Application Components

Each institutions graduate application may differ slightly, but a majority contain the following components

  • Statement of purpose
  • GRE
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Grades and Transcripts
  • Basic educational and professional history (Where you went to college, what classes you took, your major, past research experiences, etc.)

Additional information and resources for each of the major components are covered in detail on their respective tab

This is a one to two page essay where you are asked to describe your background, your interests, what you hope to get from graduate school, and why you are applying to this particular graduate school. This essay will be read by professors at the school to which you are applying and it's a good idea to take the time to write a thoughtful and cogent essay. And, it's great idea to have one or more people read your essay and give you feedback and suggestions—both on the writing itself and the content.

A Personal Statement should be an honest reflection of your background, goals and research interests. It is typically from 1-3 pages (read instructions provided). You can start by describing the background related to your research interests, any research experience that you may have, what area of research you may want to pursue and why, and finally, which professors at the university you may be interested in having as your advisor. If you have poor grades and want to provide an explanation, you may want to do so when you describe your background.

The goal of the statement of purpose will differ slightly between an MS and a Ph.D. application. For a Ph.D., the goal of the statement is threefold: to demonstrate that you understand research, to provide the reader with a picture of your prior research experience, and to give the admissions committee a sense of your research interests. For the MS, the goal is to make clear what your goals are for obtaining a Master's degree and what experience you have that makes you qualified to take on such an endeavor.

Here are some do's and dont's for writing a good statement of purpose essay, particularly for a Ph.D. program:

Do...

  • Describe your prior research experiences, your contributions to those projects, and any results (e.g., papers, posters, talks, software deliverables)
  • Describe your future research interests – the more specific the better
  • Demonstrate that you have some ideas for interesting and important problems to study
  • Personalize each statement with at least one paragraph about why this particular department is of interest to you
  • Have at least one person (ideally a professor) read your drafts and give you feedback

 

Don't...

  • Write that you’ve been interested in CS since you were in the second grade (too many essays start this way)
  • Write that you want to do research but don’t have any ideas for which subfield

There is no longer a GRE "subject test" in computer science. The only GRE test that you might need to take is the "general test" of basic math, reasoning, and language skills.

Many graduate schools no longer require GRE scores at all. At other schools, they are recommended and at some they are still required. Perhaps the best thing that we can say is that very high or low scores can have some impact (positive or negative) in the decision process. And, if your school is not so well-known to a graduate school to which you're applying, the GRE's may be looked at more closely.

The Educational Testing Service has a web page with detailed information on the GRE. The general test can be taken online at a testing site more-or-less when you want to take it. Many students choose to take the general test in the summer between the junior and senior year or in the early fall of the senior year and take the subject test in October or November.

Additional Resources:

If you plan to take the GRE, we strongly recommend taking practice tests. You can find information on practice exams and study guides at

Read more in the FAQs for the GRE

Most graduate schools will want three letters of recommendation from professors who know you well, research mentors, or job supervisors.

If you're applying to Ph.D. programs, the most useful letters are those that can attest to your creativity and potential to engage in research. If you've done research with someone, that person is an ideal person to write you a letter. If you've done a project in a course, the professor for that course may also be a good person to write you a letter. If there are other professors who know you well enough to write something more than "this student did well in my course," that person can also write a letter for you. If the professor only knows you well enough to say "this student did well in my course," that is not as valuable (since your transcripts will reflect that, too). Finally, if you had a job and a supervisor who got to know you and your work and can attest to your creativity and problem-solving abilities, that person can also write a letter for you.

It's ideal if that person has Ph.D. themselves, since they will have a good sense of what's expected for Ph.D. and will therefore have the most credibility with the admissions committee. Letters of recommendation are particularly important for Ph.D. programs. We recommend that you talk to your advisor or mentor about your options for letter writers.

After you have selected your prospective letter-writers, ask them if they would feel comfortable writing for you. If they say "no", don't be offended. They may just not know you well enough to write you a helpful letter. If they say "yes," ask them what kinds of materials they would like before writing your letters. They might want a draft of your statement of purpose essay, a copy of your transcripts, etc.

Additional Resources:

The letter of recommendation is an important part of the graduate school application. Some tips for who and how to ask for one are provided by: 

 

Graduate schools will also ask for your transcripts. There is not much for you to do other than make the appropriate arrangements with your registrar.

How important are grades? Generally pretty important. Most graduate schools will want to see that you have the abilities and discipline to do well in all of your courses and will be particularly interested in how you did in your CS courses.

If you have some "hiccups" in your grades, it is generally not a show-stopper. On the other hand, the most competitive Ph.D. programs can afford to be very selective and take students with uniformly high grades.

In a recent survey of fourteen Ph.D. programs ranked roughly 5-50 in the U.S. News rankings, we found that the average GPA of accepted students was about 3.75. Keep in mind though the GPAs vary from school to school and most graduate admissions committees are aware of this and adjust accordingly. Moreover, the GPA is just one of many "inputs" to the graduate admissions decision "function", so don't let a somewhat lower GPA discourage you.

 

Application Timeline

May:

Begin researching potential schools. Take a GRE practice test. Your score will help you determine how much preparation you'll need for the real deal.

June:

Sign up for a GRE test prep course (we recommend the in-person or online options). Register for the GRE general test if necessary.

July:

Request information from schools that interest you. Consider paying a visit to your alma mater to meet up with a few former professors. They can recommend good programs and may even help you make some connections.

August:

Take the GRE general test. If you're not happy with your scores, sign up to take it again. Begin drafting your statement of purpose.

September:

Register for the November GRE subject test (if necessary). Finalize your list of prospective schools, and familiarize yourself with the professors who share your research interests at each school. Contact your recommenders. Keep polishing your statement of purpose.

October:

Request official transcripts from your undergraduate institution. Send your recommenders supplemental materials (like your resume, personal statement, etc.) that they can use as a reference. Make contact with students and professors at your prospective schools. Arrange a campus visit if you can.

November:

Have someone in the field and a few smart (and honest) friends read over your personal statement. Take the GRE subject test; make sure that your scores will be sent directly to schools.

December:

Complete and submit all applications, keeping copies of every section for your records. Verify that your recommendations have been sent.

What's Next?


If you have decided to apply to graduate school, you can find more information on Courses Skills and Other Information, Life as a Graduate Student, and Choosing a Program 

Additional Resources


Professor Mark Corner offers advice on Getting into CS Graduate School in the USA.

A paper on the common pitfalls of preparing a graduate school application.