Grad School Admissions FAQ

Collecting together the usual questions about grad school, mostly so that I have something public I can point people to. Note that this applies only to computer science, and only based on my own experience. Take with a pinch of salt.

How do I select universities to apply to?

Talk to students who graduated earlier about the places they applied to. Check out rankings like US News ranking for computer science. These rankings are not perfect, but they offer a rough guide to go by.

I am looking to do a Masters. I am not interested in a PhD. I heard X university is good for networking. Should I apply there?

For a general Masters degree, specialization does not matter. What happens when you get admitted is that you take courses you are interested in, some prerequisites, you get the required credits, and you graduate. Your job prospects depends only on how well you do in the interview. Most companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google etc) will not care what your area of specialization is. Note: This does not apply to stuff like HCI Masters from CMU.

Is GRE important?

Yes and no. It is one of the things that universities look at, but by itself GRE will not get you an admit. A high GRE is definitely a plus point for your application. If your application is awesome, but your GRE score is low, the universities will look for some explanation in your SOP. If you do not provide any explanation, it may count unfavorably towards you.

If you’re applying for PhD, GRE (or anything else for that matter) gets very little importance. Only your research experience counts.

I scored around 1100 in my GRE. Should I retake it?

If you feel you can do considerably better in the second try (+200 or more) and you have the time and the money. (I have no experience with the new model, so I have no idea what a good score is in that.)

Are publications necessary for an admit in a good university?

No. The professors look for research experience more than publications. Publication just for publication’s sake is not good; it has to be in a top tier conference. The IEEE conferences in India usually are not that good. Think about it, people in grad school take many years working solely on research to get published at good conferences. Doing it in undergrad is extremely hard 🙂 So the professors look only for research experience and strong recommendations from the people you worked with.

See this blog post from someone who used to be a Harvard CS Prof.

Is TOEFL important?

As far as I have seen, getting a reasonable score in TOEFL is a minimum barrier that you need to jump. Professors I have talked to did not put any emphasis on TOEFL. Once you get to the university, it might be important for aid.

Is applying early to universities important?

Some universities have what is called “rolling admissions”; they will process each application as it comes in. In these universities, you have a slightly higher chance of admission if you apply early. At other universities, it does not matter when you apply.

That being said, things like your package not reaching them, GRE scores not reaching them etc can happen. Apply early 🙂

Is it important to email profs?

At some universities, if a professor likes a student, they can get them admitted to work in their research group. You would have to really impress the prof for this to happen. Just spamming them about your profile does not work. Professors will just delete such emails. If you are able to contribute to some open source research project (in terms of code), and think about interesting ways to extend some of the professor’s research, email them.

At other universities, individual professors have no say in admissions: do not spam them. Ex: David Anderson from CMU

Is it ok to send boilerplate recommendations that I wrote myself?

No. The people in the grad admission committees have been reading applications for years. They know all the boilerplate. The closer your recommendation is to boilerplate, the more worthless it is.

Of course, in some cases, the profs say they will not write their own recommendations. In such cases, it may be unavoidable. But a personalized recommendation is much much better. Talk to the prof about it. Show them your resume and talk to them about the things you did. Remind them of the projects you did in their classes. As far as possible, avoid actually typing up the reco. In my experience, if you talk to profs early enough and ask them nicely if you they would write and personalize the reco themselves, they would do it.

I will add more questions here as I get them.


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