(or, Zen and the Art of Condensing Your Self Worth into a Two-Page Statement and CV)

pep talk tl;dr: grad school apps are hard, and can be stressful. but you’re great, your application is great, and it’s totally normal to feel second-rate. don’t worry! you’ll do great!

It’s grad school application season! After giving advice to a few young intrepid grad school hopefuls, the waves of nostalgia about my own experience have been hitting hard. This time last year, I was applying to graduate schools in computer science, with no knowledge of where the following year’s journey would take me (spoiler: they took me to graduate school in computer science).

Applying to grad school can feel scary and hard. You are asked to condense what are supposed to be1 the best 3.25 years of your life 2 into a compelling case for why you will be an amazing graduate student and why an institution should take you on for n years to produce great academic research. For someone who already has a tough time bragging about their intellectual accomplishments, that is terrifying.

I found a mopey journal entry from when I dealt with this challenge, where I wax poetic about how my academic career must just be a series of lucky events and coincidences with no bearing on my intellect or potential for success. The post ends as follows (pls ignore the melodrama):

“I’ve been lucky in that I chose just the right sophomore research project to lead to just the right junior research project to lead to just the right college to lead to just the right research opportunity to lead to just the right major to lead to just the right set of friends to lead to just the right experiences to lead to just the right epiphanies. I just hope my luck doesn’t run out.”

Navel-gazing writing style aside, hindsight screams this is classic impostor-syndrome-ing. It’s not surprising I felt crippling doubt: I was (a) writing applications to grad school (b) proof-reading my friends’ applications to similarly competitive schools (c) taking a full course load while sharing classes with PhD students (d) celebrating other friends’s glamorous new employments. I would compare myself to my well-qualified friends (whose CVs were better formatted than mine), to graduate students on the internet I didn’t know, to graduate students I did know, even to professors I wanted to work with, and just feel consumed with fear that all my work and stress would be for naught and grad school was just a dream for people more brilliant than I.

It turns out I was fine, my application was great, I got into grad school, and everything was ok. But it sucks to walk around every day for a few weeks feeling like you aren’t good enough. Applying for something important and competitive like CS PhD programs is a great way for some dormant impostor syndrome to flare up and wreak emotional havoc on your mental state.

Here is advice I would like to direct to past grad-school-hopeful Amrita (and any intrepid future grad school hopefuls who happen upon this page and may benefit from my wisdom):

  • Look at your resume. Read every line. Read it out loud in a funny voice. Look at all the things you’ve done! Think about what this resume looked like 3.25 years ago, and marvel at how far you’ve come, how many programming languages you know and how many projects you’ve completed.
  • Look at your list of recommenders. Think about your first few interactions and encounters with them, and how much they have taught you. Remember that they agreed to recommend you! They are willing to spend time and energy of their busy professor lives to back your commitment to going to grad school. That’s a non-trivial accomplishment!
  • Remember why you wanted to get a Ph.D in the first place. If you can’t remember, here are some great boilerplate reasons to inspire some better ones: develop a critical mind for research, spend n years working on unanswered open problems that you and your advisor deem interesting, meet incredibly smart people across all parts of your favorite field, etc.
  • Realize that while your statement of purpose, CV, and the accomplishments you communicate exist to help you make your case, there is some luck intrinsic in these decisions. Recognize that there is no way to specifically fix all the variables in this equation, so some luck will be necessary to achieve a positive outcome. A school may want to grow one research group over another, a potential advisor may be going on sabbatical and not look at new students. The key though, is not see this chance as a bad thing or some indictment on your bare abilities, but a simple fact of life. Accepting that you cannot fully control all things, including graduate school acceptances, and continuing to persevere anyway, will probably get you far in life.3

Zen-like self-awareness aside, you might want more coherent advice on improving your understanding of the CS graduate school admissions process. All these links helped me when I was applying to grad school, and I usually include some permutation of this list out when younger students ask my advice on writing applications:

  1. ‘they say’ your college years are the best years of your life. but ‘they’ say that about a lot of kinds of years, so I’m skeptical. 

  2. and if you apply to grad school during the end of your senior year of undergrad (which some people do but it is totally acceptable to have spent time in industry or gotten a masters or done anything else before applying to grad school) you only really have three years and your most recent internship experience to speak of, unless your high school years were incredibly intellectually formative. 

  3. At the time of this writing, I am 22, so ‘very far’ is used loosely.