Applying to Grad School

A year ago, at this time I was trying to get my stuff together and find out all I could about graduate school programs. Applying to graduate programs in the US (and, as in my case, in Australia and the UK) is quite a hectic period, especially as most people need to juggle schoolwork and exams along with applications. I know many of my younger friends will shortly be embarking on this journey, and I decided to put out some very useful links and tips that I found helpful during my application process.

Note: I applied for a PhD program, and most of the stuff below is tailored towards PhD Applications, although Masters applicants will find help too!

Useful links:

Prof Harchol's talk - In my opinion, probably the most helpful resource on applying to grad school. (Even more so for CS applicants). This is why I've linked to it thrice in the same page!

Jean Yang has some useful info, and a sample statement of purpose, here.

Some tips on writing a good statement of purpose are available here.

Prof Andrew Ng at Stanford has a lot of advice to share on this site.

Step 0.1 - Read Prof Harchol's document! Then read it again.

Step 0.2 - Why grad school?

This is a very personal question, but it must be answered before you start off with the process. A PhD is a huge time commitment, only made harder by friends who are minting money in all the big companies!

For me, the reasons were quite straightforward.

1. I love the idea of advancing the frontiers of science and technology. Through the years, the stuff that comes out of scientific research from every field has just about changed the world - I'm talking lasers, the silicon industry itself, computers, the GUI, many of the fancy algorithms and what not. To advance a field, I would first need to delve into it and learn as much as I can about it.

2. One day I want to manage my own research lab and direct research initiatives, likely in the corporate world. Playing daddy to a bunch of the smartest scientists, and directing the way innovation evolves is just too exciting. From my experiences (both as an intern at GE global research, and just by watching my father's career graph as a PhD in Chemical Engineering), it appears that a PhD is extremely helpful (and almost necessary) to climb the ladder in research related areas.

3. My two experiences with research - my summer internship at GE, and my longer stint at the Robot Learning Lab at UC Berkeley have been very enjoyable and rewarding.

4. The citizens of academia - PhD students, professors and corporate researchers - all seem to possess this infectious passion for what they do, apart from being the brightest in their respective fields. Sitting at a dinner table with a few of these guys is entertainment and education, guaranteed! I want to become a part of this family.

Step 0.3 - What in grad school?

Decide what's the right field for you - something you are interested enough to delve into.

Step 0.4 - Which grad school?

Make a list of universities that offer graduate degrees in your area of interest. Apply to 3-4 of the best schools, and a handful of good schools that you are very confident of getting into. Talk to Professors and grad students at your own university - these guys know best about strengths and weaknesses of other schools. Sites such as can also give you some idea about good schools.

Once you have a list, and as early as possible, take a look at the programs offered and the Professors working in you area of interest, for each of these schools. See who you'd love to work with. My undergrad research adviser once told me - "Look at a Professor's publications. If there are papers that make you go - 'I really wish I authored this!', that prof is a good bet". I found it really helpful to create accounts for these schools as soon as applications opened. Take a look at what each school requires - Statements of purpose, supplementary essays, standardized tests etc.

Step 1 - GRE

What I did first was to get the GRE out of the way. The GRE general test is required by most US universities, and the subject test by some. I did my general test the summer before applying.

The GRE is to be treated like a sanity check. A great GRE score does not by any means guarantee you admission, but a bad GRE score can hurt you. For engineers, you want to be well clear of the average for the verbal section, and atleast be close to full score on the math section. The GRE really isn't hard - spend a few weeks learning word lists, and do a few practice tests to get a hang of the testing pattern. Don't worry about it any more than that. Grad schools really want to see your aptitude for research, and it is generally true that even undergraduate GPA does not provide a true indicator of this, let alone a GRE test.

  Step 2 - Letters of Recommendation

Probably the most important part of your application package. The key to a successful application is getting involved with research at your undergraduate school. Really get to know three or more professors in your department, preferably in the area that you are interested to pursue research in. Nothing is going to help your case more than the professor at your school saying "This guy rocks at research. Take him". The academic world is really well connected, and a good letter from a professor is generally much more valuable than an equally good letter from industry.

I know that one or more schools that I applied to actually called up a professor at my undergraduate school to ask about me. So make sure your letter writer actually knows you! A really personalized letter is worth ten times as much as a general purpose letter with your name stuck on. Don't be shy - walk up to your proposed letter writer and ask him/her - "Can you write me a STRONG letter of rec?". Professors will usually give you an honest answer - yes or no. If the answer is no, you probably want to find someone else.

Once you have locked down your letter writer, make sure you keep in touch and make sure your letter actually gets uploaded. Professors are incredibly busy people and it's remarkable that they find time to write letters at all. Your writer is doing you a favor, not the other way around. They really want to do it, and will not mind if you spam them with reminders as the deadlines approach. Make sure the letters go up! I know people whose apps got rejected just because a letter was missing!

Step 3 - The Statement of Purpose

I really can't do a better job than Prof Harchol here, so I'll leave it at that. When you start writing, take a look at the most exciting research projects you've come across, and the profs that you would like to work with. Really get in the zone and get excited before you write - your enthusiasm will carry through to the ink and paper.. I mean..the ASCII on your screen.

One thing that really helped me was getting a rough draft done early, and then sending it out to as many people as I could. I had 2-3 of my seniors pursuing a PhD critique my statement, and also sent it out to my letter writers and some members of my family. At the end of the day, you want the statement to be yours, but it's still good to get an outsider's perspective. While some of my reviewers focused on language and styling, some of them helped with content. I can tell you first hand that my statement, after 4-5 critique sessions, was orders of magnitude better than what I could have created on my own. 

Step 4 - Applying

Start very early on the forms. They are long and even more time consuming than they look. Get done with the generic information - Personal details, qualifications etc etc as soon as possible, and then start on the more involved stuff like essays and Q&A. Honestly, the night before apps were due I only had to revise all my information, and conclude my statement of purpose for each school, and this still took me the entire night!

Step 5 -  Fellowships

Every grad school loves a student that comes for free, so get going on these! Hertz, NDSEG, NSF are big ones you should apply for. I, being an Australian citizen, could not apply to any of these. But you can usually find some that you can apply for from your home country.

For the other non US citizens out there, Fulbright Scholarships are offered to citizens of many countries. The Australian American Association also awards scholarships to Australian citizens to study in the USA.

Good luck!!!

A note about applying to programs in the UK/Australia

The approach is entirely different here - the PhD program is 3 years, unlike the typical 5-6 of a US program. The student comes in with a fully formed research proposal, works on it and leaves. In the UK, the first year is typically only reading and chalking out a detailed research proposal (but you don't take any classes!). In the second and third years, you do what you said you would, and you're out.

What does this mean for an applicant? You are expected to come in with a detailed research proposal, and your admission is subject to an adviser agreeing to mentor your project. Often times you are required to contact a professor well in advance of your application, and work with him/her to develop your proposal. In the UK, I applied to Cambridge. The support for international students at Cambridge is pleasantly surprising - they have the Gates scholarship, the Cambridge International Scholarship as well as several other awards for non UK applicants.


  1. what else should be in the resume , that can attract them?

    1. Nothing works as well as prior research experience. Projects and internships (especially in related fields) can be useful as well.

  2. I have been considering applying to grad school to get my Masters of Education Programs but I am still on the fence. I am nervous about the work load that is required to just apply to schools. Your blog does seem to simplify the process for me which was very helpful. There are still more factors to consider before I make my choice so we'll see what happens!

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