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While applying for American PhD programs in the 2023-2024 cycle, I benefited from reading many online resources posted by students and faculty. These resources are linked below, along with my own answers to a few burning and unanswered questions that I had when applying. Although these answers are most relevant to the computational cognitive science programs that I applied to, they are probably applicable to other programs as well.
What does a strong application look like?
Although you are technically applying to schools, you are actually applying to professors. Whether or not you are admitted depends almost entirely on their say.
A strong application is therefore one that speaks directly to the professors that you are interested in working with. To do this effectively you must make it clear who you want to work with, what you want to work on, and why you are prepared to begin this work.
Each of these points will work in concert. The first two points should basically be answered simultaneously, because your preferred supervisors should be the people who can best support the type of work that you want to do. It is good to have a maximally concrete understanding of what this is, but you also don't need to have specific ideas for papers just yet. I think the most important part is for you to be able to describe high level questions that both you and your prospective supervisor are genuinely excited to pursue.
Your response to the final point should be that you have already begun to pursue the type of research that you wish to conduct during your PhD. You should have one or more research experiences that you can discuss, and ideally you will also have one or two publications that emerged from these experiences. All of this will be reinforced by your letters of recommendation, which should be written by your supervisors there. Ideally, at least one of your letter writers is known and respected by the professors that you are applying to.
This means that a strong application for one school might be a pretty weak application for another; it all depends on your fit with the people there. What I found while applying was that the process was extremely smooth for the schools where the professors and I had interests that precisely aligned, but that my applications weren't as well received for schools where I felt like I had to slightly force my research statement to fit their specific direction.
How many publications do I need?
Technically zero, but ideally at least one. I don't think you need publications because you can absolutely put together a persuasive application that addresses the above points without any. But the unfortunate reality is that more and more applicants these days do have publications, so it will definitely help to have at least one. Having no publications because you are still working on a substantial project that will eventually result in one is fine too; the citation itself is not the part that matters.
Publications are not equal. A first author publication at a good venue is probably worth multiple n-th author publications, as it serves as a powerful piece of evidence that you will be able to effectively drive your own research projects. A publication that directly connects with the work of your intended supervisor is ideal, but this is pretty uncommon. I think that people generally realise that undergraduate research direction is pretty luck based, so the relevance of the content of your publications probably matters less than the fact that you have them. This may be less true for programs where the average number of publications per applicant is higher (eg. machine learning PhDs).
That being said, I wouldn't worry about maximising your number of publications. More is of course better if they are interesting and your contributions significant, but quantity at the cost of quality won't help you much and probably has major diminishing returns. When working on undergraduate research, it is better to make large contributions and produce a single high quality final work than it is to jump between many different projects. This will earn you better letters of recommendation and more substantial things to talk about in your statement of purpose.
Are my grades good enough?
When applying, I was really worried about whether my grades were good enough. The Australian education system inherits traditions from the British system, which is relatively focused on grades and rankings for admissions. In this system I was okay but not particularly great; I had a WAM (weighted average mark out of 100) of 83 and I never made the Dean's List (top 3% of undergraduates iirc, which is probably a couple hundred students). I have no idea what the minimum bar is for places like Stanford but clearly you don't have to be at the very top of your class!
As general advice I would say that grades are only important to the extent that they represent you learning things that support your interests. Getting top grades is a meta-skill, and not a particularly useful one for the 60-75% of your life that will be spent outside of school. I think that your time is probably better spent on endeavours like research or side projects rather than the long tail effort of perfecting your GPA.
Should I email professors before applying?
Before applying you should make sure that the professors that you are interested in are (a) accepting new students and (b) interested in supervising the projects that you are interested in. If this information isn't available on their or their program's website then emailing to confirm this is a really good idea.
Should I sit the GRE?
I don't know if this is true for all programs, but my GRE scores were totally inconsequential for the ones that I applied to (Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and Harvard Psychology, NYU C&P, MIT BCS and EECS). When programs say that GRE scores are optional, they genuinely seem to be optional (which is to say, they are unnecessary). Most programs in my cycle outright didn't accept GRE scores and I'm pretty sure that at one of the few schools that did my score arrived after I had already been internally admitted. I actually kind of enjoyed studying for parts of the GRE, but it is also so expensive and time consuming so 10/10 would not do again.
Don't keep your application a secret! Applying to top programs can seem really scary and potentially embarrassing because of the prospect of failure, and I am definitely familiar with the temptation to be cagey about it all. But really you have nothing to lose by talking about it! My SOP and application as a whole benefited immensely from the feedback and advice of a handful of mentors, friends and family, and I wouldn't have made it in without them.
Statement of Purpose
Roman Feiman's amazing SOP advice
EECS Faculty Advice
Past NYU C&P SOPs
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