Higher Studies Abroad - 101

The lessons I learnt from the gruelling application process

Date: Aug 23, 2016

Higher studies applications are like a lottery ticket. Enjoy if you get in, screw it if you don't!

First of all, congrats on deciding to pursue a Masters degree or a PhD abroad! You've a long and exciting journey ahead. May the force be with you!

Star Wars FTW!!

For any college application, you'd find that they require most if not all the things listed below

  • GRE
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Personal Statement (Some universities require both SoP and the Personal Statement. Yeah, they're different!)
  • Letters of Recommendation (2-3 per university)
  • Resume / CV
  • Transcripts (If someone tells you GPA doesn't matter, smack him/her in the head! Of course, there are a few cases were people do well without a GPA - but not always easy!)

My Profile

I'm going to discuss my profile first so that you can have it as a baseline measure. I'm sure that you've heard a lot of advice about which universities are good, where to apply, is a university safe/moderate/ambitious?, etc. Take it with a pinch of salt that all advice, including mine is biased. There's nothing wrong in that since we give advice based on our own personal experience. So talk to multiple sources and try to get a rounded idea of what goes on.

This was my resume during the application process - Gautham Vasan, Resume . A quick summary - I graduated from NIT Trichy in 2015 with a B.Tech in Instrumentation and Control Engineering (ICE). I had some good projects,

  • GPA = 8.49/10
  • GRE (161 in Quant, 165 in Verbal, 5/6 in AWA)
  • TOEFL (113/120 - 30 in Reading, 26 in Listening, 27 in Speaking, 30 in Writing)

These are the universities I applied to - UC Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Johns Hopkins; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Pennsylvania; Georgia Tech; University of Alberta; KTH Royal Institute of Technology. I got into University of Alberta and KTH and chose Alberta because of the funding.

I was applying for M.Sc in Robotics/ Computer Science programs in those universities. I came across this gem for CS applicants interested in AI when I was applying - AI FAQ by CMU. All the universities I applied to are on that list!

NITT specific ramblings/whining

People from ICE know how fucked up the dept is. I couldn't get a single Letter of Recommendation (LOR) from my dept (not even from Prof. Srinivasan who famously quoted he's busy correcting exam papers), so I ended up getting LORs from the professors who guided me through projects and first year math professors. Though NIT Trichy is somewhat known among admission circles, you probably might overestimate its fame. To put it in perspective, a 9ptr from Anna University has a better shot than a 8ptr at NITT. Don't bother complaining that it's easier for other university students to score. Take solace from the fact that your grading system isn't as bad as the ones at Sastra, etc.

NIT Trichy introduced this idiotic rule that students who apply for graduate studies shouldn't sit for campus placements in the academic year 2014-15. Basically, you need to sign some sort of agreement where you'd not be allowed for campus placements if you receive LORs from your department. Since my dept screwed me over anyway, I sat for placements and was offered a job with Hewlett Packard (HP) as a senior R&D Engineer. It seemed like a nice job and I felt it would be a good backup. So my university selection criteria was based on my confidence/borderline arrogance. My gang and I did extensive analysis of the research going on in different universities and shortlisted 10 in the end. Do not believe in university rankings alone! I cannot emphasize this enough. University rankings are like a popularity contest and it's highly misleading! If you're looking for proper research, spend time poring through university websites for hours!


In my opinion GRE score is one of the most overrated admission criteria. Many students go paranoid during the GRE preparations. It's not as important as you think it is! A good rule of thumb for most universities - 160 and above in Quant and 150 and above in Verbal, 3 and above in AWA. I have seen people getting 10 rejects with 332 in GRE and admits to CMU, UMich Ann Arbor with 308 in GRE. So don't sweat it. The rule of thumb should be good enough. But again, I won't discourage you from giving the GRE a second time if you feel your scores aren't good enough. After all, we all want our applications to be as perfect as possible.

Since most of us learn English as a second language, we mostly have bigger trouble with the Verbal section. Quantitative Analysis is usually simple and easy to score. I still have no idea about how I screwed my Quant section, but I'd still say its the easier one to score high. For Verbal, Manhattan 5lb is the best source I ever found. Barron's verbal would be a close second. I never attended any GRE coaching classes. But I did use my friends' Princeton Review portal for practice tests. Use the Magoosh App to memorize the frequent words. Voracious readers shouldn't have much trouble with the verbal section except for memorizing the words.


Always go for TOEFL rather than IELTS unless you're applying to the UK. Almost all universities in North America and Europe accept TOEFL. Many universities have listed 100 and above to be a satisfactory score in TOEFL. I can't stress this enough, score 100+ in TOEFL. It is much more easier compared to GRE! Anything less than 100 could reflect badly on your profile!

Statement of Purpose (SoP) and Personal Statement

Another mythbuster - SoPs are overrated. Read Dr. Ben Y Zhao's answer about SoPs on Quora which says SoP is the least important factor! I'm not saying skim over it! This is where you get to showcase your writing skills, explain how your projects, research, extracurricular activities make you uniquely qualified for this program. You can find other contrasting opinions on the same question in Quora .

That being said, I spent a lot of time to perfect my SoP even after coming across the above information. I believe an SoP should explain why you're applying to this specific program in the University, what you've done so far to deserve a spot and how you see yourself in the future (What research you'd like to focus on, etc). Try and avoid cliches like you made circuits/RC cars, etc., as a child. The admissions committee has read through thousands of SoPs. Try to be unique.

In my opinion, this is one the best SoPs ever written - Christopher Fletcher's SoP. This guy got into Stanford, MIT and Berkeley which makes me consider him as a reliable source.

The personal statement can be asked apart from a SoP. If that's the case, the Personal Statement is where you should write the story of your life! If the university has asked you to upload only the personal statement, in all likelihood they mean a SoP

Letter of Recommendation (LoR)

This is one of the most important factors which decide whether you get in or not! Always try getting LORs from profs who you've worked with for projects and/or scored good grades in their sunjects. An LOR from a prof who gave you a C or D in his subject doesn't help a lot. If you get selected for prestigious internships like DAAD/MITACS, etc., be sure to get a LOR from the prof you worked with. A LOR from a professor with a stellar reputation in academia works wonders! This especially would be of great help if your GPA is low.

Also, ask professors for LORs well in advance. If a lot of students ask the same professor, chances are he'd turn down the people who ask later. My suggestion would be to start talking to professors from early August. This way if a professor backs out, you still have time to find alternate sources. Remember that you have to keep reminding the professor about the submission deadline so that they submit on time. (In many cases, you might have to write your own LOR template for the professor)

Resume and Transcript

Resume should follow a standard template with readable, professional font and spacing. My friends and I started borrowing nice templates online. But feel free to continue using the NITT template if you like that. Explanations for your projects must be concise and clear! If you list something in a resume, chances are they'll ask you to prove it. Try to have certificates for the things you've done. Add video and/or report links to as many projects as possible. These links lend credibility to your work.

People who are applying with work experience - I'm sorry, I can't be of much help there. But from what I've heard, your work experience counts if its at least 2 years by the time you join.

Transcripts must be sent to the university in a sealed envelope stamped by your college. NITT people - I remember buying the official envelopes from Tamil Selvi printers for Rs 20/- each. You can get it stamped from the Dean Academic's office. You need to send transcripts only if the University asks for it in particular. DHL offers student discount to NIT Trichy students sending transcripts abroad. While Fed Ex would cost something like Rs 2500/-, DHL charged us only Rs 900/-. Make use of that!

GPA Centric universities

This information was obtained by a combination of knowledge passed down by seniors and experiences of our batch. Having a 9+ GPA opens the door for almost all universities. But some are known for taking only students who are at the top of the grading curve. These universities are predominantly populated by our students with high GPA - ETH Zurich, Stanford, UT Austin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University (Not completely sure, but seems to be the case off late).

I just wanted to reiterate the fact that a lot of decisions taken by the admissions committee do not make sense. People who seemingly have a bad profile get in while you and your close friends might get rejected. Like I said earlier, its a lottery. So don't have your hopes riding high on one particular university. Good luck!

Signing off,
Gautham Vasan