I came, I saw, I conquered — Understanding Graduate Applications.
Hi, I am Utkarsh Jain. I applied for Master’s programs in Computer Science (fall ’22 intake) to USA-based universities. Speaking from personal experience, I know that applying to universities abroad can be confusing and tiresome. That is precisely why I am writing this article, in the hope of unentangling this long and convoluted process for you. I will begin by briefly introducing myself, and then immediately get into the application procedure. Make sure you go through all the resources I have shared in this article to get an even better understanding.
1. About Me
I graduated with a B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi in 2021. I applied to, and was admitted to, University of California San Diego, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, New York University Courant, Northeastern University, and Stony Brook University. The overall process of applying for the universities took me around 5 months, which included preparing and appearing for the standardized tests, shortlisting universities, writing a statement of purpose, arranging letters of recommendation, and submitting the applications.
2. Shortlisting universities
Alright, let’s begin! So the very first step of applying to graduate schools in the USA, or anywhere in the world, is to shortlist the universities you want to apply to. Shortlisting can take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks depending on how many universities and factors you take into account. For me, some of the criteria I used while deciding on the universities were:
- Quality of coursework. Having spent already a year abroad as a semester exchange student, I enrolled in a lot of master’s-level courses. Hence, it was necessary for me to check if the university offered a more advanced and diverse set of courses. You would be surprised to know that a lot of renowned universities failed this test.
- Research quality and opportunities. I plan to end up on the research side of the industry after I graduate. Therefore, it was important for me that the university I apply to offered me the best possible research atmosphere.
- Cost of attendance. USA-based universities are COSTLY. The total cost of attendance can lie anywhere between $70,000 and $1,30,000. So if you are coming from a middle-class family like me, this would a crucial factor for you too. Nonetheless, remember that it is easy to get funding opportunities like RA-ship and TA-ship in some universities. So keep that factor in mind too.
- Overall ranking. Truth be told, ranking doesn’t matter much. Most of the online rankings are too subjective to be followed blindly. Instead, I explored each university, checked their coursework and research, and then made a decision on whether I liked the program or not. You would be astonished to know that some “low ranking” universities offered me the perfect program of my liking.
Word of advice, jot down all the strong points that each university of your choice offers, because they will help you craft a strong and customized statement of purpose.
It is a good practice to apply to 10 universities if you are going for an engineering program. Out of these 10 universities, 3 are supposed to be ambitious, 5 moderate, and 2 safe. To place a University in one of these three classes, have a look at 10 LinkedIn profiles of students (from your own country) currently enrolled in the program of your interest. This will give you a general idea of the kinds of profiles that usually get an admit from the said university, and help you decide if your profile is competitive enough or not.
- csrankings.org : CSRankings, instead of subjectively ranking universities based on a ton of parameters, objectively ranks universities solely on their research output. This is something you would find useful if you plan to go for research in the future.
3. Standardized Tests
As a part of the application process, you are supposed to submit your scores in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Although some of the universities are gradually making GRE optional, most of them still ask for TOEFL scores (or any other approved language test such as IELTS, or Duolingo). Additionally, if you finished your Bachelor’s degree from an English-speaking institute, you can practically ask the university for a TOEFL waiver. But I advise against it for a couple of reasons, especially if you are an international student, which are:
- Once you get into a university, you will be required to show your proficiency in English in some way or the other to secure a RA/TA-ship. They will either ask you for your TOEFL/IELTS scores, or you will be required to sit through an introductory English course and a comprehensive examination to become eligible. So why not just give TOEFL and make your life a bit easier?
- It is true that you can ask for a waiver, but sometimes these waivers take time to process. This may delay your application.
Now that we have cleared this, let us move on to the preparation for these exams. Luckily enough, I have already written a comprehensive article on how to score 331/340 in GRE in just 60 days. Once you are done with GRE, immediately register for TOEFL and be done with it while you are still in the momentum, or else you will have to prepare from the base up to reach that level of preparedness. It took me over 2–2.5 months to complete this process, and I suggest you finish these tests as soon as possible (preferably 7–8 months before you start your applications). Starting early will not only help you get them off your mind, but it will also give you a chance to retake the tests if you don’t score well. Here are some points to remember:
- Although GRE is optional in some cases, a high score always helps.
- If you are applying for an engineering degree, make sure you score full in the Mathematics section of the GRE. Your scores in English won’t matter much, but still try to score as high as possible. AWA is usually ignored, but still aim for more than 3.0.
- For TOEFL, try to score full in the speaking section. Why? Because universities look for high speaking scores (sometimes ≥ 28) to consider you for TA-ship positions.
Also, it is important that you shortlist your universities before appearing for both of these exams. Why? Because you get to send your scores for free to 4 universities (per exam) of your choice when you register for these exams.
My scores were:
- GRE: 170 Quant, 161 Verbal, 4.0 AWA (331/340)
- TOEFL: 30 Reading, 29 Listening, 30 Speaking, 28 Writing (117/120)
- For TOEFL: https://www.toeflresources.com
4. Writing Statement of Purpose (SOP)
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears for we have now arrived at the most crucial step of applying for graduate schools — writing the Statement of Purpose! I understand that a lot of people on the internet say that it takes 3–4 months to write the SOP, but it took me only 4 weeks to finish my final draft. And it was good enough to get me into some of the top programs in the world. Here are some points to remember when writing your SOP:
- Use LaTex to make your document look more professional and clean.
- Start early! Although I was lucky to finish my SOP in 4 weeks, you may need more or less time depending on how easily thoughts come to you, or how long it takes you to become confident in your statement. It is no secret that writing an SOP is tough. You need to be creative and summarize your achievements and future plans in a 2-page document.
- An SOP is not supposed to be a reiteration of your resume. Take this opportunity to show the admissions committee who you really are as a person.
- People often ask you to add a touch of human emotion and show some struggle, or fake it, to appeal to the sympathetic side of the reviewer. I did not, because I am not really comfortable with that style of writing, and I didn’t want to end up with a fake document in my hands. Instead, I wrote about my past experiences, my personal and professional goals, how their university can help me achieve these goals, and how I plan to give back to their community. If you don’t feel confident about your SOP, how do you expect them to feel confident about your candidacy?
- Having research experience and published papers bolsters your overall application and also gives you strong points to talk about in your SOP. However, they do not guarantee admission. Speaking from personal experience, I have seen strong profiles with multiple publications getting rejected from almost all the universities. It happened with a friend of mine who had authored a couple of research papers. When the results were out, he was rejected from some of the universities I had received acceptance from. So please do not be disappointed if you don’t have research papers. There is a myriad of other things you can talk about and come across as a strong candidate. Talk about your projects, and internships, what challenges you faced, how you solved them, what you learned, and how they made you more competent. You can also talk about your research interests (interests and experience are two separate things), and how you plan to engage with professors working on the same thing. You can also include some big ideas you may want to pursue once you get accepted. But, whatever happens, REMEMBER that having research papers is not everything! I didn’t have any, but still made it to some of the top universities.
- Follow the formatting guidelines specified by the university, if any. Often the guidelines are mentioned in the FAQ section and not on the main page. This is the format I used where no guidelines were mentioned: 1-inch margin on all sides, Times New Roman (10–12 font size), 1.5 line spacing, maximum 2 pages.
- Get your SOP reviewed by at least 5 people from different fields. Best would be to request your professors to review your SOP and give you feedback. You can also request your friends who are already in graduate school to review it for you. And in the end, make sure to get it reviewed by an English professor who can comment on the overall cohesiveness and coherence of your essay. It is important that your SOP sounds as smooth and focused as possible.
- Spellcheck your document! Although minor mistakes are often overlooked, a lot of them would irritate the reviewer and undermine your candidacy.
- Whatever you do, please do not upload your SOP on Reddit for strangers to review. I have seen this happen a lot, and it only puts you at the risk of getting caught for plagiarism. Try to keep your SOP within a limit of 5–6 trustworthy people.
- Write your SOP yourself and do not pay a third party to write it for you. The admissions committee can sniff chicanery from miles away.
- Do not plagiarise because you will get caught and blacklisted.
How I Structured my SOP
There were 5 main parts in my SOP — introduction, my relevant past and ongoing experience, my research interest, why that particular college, and conclusion. So in the first paragraph I briefly explained how I became interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and it was pretty much boilerplate. In the second and third paragraphs I discussed my academic and industrial experience related to AI, and in the fourth paragraph I described the research assistantship I was doing at the moment and how much I have achieved in the problem statement. The next paragraph was mostly about my research interests at the time, which pretty much aligned with the aforementioned research assistantship. The sixth paragraph was all about why I chose that college, wherein I talked about the coursework, professors, and what I liked about that city in general (this is important because it shows you have really thought about your decision of applying to that university). And in the end, a beautiful optimistic conclusion!
- Must read: How to Write a Bad Statement for a Computer Science Ph.D. Admissions Application
- Must read: Reflecting on CS Graduate Admissions
- Must read: Structure is magic. A guide to Graduate SOP. (check the other articles too)
5. Submitting Applications
The application period starts as early as mid-September and usually closes around December for competitive schools, and February-April for less competitive ones. Although there is no proof, it is said that submitting your applications as soon as possible gives you an edge. Make sure you turn in all your applications by the end of October. Not only might it give you additional weightage, but also save you from last-minute hassle and anxiety.
The three important parts of the application are the SOP, the letters of recommendation, and academic transcripts. Other documents which are usually required are resume/curriculum vitae, scores in standardized tests (sent directly from ETS), and personal history (sometimes required, but not usually). All of them have variable importance based on the type of university you apply to, but in my experience, I have learned this:
- A strong SOP helps a lot. A weak one could hurt you.
- Letters of recommendation are a very important part of the application. A strong and customized letter of recommendation will bolster your candidature, a weak and general one will get you ignored. A “Did Well In Classroom” type recommendation letter comes under the latter.
- Strong academic grades won’t hurt you, weak grades will not kill you.
6. Quit Social Media
Once you are done with your applications, sit back and relax. Stop following subreddits and other websites where people post their admits (such as gradcafe) for the sake of your sanity :) Seeing others get accepted while you get rejected or waitlisted can affect your mental health to a point where you will begin doubting yourself. All that does is bring you anxiety attacks for no good reason. I feel lucky that I quit social media as soon as I finished my applications, and did not suffer like others on the internet did. Rather, I used that time to develop new hobbies and enhance my skill set. Some more things to remember:
- Do not be disappointed if your first result is a reject. Stay calm and keep yourself busy with something.
- You may feel a sudden craving to ask others for their results and stuff. Don’t. Mind your own business.
To quote a professor of mine: “Play with these binary machines, but remember, life is fuzzy”. Life does not always end up how we plan it to be. I have seen people with competitive profiles getting rejected by strong schools, and people with average profiles get into competitive ones. And both of them end up achieving great things in life nonetheless. Remember, going to a university is not the end, but only a means to an end. Just make sure you keep fighting till the end and produce an application that highlights your competence, your plans in life, and how the university fits among them.
- Must read: “Graduate Admissions Essays” by Donald Asher
- Must read: FAQs — Preparing, Applying and Deciding on Graduate Schools
- How to get a great letter of recommendation
- Advice to Graduate School Recommendation Letter Writers
- HOWTO: Get into grad school for science, engineering, math and computer science
- How to improve your competitiveness to be admitted into a top university that everyone under the sun wants in
- Helpful Grad School Resources by Kalpesh Krishna (PhD)
- MS Application Thoughts