My Experience with Applying to Master’s Programs for Computer Science with NO Background

Jae Hyun
Jae Hyun
Feb 2, 2018 · 8 min read

[Why I decided to go to grad school]

I gave a general introduction of how I got interested in studying computer science in my previous blog post. That’s all great but not everyone takes the academia-route when considering a career in computer science. But here are my reasons for why I want the formal education route:

  1. Although the internet is a great resource to learn vast amounts of material, I thought that I would just feel more comfortable with framework and guidance provided by a program and taking classes in person.
  2. I was curious about how and why certain aspects of code worked the way they did. I hoped to learn more about the theory and logic behind computer processes. But obviously, the ultimate goal was a successful career transition.
  3. As an international student, I really wanted a visa…

Anyways, I’m not a great writer, but I felt like there weren’t that many great resources I could turn to while preparing to apply for a master’s program in computer science. So here’s my honest attempt to share my complete experience. I hope it helps.

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bear with me

0. My honest academic background

  • International Student from South Korea (Sorry, no Toefl score)
  • GPA: 3.31
  • Emory University
  • Undergraduate Majors: BA in Biology and International Studies
  • Work Experience: 2 years of clinical research
  • GRE Scores: V-160 (86th percentile)/Q-162 (81st percentile)/W-4 (60th percentile)
  1. Making a list of schools

I am shamelessly going to admit that I chose my list of potential schools based on the lists provided by these rankings:

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To be honest, I didn’t know how to make a list of schools and for me, this was a great place to begin.

2. Filtering through the list of schools

Here are some things that I considered while looking at different programs:

  • Pre-requisites that were out of my control — some programs required applicants to have a Bachelor’s in computer science or accepted students with a Bachelor’s degree in a quantitative field such as engineering, math, physics, etc.
  • Pre-requisites that I could work with — list of prerequisite courses provided by the schools often in the FAQ or the Prospective Students section.
  • The duration of the program — I wanted a full two-year experience to at least gain enough knowledge to go into a different field. At least that’s how long I felt like I needed before breaking into the field.
  • The degree name / type — I wanted an on-campus master’s degree rather than a professional degree because of my reasons above ^. Here is the difference explained:
  • Type of program — Is it a general CS program? Is it a concentration based CS program? What kind of classes do they offer? What are some interesting classes I could take? How much freedom do I have in choosing electives? What kind of research is there (back when I thought I wanted to do a thesis…or the option of. HAHA…no thank you.)?
  • The school affiliated with the program at the University — I wanted the best education which anyone should always want. I also valued the alumni base of a school.
  • Location — I wanted to be nearby-ish a big city.
  • Obviously, $$$TUITION$$$.

3. Deciding on Classes

I ended up making an excel spreadsheet with the school name, location, tuition, application deadlines, and pre-requisites courses. I also had to be careful when making the list for pre-requisites because some pre-requisites had their own pre-requisites. SIGH.

I’m not quite sure how much weight admissions puts on what kind/number of CS/math classes one has taken. I just made a list of courses based on overlap and I knew that I had to do well. Anyways, here is a list of classes and my grades:

[A complete list of classes I took]

CS50 (A-)

Discrete Math (A)

Linear Algebra (A-)

Calculus II (B+ — by the time this class was over, I was already admitted into a program)

Introduction to Programming in C++ (B+)

Data Structures in C++ (A-)

Computer Architecture — (A: actually most schools asked for a class on computer systems…this class was the closest I could find. And I loved it!)

Just an FYI, there are post-baccalaureate programs/professional certificate programs that can also prepare you for grad schools and career transitions. To name a few : NYU, Columbia, Tufts, BU, etc…(I’m sure there are many more).

4. Preparing for the GRE

I bought the Barron’s GRE preparation book as well as enrolling myself for a 3-month Magoosh program (*when it was on sale*). I thought both resources were pretty great in terms of having lots of practice.

I can’t confidently say that I had much self-discipline when preparing for the GRE. I studied seriously starting about a month before my exam, which probably wasn’t for the best. However, I was constantly looking at vocab cards which are also available through Magoosh for FREE on your app store.

I left the writing practice until the very end just because I had heard that the writing section score doesn’t really matter. I focused mostly on the quantitative part but for the time that I put in, I don’t believe that I did very well on the test date.

But like people said, GRE was SAT on drugs and I hope that I won’t have to put myself through that again…

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5. Writing the statement of purpose

As I mentioned above, I’m not very confident in my writing skills.

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side note: I’m pretty sure that I have PTSD from my grade 10 English class because my teacher never failed to mention that my errors were all ESL related (but for the record, I’ve always done pretty well in all my English classes)!!

I revised my statement of purpose so many times I can’t even count. ALSO, initially I didn’t know the difference between a PERSONAL STATEMENT and a STATEMENT OF PURPOSE. Which, when I found out, SUCKED.

I initially struggled hard to connect everything that I had learned/experienced since college to why I was applying to graduate programs in computer science.

For example, I had to somehow explain how a background in biology, international studies, and clinical research had prepared me well for academia in computer science. This took so much thinking (not sure about others but again, this is my experience) and effort. But eventually, with the help of others, I was able to brainstorm many overlaps in the disciplines!

I’m sure you’ll read this in many posts in regard to applying to grad schools but make sure you research something about the program (whether it’s a professor, class, or an aspect of the program that you are really drawn to) and talk about how it can benefit YOU.

I also benefited tremendously from Jessica Yun’s editing services. Her services were more than great and she actually gave me confidence when writing my SOP. She’s very qualified — but most importantly, she will work with you remotely and promptly.

So, to summarize any advice that came from my own experience:

  • Make sure you know which essay to write!
  • Leave enough time to write your essay
  • Brainstorm
  • Don’t ask too many people for opinions/edits because everyone will have different opinions and ideas and it can get pretty crazy, pretty quickly.

6. Application Process

Now that the GRE and the essay were out of the way, the application process was slightly easier(?). If I can emphasize one thing: *MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS LINED UP WELL IN ADVANCE*.

Reach out to your professors (it’s important that the majority are CS professors) who you think to know you best in an academic setting. If I remember correctly, I asked my professors three months in advance (all professors from my pre-requisite classes so that they remember me well) and at the latest, sent them the recommendation links a week prior.

A week actually might be pushing it (I would say that two is on the safe side) but one thing I didn’t realize for some schools is that you have to finish your part of the application process in order for the system to send out the recommendation links to the professors!! SO BE AWARE!

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If I could summarize:

  • Reach out to any CS professors that will remember you well and ask them IN ADVANCE for recommendation letters
  • Make sure you have at least their email address. The application system may ask for phone numbers and addresses but I didn’t run into any problems just putting down the department information that they were affiliated with.
  • FOLLOW UP WITH THEM CONSTANTLY IF THEY HAVEN’T SUBMITTED THEIR RECOMMENDATIONS. If they don’t do it, it can affect your application!!
  • After the process, no matter what the outcome, THANK THEM. They took time out of their day to write something nice about you that could possibly change your future.

7. Decisions

[List of schools that I applied to]

Brown — rejected

NYU — accepted

John’s Hopkins — accepted

UT Austin — rejected

Columbia — rejected

Basically, I only got into two programs. But towards the end, I didn’t really think that I was going to get into anywhere, so I was happy that I got into at least somewhere. I even did the happy dance.

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Obviously, the programs that I didn’t get into were higher ranked but I still don’t know the reasons why I got into some programs and did not for others. I could guess a million reasons to why such as not enough experience, mediocre GPA, mediocre SOP, and the list goes on but I would never know. I did try to refer to GradCafe during the application process but I didn’t feel like it was that informative.

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Anyways, I decided NYU over Hopkins because I believed that being in New York City would provide me with a better/more tech opportunities and I really appreciated the fact that the program was a full 2 years as opposed to 1.5 of Hopkins. Both schools’ demographics were pretty similar and even though the post-graduation employment rate was very important to me, that information was unavailable from them…(and I’m still not sure why).

Phewf, sorry for the long post. But I hope it was somewhat helpful / informative. I know it’s overwhelming and the process may seem daunting but if I can I do it, so can you! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below and I look forward to feedback :)

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