Graduate Applications Tips for Computer Science Students

A graduate application is made up of many parts, and each part serves a purpose and speaks to a different audience. Keep in mind the readers of these applications want to be confident the applicant has the knowledge and passion to succeed at graduate school.

To increase the chances of success, It often helps to have a short list of schools that best fit the student’s profile. For example, this will help find a good match between the student and the prof. Not all schools are this way, but before considering a student, the professor may want to know if the student has skills and interests in the same area as the professor. While profs may accept students who are generally skilled, all students will likely perform better if they share similar interests as the professor’s planned research direction. It is with this in mind I provide a few tips on how students can design tier applications to help find good pairs between graduates and professors, which will make the graduate student program more synergistic—starting with the purpose of each component of the application and what is important to communicate.

Transcripts or Grades (learning ability)

Good grades show that a student can study and learn. Learning is an important skill for graduate school as most of the job will be spent learning, whether in class or generating new knowledge for the research community. Getting good grades is important but possibly not the most important aspect of the application.

The CV (leadership and independence)

The CV is meant to tell the reader about accomplishments. Students should make sure to organize this well to put their best achievements at the top of this document. This should focus on achievements that are not already listed in the transcripts. For example, if the student participated in interesting extra-curricular activities, competitions or student groups and what was learned from those experiences.

The Research Proposal (passion and creativity)

The proposal should communicate the types of problems the student is interested in working on and why the student is passionate enough to progress through the challenges during the program. The proposal should avoid repeating information in the transcripts and CV. It should be easier to find that information in those documents. For example, it is not very inspiring to say a student got good grades and is excited about ML/AI. A more helpful item to put in the proposal document is a good story about why you are interested in a research problem. Be honest and sincere here. Tell the story at a broad enough scope of research that you will be truly interested in that research.

You Reference Letter Writers (unbiased assesment)

The reference letters are designed to back up the content in the rest of the application. They are a third-person account of the student’s skills and their assessment of the student’s potential. When looking for letter writers, it is good to get a mix of people who know you well and can comment on your work in detail and writers who are stronger in their research field.

Contacting Faculty Before Applying

Students can message professors to ask about open positions and express interest. If students are going to cold email professors, in the first line or two of the email, it will be helpful to include why the student thinks they are a good match with that individual professor. Also, just stating that the student is a great match may not work well because, for example, a professor’s research direction changes, and it can be presumptuous to assume a professor’s research plans. It is better to discuss what research problem you are passionate about solving.

Practice for Interviews

If you are offered an interview, practice beforehand by researching common interview questions and preparing thoughtful responses. This will help you feel more confident and be more articulate during the interview.

Best of luck!!