Graduate School Advice

Below you will find some advice and information put together by CS faculty. For more information about the graduate school application process, check out Conquer.

Heading to Graduate School: An Undergraduate Timeline

Motivation: The “Taulbee Survey” a yearly report on the state of CS students and institutions can be found at Check it out!

Anytime: Talk to faculty about their research interests. Do you find something interesting? Do they need help? Academic year research (up to 5 hours per week) is possible and easy to arrange.

Any Fall: Have you already done some research? Are you thinking about graduate school? If the answer is yes to both these questions, apply for a national, science-oriented, Goldwater Scholarship. Each scholarship covers eligible expenses for undergraduate tuition, fees, books, and room and board, up to a maximum of $7,500 annually. Online application and material is available September 1, 2012 from the Foundation’s website at Application deadline is January 28, 2013. The college forwards 4 students at the end of January 2013 from a local competition. Katya King, Director of Fellowships in the Dean’s Office is Williams College’s Goldwater representative.

Each January/February: Talk to faculty about (1) summer research opportunities and/or (2) research course work and thesis work during your senior year. These opportunities are relatively easy to arrange, they are important to have on your graduate school application, and are often similar to the continuing graduate school research experience with a stipend of $4,080 for 10 weeks.

Each January (warning, times vary): Consider a research experience for undergraduates (REU) summer research job at another institution (SMALL is a local example). See

Women: Consider a Computing Research Association’s CRA-W mentoring and research experience programs. See Applications for CRA-W’s Distributed REU program are due mid February and March.

Fall, senior year: Take the GRE general exam. Dates are in late October, November and February. Test is usually computer based, but paper exams are sometimes available. The test is usually taken in Albany or West Springfield. You may also need to take the written CS Subject exam early October. See Scores are typically good for five years.

Fall, senior year: If you are completing a thesis, talk to your advisor about applying for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. For Computer Science, the application is due Tuesday, November 13, 2012. You should not apply without strong backing from a current research advisor. References are due Tuesday, November 27, 2012. This provides a stipend of $30,000 (anticipated to increase to $32,000 for FY13) and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the institution for each of the three years (through a graduate institution). This makes accepting you as a graduate student (1) easy and (2) inexpensive. See

Fall, senior year: Graduate school applications. The “Forsythe list” is a searchable database of computing related graduate programs at You can see the National Research Council rankings of Ph.D. programs in CS at Talk to faculty in the areas you are interested in. Your research advisor is a good place to start. Applications are due between December and March, depending on the graduate school you apply (typically, the earlier the due date, the more competitive the program). Apply to several programs. Expect to hear before Spring Break.

Spring Break, senior year: Visit the schools you have gotten into. Look for alumni. Look around, do these people look the way you want to look in a year or two or five? Check out our alumni web page for visit contacts at

End of senior year: Tell us where you are headed (graduate school or workforce). If you envision yourself going to graduate school at a later date, remind your future references of that fact.

Letters of Recommendation

All graduate school applicants have to do it. Successful applicants may have to do it again and again while in graduate school, whenever they apply for a scholarship, a fellowship, or an internship. It is normal to feel a bit uncertain how to ask a professor for a recommendation letter and what to say. For many, this can be a bit intimidating, to say the least. However, writing these letters is something any professor expects to do every year. As long as a student demonstrates good judgment and initiative when asking for a letter of recommendation, most professors are willing to help.

Remember to never give out faculty names as references without first asking their permission.

How to ask for a letter of recommendation:

  • Properly requesting a letter of recommendation or a reference letter involves at least two stages: The initial request should normally be in person rather than by email. You are only looking for your professor’s commitment, at this point. In the second stage, you will provide the professor(s) with things to help them put together an effective letter of recommendation.
  • There is nothing complicated about making the initial request for a letter. Just indicate that you will be applying to graduate school soon and that you are wondering whether he or she would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. You should also indicate how many programs you plan to apply to, so they know how many versions (i.e., slightly modified copies) they should expected to make. It’s as simple as that. You should also be prepared to discuss your graduate school or career plans.
  • After someone has agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you, the second step is to arrange a brief meeting to go over materials that will make their task of writing your letter easier. You may appear presumptuous if you come to their office to make your initial request carrying a copy of your transcripts or c.v. before they have even agreed to do this for you. This material should, therefore, be provided on a separate occasion, and usually at the same time that you give them any evaluation forms to fill out and the addresses and deadlines of the programs to which you are applying.
  • If you are applying to multiple programs and will be requesting more than one letter from your professor(s), then it is very important that you organize all of the material for them. Prepare a cover letter that lists the programs that you are applying to and the application deadlines. If possible, put all of the information on one page. Make sure that you fill out as many parts of the evaluation forms as you can before giving them to your professor(s).
  • Some programs request that professors send their letters directly to the department or to the School or Faculty of Graduate Studies, by regular mail or to submit them on line. Other programs ask instead that letters are given to the applicant in a sealed envelope, which the professor signs across the flap, so that the applicant can submit the letters together with the rest of their application materials. Make sure you clearly indicate to your professor(s) how they are to submit the letters.
  • If you are applying to a program where you will have a graduate supervisor, and if any of your professor(s) work in the same field as your prospective supervisor, then make sure you tell them whom this person is. One or more of your professor(s) may know your prospective supervisor personally, or at least know about the kind of research this person does. This may enable them to customize your letter in a way that makes it more relevant to the prospective supervisor’s needs and interests.
  • Don’t forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort they will spend trying to help you. Most professors are busier people than they appear to be. Whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school, they have taken valuable time out of their busy schedules to help you.

The right time to ask for a letter:

  • Application deadlines vary significantly across different graduate programs, and some even accept applications any time of the year. Whatever situation is most common depends on the discipline in question, but for most programs that start in August or September of a given year, application deadlines are typically between the preceding December and March.
  • The initial request for a letter of recommendation should come between three and six weeks before the deadline by which it is needed, in most cases. Any professor may be busy with other things, and will probably be writing letters for several other students around the same time. It is quite inconsiderate to request a letter of recommendation too close to the deadline by which it is needed.
  • Applicants can ease the burden on their professor(s) by furnishing them with material to use to prepare the letter. Keep in mind that these people will probably be busy writing letters of recommendation for other students around the same time. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. One idea you might consider is to compile your own self-sketch, providing a brief synopsis of your qualifications, emphasizing some of the things that could be mentioned in a letter of recommendation. Provide an overview of your relevant background. Just one or two short paragraphs should suffice.


  • It is entirely up to the applicant to make sure everything is submitted on time.
  • Applicants should send a polite note to their professor(s) a few days before the deadline to confirm that the letters will be ready on time. Mention the deadline again, but don’t be pushy.
  • If you decide not to apply to a given school/program, let your professor(s) know.
  • Keep your professor(s) informed how your application process is going. They took the time to write your letter and will be interested to know the result.
  • Be sure to thank your professor(s) for their recommendation and help.