Urbana Champaign and Harvard - Dr. Mohamed Zaghoo
Updated: May 20, 2020
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High school type: Experimental (public)
Undergrad: B.Sc. in Physics (Highest honors) University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
Masters: Physics (Harvard)
PhD: Applied Physics (Harvard)
Field: Planetary science & Atomic/ Laser physics
You pursued your undergraduate, masters and PhD abroad. Reflecting back on your experience, what do you think are the main advantages of studying in the United States?
Studying in a good school in the US truly avails you a range of opportunities that are unparalleled elsewhere. That is not to say that a degree from a good school in Germany, India or Turkey means less or more. However, the US is quite unique in its liberal art system. Also, the breadth or depth of research/professional opportunities here allows students resources and exposure that are hard to compete with.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
I flirted with the idea when I was a senior in high school simply because I had a friend in IGCSE ( an international secondary school degree) who was then applying to colleges in the US. At that time, I was clueless about the process, the requirements, let alone whether US schools accept students from “thanaweya amma”. Also, I was vastly unaware of the application timeline, the fact that you need to start in Junior year to prepare for the tests.
Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when applying to universities abroad?
So many things! I think starting early to prepare is crucial, first to familiarize yourself with the process or the requirements, and second to have realistic expectations about how to prepare for them. I believe there is a lot of research on schools, funding,..etc anyone needs to do and there is no going around that. For example, I remember I underestimated how long I would need to write good personal statements. Then as a 19 years old, I struggled to find an authentic voice, and I wasn't sure what types of experience I could or should draw on. Another thing was how much time I needed to prepare for the standardized tests. These tests have very different formats from what we are typically accustomed to. Also, when I was applying in 2006! There weren’t as many online resources as there are now, and these are very helpful because they feature many examples of successful essays, test preparation guidelines,..etc.
How did funding fit in the picture? Did you apply for scholarships? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have?
I think funding, or its lack of, was the deciding factor for me. I actually applied twice as a transfer student, once in 2006 and another in 2007. As I learnt, there are exceedingly fewer seats available for international transfer students compared to freshmen. In the first year, I got a few acceptances and small financial aid. But that aid was only enough to cover 20% of the cost and after scrambling for a few months trying to find sources, I just declined. In 2007, I was better prepared, I emailed (cold-called) pretty much every educational/charitable institution I could find online that mentioned scholarships for Arab/Egyptian students in the US. Very few of those replied, mostly indicating that their websites were outdated or that I wasn't eligible. Eventually, I found one that expressed interest. The tricky part is that some of these scholarships have different deadlines than the admission timelines, and some have defined fields/majors of studies they are willing to sponsor.
Why did you decide to transfer? What did you need to prepare for this step?
I was fortunate to get an internship opportunity at NASA after my sophomore year in Egypt. I was already considering transferring and even applied to schools before that internship, but the research experience truly cemented my desire to transfer. As I alluded above, it was my second time applying and so I was better informed of the process and the timeline. It was a much smoother process than in the first year since I already had most of the recommendation letters, transcripts and some essays ready. I took one more subject SAT, refined my personal statement, and was more selective in targeting schools that are more receptive to international transfer students.
How did you prepare for the many exams such as the SAT?
I was never a fan of standardized tests. As a matter of fact, I took the general #SAT twice because I wasn't particularly happy with my scores. There is definitely a way to crack these tests, but one has to be patient and resilient.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
I didn’t have mentorship in the traditional sense, but my family was tremendously supportive throughout the whole process.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
I think the process, or the journey, itself is extremely insightful as you will learn more about yourself as you are putting together your most compelling arguments for why you should be admitted or selected. It is important to embrace this as a growth opportunity. Also definitely don't despair with rejections. I had more rejection letters that started with the somber ‘we are sorry to inform you’ than acceptance ones. For some time, I actually hung my Harvard and Caltech rejection letters for their college programs next to their later admission offers for their Ph.D. degrees on my wall.