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Is this year particularly harder? What should I do?


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I am pretty sure I am not the only one waiting for results, but I have been going through mental breakdown recently; I expect (since no news from anywhere at all...) a few rejections from schools that I thought I would get in. Sadly, rather higher-ranked programs are left... I am indeed fearing all-reject. I hope someone can help me analyze my problem and what I can do to improve my chance for perhaps next year.


I graduated from a top-4 computer science undergrad last year with GPA >3.9/4.0; while in college, I did two research projects with two professors, both of whom are well known. I was included in one of publications but it was fourth author I think... Anyways I thought I did pretty well (I am now doubting the quality of letters though), so I got letters from them and one from a math professor (math class). My GRE scores are 157/170/4.0, and I have low-80 percentile comp sci subject test. After graduation I have been working in a big software company, although doing projects totally unrelated to my research interest.


Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have thought that this is an okay profile to get into a top 20 PhD program. I am suspecting that the biggest factor here is the recommendation letters, and since I already graduated and am doing something unrelated, I am not even sure how I can improve my chance if I apply again next year. If it was GRE or SOP problem, yeah I can study hard and put a lot of time to improve them... 


Honestly I am regretting that I didn't apply to any safety programs  :unsure: I guess I was too arrogant.

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I think a lot of schools are still working through applications.  I am in the same boat as you though..  I am very nervous now.  I just got my first interview offer yesterday so that was a big relief.


Even though my BS will not be in CS and not at a great school, I applied to mostly top 30+ programs so I am a little stressed out.  I know at least two of my recommendations are glowing so that is a plus I guess and I have good research experience with two first author publications in the process of being written.


Your profile seems good enough for a top 20 program.  I wouldn't worry about your GRE from what I've heard, but if you are concerned about your recommendations then that is a point of concern.  GRE and GPA work primarily as cutoffs for top programs whereas recommendations, research, and SOP mean a lot more.


Just my thoughts though!  Best of Luck!

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I agree your profile seems pretty good. Professors see new students every year, so the older ones tend to fade away over time.

Then, they are forced to write "generic" LORs that don't really help.

One thing that could help if you apply again is to prepare a small document describing every interaction you had with them, and describing why you think you are a strong candidate.

I gave that to all three of my recommenders (two of them actually asked for it...) and I think that helped.


I agree with JohnP1 on GRE/GPA. LOR and SOP are important.

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I don't think you were too 'arrogant.'  That profile definitely seems good enough for a top-20 program.  I have a similar profile as you (3.96 GPA, 329 GRE, some research but no pubs) and am essentially in the same boat: no admits (or even word from) top 20's.  However, I do have an admit to UC Irvine, and the prof I talked to there is doubtful that I will attend, even telling me, "You'll definitely be getting offers elsewhere."  So it's still early; don't lose hope yet.     


But if worse comes to worse and you don't get in, I would recommend seeking out a research project.  I see that you are in San Jose.  There are several good CS schools around there.  Keep knocking on doors of professors until one agrees to let you help with a research project (even if its totally unguided, solitary work).  If you make sufficient progress, I'm sure the professor will be willing to write you a good recommendation or even accept you next Spring.  


Best of luck.

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If it helps, I'm in a similar position - I go to a top-4 CS school with a high GPA and have what should be good recs, but still haven't heard anywhere.  It especially sucks because all my peers are getting into top-4 schools (some only applied to top-4 schools so if you were being arrogant, I'm not sure what they were...) and I'm surrounded by grad students that I now know are significantly better than me.


You're lucky that because you went to such a good school, that your recommenders know what exactly it takes to get accepted to top schools, and even if they don't they can refer you to someone on the head of the admissions committee at your school.  They should be able to advise you well on where you went wrong, and where to go from here.


I have heard of one or two cases where someone got shut out of graduate schools completely was able to use one of their recommeder's influence to get them accepted into a school after the deadline.  This might be a possibility, but it might be very unlikely, especially in computer science (these cases are in math where the student got a low score on the subject GRE so the school did not even consider the application.)


And of course, considering that you haven't actually gotten rejected anywhere, there's still a good chance you will have a grad school to go to at the end of the year.

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  • 1 month later...

hello_world and others with similar profiles (top school, good GREs, but no significant or impressive research experience), how did you fare?  I squeaked into the top 20 with USC but no further.  

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OGTuring: Did you, or do you plan to accept at USC? I still haven't heard anything there (but I'd like to ASAP, if you're planning to decline :) ). I have an M.S., University of Minnesota, 2 first-author publications (one top-tier workshop paper) 3 other publications, average GPA. 


UCR is actually my global #1 choice. But that's only because of my very specific area in data mining.

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hello_world, have you heard back from the remaining schools? I would say it really depends on the strength of your letters. Remember that top-20 schools care the most about research experience and the letters of recommendation. Most students that I see getting in either have stellar research experience or stellar letters of recommendation; some have both. 
Some questions and pointers:
1. Where and to how many programs did you apply to? Most suggest at least 2 reach schools (top-10 in your case), 5 at level (top-20), and 2 safeties (top-50).
2. Did you take graduate-level CS classes and do well on them? If not, the graduate program prestige won't have as much meaning. What matters more is the undergraduate prestige. There is an order of magnitude difference between selectivity at Columbia (4th ranked undergrad) with 6.9% acceptance rate and a school like Berkeley which has a 25.6% acceptance rate.
3. Did your professors agree to write you strong letters of recommendation? Reiterating the main point, there is a chasm between a letter and a strong letter. Letters are arguably the most important element of an application to a top-20 school. Someone with your profile and strong letters from well-known profs should have definitely gotten into top-20s. Meanwhile, with generic letters, it will be a long shot.
4. This isn't very important, but your writing score is rather low. Schools like Delaware require 4 as the absolute minimum. Schools like UC-Davis have average scores around a 5. Again, GRE is not nearly as important, but you might want to get a better score if you can do it without too much effort.
I agree with your suspicion that the letters are where things probably went wrong. That said, you can improve your chances next year. Demonstrate to your recommenders that you are serious about further study and research. Prepare a packet of supplemental materials next time, and specifically ask for strong letters. Best of luck, and I hope you got into some of the schools that you were waiting on.
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