Yesterday on Twitter, Joomy Korkut (@cattheory) posted about the graduate program application season starting again and offered his help to folks who plan to apply. This, of course, reminded me that I completely dropped the ball on doing the same thing last year as I had initially intended. So, better late than never: I’m writing this post to share some of my application materials, and some links to resources I found particularly helpful while I was applying. I don’t think I otherwise have a ton of profound insight on the topic though, so I’m sorry if it’s light on my own advice! If you don’t want to read the bits that I’ve written, you can skip to the very end for a big list of my own materials.
I’m not sure to what extent the personal statement was impactful for admissions, but I know that at least at Northeastern, there was one part of it that was influential. In one section, I called out a project that I worked on for the graduate PL seminar I was in as an undergrad. The project was to implement a baby version of Daan Leijen’s Koka that I called diet-coke. Amal later told me that this information was useful as an indicator of the kinds of things I was interested in when left to my own devices (since I picked that project without the advice of my undergraduate advisor, Arjun). In this post, I’m including my statement of purpose from Northeastern, but you should note that they asked for a one-pager which is quite cut-down relative to the original generic draft (which seems potentially lost to the annals of time).
NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a competitive five-year fellowship (that actually only funds three years) available to American citizens. I applied as a senior undergrad along with my graduate school applications, and ultimately won the fellowship. I read a bunch of different resources to try to get help with this including posts from Jean Yang, Philip Guo, Louis Tse, and Mallory Ladd. The last post from Mallory Ladd was the one that I personally found the most useful when I was applying since it features a large number of distinct applications, many of which are recent and thus after the 2014 format change. In this post, I’m including my personal statement, my research proposal, and the reviews I received. I think the big takeaway I got from reading lots of examples was to explicitly label both Broader Impacts and Intellectual Merit. I’m not sure if it was actually helpful, but reviewers have lots of things competing for their time, and the labeling definitely makes their lives easier. If you read the reviews, you might note that some of the stuff is almost copypasta from my submissions.
There’s also some other stuff that I thought about a lot around the time of my applications. For example, I had a letter of recommendation from a coworker from a startup with no academic experience, and another from a professor who I knew fairly well but did not do research with. I pointed the former to this excellent post from Shriram Krishnamurthi about letters of recommendation. The latter I gave this little note (inspired by Shriram’s post) summarizing some of the things that I thought were important for admissions. Once I went off to visit days, I also had a couple of important questions that I asked potential advisors to try to help make my decisions. Fortunately, I stumbled on the ones that I sent to Amal via email (others were asked verbally) including an annotation about one particular question that I wrote at the time. You can find those questions in this PDF.
Once you’re done applying, you’ll probably get a slight reprieve before you just start getting excited about hearing back from various places. From what I can tell, US schools keep notifying students earlier and earlier each year, but don’t sweat it if some places take a while. In my case, Northeastern was the first school where I spoke with faculty, but actually the last school to admit me. Good luck, folks!