Overview of Application Process

Key components: SOP, LOR, Resume, GRE/TOEFL

Most graduate applications ask you to submit the following:

- Statement of Purpose (SOP)

- Letters of Recommendation (LOR)

- A Resume (only some schools ask for this)

- Standardized test scores (GRE, and perhaps TOEFL) and undergraduate transcript

In later pages, we will give you advice on how to assemble each of these components, as well as give advice on the overall application process.

Schools’ evaluation criteria

PhD programs. If you are applying to a top PhD program, the university will be evaluating your application primarily for your ability to do research.  Many schools believe that the best evidence of your ability to do research in the future is whether you’ve already done research in the past.  Thus, having published a research paper at a top international conference is helpful, since that “certifies” that you’re able to do novel, world-class research.  Having published a paper however doesn’t guarantee admission, and many students are also admitted without prior publications.  However, your application should convey clearly your previous research experience.

MS programs.  If you are applying to a top MS program, the university will be evaluating your application primarily to determine if you’re likely to do well in the university’s coursework.  Some MS programs also give weight to your research ability.  It’s usually much easier to get into a school’s MS than PhD program.  If you’re not sure whether to apply to an MS or a PhD program, we have some MS vs. PhD advice as well.    To be admitted into a top MS program, factors that help include evidence of excellent performance in coursework at good university (if you’re a recent graduate), or top performance in a company working in a relevant field.  If you have research experience, or have published a paper,  this experience will really help your MS application as well, even though research experience is by no means necessary for admissions to most MS programs.  For simplicity, on this site we’ll loosely use the term “MS programs” to refer to Master of Science, Master of Engineering (M.Eng.), and other similar Masters programs in science and engineering.

All top schools receive a huge number of applications, and accept only a small fraction of applications. An 8-15% acceptance rate for PhD programs, or 15-40% for MS programs, might be typical. Because of the huge number of applications each school receives, admissions committees are looking for reasons to accept you, not looking for reasons to reject you. In other words, they are looking for evidence of your strengths; if they find enough strenghts, they will likely accept you.  Conversely, if your application is unclear or if it simply lacks sufficient information--in other words, if you fail to give them a reason to accept you--the “default” decision would be to reject the application.

The best way to get admitted into a top PhD or MS  program is to work really hard the two years before the application deadline, so that you have many strengths to present to the admissions committee.  By the time of the application, it’s mainly just making sure that you clearly show the work you’ve already done to the committee, which is what we’ll help you to do.

This website will tell you:
- How to assemble your application
- What the admissions process is like
- What to do in certain special circumstances