How I cracked Stanford MS in CS

Hi, my name is Lovish Chopra, an incoming MS CS student at Stanford University for Fall 2022. This article highlights my experience of applying for MS in Computer Science, along with various tips and tricks that I picked along the way. I have tried to detail a lot of tips that would help solve queries for aspirants. While the article targets MS CS aspirants, graduate applicants from other departments might also get some useful tips from the same.
 
 
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While I have tried to articulate everything in as much detail as I could, I understand that the applications can vary on a case-to-case basis. If you want to connect for any doubts or issues, please feel free to drop me an e-mail at lovishchopra98@gmail.com.
Disclaimer: The opinions and suggestions mentioned in the article are those of the author based upon his experience of applying for MS in the US. The article is not meant to endorse any brand, product or university.
 

1. My profile

This section elaborates my profile when I was applying for MS in CS around October — December 2021.
  • Field of Interest: Systems and Networks
  • Undergraduate: Bachelor of Technology (Hons.), Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. GPA: 9.94 / 10Department Rank 1, Institute Rank 2
  • GRE: 328 / 340 (Quant — 170 / 170, Verbal — 158 / 170), AWA — 5 / 6
  • TOEFL: 118 / 120 (Reading — 30 / 30, Listening — 30 / 30, Writing — 30 / 30, Speaking 28 / 30)
  • Research Experience: Bachelor’s Thesis: My thesis was based upon adaptive 360-degree video streaming. It was also awarded as the best Bachelor’s Thesis among all Computer Science students at IIT Kharagpur. 2 months of international research internship at Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), Taiwan in 2018. It was based upon extracting small clips of car accidents from youtube videos, which could be used to train the autonomous driving model at ITRI. A couple of research projects in graduate-level courses that I took as electives at IIT Kharagpur.
  • Work Experience: 2 months as Software Development Intern at D. E. Shaw India Pvt. Ltd. in 2019. 1.5 years of work experience as Member Technical at D. E. Shaw India Pvt. Ltd. from June 2020.
  • Publications: 1 publication published from my Bachelor’s Thesis at The Web Conference 2021 (WWW’ 21).
  • Course Projects: A couple of relevant course projects in OS / Networks / DBMS.
  • Extra-academics / PoRs: Mentor at Desh ke Mentors program by Delhi Government in 2021. Volunteer at National Service Scheme, IIT Kharagpur from 2016–2018. Student Mentor at Student Welfare Group, IIT Kharagpur from 2017–2020. Silver medal in Open IIT Mathematics Olympiad at IIT Kharagpur in 2019. Business Development Advisor at Ehtiyaat, Enactus Khalsa and Enactus CVS from 2020–2021. Editor at Awaaz, student media body of IIT Kharagpur: 2016–2020

2. My admits and rejects

I applied to ten universities in total, all for the MS CS program. I got admits from eight universities and rejects from two universities.
Admits:
  • Stanford University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • University of California San Diego
  • Purdue University
 
Rejects:
  • University of California Berkeley
  • Princeton University

3. Shortlisting Universities

The first step in MS Applications is to shortlist a bunch of universities where you want to apply. Generally, prospective students divide the universities into three categories:
  1. Ambitious: Those universities which are really difficult with your profile, but definitely not impossible. A university where you think there might be around 10–15% chance of you getting an admit would generally come under ambitious.
  1. Moderate: These are those universities for which you know a bunch of people with a profile similar to yours getting an admit. A university where you think there might be around 40% chance of you getting an admit would generally come under moderate.
  1. Safe: These are backup universities for which you are almost sure you’ll get an admit unless your luck isn’t by your side. The rough chances of getting an admit in a safe university could be more than 50%.
 
The major question is: how to shortlist universities for these three categories?
There are few steps that you could follow:
  • Look into the Computer Science graduate rankings from US News. Don’t refer to QS rankings. US News is generally considered more legitimate for universities in the US. It is better to look at the rankings by subject instead of overall rankings.
  • Another common rankings used by students is csrankings.org, which sorts universities based upon number of publications.
  • There are multiple portals where students upload their profile, admits and rejects for various universities. You can use these portals to check what kind of profiles got accepted for each university. Compare them with your profile to classify that university into one of ambitious, moderate and safe. Some portals include: admits.fyiTheGradCafeYocket, YMGrad.
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      Don’t trust these portals blindly. Since they are mostly anonymous, you can find a few spammers posting fake admits. Use these portals only to get a rough idea about the kind of profile that got accepted.
  • There are multiple facebook groups / discord servers for MS in US (and some specifically for CS) as well, you can easily find them by searching for them on facebook / google respectively. People generally post the details of their profile there and others suggest some universities that might fit that profile. Disclaimer: Again, DO NOT trust these recommendations blindly. These are just some suggestions based upon the suggestor’s bias. Perform your research thoroughly.
  • You can also take suggestions for what universities to apply to based upon your profile from your professors or seniors who have had a similar profile as yours. They can provide good insights about the suitable universities.
  • Go through the program descriptions and admission requirements for some universities that you like and fit your profile. You should go to the website of the department, where you’ll find the admission requirements along with the curriculum, faculty, financial aid, etc. Note: Take care of the eligibility conditions for the program. Some programs might have GPA cut-offs, some programs might not allow a second master’s degree etc.
  • Shortlisting Universities: Create an excel sheet to consolidate all information that you gathered. For example, in my excel sheet, I stored the university name, rankings, application deadlines, tuition fee, SOP guidelines (these can vary based upon university), GRE requirements, TOEFL requirements, application fee, location, scholarships, assistantships, professors of interest, other remarks. For a bunch of 20–30 universities that you gathered from your research above, fill out all the details in your excel. Then based upon your preferences, cut down your list to the number of schools you want to apply to. For example, if you choose to apply to, say, 10 schools, then you could keep 2–3 ambitious, 5–6 moderate, and 2–3 safe universities.

4. Letters of Recommendation

  • Generally, universities require three letters of recommendation for MS applications, with at least two letters coming from academic sources.
  • Most of the universities ask you to provide the email id of your recommenders, and they directly send an email to the recommender to upload the LoR. Along with the LoR, universities might also ask the recommenders to rate the students on some skills and qualities.
  • I took two recommendations from my professors at IIT Kharagpur and one recommendation from my manager at D. E. Shaw India. One of the professors was my B.Tech Thesis advisor and course professor for three courses. The other professor was my course professor from the theory and lab of a course (including a course project).
  • Here are some important tips for letters of recommendation:A generic LoR is likely to weaken your application a lot. Hence, you should request LoRs from people who can vouch for your skills and abilities and who have worked with you. You should specifically ask for strong recommendations from professors/managers and consider only those professors who are willing to write strong letters. Due to the fact that universities send the recommendation link directly to the recommender, you should have a clear talk with the recommender about how many letters they are willing to fill, since it takes a decent amount of time for them to fill each form. If a recommender agrees to fill, say, only 8 letters, but you want to apply to 10 universities, then you might have to find another recommender for the other 2 universities.

5. Statement of Purpose

The Statement of Purpose is the most important thing in the application process. It has the maximum power to make or break things for you. I observed that a lot of students who had a better overall profile than mine got rejected from various universities that I got accepted to, and I believe that one of the main reasons for the same could have been the lack of a strong SoP.
Here are a few tips that you could follow to draft your SoP:
  • Your SoP, as the name suggests, should help explain to the university why you want to join that program. It should not just be an explanation of what you did in the past few years, but also about what you learned along the way and what you expect to learn from the graduate program.
  • Make sure you follow the SoP guidelines provided by the course that you are applying to. Some might not provide any restrictions, while some might have a 500–1000 words limit, and some might have a two page limit. Even if there are no restrictions, try to ensure that your SoP doesn’t cross two pages.
  • Do not list all the experiences from your undergraduate and work in your SoP. You should only keep around 3–4 relevant experiences and ensure that you can tie them together in the form of a story and link them to your future goals to create a coherent essay.
  • Customise your SoP! Don’t just put in the same essay at all universities. Customise it based upon the university. Talk about what courses you are interested to take in the program, which professors you want to work with, and if possible, also even talk about some unique factors that really interested you to apply to the particular program.
  • Do not go through a bunch of SoPs from your friends and seniors before drafting your statement. This will create a bias in your mind and you might lose originality from your essay. What you should do is: you can quickly go through one or two essays to get an idea of how to write the SoP, then draft your essay, and only after that go through the other SoPs. As lucrative as it may sound to read a bunch of essays before writing yours, don’t do it. You can keep sufficient time to edit your initial draft later.
  • For tips about SoP writing, I used to follow the channels of Parth VijayvergiyaYMGrad and Sachin Pullil. There are multiple other youtube channels that you can find who would be giving relevant advice. I also found the webinar by Sachin Pullil on ‘3 Secrets to a Killer Statement of Purpose’ very helpful. The webinar seems to be discontinued but he has kept a replay for the same available for some time. Do check it out before it is removed.
  • Get your SoP reviewed by a bunch of people, especially those who have gone through the process. It will be hard to catch people to do that since most of the graduate students are generally very busy with their academics and work, but you’ll have to chase them to review your essay. You’ll observe how your SoP blossoms after making all the changes suggested by people.
  • Use Grammarly Premium to identify grammatical and vocabulary issues in your SoP. Don’t settle for the free account, premium is much better to have. If you know a friend who is also applying, you can share the premium account costs.
  • Your SoP is the perfect and only place where you can tell your story. Do you want to explain your low GPA or backlogs? Do you want to express why this course matters to you? Do you want to tell the university about your ambitions? Tell whatever you want the graduate committee to know before making a decision about your application.
  • Finally, trust the process! Don’t just go to a counsellor to get your SoP done. You know your story the best, so you are the best writer.

6. CV

You should create a CV of maximum 2 pages. It should highlight the following points:
  • Academic background
  • Publications
  • Research / Work Experience
  • Projects
  • Relevant Coursework
  • Awards and Achievements
  • Technical Skills
  • Positions of Responsibility
  • Extra-academic activities
 
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CV Tip: For creating a CV, you can use LaTeX. There are a bunch of CV templates available on Overleaf, which is a LaTeX editor. You can pick a template, customise it according to your use case and add your details. You can also use word templates if you are not able to use LaTeX. Get your CV reviewed by a bunch of seniors and batchmates.
 
Some useful CV writing tips:
  • Take care of indentations. Do not let your CV look messy and cluttered due to poor indentations of text.
  • Try to add links to your projects and publications. These can be the publication link, arxiv link, github link to project code, etc. These increase the credibility of your profile.
  • Try to keep each point of your CV in one line and ensure that it covers as much space of the line as possible. Too long points covering two or more lines can be boring and hard to understand. Too short points not covering the entire line can make your CV look slightly empty at a higher level.
  • Start your CV points with influential verbs. For example: Developed / Designed / Implemented / Compared / Utilised / Modelled / Constructed etc.
  • Add your e-mail id, LinkedIn profile and your website link (if you have one) at the top of the CV.

7. GRE

GRE is another part of the applications. However, since few years, many universities have started waiving off GRE from the application process. You can find the following kind-of terms for the GRE requirement for various programs:
  1. Required: When GRE is required, you obviously need to submit your scores in order to apply for the program.
  1. Recommended: When GRE is recommended, it is better to submit your scores as not doing that can lead to a potential rejection unless your profile is exceptional.
  1. Optional: In this case, you can choose to not submit your scores. If, however, your GPA is low or if you have already taken the GRE, it is better to submit the score as it will improve your profile.
  1. Not accepted: In this case, the university will not give any field in the application to fill in your GRE scores, and even sending the score to the university will be of no use as they won’t consider it.
If any of the university that you shortlist has a required or recommended GRE, you should take the GRE and submit your scores. If, however, all of your shortlisted universities fall in the GRE-optional category, you can choose to take or not take the test based upon your preference.
Generally, universities don’t keep cutoffs in case of GRE scores. They might, however, publish the average GRE scores of their admitted students. Neither does an above-average score guarantee admission, nor does a below-average score guarantee rejection (unless the score is exceptionally lower than average). So if your score is even slightly below the average, it is fine.
 
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Important Note: You should know that when you go to take the GRE, you are asked to fill the names of four universities where you want to send the scores for free. So you should have in your mind, the names and locations of at least four universities that you’ll be definitely shortlisting, otherwise you’ll lose the chance to send those four free scores. For sending scores to every other university, the cost is roughly Rs. 2000 per university.

8. TOEFL

(This section assumes that you have mandatory TOEFL requirement. Generally, TOEFL is waived for students who have studied in a university with English as medium of instruction and in a country with English as main language.)
  • TOEFL scores demonstrate your English proficiency and are generally a requirement for the universities in the US.
  • You should store the TOEFL cut-offs for each program that you apply to in the excel sheet that you use to shortlist universities. Your TOEFL score should be greater than the program cut-off.
  • Few universities may have section-wise cut-offs as well. You should consider them as hard cut-offs and ensure that your section-wise scores are higher than the mentioned requirements.
  • If a program does not mention the TOEFL cut-off on the admissions website, you can check the TOEFL scores of the students admitted to that program and get an idea.
  • Generally, 100+ can be considered to be a safe score in case there is no cut-off mentioned.

9. Other Essays

Along with the Statement of Purpose, few universities may ask for one or more additional essays/submissions as a part of the program application.
  • Personal Statement:Your personal statement is very different from your Statement of Purpose. Make sure that you just don’t consider them similar and add redundant information from your SoP in your Personal Statement. That will most likely get you rejected. Make sure that you look into the instructions/essay prompt given by the university. SoP is mostly based upon your previous work, future goals, motivation and aspirations from the program.On the other hand, the Personal Statement is more about your past journey, or what led you to apply to the program, or why the field that you are applying to is important to you. You can talk about how you can add to the diversity of your cohort if you get admitted, or what kind of hardships you faced to reach to your current level.Go through various Youtube videos for the difference between an SoP and a Personal Statement for better clarity. For example: videos by YMGrad and Sachin Pullil. You can also find some online articles articulating the difference between the two. For example: The robotics department of the University of Michigan mentions the difference here.
  • Other essays: Diversity essayEssay related to your teaching experienceSome questions like: Tell us an incident when you had to teach a complex concept to someone and how you tackled it.

10. Timeline

This section targets the timeline primarily for Fall applications.
Fall applications start around September. The deadlines to apply for the universities are generally between December and February.
Before applying, you should check the application review process for each university that you are applying to. Generally, there are three kind of processes:
  1. Rolling admissions: In rolling admissions, universities review applications as and when they arrive, and they are quite fast in providing the admit/reject decision to the student. In this case, you should try to apply to the program as soon as possible, as your chances to get accepted reduce as their number of seats start filling up.
  1. Early deadline admissions: In this case, universities generally have two (or more) deadlines for submitting the application. In case of two deadlines, one of them is called an early deadline and the other is the final deadline. Universities review all the applications submitted up to the early deadline first, and review the rest of them after the final deadline. In such a case, you should try to apply to the program before the early deadline, as the number of admits for applications submitted after the early deadline is subject to the number of seats available.
  1. Single deadline admissions: In this case, universities review all applications after a single deadline provided by them. In this case, generally it doesn’t matter when you submit the application as all of them are reviewed together.
In an ideal scenario, you should take your tests by around August. You should start working on developing your CV and SoP as soon as possible. It can roughly take around 2 months to finalise your CV and SoP. You should start applying by around October-November based upon the above.
If you are a few weeks late, prepare a comprehensive timeline of how you’ll set your schedule to complete your tests and applications.
All the best!