I finished applying to graduate school programs last year! Here’s my recounting of the process.

Table of Contents

Advice that really helped me

Deadlines!

Most CS graduate applications are due in mid-December.

HOWEVER, most fellowship applications are due 1-2 months before that! Finishing fellowship applications puts you in a good position to coast through your graduate school applications. Your ducks (rec. letters, SOP, misc. materials) will be properly lined up.

Getting Organized

I was casting a wide net, which means I had a lot of applications to submit. I found that a Trello Board was the most effective way of tracking my deadlines for each application.

I created four columns: overall application status and one for each recommendation letter writer. In each column, I put one card for each application I (or my recommender) had to complete.

trello board layout

I used labels to color-code the status and type of each card. Then, I could hover over each card and quickly label them by pressing 1 through 5.

trello_labels

I also added a link to the application in the “Description” field of the card and set the deadline on the card to be one day before the application’s real deadline.

GRE

I don’t have a lot to say about the GRE. From what I’ve heard, it’s not the most important part of your application, but schools don’t necessarily ignore it either. I prepared by taking the two tests that came with the registration fee, and studying these free Magoosh flashcards to build up my vocabulary.

Make sure to send scores to 4 schools of your choice at the testing center. Those 4 reports are free. I thought those 4 reports would still be free if I chose those schools later, but they actually cost $27 each if you don’t enter them at the testing center.

Transcript(s)

Some schools ask for a scanned copy of your official transcript. I would order the transcript (mailed to yourself) a few weeks before the deadline. Transcripts at some universities (cough UC Berkeley) take a few days to fulfill, so ordering early guarantees peace of mind.

Writing the SOP

In my experience, writing the SOP/NSF Personal History Statement was pretty difficult.

What helped me was spending the entire day enumerating all the research I did (a few paragraphs for each project), and using that to help me string everything together into a cohesive story. It feels much better once you have some words (even if they’re crap, you can always change the sentences and swap words out for fancier ones) to knead instead of staring at a blank page waiting for some godly narrative to hit you.

Here’s some questions that I found helpful answering:

  • What are specific part of [CS AREA] you interested in? Why?
  • What do you want to pursue in graduate school?
    • I don’t think you need a detailed agenda, but more of a rough idea. I wrote that I was open to anything in the realm of systems and networks, but I supported this by explaining what I enjoyed about each research project and what they had in common.
  • Why do you want to go to graduate school?

For each project:

  • A few sentences explaining the problem.
  • A few sentences describing your contribution. Note anything interesting.
  • A sentence on it’s result (in publication, published, etc.)

Recommendation Letters

Most applications (except Hertz, which asks for 4) ask for 3 letters. My letters came from faculty who supervised my research over the past 2.5 years. I asked my recommenders at least a month before, but I also consistently reminded them as the deadline neared. They’re busy people–thank the stars for the Trello board!

If my recommender wanted more background information, I would give them a folder that contained by application materials (SOP, transcript, names of other recommenders) and some supplemental materials (description of research I did, teaching reviews).

Submit & Wait!

Weep at the state of your wallet, and wait for things to happen!

Some schools will interview starting in January, so it’s good to be aware of that while you’re on winter vacation. I have found that these interviews generally follow the same format: they ask you to explain your current research, and the discussion builds from there. They also give you the opportunity to ask about their program. One professor asked me for samples of my technical writing.

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