one's passions and to be honest, I believe I'm still on that journey.

Interesting projects at Yale

One of the interesting projects I did last year was a comprehensive research project, in collaboration with a professor interested in Central Asia, which aimed to study how Russian schools and universities teach history. It was fascinating to investigate because there's a highly politicized perception of history taught in Russian schools and universities. Another project I enjoyed was an intellectual history class with Professor Marcy Shore. In that class, I decided to write about nuclear testing in Kazakhstan during the Soviet Union. It turned out that Yale University archives had many documents related to this topic. When I went to the archive and requested these documents, I read testimonies of people who experienced nuclear testing. I felt like Indiana Jones (in the coolest but also nerdiest way possible) and truly enjoyed that experience.

Yale University Campus
Yale University Campus

The importance of alumni and professors at Master’s

Alumni are very important. They're probably one of the resources you should use frequently. When I studied at Nazarbayev University and when I applied to grad schools, many alumni from my university were studying in grad schools in the US. What I did was search for them on LinkedIn. I wrote a detailed message introducing myself and asking if they were available to review my resume or my statement of purpose. These individuals had undergone the same processes and could offer valuable advice. That was the first time I felt fortunate to work with alumni. However, they don't necessarily have to be alumni from your specific undergraduate institution; individuals with similar backgrounds can be equally helpful.

The second time I had the good fortune to work with Yale alumni was during a mentorship program at Yale. I was paired with a fascinating individual who graduated from Yale in 2010. He completed his BA and MA programs in linguistics and now works in finance. He shared many experiences. Connecting with him was pivotal for me because, looking at his resume and application, he appeared highly academic. He had studied linguistics and history but had transitioned to finance, and I wanted to understand why. He shared intriguing stories and provided insights about academia that I hadn't considered previously. So, even though I still intend to pursue further studies, hearing about his journey was enlightening.

Thus, I believe that alumni possess a unique perspective because they have distance from their undergraduate experiences and are generally wiser and more mature. I would suggest to anyone to reach out on LinkedIn since many of these individuals are approachable and keen to network. If they don't respond, it's not necessarily a reflection on you; they might simply be busy. Patience is key.

Future career and academic pursuits

Yale provided me with numerous benefits. I believe I became a much better writer because there's so much reading and writing involved that, even subconsciously, one's language use (in terms of vocabulary and tone) improves significantly.

Additionally, networking at Yale is undeniably invaluable. At Yale, each individual is unique and incredibly talented, to the point where exceptional ability and intelligence become the standard. Yale afforded me numerous networking opportunities. For example, if I'm relocating to Texas, Massachusetts, or Washington D.C., I can likely find someone to assist me, relying on the "connections of my connections," so to speak. Also, if I have research proposals or ideas, there's probably someone within the Yale network who can assist.

Overall, choosing to study at Yale was an excellent decision. I have no regrets. My Master's program equipped me effectively for the real world and prospective careers. I'd encourage everyone to apply. The worst outcome is a rejection, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't that significant.

Beyond classroom experience

Regarding extracurricular activities, I really enjoy the Yale Polo Association. At Yale, there are many interesting sports associations. Also, when I arrived at Yale, there was no Central Asian Association, and with few Central Asian students, I saw a potential gap. This year, we're pleased to have established the Central Asian Association, and now we have our own club. This is significant because if you don't find an existing group that aligns with your interests, you can create one, given the ample resources provided by the university.

Sometimes there are informal meetings with classmates and professors where participants share daily experiences. As a Yale student, you can attend intriguing lectures. For example, last semester, Hillary Clinton visited Yale Law School. So many prominent individuals give talks that, eventually, one might feel lecture-fatigued. However, I believe that's one of the university's strengths.

Final advice

If you are applying to grad schools, try not to pay for it. Most students don't have the money to pay for applications, so seek fee waivers. You need to do that in advance. The second piece of advice is: you're not alone in this process. Ask your professors for help. Personally, when I applied, I felt I was bothering my professors by seeking advice or frequently emailing them. However, they're there to assist you. Simply schedule an appointment or grab a coffee with them to discuss their experiences. The key is to remain grateful and respectful for all the guidance they offer. Don't become upset if they can't assist you immediately; maintain professionalism. Always. Even when you might not feel up to it :) The third piece of advice is to try to avoid student debt. I don't believe it's worth it. I value my master's degree, but I wouldn't finance it because the cost is prohibitive. Be realistic, and remember that not getting into grad school isn't the end of the world.

Contacts

You can reach out to me if you have any follow-up questions:

LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/nazerke-mukhlissova/ 

Email - nazerke.mukhlissova@yale.edu 

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nazerke_m
from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Duration of Study

Aug 2022 — May 2024

Master

European & Russian Studies

Yale University

Yale University

New Haven, US🇺🇸

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Nicoleta from Moldova 🇲🇩

High School Student studying Exact Sciences

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    Veronica

    8 months ago

    This interview was done by our amazing ambassador @nicoletacortac🫶

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