I’m going to assume you’re a normal student trying to make sense of the American application process. With all your friends getting placed and discussing packages and locations and benefits, they seem to have it all figured out while you’re still in the middle of drafts of your SOP and University shortlists and emailing faculty members. Or maybe you’ve only just made your mind up that you’re going to pursue a higher education. But now that you’re here, this article is intended as a low-down piece. There’s not going to be generic advice, only actionable items that you can immediately pick up the phone, start typing on your browser or word processor or click on a button to accomplish. And if you’re not applying to the US, but elsewhere, read through anyway. You might see something that’s useful for European or East Asian application processes as well
Here are the five components of your application that count:
1) Where you apply
Where you apply is the first step in your admission process chronologically and it’s where you have the most deciding to do.
The list of universities should be a combination of which universities have research going on in your areas of interest and the spread of rankings you’re comfortable applying across.
What that means is you identify almost ALL the universities which have research going on in your area of interest. A good place to start this is talking to your research project guide (if you didn’t do one, skip to the next paragraph) and asking him/her for a list of all schools and faculty members that he knows in that area (assuming you’re continuing that area). Once you have his/her preliminary list, you’ll see that every university that he/she put down is probably ranked in the top 15 colleges in that country. It’s reasonable to estimate that most of us are not going to be comfortable to just those.
So, go to your ranking website of choice: startclass, QS, Yocket, US News, whatever floats your boat. I used startclass myself and recommend its ‘Graduate smart rating’ as a pretty powerful metric. Yocket is useful as an overall evaluation of your application, but be aware of its pitfalls: as with any data analytics program, it is more and more accurate closer to the average and less accurate as you move further away. Evaluate the results of a Yocket search with this important caveat in mind.
Deciding what counts as ambitious and what counts as safe is a hard decision. It’s usually a good idea to combine the ranking of the university and metrics such as acceptance rate, average GRE score of admitted students and average GPA of admitted students. This is an objective evaluation: be honest with yourself and admit that an institute with a 335 average GRE is ambitious with your 327(I got 327, so no judgment here).
Then, you decide how you want to stack your list. You can either have an equal number of ambitious, moderate and safe schools (what most people do) or, you can have a lot of safe schools if you’re the paranoid type. You can stack your list with ambitious schools and risk not getting an admission anywhere at all (I did this out of pure arrogance and got admitted into one out of ten schools that I applied to).
Keep in mind that the total number of schools you can apply to is usually not more than 10 because you need 3 recommendations per university and your professors will not be willing to give you more than 10 recommendations each. (A couple of people I know circumvented this problem by talking to more professors than required and keeping the number of recommendations each of them gave at 10. But they were both college toppers so everyone was ready to give them recommendations. Most of us don’t have access to this kind of royal treatment)
This is the tricky one. From what I’ve seen, it works like this. Most US universities use an average CGPA criterion which says that the average of the incoming class CGPA should be equal to the average of the outgoing class with as little deviation in the negative direction as possible. That means the lower than their average that you are, the less likely that you are to get an offer. From what I’ve heard, this is what the people in the admissions committees say: “While the graduate admission committee is given enough latitude to overlook the average admitted CGPA criterion, they will not do so unless the candidate is exceptional.” Look at the paragraph after the “test scores” section to get a better feel for the scores.
A note on CGPA conversion: Avoid converting to a 4 scale by dividing and report the CGPA on your native scale wherever possible. It’s unfair to compare the scores, but it’s the only way. One hopes that years of admitting people from your college will have told them what your CGPA really means.
3) Test scores (GRE + TOEFL)
These serve as thresholds, essentially. 320+ on GRE with 165+ on quant is a safe score. For an actual number crunching, look two paragraphs ahead. Higher GRE scores will look good when you apply to faculty members, but they are not vital for admission. It is important to note that the right time to write GRE is in one of the vacations between Semesters 4 and 7. If you hadn’t already done that, pass that on as advice to your juniors: to not keep GRE until the last possible moment.
TOEFL is often used to evaluate your suitability for teaching assistants and a score of 112+ with 28+ on speaking should put you above the threshold for that.
It is noteworthy that the examinations allow you to report your scores to four institutions – almost a third of your universities – free. This, however, requires you to be ready with your universities at the time of writing your GRE. If you still haven’t written, try to have an idea of those before you write your GRE – reporting scores is not inexpensive.
NOTE: the numbers in the last two sections represent my opinion, based on my experience. But for those of you that demand real numbers and a justification for that opinion: here you go. The National Center for Education Statistics says that the average GRE score in the last 6 years is 151Q + 152V. The average GRE for a student admitted to a universally safe graduate program like that of Morgan State University, MD is 159Q + 142V. The average GRE score for a universally ambitious graduate program like that of MIT is 167Q + 162V. As for GPA, MIT lists their average admitted GPA at top 5% of the class; this translates to 9.4 – 10 GPA by relative grading standards. The data for universally safe schools’ GPA requirements is scant and not to be trusted unless you’re sure it’s from a reputable source. These values and the corresponding statuses of the universities give us an idea of the numbers.
Concluding this quantitative analysis, this should be your takeaway: If you have more than 8 CGPA at the time of applying, you’ll very likely get admission offers into at least half of a normally stacked university list, as long as your GRE score is more than 320 and you’ve done academic projects and have good references. That sentence is your guideline. You change each parameter to suit your application and then evaluate your own probability. For example, if you have good publications as well, that probability goes up, etc. BUT, as your CGPA dips below 8, the probability decreases drastically no matter what the other parameters. You are, of course, free to do more research on average CGPA and GRE values for your own universities and get a better picture.
This is another tricky area because the subjectivity of this is high.
First off, check the application of each college that you shortlisted twice as to whether they require a statement of purpose, statement of research or a personal statement – or any combination of those. They are all related, but aren’t quite the same and using one for another or mixing them up somehow will lead to points being docked. I don’t want to expressly define any of them here because each Institute does it their own way. But in my general experience, the following is true:
Condensed statement of research + Personal statement + Research goals = Statement of Purpose
I would like to repeat for effect: PLEASE check with your program as to what they are looking for on each essay and which essays they require.With that said, the personal statement is generally about your background and what about it made you apply. Put these down and then identify the most compelling ones.
You can find plenty of other guidelines for this on the internet, but in general, the following are worth remembering and including in an immediately identifiable way:
1. Mention faculty members in the department you’re applying to and spend one paragraph writing about how your work is relevant to theirs. Do NOT skimp on the faculty research. It sounds tempting to write a generic SOP, change the title according to the university and send it in. Resist that temptation. Tailored SOPs are the difference between good writers and good applicants.
2. Mention projects you’ve done and state your contribution and the outcome very clearly (publication, new product, paper presentation, whatever). Try writing about each project in a paragraph in a problem-to-solution approach.
3. Mention your recommenders in your SOP, either as guides, mentors or inspiring faculties. It symbiotically increases the weight of both the SOP and their recommendations.
4. Don’t start with a quote, unless it is one neither you, your parents, or your close friends have ever heard before this. Actually, ask them and check. It’s important; you don’t want to turn your reviewer off by making him read the same Gandhian quote he/she has read on every other application so far.
5. Format and design (I’m talking borders, font faces, top bars, side bars, etc ) the SOP to coalesce with your résumé. It adds a sense of gravitas to your application and keeps you in their minds as the applicant who cares enough about the details to do that. If you are aesthetically challenged like I was and can’t do it yourself, ask an architecture or a designer friend for help (thanks, Akhila).
Above all: Shorter is better. Don’t breach the word limit and then cut back. Try to work toward the limit. Have at least two people proofread your essays for errors, continuity problems, and general suggestions.
This is not tricky, but usually quite out of your control – unless your faculty advisor asks you to draft it for them. This is a heaven-sent opportunity. Make use of it.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, the reference portal that the faculty members fill in is not just about uploading the letter (although it may be just that for a few universities). My father works at IIT-M and his October evenings are just reference uploading sessions (he writes references for his students from scratch each time personally without using a template. Because, why not. ), so I’ve seen the inside of most reference portals that you’ll be applying to. The portals are often quite involved, demanding that the faculty member fills out as many as 30 different questions pertaining to every aspect of you that can only be evaluated through human interaction and by an experienced professional.
The basic questions are asked first: the relationship with the student, the length of acquaintance, etc. But beyond this, the real questions emerge: “how would you rate this student’s GPA as a representation of his/her scholastic ability?”; “how well did the student demonstrate a sense of leadership during your interactions with him/her?”; “Do you think this student is better suited for an industrial or an academic career? Justify. “;” During your interactions with the student, were there any indications that the student was a better researcher than a learner? Justify.” These questions don’t allow the referee to enter arbitrary answers or ratings because this would undermine the referee over a period of time and would render your application worthless.
With this in mind, make sure your recommenders remember what to write and send them an email with the university list and the bullets of what you want them to include (don’t bother being embarrassed to write ‘my team spirit’ here. It’s your life we’re talking about). If you have a bad grade in a subject that’s related to your area of research, but your research work with that referee says otherwise, tell the referee that. So, he can put that in the reference and answer the relevant questions appropriately.
When all this is done, it should be September/October and at this point, you should have the following ready: university short list, GRE score, TOEFL score, sealed transcripts and internship testimonials. You should speak to your referees and made clear what you want them to put in your reference.
Once you’re ready with these, you actually start creating accounts on the university application portals. Maintain an excel document with columns titled reco-1, reco-2, reco-3, SOP, Personal statement, GRE score, TOEFL score, application fee and transcript. Color the boxes that aren’t required with black and the rest with red. Check them green as you finish things.
Believe me when I tell you: You’ll thank me for that, when your friend forgets to send a transcript until after the deadline, panics and the university sends him/her a mail saying ” since all the material for your application was not received by the deadline, your application is not being reviewed.”
Start uploading your material on the portals. This is usually the various essays, your resume, and a scanned copy of your transcript (Including the back page with the grading scheme explained, never mind that nobody follows that scheme) and any testimonials you may have from managers.
Three parts deserve specific mention here:
- You will have to get ETS to directly report GRE and TOEFL scores to your institute. Input all the institute codes and order the score reporting at this stage.
- Check on EACH university if they require a physical transcript to be mailed to them. If they do, just write your application number on the sealed envelope in which you got your transcript and courier it to them. Make certain that they got it after a week or so.
- Referees will also need special attention at this point. You will have to send them requests for a recommendation from within each application. A couple of days before you do that send them a reminder email. Once you send the request, put all of it in another email and add a reminder to fill the forms in and send it to them again. It’s no joke, this procedure, trust me. I know guys who actually didn’t get their applications reviewed because their recommendations didn’t get there on time. Check, double-check, and chase after the referees until the check marks in your applications are all green.
Once you’re done with all this, your application is finally over; you can pay the fee, click submit‘ and that’s that.
…Not quite. While many applications get accepted on their own merit, many others don’t. That is because the applications don’t find their way to the faculty members who might have been interested in taking you on. Admission committee members often unilaterally decide that the research credentials of a student are trumped by a lower test score or GPA. The method to circumvent this is the secret item.
6) Contacting faculty members
This is the way to get directly to the faculty member who works in your area of research who may be too busy to evaluate your application when the whole bunch was sent to him/her for him to select any students he wants. So you have to email them directly and make an impression. Make the email a very short version of your statement of purpose. Attach your resume and personal copies of any publications you might have. Use the opportunities to explain bad/average grades. Highlight high grades in subjects pertaining to the research area.
Many faculty members will also maintain lab websites with information about research openings, contact details of past students of that lab, etc. Be proactive, reach out to those people and make connections. They could help with how to formulate that email or whether to call the faculty directly, etc.
With that, your application should actually be over. Start looking for Facebook groups such as ‘MS in US by StupidSid’. These allow you to network with other potential college mates and stay aware of things like apartment openings, fellowship opportunities, results being announced, etc. These are contacts that you’ll probably eventually find useful.
At the end of it, by April or May the next year, I’m hoping at least half of your universities have sent you emails starting with “We are pleased to inform you that…”
All the very best!
– Aravindh Babu, Batch of 2017