CMU Quickstart

A mix of questions which I asked and answered prior to coming to CMU. Written informally for a Singaporean high school perspective.

Admitted to CMU? Welcome!

You should bookmark the Important Dates page that they gave you.

Particularly important deadlines (might be outdated):

  • End May - Housing, Meal Plan
  • End June - Health Forms, Transfer Credit, Final Grade Report
  • Mid July - Registration

There’s a table of contents to the right. This briefly covers:

  1. Visa
  2. Housing -> Vaccinations -> Registration -> Settling In


First, we need to obtain the I-20.

You should have received the international student form. For source of funding,

  • Papa-mama scholarship -> straightforward
  • Otherwise, most scholarships are structured as:
    • tuition fee <- scholarship pays
    • every other fee <- you pay from allowance

If you have that type of scholarship, then for your supporting documents:

  • A vague sentence like “all tuition fees and expenses will be covered” is NOT ENOUGH. That sentence only accounts for the tuition fee portion of the cost of attendance.
  • You MUST have a description of your allowance, e.g. X USD per month. And it MUST be enough to cover the cost of attendance after you subtract the tuition fee.
  • The affidavit of financial support is not strictly necessary.
  • If in doubt, email OIE with your documents before you mail them over.

After mailing your documents, sit and wait. OIE has to process visas for summer students first, so they’ll usually get the I-20 to you by end June.

Once you receive the I-20, schedule your interview with the US embassy and the rest should be smooth sailing.

When you travel to the US, DO NOT PACK your I-20. You need to bring it along in your hand-carry to show the visa officer.

Quick notes:

  • F1 visa authorizes you to enter the US
  • I-20 authorizes you to stay and study in the US
  • F1 expire, I-20 ok, still in US => travel will be difficult, F1 must be renewed outside the US, but still ok
  • F1 ok, I-20 expire, wherever you are => RIP, good luck
  • Keep your I-20 safe and know where it is at all times
  • Before traveling out of the US, YOUR I-20 NEEDS A TRAVEL SIGNATURE. Otherwise you can leave, but cannot return

Pay attention to the difference between F1 and I-20. OIE briefing session has more info.


The US generally thinks we’re all infected with TB, so get screened for that. You also want to finish up as many vaccinations as you can back at home. Fill out the online health history form - I wasn’t asked to provide proof, but it might be good to scan a softcopy of your health records.

During orientation week, you’ll be able to finish a few vaccinations. I did this for meningococcal. But if you aren’t vaccinated by the time lessons begin, be warned that CMU legally needs to kick you out.

Housing, Meal Plan

You’ll see the usual opinions on dorms and meal plans elsewhere. Just quick notes:

  • The meal plan is not active during breaks, e.g. thanksgiving, winter
  • (Apartment + Yellow + cooking) cost me less than (Not-Apartment + Red)
    • Apartments also get fridges for free
    • You’d need to buy or rent a microfridge for not-apartment
    • For the cost of the fridge rental, you could buy and donate a fridge every year
    • Your mileage may vary
  • If you’re staying over winter, you must be in winter-approved housing
  • You can still cook in not-apartment, just more troublesome
  • INoodle is the closest you’ll get to SEA food
    • You can hear Indonesian and Tagalog from the kitchen! Legit
    • Recipes are westernized, unfortunately


  • Just sit tight and wait, check your email daily
  • You should start receiving email spam by June
  • Registration happens in July
  • Just do as the advisor says
    • Unless you’re fighting to get into certain by-invitation courses…
  • Generic course advice:
    • If you can do something the summer before CMU, do it
    • If you can place out of something, do it


  • F1 students are limited to working on-campus for 20 hrs/week during the term
    • Strict limit, unless you get a hardship waiver
    • Your managers may say that you can exceed this limit. No, you can’t.
    • Your managers are usually just fellow students. If there’s a visa issue, you get deported, not them
    • If in doubt, check with OIE
  • You should be able to start applying for Handshake jobs in June
    • Make sure you’re applying for on-campus jobs with no work-study required
  • Quick ad for my previous job, Desk Services:
    • Job scope: sit at desk, hit buttons to let authorized people in
    • Essentially, get paid to do homework
    • If your desk is at your dorm, just roll out of bed to work!
    • Incidents are generally rare, and usually campus police deals with it
    • 7.75/hr day, 9/hr night


  • Everyone must file tax forms, even if you earned nothing
  • OIE will email you when the time comes, usually around March
    • Taxes due mid-April
    • Settle it during the spring mid-semester break in March
  • Some international students will tell you that you can use Turbotax, etc. and that they’ve been doing it for years without issue
    • Yeah, they’re wrong - we need to file the right non-resident forms
    • The IRS will chase them for money some day
    • Filing incorrectly may be a legal black mark against you
    • If in doubt, ask OIE


  • By right, CMU payment deadline is mid-August before orientation begins
  • By left, CMU is fine as long as you pay by end-August, after you reach campus
    • This is unofficial and may change in the future
    • For example, you could fly to CMU and pay cash in person - but beware of theft

Example scenario: you have a scholarship which pays for tuition and some university fees, however, it doesn’t cover the rest. That’s not an issue.

  1. Forward the SIO bill (which has payment instructions) to your scholarship board and ask them to pay for their part.
  2. Pay for the remaining balance via one of the CMU payment options. If you want to pay upfront, pay upfront, if you want to register for a payment plan, then register for the remaining balance.
  3. You can check in SIO that the balance remaining is zero.

Settling In


Minimally, you can get by fine with:

  • Table lamp - get one, some rooms are quite dim
  • Umbrella or raincoat
  • Pencil, pen, eraser, folders, one ream of printer paper
    • Letter paper, not A4
  • Clothes, bedding and toiletries
    • Plenty of free T-shirts during recruiting events
    • The CMU partner (BBBY) is generally overpriced
    • You need light winter wear
      • Light winter jacket + jeans + winter boots worked

If you’re bringing loose cash, 500 USD should be enough to last until your bank account is opened. Your meal plan will feed you, so you shouldn’t starve. I mostly bought random furnishings that weren’t worth shipping, e.g. table lamp up there.

Moving In

  • Hotels: Hampton Inn, Marriott, Wyndham - the standard ones are fine
    • Some have a CMU discount if you book by phone
    • I’d recommend getting there a night before international check-in
      • Don’t want to clean your room while exhausted from travel
    • Look out for those with free shuttles that can take you to CMU
      • Though I chose to walk with my luggage along Forbes Ave
      • Pittsburgh is pretty safe for confident solo travelers
  • Transportation:
    • The 28X bus can take you to CMU, but I’d recommend using taxis first
    • Uber is common
    • SuperShuttle was fine
  • Wear something warm if you’re not used to cold weather
    • I’m used to humid 30C heat and had to waddle around wearing two jackets for a while
    • Jeans and sneakers are fine


You can’t open an account online, anti-money laundering worries. Your options:

  • Open a bank account that has a branch in the US
  • Wait until you get to the US to open a bank account
    • Either you bring cash over, wire transfer, or bank transfer

If you’re opening an account in the US, just use PNC Bank.

  • The interest rates are a joke, but most accounts available to F1 students are jokes
  • PNC ATMs are everywhere - even in university buildings (UC, Underground)
  • That said, people usually pay by card here
  • Big bank = easy to deal with interstate and international money transfers, easy for scholarship organization, etc.
  • My account was opened by 31 August - it took about two weeks


The best phone plan I’ve seen is from T-mobile (unlimited data). For 30 USD/month,

  • 100 minutes
  • unlimited text
  • unlimited data, 5GB at 4G speeds, throttled afterwards

They don’t advertise this plan. But as of now, you can still get it.


CMU wifi is great, don’t worry about internet unless you’re moving off-campus next year.


  • Buses are generally early or late, rarely on time
  • So instead of Google Maps, get the PAT Track app (reliable at least 50% of the time)
  • Transportation is “free”
    • Covered by university fee
    • Ride those buses, I doubt you’ll get your money’s worth
  • Bus stops are generally just numbers nailed onto a signpost
    • And aren’t sheltered, so bring an umbrella

You might gain a newfound appreciation for SMRT and SBS : )


Most people get groceries via a short bus ride to nearby Giant Eagles. If you’re looking for something that was sold in Singapore and can’t find it, try Asian stores (Lotus/WFH/Many Market) in the Strip.

Fun fact: I heard the Chinese version of Home in Lotus once.

Other Notes

  • Tipping is a giant mystery. Ok, not really, but I defer to better guides out there - here’s one by TripAdvisor
    • Just don’t be the “TIPPING IS STUPID I REFUSE” kid - you’re not impressing anyone, you just sound obnoxious
  • Laundry is free (common area with washing machines and dryers), generally there wasn’t a problem with theft
  • Some nice CMU account perks:
    • Software
    • Google Apps education (unlimited Google Drive storage)
  • CMU doesn’t have +- grading for undergrad, so you get strange situations like “On this final, >=90% for an A, >=60% for a B”
    • If you need to meet a GPA cutoff, figure out how many units of B you can afford to get - in many cases you may need all A’s (perfect 4.0) just to meet the cutoff
  • Roughly speaking, for SCS at least:
    • add minor, plan before junior year
    • add another major, plan before soph year
    • add another degree, plan now
    • because waitlists and course conflicts can destroy your plans

Wrapping Up

And that’s about it. Have fun!

Written on July 15, 2017