How do I build a profile to get accepted into a star college like Caltech, MIT, Stanford or Berkeley for an MS in CS?

Answer by Rahul Biswas:

(on leave from the CS Ph.D. program at Stanford)

copying this answer from my own webpage

Many people write to me asking about admission to the  Computer Science  department here at Stanford University.  I had many of  the same questions  when I was applying and others were kind enough to  answer my questions.   It's not possible for me to answer individual  questions by e-mail but if you  have a question and e-mail me, I am  happy to post the answer here so that  everyone can benefit.  This page  does not constitute official policy but  the reflections of one student  who is no longer involved in making admissions  decisions.  I believe  that my answers apply beyond Stanford but there is a  sharp drop-off in  what admission committees expect after the top 10 schools so  plan  accordingly.

Q. How are admissions decisions made?

A. For the M.S. program, typically two professors and/or  current M.S.  students will individually review your application and  assign you a numeric  score.  How they do that is up to them and scores  are informally  normalized.  If your application is especially weak, you  may be rejected  without review.  If both reviewers feel that your  application is weak, you  will not receive further consideration.  If,  on the other hand, both  reviewers find that you are highly qualified,  you will be admitted without  further review.  Most admits fall into  neither of these categories and are  discussed by a committee of several  professors.

Thus you should be careful to distinguish between the  administrative staff  who will prepare your file and the reviewers who  will actually read it.   Your application will be reviewed quickly so  take care to be clear and  concise.  Submit all necessary documents in a  timely fashion.  I  suggest including self-addressed, stamped postcards  with everything you submit  so that you can know that your documents  were received by the receipt of your  own postcard.  The admissions  committee will never see such things and an  incomplete file is the  quickest path to rejection.  It is your  responsibility to make sure  your file is complete.

Q. What kind of GRE scores do I need to be admitted?

A. Your GRE scores will not substantially influence your  chances for  admission unless you do poorly on them.  A Math score of  750 or higher is  adequate and an 800 is best.  More leeway is given for  the English and  Writing sections.  A score of 600 or above (and  something comparable on the  Writing) is needed and 700 is considered  good.  Higher scores will attest  to your writing ability and are  especially helpful if you are applying from  abroad.  If your  application is otherwise strong, you will not be  disqualified on the  basis of GRE scores alone.
I suggest you spend considerable time and effort  preparing for the GRE until  you are confident you can get the 800 / 700  as mentioned above.  You're  probably applying to several graduate  programs and the GRE is consistently  considered important in most  programs.  You will benefit substantially for  relatively little effort.

Q. Whom should I ask for letters of recommendations?  What should they  discuss?

There are two important factors to consider when asking  for letters of recommendation  or undertaking research and/or work  opportunities that will lead to  opportunities to ask in the future.   The first factor is the importance of  the person writing the letter for  you.  It is helpful if this person has a  Ph.D. from a reputable  university.  The more reputable the better but any  top 50 university is  usually adequate.  The second factor is how much the  person likes  you.  At least one letter should be from someone who has  supervised you  in a professional capacity and things highly of you.  Thus  when  asking, you should seek a balance between these two factors.  Typical   admits will have one letter from a professor at their undergraduate  institute  who has supervised them in undergraduate research.  Another  letter may be  from another professor who has supervised research or an  especially successful  class project.  A third may be from a manager at  an internship.  It is  best if the first is especially strong.  Any  subsequent letters will  probably be discarded and since you don't know  which one will be thought of as  an extra one, don't send them.  The  third letter can be ambivalent and it  will not harm your chances for  admission by very much.
Letters of recommendation are very important for M.S.  admission and the  deciding factor for Ph.D. admission.  It is well  worth your time working  hard for those whom you plan to ask for  letters.  If someone is qualified  to write the letter, they will know  what to write and will probably not ask you  to write the letter  yourself.  If you do have to offer guidance or write  your own though,  write about projects that you worked on and how you  demonstrated  competence and intelligence in your undertaking.

Q. What should I write about in my statement of purpose?

Your statement of purpose serves two equally important  purposes.  First,  it demonstrated whether you write and think clearly.   Second, it shows  whether you are ready to undertake individual  research.  You are expected  to be more ready if you are applying to the  Ph.D. program.  Unlike your  essay for undergraduate research, you are  not expected nor benefited by  demonstrating artistic flair in your  statement.  Write about projects you  have worked on in the past, what  role you played in those projects, and what you  would like to do  research on if accepted into the program you are applying for.   Be  specific but remain open-minded.  The rationale behind this is that   there may not be anyone who works on the project you are interested in  or the  person who does work in that area may not be looking for more  students.   Others may be interested in you though.  Specificity, on the  other hand,  demonstrates maturity and mastery.  Don't fret too much  about assuming  background knowledge.  If someone in the department will  know what you're  talking about, the reader will give you the benefit  of the doubt or forward your  statement to that person.  Do not discuss  why you like engineering or  computers or how you came to be interested  in such topics.  You may want to  mention a few professors in the  department you may be interested in working with  if admitted.

Q. What kind of funding is available for students?

A. The answer below applies to both domestic and  international students  except that if you are an international student,  you are generally forbidden  from seeking employment outside the  university except in the summer as an  intern.  There are plenty of  opportunities to be a teaching assistant (help  professor teach courses)  or a research assistant (receive remuneration for doing  research) as  an M.S. student.  As a Ph.D. student, you are guaranteed  funding.  You  are not eligible for a teaching assistantship during your  first  quarter.  Finding such opportunities requires some effort but   typically, if you're good enough to get in, you're good enough to  receive some  sort of funding.  If you are especially bright, you may  apply for and  secure external fellowships.  Funding is generally not a  big problem but it is best if you can stash or borrow enough to pay for  expenses during your  first quarter while you are getting settled.   $1000 / month past housing  and tuition costs should ensure that you  will not starve.  I know some who  get by on less.

How do I build a profile to get accepted into a star college like Caltech, MIT, Stanford or Berkeley for an MS in CS?


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