The first step is to decide if you're applying to a master's program or a PhD program. Generally, admission to PhD programs is substantially more selective and the application materials may differ somewhat as well.
Here are the steps and suggested schedule for applying to graduate school and fellowships.
- By September of the year that you plan to apply (and earlier if possible)...
- Meet with your advisor or other professors to decide on a set of schools where you will apply. It's a good idea to have a spectrum of schools ranging from ones that are pretty safe to "a stretch". Find their application deadlines so that you don't accidentally miss them. (Most are between December 1 and January 1, but some fellowships have deadlines in late October or early November.)
- If you're applying for a PhD program, talk to your advisor about applying for a graduate fellowship such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, NDSEG Fellowship, or Hertz Fellowship. Fellowships provide a generous level of financial support and are prestigious as well! (More on fellowships below.)
- Identify at least three potential letter-writers. Most graduate schools want three letters of recommendation, but some fellowships request four letters. The very best references are those with whom you have done research. Next best are professors that know you reasonably well based on multiple courses and/or course projects where they saw your creativity first-hand. Approach your prospective letter-writers and ask them if they would feel comfortable writing letters of recommendation for you. (More on letters of recommendation below.)
- Register for the GRE general exam. Many schools require the general exam. There's no subject exam in CS! (More on the GRE below.)
- Start working on your statement of purpose essay. This essay is where you describe your research interests, relevant background, and why you're applying to that particular school. This is one of the most important parts of your application to a PhD program. (More on the statement of purpose essay below.)
- By mid-October, have a "package" ready for the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation. This package should typically include the schools to which you are applying, a copy of your transcripts, and a polished draft of your statement of purpose essay.
- November through January: Complete the application forms.
- February through April: You should hear back from graduate schools in the early spring. (More on choosing a graduate school below.)
The 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 suggestions for what to address in your statement of purpose. It's a very good idea to have at least one professor give you feedback and you may also wish to get writing feedback from your school's writing center. In any case, plan to make several revisions.
- Describe your prior research experiences, your contributions to those projects, and any results (e.g., papers, posters, talks, software deliverables)
- Describe any upper-division or advanced course work that is relevant to your research interests. If you did projects in those courses, describe them briefly and describe your contributions and innovations
- 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