Sunday, August 22, 2010

Factors influencing the admissions process

Q. What do the US universities look for in an applicant? 
Q. What are the different aspects that will be evaluated when you apply for a graduate program in the US?

This post lists the different components that make up the MS application. That should give you a brief idea of the different aspects that will be evaluated while an application is under review. The admissions committee does not get a chance to interview or interact with the applicants in any way, it thus has to use UG grades as a proxy for measuring the applicant's knowledge in his/her field of study. The GRE score is another source of input about the applicant's analytical and quantitative skills. Additionally, they look at the projects, internships or work experience (these would be highlighted in the SOP, LORs and resume) to get a better idea of the applicant's background. The SOP and the LOR also help the committee to know the person better and make an informed decision taking into account a lot of things which would not have been otherwise deducible just from the transcripts or the scores.

I might have been a bit vague here and not gone into much depth talking about the different aspects. That's why I encourage you to read my paper "Demystifying the American Graduate Admissions process" which answers this same question in a lot more detail.


  1. Will GRE(Subject Test) in Computer Science help my chances of getting into Stanford to pursue MS?

    I am 2nd yr student and i hear a lot about certifications
    from Microsoft,Sun...and there a many exams as MCSE,MCAD.
    ..? Which to choose ? Which is reputable ?

  2. I am not really knowledgeable about them - but I do know in general that there do exist myriad kind of such certifications. I would stress on not focusing a lot on them - I guess they can help your professional career (while job hunting), but not such much in your academic career (for impressing the admissions committee). Spend your time instead in doing good mention-worthy projects, both as part of the curriculum and outside it (i.e. internships).

  3. i did my bachelor's in electronics and communication, and currently working in a software firm. i have a gpa of 6.7

    will i be considered for admission into top colleges in us if i get good score in gre(general test) and gre(subject test say. computer science).

  4. Can you give an insight into how GPAs in Indian universities are converted from a scale of 10 to a scale of 4?

  5. I wish each university had a consensus on this. Some give you guidelines on their application page itself on how to do the conversion, some ask you to just enter them as they are (while mentioning the scale it's out of), whereas others ask you to use a third party like WES to do the conversion.

    At Stanford, the applicants are just asked to enter the GPA in their native scale. And the committee really didn't do any "conversion" as such, but just implicitly kept it in mind while reviewing the applicant's case. They just bank on their past experiences and have some sense of what a good GPA out of 10 from an Indian university is.

  6. Hello Karthik, I just read your paper. I came across it randomly while searching on internet. I must say, KUDOS !! (y) I have never seen so much detailed information and that too altogether in one place. Thanks a lot for it :) It really helped me in clearing many of my misconceptions. However, it also gave a rise to a few more in my mind. You talked in your paper that good research projects also stand the same chance of being taken positively as a research paper. Can you explain about it little in detail? Actually I have got petty average grades uptil now (68- 70% with topper's grade being around 78-79%), no research profile. But I have worked on a lot of projects-all of which are related to Robotics. Would that make up for my zero research experience? I also remained as a team leader for my college in Robocon 2013. Can that help? Apart from that I also have done 2 internships of 1 month each in Embedded Systems. I am planning to apply to Carnegie Mellon -Robotics Institute for Masters in Robotics Systems Development. Will all these help in making a good profile for CMU? If yes, can you please guide a newbie like me how to do it? And if no,can you tell me what should I work upon? Thanks in advance :)

    1. @Jaineel

      Thanks for your comments. I am glad that you found the paper useful! :)

      The point I was trying to make in my paper is that while there's nothing more convincing to the committee than a good publication (preferably at a reputed conference or journal), the next best thing you could do is to at least work on projects that sound innovative or research-oriented rather than purely implementational in nature. I suppose working on robotics already makes your projects sound cooler than things like "a database for online ticketing / shopping purchases" or "a website that does ..." or "a mobile app that does ...", but how innovative it is deemed to be really depends on what exactly you did during the course of your project.

      Other examples of the kind of projects I was talking about are internship projects under at a research lab or under a professor at some university which clearly shows that it's heading in the direction of a publication but perhaps the internship duration wasn't long enough to tie up all the loose ends or run those one or two final experiments necessary to get the required numbers and get a publication out.

      Coming to your specific question about CMU-RI, I think the robotics projects, and the internships will definitely help your case, but RI is known to be a very competitive place to get into, as most CMU programs are (it's even more selective with these highly popular and narrow programs like LTI and RI). May be there is a chance that with a good GRE score, backed by good projects and internship experience, strong LORs and SOP, you can overcome the slightly low grades and get into RI, but I would definitely not keep it as my only option. I've seen people whose profiles that could be thought of as having a check mark on all the essential components (GPA, GRE, Projects, Recommendations, SOP) and still getting rejected. So be sure to include backup options too during your application process.

      You can send me a mail at to discuss further about your specific details.

      Good luck!

  7. Hi Karthik,
    Like Jaineel in the above comment, I too recently read your paper and really appreciate your effort to simplify the admission procedure for other applicants. Very few people go this far to help others and even less have a blog dedicated to this, with no returns expected.
    I would like your opinion on a particular aspect you mentioned in your paper viz MS in USA after doing MTech in reputed institute (IIT/IISc).

    I have a BE degree in Mechanical branch from a lesser known, MIT College of Engineering(affiliated to Pune University), and want to get into Aeronautics and Astronautics program at Stanford. Their work involves developing software(SU2) for fluid flow computatioin for design and analysis of aerospace structures(using C++ and Python).

    Throughout my time in college I have tried my best to have internships/projects relevant to their work which has resulted in two internships and couple of projects relating to their work. One of those internships in fact involved evaluating their software for the company's use. I however feel none of this might be enough to get me into Stanford, as none of them is particularly outstanding.

    So I am contemplating doing MTech from IIT/IISc, get some research work under my belt, and then apply to Stanford for MS followed by a possible PhD if possible. Time isn't really a constraint for me, as long as I get into Stanford in the end. So if the university(Stanford) is okay with it I am willing to spend 2 extra years in education.

    Your advice on this matter would be of great value to me and help me decide my future path.

    I actually sent you an email prior to writing this comment and would like to apologize if this wasn't the right way to approach you for advice.

    1. I also have an aggregate of 64% in BE with the topper being at 75-76%

    2. @akash I am happy to hear that you found the admissions-related resources helpful. Feel free to share the blog and the paper with anyone who would find it useful.

      I will reply in slightly more detail to your personal email, but the short answer is yes, you can absolutely do an MTech from IIT or IISc and then directly apply to the PhD program at Stanford. I am not sure what the policy of the Aeronautics & Astronautics department is, but if it's the same as the Computer Science department, then I don't think you'd be able to apply to their MS programme once you already have a Masters degree (e.g., MTech or MSc) from elsewhere. But you should surely be able to apply to the PhD programme there, and provided you've done your Masters from a reputed institute like the ones you've mentioned, and built up a good research profile (via journal/conference publications) during that time, you'll definitely be improving your chances a lot more than if you were to directly apply now with your current profile.

  8. Hello Karthik,
    I recently gave my GRE and would be applying for Fall 2014. Got a 312 on GRE with 162 in quant and 151 in verbal.

    My profile goes like this - completed my Engineering in Electronics from a Top Tier College,Topper for my department - a rank holder,recipients of National and International Technical Awards from Fortune 500 Companies, International Journal Publication,Finalist at several National Level events,also couple of Internships and currently working for a German Technology giant.

    I am planinng to apply to some of the top colleges like Purdue and Carnegie Mellon.

    Would my low verbal hinder my chances of getting into these colleges?

  9. Hello Sir,

    I have done my B.Tech in Mechanical engineering from NIT jamshedpur. I have a CGPA 0f 7.86. I have two questions, I would really appreciate it if you could answer both:

    1) I have been a part of a team that has won the NASA systems engineering award in SAE aero design held in Fort Worth, Texas and another team that won the best engineering design award in SAE BAJA India.
    How good an impression would these have on the selection board?

    2) My CGPA has been alternately fluctuating between 7 and 8 in each semester. The drop in the odd semesters is partly due to the competitions that i took part in. what impression would this fluctuating CGPA have on the selection board?

  10. Hello Karthik,

    I've been reading up about the MS application process since about a year now, and I dunno why I never came across your Paper before. Thank you so much for writing that! It really put some things into perspective.

    I am planning to apply for Fall-2014.
    I have a GRE score of 316 (Q-161, V-155) and TOEFL of 114.
    Managed to get good LORs and have written what I believe to be a very good SOP.
    But the downside - my acads are not so good - CGPA of 6.75, no Papers published.
    Have interned at Bharat Petroleum and Bosch.
    The only subjects I am remotely interested in (as far as EE goes - my UG subject) is Energy Mangement, which both my internships are related to.
    I have good extra curriculars. 3 yrs of W.E in Accenture (SAP) and about 1-2 yrs of Community Service.
    Inspite of my lousy acads, do you think I stand a chance of getting into a decent university?

    Hoping you can help me with this.

    1. The low GPA does make it tough to get into the very top universities (like the top 20 or so). But if you define a "decent" university as one which isn't necessarily ranked super high in the US News Rankings, but as one which has a good curriculum and has at least one or two profs doing good research in your area of interest, then yes, you should be able to get into such a university for sure.

      How strong your SOPs, LORs and projects (internships) are would also play an important role in that. The extra-curriculars and community service - not so much.

      Check out the various grad school admission forums to discuss your profile, and maybe you might run into someone who was in a similar situation like you GPA wise. Some of the forums, e.g., also have search tools using which you can search and filter past profiles from previous years and see what kind of admits and rejects they got.

  11. Sometimes, you are not amongst the top 3 but you are in the top 3% of the class in a very big class. That would be like being the 8th rank out of 222 students (my case). In cases like this, it is advised to attract attention from the committee by mentioning in SOP and resume. I am not sure how is it valued. A great profile with Positions of responsibility, 8.6 CGPA and 2 international research internships over being ranked top 3 in class with avg aspects in others. Also is it important for a person to clearly even state the toppers rank to better understand my standing in the class?