Monday, August 11, 2008

CS Grad School Part 4: Applications

I applied to, and was admitted to, (in alphabetical order) Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, Stanford, University of California Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Washington.

Applications tend to be due in December/January. It is important to figure out which applications are rolling. (I did not realize UPenn was rolling until I submitted the application. Applying earlier does give you an advantage in these situations, especially if you are concerned about your application. In the case of Penn, I believe you also find out earlier if you apply earlier.)

The three important parts of the application are the personal statement, the academic transcript, and the recommendations. How much each part matters depends on the person, but my take on it is: a strong personal statement can help a lot; a weak personal statement could hurt some; a strong transcript doesn't hurt; a weak transcript won't necessarily kill you; strong recommendations can get you in; weak recommendations will get you ignored.

Personal statement. This is what allows the admissions committee to see you as a person and picture you on their campus. (Also, by the time you apply the personal statement is the only thing you can spend a lot of time on, so you might as well. If nothing else, you should signal to the schools that you care enough about them to spend some time on your applications.)

I have posted my personal statement for CMU because I Texed it and it looks nice. (By the way, I believe fully in the power of presentation and recommend you Tex whatever you can whenever you can.)

I was given the following advice about writing my personal statement:
  • Whoever reads it might be skimming, so make sure you have strong topic sentences for each paragraph and that you can read through each of them to get the full picture.
  • In the same vein, get to the point quickly. Be concise.
  • Make sure you explain:
    • Why you want to be a grad student.
    • Why you would make a good grad student, with supporting evidence from the facts of your life.
    • What you want to do in grad school. Be clear enough so they can picture you doing whatever it is you want to do at their school.
In terms of how much you school-specific details you should include, it depends on how much you have to say about the school. One of my professors, Radhika Nagpal, told me that if you really want to go to a school and are excited about working with professors X, Y, and Z, you should say so. If you are applying to a school because you think it is nice but don't have that much to say, you do not have to say more than a sentence or two. The schools understand that you are applying to many schools (and possibly jobs as well) and they will also be competing with other things to get you as a student.

Transcript. If you are still early enough in your undergraduate career to do something about this, don't worry about your grades as much as the courses you take and how well you do in them. (Prof. Harchol's talk discusses why grades are less important than you might think.)

If there are rough patches in your transcripts, you should probably address them in your personal statement and ask your recommenders to explain them if they are in a position to do so.

Recommendations. These are also an important part of your application, as your recommenders vouch for what you say you can do in your personal statement. Most schools ask for three; schools receiving many applications (such as Berkeley) may limit the number of recs to three.

I was fortunate enough to have three recommenders who knew me well and are well-known in the CS community: Prof. Margo Seltzer, my former professor and academic advisor since freshman year, Prof. Greg Morrisett, my former professor and research advisor, and Prof. Radhika Nagpal, who taught me in two courses and who taught a course for which I was the teaching fellow. I was advised to get letters from non-Harvard professors, so I also asked Dr. Dennis Wall, for whom I worked as a computational biology research intern, and Dominic Mazzoni, with whom I worked at Google. When I was only permitted three recommendations, I asked Profs. Morrisett and Nagpal and Dr. Wall.

I had been given the following advice about selecting/asking for recommendations:
  • Choose recommenders who can say useful things about you. Choosing a famous professor who doesn't know you isn't going to do much. However, it does help to choose professors who are known in your fields of interest. Talk to your advisor (and recommenders) to see who they suggest do your recommendations--they might know better than you who would write a better rec for you.
  • Ask your recommenders well in advance (at least a month is optimal).
  • Give your recommenders an idea of what you want them to say. Tell them what it is you are applying for, what qualities they are looking for (this is more relevant for fellowships, I guess), and what the rest of your application looks like. I tried to finish all of my essays a couple of weeks in advance to give my recommenders enough time to read them before writing my recs.
This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.
  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:


Nobody said...

I first came across this series of posts a few months ago. They are a great help now that the application season has started in earnest. I'm applying to many of the same schools. Looking ahead to next semester, I doubt i'll have time to detail the whole process as carefully as you, so thank you for spending that time!

I'm curious as to what you are working on these days. Hopefully your "academic" section will soon be supplanted by a "research" section :)

Anonymous said...

Regarding the personal statement- I couldn't attend one of my External exam and so had to write it as supplementary, due to Internship in US. So, should this also be mentioned in my Personal statement?

Unknown said...

Great post.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jean for taking about CS Grad School applications.This really helped me to find a proper structure and some damn fine verbalizations.I need best statement of purpose information. I would not have been able to come up with the same level of quality. Thank you very much, it's highly appreciated!

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