Help me better my chances of getting into grad school.
November 14, 2007 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm hoping to get into a Computer Science Masters program somewhere next fall, and am looking for some advice on bettering my chances.

Writing out paragraphs explaining everything would fill [more] pages [than this already does], so I'll be informing you in bullet form.

• I have a BS in Electrical Engineering, from a no-name Minnesota state school. GPA: 3.0. Well, 2.98, but I round.. I'm not proud of this, and kick myself daily for getting D's in 2 classes and not fixing them before graduating.

• I have had great work experience in software through jobs I've had (4 years worth since college), and personal endeavors.

• I've taken the GRE 3 times, and have never been 100% satisfied with my scores. First two times two years ago (720Q/480V, 740Q/520V), and a third time last month (770Q/560Q) which is also disappointing considering I was averaging 650 in verbal on all the practice tests I was taking.

• I've taken 4 grad-level CS classes at Columbia University (I work there now as a Programmer and get free classes) and have earned A's in all of them.

• I aspire to be an independent software developer of sorts. I live for problem solving and inventing things, and my dream would be to have the time to work through all the software ideas I have.

• I am mostly self-taught in CS, aside from the few CS related courses I took in undergrad, and the grad classes I mentioned in my previous point. I would like to go to grad school to get some formal education in the field, and to open possibilities to jobs that are unavailable to me in my current situation. I don't really see myself in research, but I could be wrong.

• I have applied to Columbia's CS department 3 times in the past 2 years, and have been rejected every time. This has shot my grad-school confidence in the foot, and has made me a little bitter. The fact that Columbia pays me to program for them and that I have proven myself worthy by getting A's in their classes, but still won't let me pay them to learn to be a better programmer boggles my effing mind. Like i said: bitter.

• I'm through trying to get into Columbia. My wife is finishing grad school (at Columbia) next month, and we're leaving NYC. I'm applying to several grad schools around the country, and am trying to make my applications as appealing as possible. This is where you come in.

What makes a good application essay? Do I need to pretend I'm really interested in research to make myself appealing to grad schools? How can I do this when truthfully I have no idea what specific interest of computer science I'm interested in, and just want the opportunity to find out? I'm past the level of getting another bachelors in CS, but I refuse to believe that masters degrees are just for research. Am I wrong?

Do I need to justify my mediocre undergrad GPA and verbal GRE scores or make no mention of them at all? Do I need to trump up my work experience? I tried both angles when applying to Columbia, with no luck. Where's the back door?

Please help me, hive mind.

Bonus question:
I'm applying to the University of Wisconsin, Madison / University of Washington, Seattle / University of Minnesota, Minneapolis / University of Texas, Austin / University of Colorado, Boulder / University of California, Berkeley / and the University of California, Santa Barbara. I realize almost all of these are high on the list of CS schools, and some I have little to no chance of getting in to. I could use some more schools with great programs, and high admission rates. Know any? Your alma-mater, maybe?

Throwaway email for questions:
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you could try getting some work published in a peer reviewed journal. Graduate studies in computer science isn't so much about being a better programmer as to do research in techniques in a particular area in the field.
posted by demiurge at 10:03 AM on November 14, 2007

I got a BA in CS & Mathematics (a single major, not a double major) from Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Arkansas that is not exactly known for its CS program. My GRE scores were 740Q/630V. I remember being accept to the University of Illinois and Washington University in St. Louis, which is where I got my MS.

I would say you have good chances, especially with your all As transcript from Columbia. That shows that you have an interest in upper-level courses and the ability to do the work. The grades alone are not the whole story, of course, because grade inflation is endemic to engineering graduate programs. Recommendations help round out the picture.

I would strongly recommend two recommendations, if you can get them. First, a recommendation from a Columbia professor would be great. Second, a recommendation from a professor in whose class you got a D, if you got an A or B in another class of theirs. The first will help establish that you really area good grad student. The second will help show that the Ds were anomalies that you won't repeat.

On the whole I think you will have a good shot at many of those schools, although be aware that Texas is very selective about which non-Texans it admits, so don't be too discouraged if they turn you down. I think you will want to really work on your admissions essay. See if Columbia has some sort of writing workshop that can help you put together and proofread a high quality essay. That will help demonstrate your ability to write well.

On preview: obviously published work would be great, but if you could already get substantial work published you probably wouldn't be worried about getting into grad school. Also, demiurge might not realize that many CS graduate programs have a coursework-only/non-thesis option that are more like a continuation of undergrad than about producing research. That's the sort of program I took at WUSTL, for instance.
posted by jedicus at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2007

While it's true that CS graduate programs have a non-research oriented Masters option, I think most are also much more interested in research work and consequently are more likely to accept people they feel will produce good research for the department.

I agree with jedicus that a good essay might be able to make the difference, especially to counter your weaker verbal GRE scores.
posted by demiurge at 10:29 AM on November 14, 2007

Oh I should mention that my undergrad GPA wasn't too hot, either, at a 3.2.

I think you're probably selling yourself short. One school rejected you. That they did it three times doesn't matter because they were probably looking at the same things each time (probably undergrad GPA and test scores, which haven't changed all that much). Other schools will weight things differently and even consider entirely different aspects of your application. I suspect, for instance, that the classes you have taken at Columbia will carry a lot more weight at other schools because it is different and interesting. At Columbia those same courses probably seem very common and ordinary.
posted by jedicus at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2007

One thing you may be overlooking is not the verbal GRE score, but the quantitative score. I know it sounds stupid, but many programs actually do have a cutoff point for the quantitative, and I would imagine most applicants to CS grad programs have Q scores near 800. I wouldn't worry so much about the verbal, but try to get 790 or 800 - it's not hard to do with some practice.
posted by pravit at 11:32 AM on November 14, 2007

I suspect it's because you have shown no interest in research and are applying to research-oriented schools. Furthering the field, etc... usually the work of a Phd candidate, is also usually the work of a grad student in a CS masters track. Especially at the top tier schools you are applying to.

A Master's in CS should be about honing your skills and closing in on one or two major sub-fields. I'd suggest figuring out what field(s) within CS you are really, really passionate about, and then write your essay on that. (And choose the school and program accordingly!) What intrigues you about CS? What problems are you are familiar with from its domain that you might want to tackle? Every program I applied to had me explaining what I was going to do my research on up front ( in a general, broad stroke way), and why I chose their faculty and program to work towards that goal.

Why do you really need the MS anyway, if all you want is to learn more about the general domain? You seem to be doing well as is, don't want to do research, and can self-teach. Is it because you think it'll get you more $?

on preview: what demiurge said.
You should look at less prestigious programs and bypass the whole research thing if all you really want is two letters to put on your resume.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:39 AM on November 14, 2007

I have a lot of experience with that you are asking. First off, it's great that you are applying to lots of schools. There are a lot of factors that are out of your control in this process and so it is good to improve your chance.

2.98 is not a great score, frankly. But the four classes at columbia really do a lot for you. It is surprising that Columbia didn't want you, but I wouldn't worry about it too much. Your job experience is a big plus, professors want students who can implement things without delay, especially in systems fields (networking, db, PL, operating systems, etc). 770 is very good. CS schools generally don't care about verbal scores, though it is true you could have done better.

Depending on the school, it is harder to get into graduate school for CS as an MS only student than it is to get in for a PhD. This is because professors want to train you and have you stay. Grad students take a lot of time and energy from their advisors in the first two years, and if they leave with an MS at that point, it's a little difficult to run a research lab. So, if you applied to the MS program at Columbia, it may be they fill their PhD slots first and then look for MS only students.

You don't want your essay to be about how you want to develop software. You don't need graduate school for that. If you need to pretend that you are interested in doing research, then don't go to CS grad school. If you have said you aren't interested in doing research to someone at Columbia, this would be the reason they are rejecting you. But perhaps you are saying you want to do research, just you aren't sure in what topic.

If you don't know what you want to do, that is normal and ok, but it won't make writing an essay easy. You need to find an area and write something about it that is interesting. Do not write, "Ever since my dad first got me a computer when I was XX years old, I've wanted to write programs." Write something like, "The major limitation of mobile networking today is that computers and handheld devices need to be within radio range of a base station. This limitation has prevented pervasive computers from seeing fruition beyond expensive, subscription-based services. True ubiquitous computing would enable new services for scientific monitoring of remote areas and deployment of internet services in third world countries. I would like to pursue this topic in graduate school."

Where do you find a topic like that? Well, you are already at columbia. They probably have a guest lecture a week in some venue or another. Start attending them.

I would also include in your essay a discussion of 3-4 faculty members of the school to which you are applying and state that you would like to work in their lab. I would discuss your grades from undergrad and say since then you have matured, gained valuable experience in building real systems and have shown you can succeed in Columbia's grad classes.

If you really can't find a topic, then I would write "I have had a lot experience working in industry, and taking these classes at columbia has given me a voracious appetite for research. I am not exactly sure what I want to to do, but I have a strong interest in building real systems [or doing foundational theorem proving; or working on machine learning] and here is how my existing skills will enable me to succeed. I see myself working Prof. Foobar's lab, but there are many research groups at your school that are doing fascinating research"

Other schools that are good and not impossible to get in to

, UCSC, UCI, UCR, UCDavis, johns hopkins, maryland, georgetown, USC, boston u, rice, GT, purdue, UMass amherst, michigan, rutgers, duke, SUNY SB, indiana, dartmouth.

The NRC rankings are almost two decades old, and new rankings are coming out in february, but here is a list of schools from that survey:
posted by about_time at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2007

Letters of reference are huge. Getting to know faculty at the school you're applying at is even more important, but more difficult to pull off. Your statement of purpose is also very big and about_time's advice is dead-on. Your GRE scores likely aren't holding you back. Undergrad GPA hurts, but 4.0 coursework at Columbia is probably compensating for that. Especially in US schools (versus Canada, where I did my Masters in CS), students who apply as Masters students are second class citizens compared to Ph.D. students. Of course, that means Ph.D. applications are even more rigorous.

Just wondering, but are you really sure graduate school is what you want? If you just want to be a better programmer, two years at a smart tech company is likely going to make you a better programmer than two years of coursework (or a year of coursework and a year of research). Unless you're applying to a Ph.D. program (which is even harder to get into), the chances of funding aren't good. Especially at top-tier schools like UW and Berkeley.

Are two more years of student loan debt worth it, when you could be learning just as much (likely more) working while getting paid? Having a BS in EE certainly isn't going to disqualify you from programming jobs, especially if you have job experience in the area. I'm not trying to say you're making the wrong decision (I have no idea, I don't know you), but if you're looking at graduate school as a way to become a better programmer and that's it, there are probably faster, more enjoyable and easier ways to achieve that goal. Graduate school can be rewarding (I finished my Masters in CS a couple months ago), but it can also be extremely stressful, time-consuming, etc.

I did my undergrad at CU-Boulder and worked in the systems lab on an REU for two years. If you have some specific questions about there, feel free to contact me.
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:54 AM on November 14, 2007

One thing you may be overlooking is not the verbal GRE score, but the quantitative score. I know it sounds stupid, but many programs actually do have a cutoff point for the quantitative, and I would imagine most applicants to CS grad programs have Q scores near 800. I wouldn't worry so much about the verbal, but try to get 790 or 800 - it's not hard to do with some practice.

As someone who has sat on the admissions committee on one of those schools, this is almost certainly not true. That verbal score is unfortunately low and will be a ding against you, but a 770 vs an 800Q isn't terribly interesting. If you had a great GPA and great references, it would be overlooked, but without those, every little bit helps. If you were a foreign student with that verbal score it would REALLY hurt.
A's in grad classes at Columbia is nice, but not enough to get you into most of the programs you are looking at. The thing about grad classes is that they are fairly easy to get A's in. You are competing with people with great undergrad GPAs from good schools, undergrad research experience and/or possibly years of work experience; a few A's in grad classes is not much of an edge.
I don't think there's anything wrong with you wanting to get an MS to improve yourself as a programmer. I've known a lot of people that needed the extra couple of years of advanced CS classes to round out their education. But you are aiming too high. Knock Berkeley, SB, Madison, Seattle and Austin off your list. Look for schools with MS programs that you pay for, similar to Columbia. You might also consider getting a job at one of these schools since you want to move anyway. Columbia's rejecting you three times is kind of surprising to me, I know that staff programmers have a much easier in at many of these schools.
Finally, I would have to say that this is the rough order of importance of application features to getting into a selective CS grad program:
1) Research experience/publications and letters of recommendation
2) Undergrad GPA
3) The quality of undergrad institution (pumps up or drags down 1 and 2)
3) Interesting background (work experience, etc)
4) GREs

The thing is, if your undergrad GPA is low, and your GREs are low, and there is not something that really red-flags your application as worth looking at, chances are your essays won't even get read. Everyone wants to believe that the right combination of words in their essay can get them in to the long-shot grad program but it's really unlikely. So don't stress yourself out too much thinking the essay can work miracles if only...
posted by ch1x0r at 6:18 PM on November 14, 2007

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