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I have a BE in computer engineering from a college in India and am currently working in a start-up. How do I build a profile to get accepted into a star college like Caltech, MIT, Stanford or Berkeley for an MS in CS?

(on leave from the CS Ph.D. program at Stanford)copying this answer from my own webpageMany 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.

What should be the flow of thoughts in a statement of purpose (SOP) for graduate admissions?

First, let me say that Ben Y. Zhao is correct, that statement of purposes are the least important of all the major elements of an application to grad school in my experience on graduate admissions committees. This should make you feel good. After all, a statement of purpose is something you write in a few hours, whereas your undergraduate education and research experience are things you've devoted years to -- thousands upon thousands of hours.Nevertheless, statements of purpose are a place in an application where you can provide information about yourself that might not be directly spoken to at other places in your application. The biggest of thing you can demonstrate is that you know what you want to study and why you're studying it. I'm not talking about a detailed plan of attack on a research project, but demonstrating fluency in the vernacular of the field (and I do not mean lacing it with jargon). You should have really learn a lot about the bigger picture in the field you want to study by reading academic papers and going to seminars and colloquia and attending advanced courses and having discussions with professors, postdocs and graduate students.You can demonstrate your interest and knowledge by picking one or two professors and contacting them beforehand and speaking a bit about their research (it's best if they're in the same sub-discipline) in the statement and how it connects to other aspects of your education.It's hard to fake writing relevant statements of purpose. If you haven't been learning about the field, your writing will come off as contrived and it will be completely obvious to anyone reading it. For instance, if you read some Discover article about a professor and then say that you're interested in working with him/her, you aren't going to be able to write anything of substance. The people reading the application will know that you've simply chosen the most famous person in the department (who won't be on the graduate admissions committee) and really don't know much about what you're applying to do.As an example, compare these two one-liners:I am fascinated by supersymmetric theory and how it can answer questions about quantum gravity.I am fascinated by how the recent discovery of the Higgs boson has made important implications for the possible discovery of supersymmetric particles at the LHC and how this discovery has made the upcoming run of the LHC a critical test for both supersymmetry and for theories beyond the Standard Model more generally.The first has thrown 2 somewhat related buzzwords together and could have been written in the 1980s (slightly misusing supersymmetric theory -- which should be supersymmetry). The second has lots of details about things that are happening right now (I'm sure that the grammar of the latter is horrible, so don't copy and paste it). Most applications have the first as their level specificity and while it's not an application killer, but it's pretty blah. There are only a few applications of the second type and these are the types of statements that actually help and might even be able to paper over some deficiencies in the application.Finally, I'm looking for how the details of the statement dovetails with your classes and letters of recommendation. If your GRE and grades are low and you haven't taken advanced classes and haven't done research, no statement of purpose will mean much of anything.What I'm not looking for is your life story: how when you were 10 years old you looked up in the sky and wondered about the stars and planets (there are dozens of these stories every year). I'm not looking for explanations of various deficiencies in your application (the old adage about the first thing to do when you're in a hole...). After one round of reading applications, you've more-or-less run into every common type of problem and don't really care why (eg a bad break up in your sophomore year lead to a few bad grades -- I don't care because for every person who did poorly because of that, there is a person whose grades didn't flinch, should I give you a pass and not reward the other person).[*]I'd write the key aspects of research first and then write a brief introduction that gets to the bulk in about a paragraph.I have always been interested in physical sciences. During my time at University of Q, I've started to focus on theoretical physics, specifically theoretical high energy physics. My research with Prof. X was my first experience with it. I've also been influenced by course A by Prof. Y.Then get into your research and the next is forward looking. You don't need to use every last character that they allow. Only say relevant things. Admission committee members are reading about 100 applications over 2 or 3 weeks and they're making quick decisions about whether to put the person on the long list for further consideration or not (each application is usually read by at least 3 faculty). As such, you simply don't have time to read every word and you're looking for things that make quick impressions. Unless you won the Westinghouse prize, your childhood is going to be pretty identical to hundreds of other people. Where you are unique is in your later education where you can start to distinguish yourself.[*] There are some truly exceptional circumstances that might merit a word. I remember one application where the person's father was kidnapped and he had to withdraw from classes for a semester.

How did you get into Harvard?

I have to disagree strongly with Anuridh Suresh’s idea that “a clear-cut, inevitable path into these institutions is basically nonexistent.”He is exclusively talking about college.Yeah, getting into Harvard college and similar institutions is insanely difficult. So much so that the correct path is vague and difficult to define.But that’s only because the applicants are 17–18 years old.How much time can a human being possibly have, leading up to turning 17, to demonstrate themselves appropriately through these applications?Are there really the kind of leadership qualities that Harvard is looking for in 8 year olds?How about their critical thinking skills?Our brains are barely half-developed at that age!One feature of all undergraduates accepted to these types of institutions is that they started demonstrating their excellence from a very young age.This is what makes the undergraduate competition so damn impossible.College admission is more of a question of who develops the earliest rather than a question of who is the most dedicated.Once we turn 18 though, most of us have a pretty decent brain sitting around in our heads. At least better than when we were 14 and might have started thinking about college.So if you weren’t gifted with an exceptionally early development, don’t sweat it!You can’t control the speed of your development, but you can control your dedication once you do develop.So alternatively, dedicate yourself to being admitted to Harvard and similar top-tier institutions for graduate school.And you want to know something that, for some reason, isn’t well publicized?Top-tier graduate schools like Harvard pay you to study.No, you didn’t read that wrong.You pay no tuition fees and are paid a stipend (i.e. a student salary) that is more than the average full-time worker earns in the US.Plus health insurance.Just to make sure you don’t discard this in disbelief, here are some links to specific PhD programs I applied to so you can see for yourself:Harvard: Division of Medical Sciences (see Q: How much does the program cost, and is there financial aid available?)Stanford: Frequently Asked Questions (see Q: What is included in the offer of admission?)Yale: Biological & Biomedical SciencesPrinceton: Admission & Financial SupportU Penn: Financial InformationColumbia: Frequently Asked Questions (see Q: What is the stipend?)And the list goes on…Starting to become interested in the idea?Let me try and help guide you towards such a future.I come from Canada, which although sits right above the US, categorized me as an international applicant to the top schools just like someone applying from Cambodia.I was admitted to PhD programs in biomedical science at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, U Penn, Columbia, Berkeley, Rockefeller, and UCSF (1–2 international spots).In fact, it was just MIT that didn’t make me an offer, so I hit 9/10 of my marks.The reason I chose to include that information is not to brag.The reason I chose to include that information is because I would like to suggest that these results were not merely a matter of chance or obscure reasons.I would like to suggest that you can do the exact same too.That you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to.I have many Canadian friends who applied to the same programs themselves and did not get a single acceptance.I also have met many people both domestic and from abroad that were accepted into several of these programs.There are undoubtedly clear distinctions between applicants. The process isn’t nearly as obscure as it is made out to be.Graduate schools want to assess one single thing in each applicant:Their ability to do well in graduate school.Seems kind of circular, doesn't it?Well, no actually. It’s not. Not at all.Graduate school involves a short list of fundamental types of skills:Academic performanceResearchAcademic well-roundednessAcademic performanceThese are your grades. Yes, the modern education and testing system is imperfect. Yes, I think everyone’s learning would be tremendously accelerated in one-on-one tutoring.But this is the way the world goes. There is no other way to mass-educate the planet without standardized curriculum and exams.There will be classes in graduate school. The grades you get in these classes will not matter. But these programs want you to deeply understand their content.They might select courses for you to take as a part of their curriculum to earning their PhD.The only way they can assess how deeply you will connect with their course material is by looking at your results from past courses.So get good grades. Get A’s. Get 90%’s. Be in the top 10% of your class. Be on the honour list. Take difficult courses to demonstrate your dedication.I can’t even count the number of times I had to pull ridiculous stunts to succeed in my undergraduate classes.There were classes that were genuinely designed to ruin your GPA. The expectations were unclear. The exams were unfair.But don’t make excuses. Don’t be a bystander to your life. Take control.Go up to the professor and ask them what the expectations are. Go to their office. Sit down with them. Ask them to clarify on assignments. Send them emails. Send the teaching assistant emails.Ask your colleagues for help. Ask your friends. Network within your family for experts who can teach you.Look for tutors. Pay for tutors.Spend your time in the library.I had to use online resources for several of my courses to learn the material that I was supposed to be understanding from lecture.I have had professors who were so bad at teaching that the students stood no chance on the exams.I have had to supplement my learning using:edXCoursera | Online Courses From Top Universities. Join for FreeMIT OCWUdacity - Free Online Classes & NanodegreesKhan AcademyCertain YouTubersAnd, God forbid, text books *shudders*You can do it too. Not everyone has an easy time getting good grades. But the education system is built to reward people who meet the expectations.So find out what they are, and meet them. You can do it.2. ResearchGraduate education involves research. And what better way to demonstrate that you know how to do some, than to… well… do some yourself.Pay attention to the posters up around your university. What are they advertising?Exchanges to Germany? Scholarships for summer research jobs? High profile projects that are going on in the area?You should always be looking for opportunity.When I started in college, I would talk to nearly every professor I had in my first year and ask them about their work.I would talk to them about what they did for research and what kinds of things people working in their labs did themselves.There were times where the professors had to run right after the class, but I would say that I could walk with them and keep listening.I can’t even count the number of times I followed a professor back to their office and sat there receiving a truckload of information on a particular research topic.Showing initiative is way more than half the battle. Especially when you’re young.Do you need to know everything to impress a professor? Absolutely not.If you don’t know something, ask now. Don’t make it seem like you know something you don’t. But convert that lack of knowledge into a positive thing by showing curiosity and passion.Show people that you care.And don’t take jobs that don’t give you any responsibilities! “Doing research” is not a one-size-fits-all statement.You can work with professors and have next to no responsibilities.Look for labs that give you that special responsibility. And look for people who are prominent in their fields that are willing to gift you that importance.I opted into a co-op program at college that gave me 16 months to do full-time work related to biochemistry. My degree also had an 8 month research project in senior year.I dedicated all 16 months full-time to working in research labs, as well as 8 additional months in the first two summers. That’s 24 months full time research plus the 8 month senior year project at part time.I worked in a total of 5 labs throughout, across a variety of research topics in chemistry and biochemistry.Among those 5 was a lab at Harvard, with Dr. Yang Shi, who I met at a seminar he gave in Canada. Just like with all my other professors, I went up to him after and asked him about his work.He was working in epigenetics, which I had always wanted to research. So I asked him if he might have any positions.Showing people that you are curious, passionate, well-adjusted and competent is just about all you need to open the vast majority of doors in your life.And you can control those things.Of course the reference letter from Dr. Shi helped immensely in my applications to graduate school.And so will your reference letters by working in research labs, on high profile projects, in foreign cities and institutions.3. Academic well-roundednessThe final component of getting into places like Harvard is showing “well-roundedness.”I’m sure everyone has heard this before. But what the hell does it mean?Well, in school (and especially graduate school), you have to interact with other people.You need to communicate your work to your colleagues, your local community, and beyond.You also have to ask other people for help. That’s how you figure out how to do something you’ve never done before.And how you figure out how to do something no one has ever done before.You also have to be able to help other people when they ask you for help.This can all be summarized as three core skills:WritingPresentingHuman interactionWriting and presenting are the media through which you communicate your work.Writing and presenting are also the ways you can ask people for help. And ways that you can help other people.Human interaction is all the other stuff. Meetings with professors and other students, for instance.So find ways to show that you are academically well-rounded. Find a way to demonstrate your writing ability. Maybe join the school’s blog or something.And you better work hard on your application essays. That is one of the most direct ways you will demonstrate your writing ability.After weeks of working on them, I personally thought my essays were concise but powerful. They told a story.Find your narrative. What path defines your life?As for presentations, look around! Schools typically have opportunities to present. Join journal clubs. Ask your supervisors to go to conferences and to make a poster on what you’re doing.I entered every single presentation competition my university had to offer and won them all. Is it because I am just destined to go to Harvard?Absolutely not.It’s just because I put a ton of effort into my presentations and posters! I’ve watched Steve Jobs give keynotes since I was 14 and learned the essence of beautiful presentation from the master himself.You can do that too.You can win those competitions as well.So to get into a school like Harvard is a question of dedication.Look up your target program and figure out what they want you to do in it. Mimic that as best as you can.Take the greatest amount of initiative.Be curious.Be passionate.Be determined and dedicated.And I’m sure, just like I managed, that you will get what you want too.

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