This is a little guide containing some advice on applying to graduate schools,
based on the experiences I had in Fall 2019 - Spring 2020. I hope that this
will serve as some words of wisdom, and also as some encouragement. While this was originally
intended for Swarthmore CS students, I thought it might be nice if it was
publicly available in the case that someone else would
also benefit from it.
Please read the disclaimers first!!
Also, please feel free to email me
if you have any questions or concerns, I'd be happy to help!
Disclaimers and About Me
- EVERYONE’s grad school application experiences are different. Please
take most things in this document with a grain of salt, because this doc is
based on my own experience. That being said, I will try my best to keep
this doc as general as possible.
- Adding onto #1, the expectations for grad school applications vary based
on field, even sub-fields of CS. Also for MS vs PhD.
- I only applied for CS PhD programs, so that’s what I will be talking about.
Hopefully some of the things in this doc (ex. GRE stuff) will be helpful for people in
other situations though!
- I do not know what got me into grad school, so please don’t expect any
info of the sort in this doc. As everyone says, grad school applications
are a crapshoot. Sometimes a good one, sometimes a bad one. The goal of
this doc is to feature things that I wish I knew when I was applying.
(I have to admit that most of this is advice you can hear from your profs)
Given the Disclaimers, I should probably explain a bit of my background…
- I am currently a first-year PhD student at Cornell University
(as of fall 2020). At Swarthmore, I was a double major in Computer
Science and Music.
- I applied in my senior fall, so the ideal target audience of this doc might
be people who are thinking of doing the same thing.
- My main area of interest when I applied was Programming
Language theory and applications. While I am still interested in
PL theory and applications, I've pivoted ever so slightly since I
started grad school; now I mainly work in Software Engineering,
where I get to apply concepts from PL theory.
- I did PL research during my Junior spring, the summer between my Junior
and Senior year, and all throughout my senior year.
Applying to Grad School
The big goal of grad school applications is to get into at least one (1)
school, and at most enough numbers of schools so that you can find
one (1) school that works best for you.
- It’s totally OK not to know what you want to specifically work on by
the time you apply, or even by the time you get into grad school!!
I’m still not quite sure what I want to do specifically.
That being said, it’s always good to have a general idea (even
though that might change!) and have some buzz words by your side
when someone asks you what you are interested in.
According to the wonderful Swat CS profs, you should apply to
9~12 schools. I full heartedly agree, and here are a couple of notes on this…
- I applied to 15 schools and it was definitely way too much.
- Yes, increasing the number of schools would increase your chances
of achieving the big goal (refer to top of this section).
- BUT ask yourself, “is this extra school somewhere I’d definitely want to go if I was accepted?”
- Chances are that you’ll get accepted to one of the 9~12 schools
you apply to :) If you want to apply for more schools, just make
sure to acknowledge that adding another school means adding on
the number of hours you have to work on apps!!
Your research/academic advisor is an amazing and wonderful resource!
Check in with them about the little decisions that you’re making
(like, what schools you are applying to), and ask them for advice!!
Start talking to them early!
Make sure to keep a personal agenda for how you want application season
to play out, and pace yourself as you go!! As hard as it is to beat
the procrastinator spirit, it's really helpful if you push through
all of this gradually.
Ultimately, it probably doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter when you submit
your application, as long as you have it within the application submission deadline.
- That being said, something that was helpful for me was to set
an early personal deadline for submitting my first application. (Around
the beginning of November... but in reality it didn't even need to
be that early.)
This was especially helpful for me because it meant that I needed to work
on the core of my application (Personal Statement, CV, etc) before
that date, and all I had left was filling in more school-specific
- Most CS PhD programs should provide full funding for the whole time
you are there. DON’T APPLY TO A SCHOOL THAT DOESN’T PROVIDE
FUNDING!! You need to live!!
Choosing Schools to Apply to
- If you are applying CS and haven’t already checked out
you should!! The rankings are based on papers (I think?) and some info
is a bit inaccurate but it’s a great way to figure out what schools you
might want to apply to.
- Ask your research advisor/prof who works in the research area what
schools are good!! They’ll be super helpful.
- Another nice venue to check out are the various academic conferences
that relate to your area of interest! (Again, ask your research
advisor/prof who works in the research area for what conferences you
should check out)
It seems like CS PhD programs in Canada/Europe recommend you get a
masters first? But I might be wrong on that.
Make sure to apply to schools that you genuinely think you'd like to go
if you were accepted!!
One thing that could help is looking at the various research groups, and
the webpages of the students in the school!! If you want to be like them,
that's pretty awesome.
Don't forget to think about geographical location too! Are you willing
to move to the specific location that the school is at?
Make sure to apply to a wide array of schools (“reach” school, “this
school seems reasonable" school, “safety” school) placed in various
places on the rankings.
- You never know what would happen!! The reason I have the
categories in quotes is because what you perceive to be the
probability of you getting into the school is NOT the actual
probability of you getting into the school.
Don’t give up on a school just because it seems like you won’t get
in. You don’t know, you might just get in!
That being said, aiming far and wide will increase the probability
that you will be accepted somewhere :)
If you’re looking for a target score,
UPenn CIS has some GRE score statistics.
Some other schools post their target scores too, so it’s worth
looking them up.
- All of the writing prompts are featured on the ETS website!! The issue
and the argument topics are
- ETS “sells” you two practice tests for free when you sign up for the GRE.
You should definitely “buy” and take them!! They help for 1) going
through the GRE experience and 2) practicing using their actual
- Do a lot of practice problems, and go through them to see what you got
wrong and why! The
5lb book of practice problems by Manhattan Review
was helpful for me, but any book that has a lot of practice problems
would be good.
- If you’re struggling on vocab (and motivating yourself to learn vocab),
setting a low number of words to remember every day, and reinforcing
them every weekend, is pretty helpful.
- If you are doing summer research during the summer after junior year
and are intending to apply in the fall, taking the ~2 weeks between the
end of research period and the start of the semester is a perfect time to
hunker down on the GRE, take it, and get it out of the way!!
- Unless you really think you can significantly improve, don’t take the GRE
more than twice… it really isn’t worth the money and effort after a while.
- When you take the GRE, they allow you to send your scores free of
charge to up to four institutions. Take advantage of this!! Sending GRE
scores is pretty expensive :(
- Your goal while taking the GRE should be to get a good enough score
that you won’t be weeded out just because of your GRE score. A good
enough GRE score is perfect!!
- MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE SENDING YOUR GRE SCORES TO THE
RIGHT GRE SCORE SUBMISSION CODE FOR YOUR PROGRAM!!! I can’t
stress this enough
Planning Fall Semester
- This section is admittedly pretty Swarthmore specific, but I hope the
sentiment that YOU SHOULD MAKE SURE NOT TO OVERLOAD YOURSELF would
be conveyed to everyone :)
- Applying to grad schools is basically like taking another Swat course.
(maybe even a 1.5 credit course) It will take a lot of mental energy and
time away from you, so please bear that in mind.
- Even after you put together your statement of purpose, just filling
out the random information on the application takes ~2hrs on avg for
This is NOT the time to be taking 5 credits. Please.
Pass-fail is your friend!! If you still have them.
Many of my Swat professors were very generous and supportive, so if
you ever feel overwhelmed about balancing coursework and applications
you should try telling them that you are applying to grad school. That
being said, you don’t want to be taking advantage of this too much.
- Be sure to still make time to hang out with your friends and have fun
once in a while!! This process is draining, but you need to not let it take
over your entire life :) Supportive friends are amazing!!
- Overall, this is gonna be a rough time and one of the best things you can
do is to take care of yourself and be generous to yourself! There will be
days when you can’t achieve as much as you wanted to and that’s ok :)
Statement of Purpose
- A lot of statements of purposes look very different, but one thing to keep
in mind is that you want to subtly introduce a narrative but without
getting too anecdotal. Demonstrate what you’ve done, what your
motivations for going to grad school are, your goals after grad school,
and your contributions to academia (ideally you would have some
research experience by this point) in a concise way.
- What in your background motivates you to work in the field/area that you are interested in going into? Why did you choose this field?
- What in your background demonstrates your potential to work on hard problems in your field?
- What kinds of experience do you have in research/tackling hard problems in your field? What did you find fun or exciting while working on these problems?
- What kinds of other experience do you have that might help you as an academic? Have you done any TA-ing or tutoring?
- As everyone says... show, don't tell!!
- BE. BOLD. BE. ASSERTIVE. This statement is your chance to shine!! You are most likely a wonderful computer scientist and even if you feel insecure about your level of expertise in the subject or in CS, you can't let that show. If you let it show, it just gives your audience a chance to underestimate your potential.
- Believe in yourself!!
- If you are having difficulties in believing in yourself (because I also often have a hard time with confidence issues), at least pretend to believe in yourself.
- If that's also kinda hard, "Believe in the me that believes in you!!" (imaginary bonus points if you get the reference, please let me know through email for the sake of laughs and giggles.)
Make sure to be as direct as possible!! You want to get straight to the point.
- Having a little madlibs section to talk about specific schools is very
- The part where you talk about the specific school doesn’t need to
be super blown up (at least for CS). It’s best if you can explain why
you’re applying and why you’d go there if you were accepted
shortly and concisely!!
- If you have published a paper or submitted a paper to a conference, or
have any other kind of publications, you should include a short sentence
about that (after giving a high-level explanation about the research you
did that lead up to that paper, of course).
- The WAs are absolutely wonderful and you should ask them to take a
look at your Statement of Purpose draft for general grammatical and
flow purposes. There’s a big chance they’re not a CS person or they don’t
know what CS Statement of Purposes are supposed to be like, but they
are a great resource either way :)
Lots of people have different opinions on what a Statement of Purpose
should look and sound like. Sometimes you’ll hear contradicting
opinions, but that’s just how it is. Don’t ask too many people, because it
could muk the statement up a bit.
As you make edits, you’ll get to the point where you can continue
making edits forever and it really won’t change the overall
effectiveness of the statement. Definitely put in a lot of thought into the
Statement, but don’t overpush it!!
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of Recommendation are one of the most important parts of your
Make sure to ask your professors pretty far in advance (during
September/early October) - they have a lot of things on their hands too!!
Definitely definitely ask the professor you’ve been doing research with to
write you a letter of recommendation. The
more that the prof can talk about your research efforts the better!
Be sure to ask professors who are in a similar area of your intended research
If you’re going to apply to CS programs, professors in the areas CS,
Math/Stat, Engineering, Econ would be good too!
If you are intending on applying after you graduate from Swarthmore/your
make sure to ask your professors to write a letter of recommendation
for you and keep it on hold BEFORE GRADUATING or NOT TOO FAR
AFTER GRADUATION!! Profs will be able to write better letters for you
when you are around and they remember you better.
Putting together your CV
Something that I found helpful was putting together my CV in Latex
through Overleaf -
here are some templates you can use!
- You can and should put on relevant coursework that you’ve done at Swat
(and elsewhere), along with a short bulleted explanation of what you’ve learned in the class!
- Also don’t forget to put down the textbook name and author if
your courses had a textbook.
This doesn’t have to be from just the direct field/area of research you’re
going into - some other things I put down were Modern (Abstract) Algebra
Don't forget to put on the various work experiences you had outside of
your intended research field/area! Sometimes having that well-roundedness
could be what people are looking for.
On the topic of Emailing potential advisors...
Please be careful about this section, as it really pertains to the
experience I had. In areas that are not CS, maybe everything I said
might be wrong. For example, I know that for Biology you would have to
be in contact with the group that you intend to be a part of.
There’s super contradicting opinions on whether you should or
shouldn’t email professors of the schools that you are applying to.
Sometimes people tell you that you must email potential advisors,
and sometimes people tell you that you probably shouldn't email
To be honest, I think it doesn’t make a big difference whichever way you go. Let me explain…
If you really love their research topic and read some paper(s) by
the prof, and end up having specific questions about the content of
the paper(s), then you should email them.
Or, if you have any genuine questions about the field that noone
at your home institution can answer, that would be very nice.
Emailing professors usually won’t be the way you stand out from
the other applicants. Most likely what would happen is that the
prof gets so many emails that they either 1) don’t notice your
email 2) don’t have time to read your email 3) even if they did, they
might not even remember you/have the power to change the status of the
app when application review season comes around.
That being said, some profs do note on their website that they’d
love to hear from prospective PhD students so… that might be good
if you’d like to send them an email.
Emails are (in most cases) not the be-all end-all!! If you’re intending to
read papers and send an email just for the sake of having a prof notice
you, it probably isn’t worth the effort.
Interviews can be really nervewracking!! (Speaking from personal experience) But in a
lot of cases, the prof who is interviewing you is curious to know who you are, and
whether you'd be a good fit to work with them!
Make sure to be yourself! Being genuine as possible will help the prof know you better.
Some things that are important to review are (1) the work that you've done so far
and (2) the kind of things that you want to learn/the kinds of problems you'd like
to tackle as a grad student (3) anything you found special about that program, and
why you think the program you're applying to (or a prof that you want to work with)
- Something that helps for me when I practice talking about my work is to have
someone (preferably an advisor or a peer researcher) quiz me by simulating a
conversation. It's actually surprising how difficult it is to cover all of the
basis of what you've done in general terms, especially when you're so involved
in a particular project!
Show off your enthusiasm for this specific program!! And this is why it's very
important for you to only apply to places that you'd be happy to go to :) The
prof is looking for students who would be happy working with them!
Most likely the prof will ask you whether you have any questions for them. If you're
doing a remote interview, what helped
for me is to have a sheet of paper (or a word doc) with some questions and notes
for the talking points I put above. That being said, make sure to not completely read off of
If the interview you are doing is a coding interview, it very well may be the case
that the coding interview is assessing whether you have the skills to code
with respect to your area of interest!
- For example, if you're interested in Programming Languages, make sure you can think
and code in functional programs!
- That being said, take this with a grain of salt
because I don't have too many experiences with coding interviews for grad school.