If you’re aiming to join a Masters or Phd program in Fall 2010, now is the time to start preparation for it. It is a long and quite boring process – you need to start early if you want to ensure that you get the best colleges you can get. If you have an imba profile or are the college topper, feel free to ignore this and apply at the last minute :)
Please note that all the information in this post is not from my personal experiences – it is a mixture of my experiences, seniors experiences and so on.
So, first of all – why would you want to do studies abroad? ( And not at the IITs or IISc )
1. Quality of education – Abroad, the quality of education is very high – institutes in the US rank among the top universities in the world, and you will sometimes be taught by the leaders in the respective fields. For example, if you study in UMass, you might attend lectures by the legendary Jim Kurose.
2. The experience – ( Almost all of this point is from seniors and the web ) Studying abroad is a different experience altogether – you will get a chance to experience different cultures, see new things and enrich yourself personally. Many universities have credits for some fun, non academic courses – Imagine finishing a course on ballroom dancing as a part of your Masters!
On the downside though, there is the cost – doing Masters in a reputed institute in the US costs around 20 lakhs INR on average. But once you finish your Masters, you will earning around 2-3 lakhs per month, so it should be easy to pay off. Now especially is the best time to improve your profile with a higher degree – jobs are not easy to come by in this time and by the time you finish your degree, hopefully the economy will be on the upswing.
So what are the steps to get admitted to a reputed college?
1. Choosing a degree: Decide between Masters and Phd. Prashanth has a nice article which should help you decide between an MS and a Phd. If you have the inclination for research, a MS leading to a Phd is considered a good choice – that way, if you drop out in the middle of the Phd, you’d still have the Masters degree.
2. Selecting colleges: Prepare a list of colleges that you are interested in. For rankings of US universities in Computer Science, check out USNews. Specialty rankings by field, such as systems in Computer Science, are available here. But please do not select colleges based purely on rank – most of the rankings are meaningless. All of the Top 20 colleges are equal in terms in job placements. In terms of research, the rankings don’t mean a thing. Check out the top conferences in your field, and see which universities are publishing there. That should give you a good idea about the research capabilities of a university. If you are going for a Phd, purely see research capability of your department in the university – who is teaching there, what are they working on etc.
What makes a good match between you and a university?
- Your profile should be near the average profile [ in tersm of academics and test scores ] accepted by the university ( some universities publish this information, others you have to ask seniors studying there )
- If you are going for a Masters, the university should have a strong [ or at least decent ] department in your area of interest.
- There should be research work going on at the university which you [ with your research experience or academic knowledge ] should be able to contribute to.
Classify universities that you are interested in, based on your chances of getting in – safe (you will surely get in), medium (most probably you will get in), high (low chances of admittance), and dream (kind of like lottery ticket). Mix and match universities from these classes to get your final list. I’d recommend going for 10 or fewer universities, with the split like this : 2 safes, 4 medium, 3 high, 1 dream. You could drop the dream for a safe also. The important point is to always aim for higher colleges than you think you will get – please do not go for all safes, or something silly like 5 safes. Remember that you should be excited to study in the college you get admitted to – filling up your list with extremely low ranked safes is not a good thing.
3. Contacting profs: Go through the websites of the universities that you have selected. Become somewhat familiar with the work that they are doing. Zero in on 2-3 professors that you would like to work with. Read their work. If you can think of ways of usefully extending their research, mail them about it – Introduce yourself, tell them what you have worked on, how it relates to project X of the professor, and your idea Y of extending it. Impressing a professor virtually guarantees an admit in that university. However, don’t spam professors – do not mail more than 2 professors per university and only mail when you have some idea of extending their work. Also, attach text resumes with the emails you sent – do not attach pdf resumes, as they will lead to your email getting filtered into spam.
4. Writing tests: You need to write 2 tests for applying for MS – GRE and TOEFL. Book dates early for both and get them done with. Get the Barron’s book for GRE – it should be sufficient if you generally read a lot.
The higher ranked a university is, the lesser importance it gives to GRE. In most top universities, the GRE is a minmium barrier, like you have to get more than 1300 overall, but anything above that ( even 1520 ) is equal to 1300. Do not waste much time and money on the GRE, it does not make big differences to where you will get admitted. I recently got to know that I was totally mistaken about the GRE -universities do care what your score is. While it is not the biggest criteria for admission, a fair amount of weight is given to your score. So make sure to do well on the GRE. The TOEFL is similar, you have to get a minimum cut-off for admission into the university. The TOEFL is very easy, you should be able to get good scores on it if you have a decent english base.
5. Finding people to recommend you: The people who recommed you for admission should be a person in good standing in the academic community who is able to judge whether a candidate will do well in a graduate course. Professors should be the first choice, followed by assistant professors. Recommendations from the head of departments are highly regarded. However, don’t blindly get recos from professors who barely know you – Ideally, the person recommending you should have taken a class for you, and should know you personally. The more personal a reco is, the better.
6. Applying: Now comes the actual process of applying to universities. This starts in around August. Most universities require you to send your transcripts ( and some other documents ) to them by postal mail. Try to make sure that they get the package by October end. Certain universities have rolling admissions, which means instead of getting all the applications and processing them, they process each application one by one. In these universities, you stand a slightly higher chance if you apply early.
This post is already too long, but a final word – A lot of people will tell you that projects and pulications matter hugely in the admission process. That is not true for fresher admissions – reason being you never have the chance to do big projects yet. And publications count only if they are in the top conferences. This is hard to accept, but the single biggest factor is academics. Next comes your recos, test scores and the statement of purpose. Projects, publications all matter very little compared to these three factors. And also know that graduate admissions are highly random - therefore always have a backup job just in case. And try not to apply with a single safe – at least have 2.
I hope this article helps you a bit in your search for admission into a top university. Please note that I may be in error in most of the things I have said, as they are all personal judgements :) For more information on these topics, check out the Edulix forums.