How to Apply to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school and fellowships takes a bit of time, but it is not as hard or as scary as you might think.  This section describes the elements of the application, their importance, and advice where we can offer it.

  1. The first step is to decide on the type of program (Master's or Ph.D.,  see Why Go to Graduate School?).
  2. The second step is deciding on the schools where you will apply. Talk to your adviser or other faculty members or mentors to help you with this part.
  3. Next is the actual application process.

The elements of a graduate or fellowships application are described below:

A Statement of Purpose essay

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.

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:


  • 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
  • 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

GRE scores

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.

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

The standard kind of application form with various details about you

Where you went to college, what classes you took, your major, etc. This is pretty straightforward.

Letters of Recommendation

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.

Grades and Transcripts

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.

Assistantships and Fellowships

When you apply for admission to graduate school - and particularly for Ph.D. programs -  you will be considered for a graduate assistantship as well.  Most departments will offer you some form of assistantship when they admit you.  Generally, these assistantships will provide you with a monthly stipend that is sufficient to cover your living expenses and will include a waiver of tuition and fees. 

Assistantships typically come in two flavors:  A teaching assistantship (TA) will require that you help a professor with a course by doing some combination of holding recitation sections, developing assignments, and grading.  The expectation is that this will take somewhere on the order of 10 hours per week (sometimes more).   A research assistantship (RA) usually provides about the same amount of financial support but your duties are working on research with your research adviser.  Often, the RA funds come directly from your adviser's grants, so the RA offer may be to work with a specific adviser on a specific project.  While a RA is good for making progress on your research and your degree, a TA provides useful teaching experience.   Some departments require that you serve as a TA for at least part of your time. 

Some departments also offer their own fellowships which have "no strings attached" - meaning that the funding is yours and you can choose to work with any adviser that you like.  A fellowship is generally the most desirable form of support because it gives you the most flexibility.  However, most departments have few fellowships that they can give out themselves.

There exist a number of fellowships for which you can apply directly before entering graduate school.  These are prestigious, pay relatively well, and provide you with a great deal of flexibility.  They are also quite competitive, so talk to your adviser to decide whether it's a good investment of your time to apply.  Some of the most popular fellowships are:

Other resources that we recommend for learning more about fellowships are:


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