The Graduate School Application Form

Q: How important is research experience in the evaluation process?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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

Q: I never did research as an undergraduate. My grades and community involvement are excellent. Does the lack of research hurt my grad school application?

A: Having good grades from a well-known university will help, but for PhD applications, one needs to demonstrate research potential. Having at least one letter from a known faculty who can write about your research potential will help. Community involvement is likely to have little impact on your graduate application.

Q: How important is the USNWR ranking of my undergraduate institution in getting admitted to a good graduate program?

If your undergraduate degree is from a lower ranked school, the reviewers don’t know any of the letter writers, and you don’t have published research, the chances of getting into a good program are low. One of the advantages of graduating from a higher ranked undergraduate institution is that the professors who write letters for you are likely to be well-known. Also, keep in mind that admission committees know that a few excellent undergraduate programs grade harshly and a 3.5 GPA is actually pretty good. Hence, there is no simple answer on how the ranking of your undergraduate institution impacts your admission.

Q: How many schools should I apply to?

Most students are advised to apply to at least 8-10 schools. This often includes a third safe schools, a third good matches, and a third stretches. Students should talk to faculty and advisers to get additional feedback and suggestions of schools that are good matches with their interests and abilities.

Selecting a Program

Q: I got admitted to the graduate school I want to attend, but I did not get an offer of financial support. Does it help to email professors whose work I am interested in?

PhD admissions almost always come with financial support. Most students admitted to the master’s programs do not get financial support. After you arrive at a university, some opportunities may come up and you may get support.

Q: I got accepted into multiple PhD programs. I am not sure how to decide which admission to accept. How should I decide among the financial package, research areas represented, rank of school, geographic location, PhD qualifying process?

General advice is to determine the school that offers the best environment for you to become a successful researcher. Most departments have visiting days for admitted students, so attend them. If there are none, ask them to help arrange a visit. Talking to the faculty and graduate students is generally very helpful and informative. Most schools will offer financial support, even though the type may differ (e.g., TAship, RAship, fellowship). While a fellowship is nice, the research programs and interests of the faculty will be more important in the long run. Geographic location and qualifying process seem secondary (you should assume you will graduate and move; you should assume that the qualifying process is not a real hurdle). Don’t let money (including which school offers a slightly larger stipend) affect your choice, focus on what is better for you in the long run.

Q: Am I guaranteed full funding throughout my graduate study if I am funded initially?

No. However, in computer science and computing related fields, a student is typically funded for the entire graduate career.

Q: Is it wise to start at one school without funding and hope to get funding later if it is my preferred choice of school though I was admitted with full funding elsewhere?

PhD admissions typically come with financial support. If you are in the master’s program, there is no guarantee that you will get funding at a later point in time, especially at schools that admit many master’s students. However, many schools have funding opportunities for computer science students outside the CS department. This may be hard to arrange before you arrive, but a student can often get a good understanding on what other support opportunities are available.

Q: I did not get admitted to my top choices of graduate schools. Is it wise to start at one school with the hopes of transferring to a better ranked school after my master’s? Or is it better to wait another year to apply again?

Accepting admission to a PhD program and knowing that you only plan to get master’s is dishonest. Yes, students enter the PhD program, get an MS and do not continue their PhD (for a variety of reasons). However, entering a PhD program with the intention of only doing a master’s and then switching to a PhD program somewhere else is different. You will need letters from the department you are leaving and researchers know each other. Think carefully about your strategy. Having said this, good students sometimes leave and pursue an MS somewhere else when the department lost or never had faculty in the area of their research interests. In one case, the faculty actually helped the student find a department with the right environment.

Q: What are my chances of receiving financial support if I get admitted into the master’s program?

Some departments do not offer financial support to master’s students (their TAs are PhD students). Other departments offer TAships to master’s students when they have a need and the M.S. is very qualified. The graduate office can probably provide some past data. In many schools, computer science master’s students find support in other departments or other units.

Q: I have been admitted to department X and it is not one my top choices. They have invited me (and all other admitted students) to attend a visiting weekend. Should I attend?

Unless you already have accepted admission somewhere else or you are certain you are not interested in department X, consider attending the visiting weekend. There is no substitute for visiting a department and talking to graduate students and faculty. You are likely to find out things you did not know and they may become important in your final decision. The more information you have, the better.

Q: I have been admitted to department X. It is not my “stretch” school, but there are two faculty whose research really interests me? Can I contact them to find out if they are taking on new students?

Sure, once you have been admitted to a program, you should not hesitate to contact the faculty if you have questions. Your email and phone conversations with them can prove to be useful in your final decision.


Q: How important are the GRE scores for getting admitted to a top graduate school?

Some top schools don’t request GRE scores. A number of top schools are known to pay little attention to GRE scores. Hence, good GRE scores may not help much but poor GRE scores can have a negative impact.

Letters of Recommendation

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?

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?

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.

Grades and Transcripts

Q: I did not worry too much about grades as an undergraduate and my GPA is not so great. Now I am thinking about going to graduate school. What are my prospects of getting into a good school?

Grades are only one metric of predicting academic success. To be successful in a PhD program, one needs to be independent, creative, motivated, persistent, and deal with setbacks. Hence your application material should demonstrate that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher. So if, for example, your grades suffered because you were focused on research and the research resulted in publications in top conferences or journals, you should be able to have strong recommendation letters and your prospects for admission are most likely very good. If you don’t have good grades and limited research achievements, it may be hard to convince the reviewers that you have the potential to be a strong PhD student. If you are passionate about doing a PhD, try to work with a faculty on research for a semester/year and then apply for a PhD with a letter from the research mentor. Keep in mind that lower ranked schools often have top researchers in some areas (e.g., theory). Getting admitted to such schools is a little easier and you can still have a good experience getting your PhD.

Q: How can I convince the reviewers of my application that despite my poor grades they should seriously consider me for admission into their graduate program?

Grades are only part of your application material. Your research involvement and achievements and your faculty recommendation are two other important components. If your letters are from recognized researchers and are very strong, the impact of poor grades may be minimized. If you have done research that is published in well-known conferences or journals, your grades may be ignored. If your grades are unimpressive, the strength of your application needs to be based on something else that allows reviewers to predict your abilities and success as a researcher.

Q: I have a perfect GPA from a highly ranked undergraduate program. Why would I not get admitted into a top ranked PhD program?

Quite a number of students applying to top rated PhD programs have a perfect or almost perfect GPA. To get admitted into a top program, your record needs to stand out in other ways. Most relevant will be having demonstrated your research ability. PhD is about research and while a high GPA is an indication that the student is serious about academics, high grades alone do not determine the research potential of a student.