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I am in my senior year of studying electrical engineering in an african university. I intend to apply to grad schools(Ph.D) a year after graduation, possibly to the top EE programs in the US (MIT, Berkeley, Stanford...) Despite the fact that ground-breaking/stellar research is virtually impossible to come by for undergraduates in my country, I have sort of gathered some. I have an accepted poster presentation(based on independent research) at the major national conference in my field, and my present senior year thesis/project may yield three-five papers at IEEE conferences around Africa. I should also be able to get two publications(also independent research) in a continental journal which is popular only among African Engineers in my field and not much outside.

My degree is a five year bachelors programme interspersed with three internships/co-op experience. One was a summer spent in a local R&D electronics lab/company in which we completed several design projects although all were adaptations/imitation of existing projects to solve problems facing developing societies like ours. Another one was a long internship (~8mths) in the EE division of a world-renowned company with huge presence in my country during which I worked on a major design project which required a lot of technical knowledge and was evaluated. I have also done some remote/virtual research for a foreign, not well-known, research institute in my field and I have completed a technical report (no peer review) of my research(not particularly breath-taking) which they publish in their report series.

My gpa though not near-perfect is on a 'first-class' (we use the british system) and so I am a high-ranking student in my university. We do not use the four point system and as much as I would not like to compare apples with oranges, if I convert my cgpa to the 4.0 scale it is just over 3.6 although our scale is much larger and high-end grades are more difficult to attain than what is obtainable in the US system. I am also a recipient of several national awards/recognition for academic merit.

Given the aforesaid and also assuming that I ace the GRE (math especially since I'm in engineering), my questions are these:

How do you think I can improve my chances of being a good fit for top U.S. graduate schools noting the difficulty/impossibility in doing any ground-breaking research especially as an undergraduate here?

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    Hi and welcome to academia.SE! Your question (and in general, "what are my chances" questions) are likely to be closed here because they are too localized. If you have a question that applies outside your specific situation, please edit your question to be more general. – ff524 Mar 10 '14 at 5:48
  • For example, you can change your question to something like: "How can an undergrad from a country with little 'international' research improve his chances of being accepted into a top PhD program?" – ff524 Mar 10 '14 at 5:59
  • Unfortunately, ff524 is right. Self-identified undergrad questions (about anything) tend to be closed. – user10433 Mar 10 '14 at 20:42
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    @rocinante: As a moderator, I can say questions about how to improve one's chances of getting into grad school are on-topic, and that questions asking about how likely is it for a particular individual to get into graduate school are too specific. Undergrad questions are not prima facie off-topic; it's only if they can't be applied to higher levels of education that they become problematic. – aeismail Mar 11 '14 at 2:13
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    But admission to grad school is a relevant issue, as I've already mentioned. – aeismail Mar 11 '14 at 20:01
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Ok, good question, but let's eliminate the phrase, "noting the difficulty/impossibility in doing any ground-breaking research especially as an undergraduate here?" This actually applies to almost the entirety of the undergraduate population. Very few undergraduates work on ground-breaking research projects -- and, if they do, their role on the actual project is unlikely to be the intellectual driver. They might have done some lower-level work under the supervision of the principal investigator (PI).

So, your question is really about how to improve your chances of acceptance in general. That really depends on the discipline, and it really depends on the program to which you are applying. Every program has a unique admissions committee that will review applications and assign different levels / weights to factors they consider important in making admissions decisions. Thus, certain programs may place a lot more emphasis on GRE than other programs. Some programs might consider letters of recommendations to be very important, which other programs may consider letters of recommendation to be of little importance (since most letters of recommendations are cherry picked from the possible letter writers).

That said, your task is to tailor every application to the programs where you are submitting an application. A general snowball approach where you submit the same application everywhere is an alternative strategy, but one that I advise against. Learn what those programs value most in their admissions decisions, and tailor the application accordingly. Of course, it is hard to figure out what they value, so you have to do a lot of researching -- e.g., any published data on the current and previous cohorts?

Good luck!

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I'm going to assume that you are "qualifed," that is, you have good grades from your university program, and decent marks on standardized tests such as the GRE.

You ought to understand that in your situation, your "research" potential is probably viewed differently from, say, an American's. You probably won't be evaluated for your abilities in "pure" research (adding to the existing body of (Western) knowledge, as for your ability in "applied" research; that is taking the knowledge you will be taught in the United States, and sending it back to your home country.

I'm going to assume that the U.S. admissions committee at a top university would likely see you as an "average" student, rather than a "top" student (relative to other top university students). In this case, their question will be, would we rather train another "average" student for e.g. Silicon valley, or a similar student for an African country. The answer is likely to be in favor of the latter, because even top U.S. universities have limited points of entry into most African countries.

The hottest ticket in American universities right now is a degree from Kuwait, Qatar, or one of the other Gulf countries, with Africa not far behind. In this regard, your coops and internships with a national conference will be very helpful, because they suggest that you will rise high in your government's scientific hierarchy. American universities will be evaluating you as a potential Transportation Minister or head of the National Scientific Institute.

In this regard, your competition is not with "western" students, but similarly connected and educated African students (perhaps others from your homeland). You seem to have the advantage in this group. Good luck.

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