Applying to grad school as an individual is already hard enough. Choosing schools, comparing funding packages – it feels like your whole life hangs in the balance. But imagine negotiating grad admissions and marriage at the same time. And imagine doing so as international applicants! To me, the thought is almost overwhelming.
What if you and your partner don’t get accepted to the same school? Should you be applying to the same schools at all? Are you ready for a long-distance relationship? Should you just try to make it to the same city?
Each year, hundreds of couples face these difficult questions, but few achieve the dream scenario of enrolling together in the same top-ranked university. That’s why I’m excited to share the story of two WriteIvy students who achieved the unthinkable.
In the 2021-22 admissions cycle, Vasu and Annie, a young couple from Delhi, India, were both admitted to 9 of the same graduate schools!
Recently, we had a sprawling, laughter-filled conversation about how Vasu and Annie managed grad admissions and marriage at the same time, and how they achieved uncanny success. If you too are applying as part of a couple, then the transcribed highlights below should give you hope that it is indeed possible to achieve grad success while balancing the demands of a committed relationship.
The Married Applicants
Annie is a senior software engineer with Oracle, who previously worked for Dell as a software developer. She earned her undergrad degree in CS, started off as a backend engineer, and then upskilled to become a full stack developer and product designer.
Vasu is a software developer at Dell. His expertise is in front-end web products, and his undergrad degree was in Electrical Engineering.
Location: Delhi NCR
Academic Field: MS in Technology, Software, and/or Information Systems Management
Admissions: CMU, CMU Silicon Valley, UIUC, UCSB, NYU, Arizona, SUNY Buffalo, Northeastern, Washington
How did you meet?
Annie: We were in a development program together at Dell. Vasu was one year senior to me. We worked in the same organization, but not the same teams.
Jordan: I didn’t realize that Dell was such a romantic place to work!
Annie: Yes! Actually, I know a lot of couples who met in Dell.
Vasu: Dell is quite famous for that: the matchmaking American company.
Jordan: It sounds like Dell has job perks that people don’t know about.
Vasu: Supporting in all your endeavors. [chuckle]
Why did you apply to grad schools together?
Annie: Actually, that wasn’t the plan. I intended to apply in 2020, but because of the COVID situation, I didn’t. Vasu wanted to do an MBA, and I wanted to pursue something in Computer Science or Information Systems Management. I’d done my research and knew that I’d probably need more experience.
I saw a lot of people going for their master’s with 2-3 years of work experience, and although their master’s experience was good, landing a job became difficult because they didn’t have the work background. I just held back for a few years, and got a lot of guidance from mentors in Dell. Then, after COVID, I decided that, “Okay, I have a lot of time at home.” So, I started preparing for the GRE. That’s how it started. Vasu also started looking at MBA courses at that time.
Vasu: Yes, but the MBA courses weren’t all that impressive. I wondered: “Should I leave technology so easily?” It’s been six years, and I’m very fond of technology. Even though I envisioned myself as a leader in future, I wanted a course that’s technology-oriented but that adds business analytical skills. That’s when we started looking at colleges and what they offer.
Annie: Also, on a lighter note, he did not want a long-distance relationship. [laughs]
Why did you only apply to US schools?
Annie: We did our research. There were great courses like MIM at London Business School, but when I looked at the course catalogs, they didn’t touch upon the technical aspects I wanted. The names of the programs are similar, but if you go to the course catalog, and you really check out the core subjects, and your choice of electives, then you figure out: “Okay, even though they share a common name, these courses are pretty different.”
Also, my first cousin works in Amsterdam and I know it’s a little difficult to find jobs there. It’s difficult to find a job in the US too, but it seemed tougher to find a job in Europe. I’d prioritized Information Systems Management, CS, and Technology Management, and I applied to all three fields. But after studying the curricula, and seeing their differences in different countries, that’s how we decided: “Okay, I think US is the best place. We have a variety of subjects.” It was really nice.
How did you start working on applications and SOPs?
Vasu: This is a very interesting story!
Annie: Yes. We had just gotten married, and I said: “Okay, we need to seriously start applying for colleges. We’re done with all the celebrating. Let’s get to the real business!”
I started writing my first SOP, which was for CMU. It was supposed to be a 1,000-word SOP, one of the longest. I put together some stuff but didn’t feel convinced. Then, I started googling what I shouldn’t write. I literally googled…
Vasu: What not to do. [laughs]
Annie: Yes, what not to do. The first thing that came up was your SOP Starter Kit. I read it and thought: “He says you shouldn’t do this, but…oh no, I did that!”
It was 3AM. Vasu was dozing off and I woke him up and said: “Look, look, look, we aren’t going to get into any colleges!” He was like, “No way, man.” We sat up till six o’clock changing our SOPs.
Jordan: Oh no. [laughs]
Vasu: It’s true. The moment she figured this out, she was like, “Let’s restructure the essays now.” We went through your website, we read every word, and we started restructuring it. I think after that day, things became pretty convincing.
Annie: Yes. I had structured my SOP in an autobiography format because that’s how I always put myself forward in interviews. But it was more like I was elaborating on my resume, which was a big “no” on your not-to-do list. I shifted my focus and I was like, “Yes. I really want to do this. It’s there in my heart. I just need to put it out there instead of just thinking too much on technical terms.”
It became really easy to apply to different colleges because I only had to change a few paragraphs, not the entire SOP. We were running short of time. We started applying in January. We were already late, so I didn’t get a GRE slot before November, and I was getting married in December. I missed a lot of CS deadlines in November and then 15th December. Then I was like, “This is it. I have to hustle right now.”
Jordan: Wait a minute. You took the GRE in November, and you got married in December, and you were meeting grad school application deadlines for January?
Jordan: Oh, that’s brutal. I don’t know how you did it. You guys are superheroes.
Vasu: Actually, I think this journey started in July when I started preparing for the GMAT.
Annie: That was a big mistake.
Vasu: Yes, a good mistake. We were thinking that GMAT would be mandatory because we are looking at management courses, but thankfully we saw later that it’s either GMAT or GRE everywhere.
Jordan: That’s actually why I always tell students to start six months early. Then you have time to make those mistakes. If you wait till the last minute, you actually waste a year because it’s too late to make mistakes and you’ll have to apply again.
Did you purposefully choose the same universities when applying?
Annie: Actually, we never said, “Okay, this is the end game. We are going to get into the same school.” This wasn’t our goal. Our goal was getting into our individual dream universities, or at least a decent, a good college in the same city. We talked about separation, a long-distance relationship, and how to manage that. But we knew that if we started thinking about it, it would bother us. It would become an obstacle in this process, and you know focus is very important at this point of time. So, we were ready to be separated, but focused on what we could control.
Jordan: That’s a really great point! So, you focused on the process, and chose schools that were best for you individually instead of letting your relationship dictate where to apply?
Annie: I applied to a lot more universities than he did, but we didn’t dictate each other’s choices. We did have a lot of schools in common, but we did a lot of talking and networking to understand what was best for each of us.
For example, NYU has great school of business, but maybe it’s not as great for engineering. I didn’t know that, so I found a former colleague there who could tell me about it. How do things work? How soon can we recover our loans? I considered all these things and then started looking for colleges. That’s why I didn’t apply to some Ivy League-type schools because I knew we couldn’t afford the tuition, but I was okay with that. Education is education.
What would you have done if you didn’t get into the same programs?
Vasu: It would have been very difficult, but we would have gone our separate ways.
Vasu: We would have hoped to eventually find work in the same state.
Annie: Some of our friends were part of a group back here in India two years ago. This couple, they already moved on to further studies, in separate states, but now they work together in Amazon in Seattle. I would have totally drawn inspiration from them.
Luckily, we both have a good network in the US for job references. We could have reached out to them to help us end up in the same place. So, there was a contingency plan ready. We said, “Okay, if this doesn’t happen together, what do we do?” And we would have gone to different colleges. That would have been another experience, but we were ready for it.
Vasu: We were prepared for that because, initially, it was a bit too ambitious to say, “Yes, we will definitely receive an admit from the same college.”
And that was certainly the case. For the first college we applied to, UIUC, Annie received an admit but I didn’t. [editor’s note: miraculously, Vasu later received a post-rejection offer of admission from this school, giving them 9 total shared admissions]
Annie: Yes, and this happened on the day we were traveling for our honeymoon. [laughs]
Vasu: So, we were on our honeymoon, and said, “Okay, that just happened.” But then, after we came back, we started getting admits together. The next one was UCSB.
Annie: Yes, then we had CMU, then NYU, then Arizona, SUNY Buffalo, and then-
Annie: Northeastern. And now, we have Washington. [laughs]
Jordan: This is so amazing.
Annie: We were really thrilled. [laughs]
Vasu: I was like, “Are you finished? Because I know where I’m going.” [laughs]
We always used to be like, “Oh, do you see that? I’m going to check your inbox. Check your inbox.”
Jordan: [chuckles] That is so crazy to me. You guys had a really happy spring?
Vasu: Yes, we did. It was a lot of hard work doing this stuff, but we’re lucky it paid off.
What do you think the key to your success was?
Annie: We’ve connected with a lot batchmates who are joining our same program, and they’ve been saying the same stuff: “We’ve never heard of a couple getting in together!” So, we’re incredibly lucky. If you read our SOPs, they’re different. Our LORs are different, our achievements are different.
Vasu: We followed the same pattern but the content, our stories were very different.
Annie: I think we maintained our individuality. We didn’t represent ourselves as a couple. We just poured our hearts out onto our applications.
Jordan: Do you think other students do that? They represent themselves as couples?
Annie: I know some people do.
Jordan: To me, that’s very risky.
Annie: It is.
Vasu: Very risky.
Annie: When I say they presented themselves as a couple, I mean that, if I like apples, and Vasu doesn’t, he’s going to write that he likes them anyway because if it worked for someone else, it will work for you. But no, that’s not what we did.
Vasu: And here we are.
Annie: I know a lot of people just fake it in their SOPs. But everything I wrote was 100% true. It aligned with everything I want to do in my career and I think that’s where we hit the bull’s eye. I know some people exaggerate their experience or their goals, but I remember I told Vasu to write from your heart. There are so many people in admissions committees that have been reviewing for years. I think they can figure out, pardon my language, your bullshit. [laughs]
Vasu: Yes, overall we were like, “Eyes on the prize, but with honesty.”
Annie: It helped because I think we’ve both experienced a lot as developers and team leaders. We’re very young in our careers, but we’ve led teams. We were in a development program together. Vasu led an innovation and learning committee in Dell, and I was leading a branding and marketing committee, along with a lot of social work and diversity and inclusion. That really helped with my applications, I believe.
Did diversity and inclusion efforts play a role in your success?
Annie: I think so, because I spoke to the Diversity Inclusion Assistant Dean at [editor’s note: top-ranked university name redacted]. She told me that students from South Asia are not interested in diversity and inclusion.
I told her that’s not true. We do care, and India being one of the most diverse countries in the world, we really know how to bring people together.
Jordan: That’s interesting. Having met so many Indian students now, it’s obvious that they really care about these things, but maybe in a different way than Americans are used to. If there’s an impression that Southeast Asian students aren’t terribly concerned with these things, it might be because they often focus so heavily on STEM and research in their applications materials. I think a lot of students don’t think it’s important to describe these other aspects of their lives.
Annie: Yes, but it’s a fine balance. For [editor’s note: top-ranked university name redacted], they mentioned that, “We really appreciate what you do in your personal life, but it would be great if you could just put what’s relevant to our questions.”
Under such circumstances, we subtly inserted statements in our SOPs, like “in the future I want to build a diverse workforce.” Diverse workforce — those two words do the job, I feel. You aren’t elaborating on what you did, but your intentions are stated by those two words and it’s backed up by your CV. It’s just inserted in a very subtle manner. That’s what I did for most of my SOPs.
Jordan: That’s a great point. I often tell students that the application, not just the SOP, but your interviews and everything, function as a conversation between you and a professor. Imagine how two professors talk to each other. They don’t explain all the little details. When they say, “We will need a diverse workforce,” the other person knows what they mean. They speak the same language, and this shows that they’re part of the same intellectual community.
Annie: Yes. The wavelength matches.
Jordan: Maybe that’s a little bit easier for you guys because you’ve had such great work experience?
Annie: I think that was definitely an advantage, yes.
What do you think about the grad school landscape for Indian applicants or international students in general?
Annie: We come from India, and the scenario is different for people in different regions here. Some people just want to reach the US. That’s it. There’s no other goal, and they aren’t clear why they want to be there. That’s the first failing point because they don’t know what to write or say in interviews. But you have no idea how much students spend to complete these applications! [chuckles] They get their visas done through an agent, and these agents aren’t helping them with their essays. They just write it for them.
Then I know students who have been dedicated since undergrad. They’re amazing, because I certainly wasn’t thinking about my master’s during undergrad. Some come from not-so-great financial backgrounds and they are really, really focused. They want to be there and they just do it. It’s impressive, but difficult, and not everybody can afford it. A lot of students don’t have that financial support.
Then, from a woman’s perspective. When we’re doing our master’s, we’re around 25 years old, on average. Women are asked to get married. My parents were very casual about it, but a lot of my friends struggle to do their master’s because they just got married and had to settle. If a woman is coming to do her master’s, especially from India, I respect her a lot. I know the kind of struggles we go through. Even in the workplace, it’s really difficult. It was difficult for me. Very, very difficult. For men, I don’t know. I guess Vasu can speak on behalf of men.
Vasu: I don’t know. The struggles are really personal. Nothing like serious family pressure, unless you have responsibilities over here, like your parents are old, you have to take care of them, or you have relatives who constantly lie to your parents, and influence them. Apart from that, I think it’s pretty easy for men overall.
Annie: I think the taxing process for Indian students is the SOP, because our undergrad admission is completely based on our scores. Nothing else, nothing else at all. We are not in the mindset that we have to write why we want to do this course. One score suffices.
Jordan: It sounds like you had a good support network to help you navigate all this.
Annie: Yes, we had personal relationship with our senior directors and our senior managers in Dell. I’m really thankful to Dell because it is such a great place. I built myself there. Even my college professor, he used to teach data structures and algorithms, so his guidance was crucial. They were all really helpful and we really owe them.
This might also be where international students struggle because it requires maintaining relationships in the workplace, and not everybody is an extrovert. You can see I’m talking a lot and Vasu isn’t. It happens. I understand the struggles. The last leg is getting the visa and the financial part. I think that might be the biggest challenge for Indian students.
Vasu: Yes, the loans. People spend many sleepless nights figuring out how to finance their education.
Annie: It was the same for us too.
Vasu: We luckily got scholarships from two colleges. We were really hoping we’d get a scholarship from CMU as well but, that’s okay.
Jordan: A lot of international students don’t know this, but most American students borrow money for tuition too.
Annie: In India, at least we can take loans from our parents.
Vasu: We’re lucky that way.
Annie: Yes, we’re lucky.
Did you ever consider online programs?
Vasu: At first, we started off with online courses. But when we saw the tuition costs, they were literally the same. We realized we’d rather just go there and learn in person.
Annie: The difference was hardly $5,000, and even without the difference, I saw the on-campus acceptance rates were 10% or 9%, but for some online courses it was 100%. So, I had my doubts.
I’m not trying to undermine online courses because some of my friends are doing their degrees online. They’re really hardworking, but because of family obligations or other issues, they just can’t travel overseas. It’s perfect for them, and I’m not trying to undermine that. But, like I said, I have a network. I spoke to a few professors and they said that right now, in the tech industry, we are not really giving the same of value to an online degree as to an on-campus degree.
This is what I heard from a lot of people. In India, sometimes people are like, “Okay, you probably did it online because you didn’t get a good score.” That’s how we’re judged.
I thought that if this is the last time I want to study, and I’m going to do it on my own terms, then we have to go. That said, our first plan was a distance course. I checked out Georgetown’s technology management program. Then we checked out Purdue, Stanford, Harvard.
Vasu: Many of our friends are doing online courses, especially from Georgia Tech.
Annie: Because Dell sponsors their master’s. Even I had that option, but I didn’t take it because I wanted to go.
Jordan: It sounds like those programs are a really good option for people with certain types of life scenarios and career experiences?
Annie: Georgia Tech, I’d say it’s a subsidized tuition fee because they’re affiliated with Dell. That’s why it’s an amazing choice for a lot of people, because not everybody can afford it. Even I couldn’t apply to the more expensive Ivy League-type schools. That factor is there, and online programs really fit that purpose. But I thought, “It is a dream, why not try to fulfill it?”
Advice for Couples Applying Together
Jordan: If you had to give one piece of advice to couples applying together, what would it be?
Vasu: Be yourself when you’re working on your application.
Annie: I’d say remember that getting into a college is not like going on a date: both of you don’t have to be there. There will be circumstances when you get accepted and your partner doesn’t. You have to prepare to deal with those situations in advance. They can be pretty ugly. I wouldn’t say everything is a bed of roses, and it can lead to differences. But be prepared for the ups and downs and just support each other. Help each other. Proofread your partner’s SOPs. It’s a very strenuous process — just keep pushing each other. Be there for each other, even if you don’t land in the same school. I would never say, “Okay, I’ve given this advice. You will land in the same university.” That’s not how things work.
Vasu: You have to be practical.
Annie: Yes, be extremely practical. That would be my advice. Be practical, be honest, and be original.
Jordan: It seems like you’re saying: work on these things, attack it as a team, support each other, do the best you can, but also keep in mind that you have to maximize your own individual options.
Jordan: You’re applying as an individual so you got to maximize your options, and by helping each other do that individually, you can achieve the best-unified goal. Is it something like that?
Annie: Yes. Be good critics for each other.
Vasu: You have to be very honest with one another. If I feel she could write something in a better way, then obviously I have to tell her that. That transparency, keeping a channel open for honest communication, is essential.
Annie: Being a couple, we leveraged that, knowing how we’re different. I might say, “Come on, you can’t criticize me, you can’t say oh my God, what have you written? It’s horrible.” I’m very vocal that way. He doesn’t do that to me. I also get annoyed if he does that. [laughter]
But really, it’s okay. Proofread and give each other feedback. Leverage your relationship as positive critics. He’s not going talk behind my back. Use this positivity; it can help you fuel your success. Even in situations where he gets into a college and I don’t — we were ready for that kind of situation.
Vasu: We use to think that, ultimately, we have to look at what’s better for us in the long-term.
Annie: Talking about all the possible outcomes is important. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending just because we’ve overcome challenges previously. Talk about things before you apply. If you’re applying as a couple, talk about these things, and if you’re on the same page, then go ahead with it because once you’re in the middle of it, you won’t get surprised or disappointed.
Jordan: It sounds like you guys walked through every scenario. You figured it all out.
Vasu: Yes, all the “what ifs” were covered.
Annie: Of course, we didn’t know how we would react in each situation. When I got my first admit and he did not, I kept asking him: “Are you okay? Even if you’re feeling bad you’ve got to let me know,” so that we could deal with it together and not hold anything back. I was also very careful. I didn’t celebrate at all because I knew that he was anxious. We hadn’t received a single admission then.
Vasu: The first experience was bittersweet, but at that time I think we were really there for each other.
Annie: He was really positive. He was like, “This is not the end of it.”
Vasu: Exactly. I was very, very happy for her, and then at the same time, I was like, what should I do next, what’s the next step? I can’t hold onto these feelings of rejection. I said, “I will apply to 15 other universities, I don’t care.” [chuckles]
Jordan: I’m getting a sense of why you guys are good at systems management, because it seems like you’re very good at negotiating complex variables.
Vasu: Yes, we’ve had our fair share of disagreements, but we always worked them out. Even after receiving admits from the same college, we considered everything. We really wanted to go together, but maybe another university would give one of us better funding or better job options afterward? We had to have that conversation.
Jordan: You guys did this in the smartest possible way I think.
Vasu: We were just honest about everything, very transparent.
Annie: Yes, honest is the right word.
Grad Admissions and Marriage: Keys for Success
Few couples will achieve the same degree of shared success that Annie and Vasu enjoyed. Yet, their deeply honest, pragmatic approach is a wise strategy for any couple negotiating grad admissions together.
- Maximize Your Chances as Individuals
Don’t limit your options from the start by considering only schools or cities where you’d both be happy together, or which are ideal for only one partner. Make those decisions after you’ve been admitted. You get accepted as individuals. So, for now, it’s better strategy to do everything you can to give yourselves as many individual options as possible. Once the acceptances come in, THEN you can make comparisons about what’s best for both of you together.
If you prioritize one partner’s goals before you apply, or if you limit your applications to schools where you’re certain you’ll both get in, you may miss out on opportunities that would make you happier in the long-run.
- Talk Through Every Scenario
Even as you apply individually, make sure to map out every potential outcome and discuss how they’d affect your relationship. Doing so will actually give you advantages over people applying solo (most of whom never really think through their end goals in any detail). Could you handle a long-distance relationship? How? Could you do it in the same state? Would one year be okay? Would two be too difficult? Will certain programs give you higher chances of employment in the same city afterward?
Two minds are better than one, they say. Use them. Whiteboard the scenarios. The more you talk, the more you visualize the future, the more comfortable you’ll be when it arrives.
- Leverage Your Networks
Another great benefit of applying as a couple: double the advisors, double the LOR writers, and double the friends who can give you advice. Vasu and Annie spoke to anyone and everyone who could help them clarify what’s best for their individual careers, and for their relationship. Reach out to old professors and work mentors. Approaching grad admissions and marriage as a couple only means your “team” is larger. Use it!
- Focus on Long-Term Happiness
As difficult as it may seem now, studying in the same university (or city) today might not be best for your long-term health and success. You plan on being in this relationship for a long time. Grad school might only last a year or two. As Vasu said, keep your eyes on the prize, but with honesty. A master’s degree isn’t the prize. It’s only one step toward the greater prize of two happy, healthy people building amazing careers together for decades.
Even if you have to separate for a year, it will only make those greater prizes sweeter in the end.
Negotiating grad admissions and marriage isn’t easy! It requires hard decisions. But by tackling the process as a team, staying honest, communicating, and supporting one another, couples can build successes that last a lifetime.
Just as Annie and Vasu did, use your relationship to your advantage. Be each other’s best cheerleader and best proofreader. Use our free SOP resources to help you maximize your individual options, and talk through every potential outcome.
I can’t promise you’ll have the same wild success they did, crossing continents to achieve their career goals together. But if you work together, and laugh as much as they did, then I’m sure everything will work out beautifully in the end.
How do you plan on tackling grad admissions and marriage as a team?