Grad School Application Process

8 minute read


I get asked about grad school application process, timelines and shortlisting universities etc. Some of these questions are specific to certain universities while others are about grad school application process in general. I think it is helpful if people are aware of resources that are available out there. The goal of this blog post is to maintain a list of resources that are relevant for graduate school application prepration and give an idea about what to look for on the Internet while you plan your graduate school application. This blog post should also trigger the reader to ask the right questions and explore how he/she can gain an edge over other applicants.

A few disclaimers:

  • This post assumes that the applicant is aiming for a grad school in the United States
  • It also assumes that the applicant is interested in Computer Science or closely related fields of study.
  • The post may lean towards building a strong PhD application rather than a Master’s Application. There is a large overlap in both applications.

Before deciding to pursue graduate studies in the US (Masters/PhD), I think a fair amount of thought should go into understanding what you are getting into. Life as a graduate student in the US is quite different than a typical undergraduate experience in countries like India. I found David Adrian’s blog post on why one should or should not go to grad school quite accurate.

The first step towards a successful grad school application is to attempt GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams. Most of the US universities mandate GRE and TOEFL Scores. There are a lot of articles and blogs which discuss numerous strategies to score well in GRE and TOEFL. I will not be covering them in this blog post. Some places where you can start off are:

Remember – GRE preparation is a marathon, and not a sprint. If you want to score well in GRE (especially in the verbal section), ensure that you start early and put consistent effort. If you are reading articles like “How to prepare for GRE in 10 days”, you are better off going on a short vacation and attempting your exam with a fresh mind after 10 days! :)

Note that almost all colleges need an official GRE score sent to them directly from ETS. This means, you need to pay ETS some $$$ to mail an official score to the university. Both GRE and TOEFL exams offer the applicant to select 4-5 schools to which you can send your official scores with the exam fee which you would have already paid ETS. Make sure you know the university code before you attempt your exam and save some $$$.

After you get your scores, you need to short-list the universities to which you plan on applying. A data-driven ranking of universities is maintained by csranking. This should serve as a starting point to short-list your universities and not the deciding factor. Use the appropriate filters relevant to your area of interest (Eg: Systems, Security, ML, Algorithms etc). Other things to consider while shortlisting universities are:

  • Weather
  • Scholarship
  • Faculty and Funding Opportunities
  • Industry Ties
  • Job Prospective

Once you finalize on the list of universities, you should almost always check out the website of various faculty members in each university. Most faculty members are on the lookout for smart and motivated students. It is a win-win for both the student and the faculty if they manage to attract smart and hardworking students into their research group.

Almost every research faculty maintains a personal website that explains their current research interests and highlight what they expect from a student who is interested to work with them. Make sure that you browse their website in detail before you email/reach out to them. Many professors do not entertain emails unless you are already admitted to their university. Some professors ask students to add specific keywords in the subject of the email so that they can filter them out. You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by reading through the faculty’s website and have an edge over the others. This also helps reduce the number of emails faculty get in general. A large portion of research funding in the USA is through NSF. You can search through the NSF grants based on the faculty you are interested to work with (usually referred as Principal Investigator). If the faculty has a grant approved recently and you have the skills that aligns with the skills that are relevant to work on the project, you have a higher chance of getting the attention of the faculty.

A few tips about being effective while sending emails to professors or busy people can be found here. Check out the illustrative story of the email monster. Some communities (like Security, ML, NLP) are quite active on Twitter. Research groups and researchers constantly advertise if they have openings for PhDs/Postdocs in their labs. Keep an eye out!

The next phase of Master’s/PhD application is to write a strong Statement of Purpose (SoP) and obtain Letters of Recommendation(LoR) from people who can vouch for you. Lot of smart and experienced people have written extensively about how to write an effective Statement of Purpose and what make a Letter of Recommendation strong and unique. The following are a few links that should help you further.

Ensure that you have a well-crafted Statement of Purpose. Here are some sample PhD SoP statements. The style of writing research oriented SoP doesn’t change drastically between an MS and a PhD applicant. Consider your SoP as a patch of real-estate on which you are building a house. Every piece of structure you build either adds value to your lifestyle or can end up as junk in your house. Make sure you choose the content of your SoP to be relevant to your field and not have a cliché structure. Once you are done with your SoP, it is always a good idea to get it reviewed by 3 or 4 people who are better than you and get their feedback.

A rule of thumb while self-evaluating your application is to repeatedly ask yourself, “What is the application committee looking for in my application?”. To do this effectively, you need to have a high level understanding of how your application is evaluated by the admission committee. Read an insider’s view about grad school applicant evaluation. Note that some universities have rolling admissions, i.e. they send out admissions to applicants who meet the admission committee’s standards as they are submitted for evaluation. In such universities, you have an edge if you submit your application early (which includes your SoP, LoR and transcripts).

Another side of academia which is extremely different in India vs USA is the penalty for plagiarism. Traditionally, in Indian universities and schools, plagiarism is not considered a big thing. But, in most of the US universities, plagiarism has a heavy penalty which ranges from a severe grade deduction to being expelled from the university. The admissions committee ensures that they maintain high standards, right from the admission process. Ensure that everything you write in your SoP is completely your work.

A few other posts that you should check out are listed below. Good luck!

MS Applicants Forums/Community:

  • Yocket
  • Edulix
  • Edulix and Yocket ship your transcripts to the US at a much lower cost, since they have tie-ups with FedEx and other sipping companies. Good way to save some $$$
  • Facebook Groups: MS is US - Fall 2020 etc
  • Reddit