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Profile Evaluation for MS in CS - poor GPA, good test scores

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GPA: 3.37
TOEFL: 115
GRE (unofficial): V164 Q168

I want to pursue a Master's degree with a focus on machine learning and / or natural language processing, but I'm having a difficult time determining the range of schools I should be applying to. Ultimately, I would like to get a PhD at a top 20 university, and get involved in CS research at a competitive R&D division or laboratory. Therefore, it's important for me to find a place that is productive in terms of research in ML / NLP. I'm especially interested in grad schools in Canada, but I'm certainly open to other suggestions.

To give you an idea about my profile:

I graduated with a degree in computer engineering from the most internationally esteemed university in my country with a subpar GPA, which was mostly caused by poor performance over a couple of semesters during which my family was going through a rough time. I did get back on track, and did fairly well in the last three semesters though. I was wondering how those obvious and sudden transitions in my transcript would be interpreted by the admission office? Should I address the reason in my SOP, or just leave it alone? I also ended up graduating in the top 10 of my class anyway, so that might be worth mentioning. (Yes, the highest GPA that year was ~3.7, and the second ~3.5, which I know seems ridiculously low compared to most other schools.)

As for experience, I worked at a large defense company as an intern, and later at a robotics laboratory participating in deep reinforcement learning research for a few months. I also spent two years working part-time as an undergraduate TA. Unfortunately, I have no publications or serious research experience to speak of. Not sure if these are at all relevant, but I also played chess in the national junior team, and the violin in my country's first amateur symphony orchestra, whose establishment I took some part in. I have a few decent LORs, but I'm still unclear as to what constitutes a "strong LOR".

That's basically it. I feel incredibly incompetent, and afraid that I might not get in at all. Currently, I'm considering U of Montreal, U of Alberta, McGill and Simon Fraser to begin with. Are all of these too ambitious for me? Should I aim somewhat higher - or lower? What other schools should I look into?

Many thanks in advance!

Edited by Nocturnae

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