My Journey from VIT to Columbia University…

Rachana Reddy
Your Tech Intern
Published in
7 min readMay 2, 2021

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Hi everyone,

I’m Rachana, a final year Computer Science Engineering student at Vellore Institute of Technology and going to pursue my Masters at Columbia University as a Computer Science Graduate Fall’21.

This article is regarding the application process for Masters, the crucial factors, and the timeline to follow. At the end of every section, I will also give some tips that I wish I knew before applying.

Firstly, my basic profile:

GRE: 314(Q:166, V:148)

TOEFL: 104(R:26, L:27, S: 24, W: 27)

Resume: You can check my LinkedIn profile under the featured section

Letter Of Recommendations: Two professors from VIT and one from JNTUK. I took classes from VIT professors and published research papers under all of them.

I applied to 10 universities:

OTHER ADMITS:

  • New York University (MS in Computer Engineering)
  • University of Massachusetts-Amherst (MS in Computer Science)
  • University of Maryland- College Park (MPS in Data Science and Analytics)
  • University of Texas-Austin (MS in Computer Science — Online)
  • University of Texas-Dallas (MS in Computer Science)
  • Virginia Tech (Master of Engineering in Computer Engineering)

REJECTS:

  • Carnegie Mellon University (MS in Computer Science)
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (MS in Computer Science)
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (MS in Computer Science)

PROFILE BUILDING

Before any application process, you need to build a strong profile that starts from the first day of college. Some of the areas you can improve your profile:

  • Try to explore different courses in college so that you know what your interest is and can focus on that. The earlier you know this, the more you can build your profile quickly around that.
  • Try to work with professors under research projects within your field of interest. Start around 2nd year of college.
  • Get internships and improve technical skills.
  • Try and contribute to open-source projects.
  • Participate in Hackathons and attend international conferences
  • Attend any abroad winter or summer schools to have an international exposure
  • Try to do individual projects with real value.
  • Try to maintain a consistent GPA, but it is not necessary to be a 9.0+/10 or 4.0/4.0 to land your dream university.

GRE and TOEFL

GRE and TOEFL are tests that are widely accepted graduate admissions test. GRE is a total of 340 consisting: 170 of Quantitative Reasoning, 170 Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing Ability out of 6. TOEFL consists of four sub-sections: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, each of 30 marks making the total 120. Due to the pandemic, GRE was made optional for many universities I applied to, but it is always good to submit your scores if you gave the exam. Don’t get discouraged if you get low scores. You can build your profile in other areas and get an admit to a top university.

I remember I wasted a lot of time searching for different materials online for preparing but instead focus on a few and keep practicing. These are the different resources I have used that helped me during my GRE preparation:

  • Magoosh Online Portal
  • Gregmat
  • Gregmat YouTube channel,
  • The Official Guide to the GRE General Test
  • The Official GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice Questions
  • The Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions
  • Manhattan Prep 5 Lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems
  • Magoosh GRE Vocab App

While preparing for GRE, it can be overwhelming because of the abundance of resources. So instead, first get your basic concepts strong:

  • Watch videos on the Magoosh Online portal, so you understand how every concept works and brush up on the basics. Use this portal for understanding concepts only; the practice problems are challenging and not the level of what GRE expects.
  • Practice from Manhattan Prep 5 Lb. Book to get a good grasp. The problems can be relatively easy than the actual GRE but is a good starter.
  • Move on to the ETS Official GRE books and practice from there. DO NOT forget to read the solution, even if you have answered the question correctly.
  • If you feel like you have some problem areas with few concepts, go to the Gregmat YouTube channel and watch those specific videos in your problem areas. This channel has helped me a lot.
  • Do flashcards from the Magoosh GRE App.
  • Give as many practice tests as possible and spend time understanding the explanations for each question.

QUICK TIPS:

  • Start your GRE prep as soon as possible to have time to give another attempt if you wish to.
  • Under Verbal Reasoning, focus more on reading comprehension as you can improve it through practice
  • Use Magoosh free app for Vocabulary
  • Book your TOEFL exam 7–10 days after your GRE
  • Try to do as many practice tests as possible
  • Taking online classes is not particularly necessary; self-study is sufficient with the use of online resources
  • The number of words you learn in GRE is not essential, so follow the Magoosh App and not look for any other sources.

SHORTLISTING UNIVERSITIES

  • Make an excel of all the universities based on ranking at least top 100.
  • Know what courses interest you and what you are looking for: Are you going in industry or research? If research, look for a curriculum that is more focused on mathematics rather than implementation
  • Look through courses of each university and update the excel of what you like and what you don’t.
  • Color code the universities based on your interest (Green, Yellow, Red) for the courses you loved, liked, and didn’t like.
  • Go to websites like Yocket.in to compare your profiles to previous admits or rejects from those universities. Also take help from your seniors who are currently pursuing Masters.
  • Depending on how many universities you want to apply to, segregate as Ambitious, Target, and Safe.
  • The other factors for shortlisting universities can also be location, climate, job opportunities, program duration etc.
  • Although there is no cut-off as such for the GRE score, it is for TOEFL, so make sure you check if you crossed the cut-off before applying. The universities directly reject if your TOEFL score is not above the cut-off

LETTER OF RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Ask professors under whom you either have taken a class, worked on a project, or done a research paper.
  • Ask them well in advance to know if they are okay with recommending you.
  • How well the professors know you gives more weightage than their position at the university.
  • Actively participate and meet them after the class hours to discuss your interests.
  • Stay in touch with them as much as you can and write an official mail asking them to recommend you right before you start your application process.
  • To stand out, share your Resume and discuss your plans so that the LOR is more specific to you and not generic.

QUICK TIPS:

  • If you have work experience, try to ask your mentor or guide to recommend you, but make sure he knows you well for at least 6 months.
  • Usually, universities ask for three recommendations, but it is always a safe option to keep four.
  • Converse with your professor about your extra-curricular and work outside of your coursework as they might include in your recommendation which is a good impression on your profile.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

  • Start your SOP as early as possible.
  • First, write down your entire story.
  • Second, try to remove the not-so-important points. Keep the SOP more about your professional accomplishments and a small paragraph can be about your extra-curricular and other achievements, social service etc.
  • Try to decode or understand your accomplishments to the reason behind them. For example, you worked on a project, ask yourself: why did you work on that particular project, what did you learn from it, how did this project align with your future goals.
  • Make your SOP personalized for every university. Please do thorough research about what the university looks for: Is it more research-oriented or more industry-oriented, and align your SOP towards that.
  • Mention any professors you would like to work with, any research labs, and be very specific about what you will do given the opportunity to study there.
  • Being SPECIFIC is the key.
  • Mentioning your short-term and long-term goals and how that university, in particular, will help you achieve them is also vital.
  • Send it to as many people who can help you to edit and get feedback.

RESUME

  • There is no specific format given while uploading your Resume but keep it readable and a maximum of two pages.
  • Although most universities ask for a two-page resume, some might ask for one page too, so keep it ready.
  • Use these links for action words to be included at the start of each sentence: Action verbs and Resume examples
  • Have more quantitative sentences. E.g.: Implemented Linear, Quadratic Regression and ARIMA models to predict green time with minimum RSME value of 0.06.

QUICK TIPS

  • It is also good if you build a personalized website and add the link on your Resume
  • Add your GitHub profile if you can

MY TIMELINE

  • April 2020: I started my GRE prep
  • August 2020: GRE (GRE prep doesn’t need so much of time about two months, although I started in April it wasn’t regular)
  • September 2020: TOEFL, Started Resume, contacting professors regarding LOR, story for SOP
  • October 2020: SOP
  • November 2020: SOP
  • December 2020: Applying for universities
  • January 2021: Applying for universities

Before starting your application process for each university, make a list of all the essays or documents from all the universities you are applying to. It will be very tough to later get to know if there is an additional essay or video interview required for the application. In my case, Columbia wanted a SOP about 500-word limit and had a video interview as well, whereas University of Michigan asked for two essays. So it is always good to check all the requirements and list them out for each of the universities you are applying to.

By January 15th, I completed my application process. Although the university deadlines start during December, it is always good to finish it way before the deadlines and submit it as early as possible. You might have a chance of getting early decisions.

To explain the entire process of applications in one article is tough, but I tried my best to keep it brief and precise. I hope this article has helped you to understand how to go about the application process. All the very best for your applications! Hope you land on your dream university.

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