Special Circumstances

Extra information for China students

This section contains extra information for applicants from mainland China.  

It is widely know to US admissions committees that LORs are for the most part written by students, and then given to the professor to sign.  This is problematic, because it meas the admissions committee cannot count on the LOR to be provide an “independent” evaluation of the student’s abilities.  This doesn’t hurt the application directly, but rather makes it harder for LORs to provide the evidence that the committee is looking for to admit the student, and thus the committee will need to rely more on other sources of evidence, such as publications.

If you work in a research lab in a large multi-national corporation, and have researchers there write the letter, then the letters tend to be written by the researcher himself/herself and thus might suffer from this problem less.  The letter will also carry more weight if it comes from someone with a strong research record, or someone who otherwise has an international research reputation, and it may be hard for you to find such a researcher to work with.

Given the challenges with LORs, for PhD applications, having publications in international conferences is one way (perhaps the best one) to show the committee evidence of research ability.  Thus, doing research in the years leading up to the application deadline is fairly important for being admitted.

Many students from China list a lot of certificates/awards on their application, and US reviewers sometimes don’t know how to evaluate them, and end up largely discounting them.  If you actually have a significant award, be very clear about its significance.  E.g., if you write ”1st place in regional math competition,” chances are the committee will have no idea what this means.  If however you write  “1st place in Hunan regional math competition (placed 1st out of over 10,000 competitors),” the committee will be able to interpret this much more easily.  Similarly, “2nd highest GPA in class” is hard to interpret.  (The definition of “class” also varies from country to country, so this could mean a group of 20 students or a group of 200 students.)  In contrast,  “2nd highest overall GPA in University XYZ’s graduating undergraduate CS class of 170 students” is much easier to interpret.

Remember the committee is looking for evidence to accept; if they fail to find this evidence, your application will be rejected.  Thus if (i) the LORs don’t convey much useful information,, (ii) the reviewers don’t know how to evaluate your GPA, then there isn’t much information that the reviewer can rely on to decide to accept you.  Because of this, publications (at international venues) are usually key to getting into top PhD programs.  Also, this is why giving your class ranking (and carefully defining how large your class is, as in “class  of 170 students” above) helps.

If you do a summer internship in the US (or Hong Kong, or Singapore, or Europe) and get an LOR from a professor from one of these places, that might also help, since these letters are usually written by the professor himself/herself.  Unfortunately though a single 3 month internship might not be long enough for a professor to get to know you very well; so possibly more/longer such research experiences much help more.  Also, many students join an MS program in the US, work here for some time in an MS program, and then apply to a PhD program and get in that way (with letters written by US professors).



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