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Everything I Wish Somebody Would Have Told Me About Graduate School Admissions

by Matt Lepinski

1. If you’re at all uncertain about whether or not you want a Master’s Degree or a Ph.D., apply to the Ph.D. program.

The reason for this is simple, schools would rather have Ph.D. candidates than Master’s students Therefore, if you apply to the Ph.D. program you’ll generally have
a better chance of getting accepted and if you are accepted you’ll get better funding (more money). Additionally, if you decide that the Ph.D. program isn’t right for you, you can always leave after getting your Master’s.

2. You don’t have to pay for graduate school in Computer Science.
This is one that a lot of people told me but it was so surprising that I have to repeat it here. You really don’t have to pay for graduate school. The only question is whether you’re going to be a teaching assistant a
research assistant or receive some kind of fellowship. Regardless of what kind of money the school offers you, it should pay all your tuition and give you a stipend you can live off of (if you’re willing to live like
a grad student. All in all, this is a really good deal and so I’m going to elaborate bit more on types of funding.
A) Teaching Assistantship.

By far the most common kind of funding is a TA. Enrollment in undergraduate CS programs is growing like crazy and faculty sizes aren’t keeping pace. The result is that departments need TA’s
more than ever before. Some TA assignments at some schools are mostly grading, but CS grad students are a valuable commodity and so these assignments are pretty rare. You should be able to get an assignment with some student contact and when it comes to student contact, the more the better. Running a recitation or a lab section is a great experience because it gives you
a chance to improve your skills at communicating technical material (something that any employer will find valuable).
B) Research Assistantship.Having an RA generally means you’re getting paid out of some professor’s grant to help that professor with their research.
The duties associated with an RA vary a lot depending on the professor and the school, but common activities involve coding up a portion of a system
that the professor is designing or reading papers to determine if they’re relevant to what the professor is doing. RA’s are a great way to build a
working relationship with a professor who has interests similar to yours. These relationships are usually quite valuable later on (like when you’re
looking for a thesis advisor).
C) Fellowships.

Fellowships are financial awards given out either by a school, a department or an external organization like the NSF or the Dept of Defense.
Fellowships are nice because they usually come with very few strings attached and allow you to focus on your studies without having to worry about RA or TA duties. Fellowships are great if you get one, but
beware, they are also a two-edged sword. Both teaching experiences and research experiences are valuable to have and so if you don’t have a TA or an RA it means you have to take the initiative in acquiring those types of experiences.
3. Apply to lots of schools.
Fact: You can’t really know in November what a school is going to be like.
Fact: You can’t really know in November whether or not you’re likely to be
accepted to a given school.
Therefore, apply to lots of places. That way if you get unlucky and a couple of schools turn you down or if you talk to some graduate students at a school
after being accepted and you find out its not the place for you, then you’ll have other options to fall back on. I know that the applications and the associated fees can make applying to lots of schools feel like a waste
of both time and money but believe me, when March rolls around you’ll be glad you did.

4. Apply to a wide variety of schools.
This point is similar to the last one, but I’m going to include it anyway. There’s a lot of graduate programs out there. Some are big. Some are small.
Some are very competitive. Some are more laid back. Some have lots of course requirements. Some give you a lot more freedom. Some have a bunch of strength in one area. Some have a greater variety of faculty interests. Some are in very urban areas. Some have scenic campuses in remote locations.
If you don’t know exactly what you want in a grad school, then apply to a variety of programs and worry about it March. If you think you know exactly what you want in a grad school, apply to a variety of programs
anyway. The situation you want to avoid is where after being accepted you get a chance to visit a school. Then, during the visit, you decide you don’t like some characteristic of their program and you realize that
every school you applied to had that same characteristic. Also, make sure you apply to at least one school that you don’t think you can get into (you never
know, you might be pleasantly surprised) and at least two schools that you’re certain you can get into (you never know, you might be unpleasantly surprised).

5. If you get a chance to visit a school that’s accepted you, go for it.
The job market for CS graduates is very good right now and as a result there’s a shortage of students who want to do graduate school in computer science.
Therefore, computer science graduate students are in high demand and so more and more departments are willing to pay some or even all of the expenses
you incur to visit their school once they’ve accepted you. If you get accepted to a school that makes you this kind of offer, take them up on it.
The best possible way to find out what a graduate program is really like is to talk to current graduate students (visiting the school is a good way to
meet current graduate students). The second best way to find out what a program is really like is to observe the culture and the atmosphere (something you
can only do by visiting the school). Here are a couple of things to look for when visiting a school:

A) What is communication like in the department? Do you see graduate students
talking to other graduate students? Do you see professors talking with
graduate students? Or is everybody holed up in their office with the door
closed?

B) What is the area around the school like? Is it the type of place you’d
like to live? (Now, I’m not saying that you should go to UCSD just because
the weather there is incredible, but one thing you should keep in mind is that
wherever you choose to go to school, you’re going to have to live there
for 5 or 6 years if you want a Ph.D.)

C) What do the graduate students think is good about the program? What do the
graduate students think is bad about the program? How long have the graduate
students been there? (It’s a bad sign if you talk to a lot of 9th year
graduate students during your visit). Are the graduate students working on
problems that you find interesting? What type of TA/RA assignments do the
graduate students have?

6. Don’t get too worked up about standardized testing.

I took both the general GRE and the CS GRE and I hated them. Standardized tests are no fun and
the GRE and CS GRE are even worse because they’re difficult. It’s easy to
get worked up thinking that your future depends on your GRE scores. It
doesn’t. I made a point of talking to admissions people when I visited schools
last spring and I found out that standardized test scores really aren’t as
important as I thought they were. Sure, some of the really competitive schools
use GRE scores a filter or an excuse not to read your application carefully,
but even at those schools it’s the general range and not the actual scores
that matter. (Nobody is going to care if you get 50 points lower than
you could have if only you had …) In any case, it’s definitely worth
studying for the GRE, but just relax and get it over with.
Low GRE scores aren’t the end of the world and you can easily make up for
low test scores by having a solid academic record, a well written essay and
great letters of recommendation.
7. There’s no substitute for great letters of recommendation.Therefore, if you been a real jerk for the past four years and all your professors hate
you, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to have a tough time
getting into grad school. So, assuming that you have professors who think
you’re a pretty good student, what makes a good letter of recommendation?
First of all, you want professors who know you well. A generic “He took
my class and did well in it” is a lot less useful than a letter with
specific references to your work. If you’re not sure how well a professor
knows you, feel free to remind the professor of projects you’ve done for
his classes. Second, it’s useful to have letters of recommendation that
demonstrate your breadth. Consider getting a letter of recommendation from
a professor in another department whose class you did well in, a faculty
advisor for a student group in which you’ve been active, or your supervisor
at a summer job. Also, if you’re able to find good letters of recommendation,
don’t be afraid to send one more letter than the school asks for. (The worst
they can do is not read it). Finally, if a professor has contacts
at a particular school, a letter from him is likely to be more meaningful.
This is because the reader will be better able to put the letter in context
if the writer is someone he knows.
In general, when you ask for a professor for a letter of recommendation
you should:
A) Ask very nicely. I hope this goes without saying, but professors are
very busy people and so you shouldn’t assume that they’ll take the time
to write you a letter. Therefore, ask very nicely and if a professor isn’t
able to write you a letter, thank them anyway and find somebody else.
B) Give the professor plenty of time to write the letter. The earlier you
ask for a letter the more likely a professor is to write the letter for you
and the more likely it is that the professor will be able to put in the
time necessary to make it a good letter.
(The last thing you want is for the professor to write you a sloppy letter
because he feels rushed).

C) Take the time to talk with the professor about your background, the kinds
of programs you’re applying to and why you’re thinking of going to graduate
school. Having this kind of information will help the professor to write
a letter that fits in well with the rest of your application.

8. When writing your essay, keep in mind what your goal is.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what question they ask you to answer or in
what context they ask you for an essay. The purpose of your essay is to
convince the reader that you are someone who will succeed in their graduate
program. Admittedly, you should address the question they ask, but remember
that your goal is for someone, after reading your essay, to be convinced that
you are someone who will succeed in graduate school. You’re probably
wondering how to do this. I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have a
little advice.

A) Consider what makes you different from the average applicant.
(As long as this is a positive thing. Don’t point out that you’re different
because other people attend classes and you don’t). The reader
of your essay is more likely to remember what you say if it’s a little
different from what everybody else says.

B) Consider significant projects that you’ve completed. A lot of applicants
don’t mention significant projects that they’ve worked on. Therefore,
talking about your project experience can help set you apart from the
average applicant (particularly if it was an interesting project).
Also, the ability to take on a challenging project and see it through to
the end is a good indication of graduate school success. Summer jobs or
research experiences relevant to your area of interest are also a thing to
mention because they let the reader know that you’re serious about computer
science and you haven’t wasted your summers.

C) Convince the reader that you understand what’s involved in graduate
study. It’s a good idea to talk in your essay about what areas of
research you’re interested in (many schools specifically ask for this). If
you don’t know exactly what you want to do in grad school, don’t worry. What
you say in your essay isn’t binding. However, talking about a potential area
of research indicates that you understand the field well enough to
know what areas are being studied at a graduate level and to identify
interesting problems. If you don’t have this level of understanding, then
do some leg work before you write your essay. Search the web for current
articles and talk to professors who are interested in your field.

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