Q: What should I write in the Personal Statement when I apply to grad school? How long should personal statement be?
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.
Q: Should I ask for letters from research mentors, teachers, or summer internship bosses? Should I ask for letters from my direct supervisor or from people high in the organization hierarchy?
A: You want to ask people who can address your academic and/or research abilities. For the letters from course instructors, choose instructors from more advanced courses over introductory course instructors. Only choose people higher up in an organization hierarchy if they can write about your academic or research potential. Writing about your personality is unlikely to help your application. You want at least one letter to discuss about your research potential.
Q: I want to make sure that my letters of recommendations are really strong and convincing. I am not sure how my letter writers will evaluate me. I am thinking of asking more than three of my professors to write a letter. Is it advisable?
A: Asking more professors to write letters may not solve your problem, if there is one. Talk to your professors about graduate school, where you should apply to, and if they are willing to write a letter. From the answers you get, you can probably conclude something. Some professors may tell you that they don’t have enough information to write a strong letter. If you sense there is a concern, you should think about it. Are you asking the wrong people to write letters? Is there something in your academic record your professors are justifiably concerned about? Are the schools you are considering an appropriate match to your perceived abilities? Instead of having more letters, try to understand your record and their concerns better.
Q: I would like to include Professor X as one of my letter writers as he/she is a well-known researcher. I am not sure if Professor X will write a strong letter. What should I do?
A: Talk to Professor X. Tell him/her where you plan to apply to, what your research interests are, and ask if he/she is willing to write a letter. Listen to the answers and feedback you get. It may contain the answer you are looking for.
Q: How important is research experience in the evaluation process?
A: A number of the answers given in the Considering Graduate School Section address this question. Overall, departments are looking for proven potential for research. For top research departments, a successful research experience is very important. If you come from a school that offered little opportunity for research, some departments may make adjustments in their expectations.
Q: Does contacting faculty individually increase my chances of getting admitted to graduate school?
A: Usually not. It depends on the school. Don’t be annoying. Do it only if it adds information. (But that information should have been in your application.)
Q: I have done some research as an undergraduate, but there are no publications. Should I push my collaborators I worked with to submit the results to a conference or a journal?
A: Yes. Having a paper that is published in proceedings of a well-known conference or a journal as an undergraduate will help. Especially if you have made significant contributions to the work. If your collaborators are other students or a post-doc, they should also be motivated to publish their research as publications are relevant to their careers.
Q: Are there waiting lists when applying to graduate school?
A: The majority of the schools don’t have explicit waiting lists for graduate school. There are a few schools that hold off sending a few applicants a decision until sometime in April (which can be viewed as being on a waiting list). If you did not get accepted and your record changed, there is no harm done in letting a department know. Make sure you contact the right person.
Q: I would like to start graduate school in January (I graduate in December). Do departments admit students for January?
A: Most do not. The standard admission schedule is: apply in November/December, start in August/September. It is possible to defer your start by a few months (though you will miss out on standard orientation activities and on bonding with other grad students). You should apply the fall before you graduate, like everyone else does.
Q: I plan to apply for an NSF GRF. My advisor judges me to be a very strong applicant. Does receiving this fellowship increase my chances of getting admitted to a top department? Should I let them know?
A: Grad school application deadlines are around December, and grad schools make admissions decisions in January and early February. The NSF GRF notification date is in April. Hence, your admission will be decided without knowing the GRF decision. If your top choice department declined admission, no harm is done by contacting them and letting them know that you have received an NSF Fellowship.
Q: How do the top CS departments review applications to their PhD program?
A: Departments typically have a faculty committee overseeing admissions decisions. Often applications of students interested in a specific area are reviewed by the corresponding research groups. Various models on how the admissions process works exist. A perspective from a faculty in a top-rated department is available at http://da-data.blogspot.com/2015/03/reflecting-on-cs-graduate-admissions.html