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How to Write a Bad Statement for a Computer Science Ph.D. Admissions Application

The 2016 Ph.D. admissions season is almost upon us. CMU's application deadline is December 15. Like a lot of new faculty members, I volunteered to be on the admissions committee because I wanted to see how the sausage was made. I have probably reviewed over 500 applications in the last two years, and there is one particular aspect of them that I want to discuss.

This post is not about how to get admitted to a Ph.D. program. Mor Harchol-Balter already has a great essay that I strongly encourage anyone applying this year to look at. This post is also not about what goes on with the admissions committee during the review process. Dave Andersen (aka "Dunks") has already covered this on his blog.

Instead, I want to provide some examples of bad statement of purpose essays that I read in the last two years. In Mor's guide, she warns you that should not write an essay that starts with an opening paragraph that talks about being the "boy genius" (i.e., a precocious child that has a long desire to get a Ph.D. in computer science). The example that she uses is emblematic of this issue:

  • When I was born, my mother gave me a glass ball to play with. I would lay and look at the prisms of light shining through my ball. At age 3, my father brought home our first computer and I disassembled it and then put it back together. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a computer scientist.

The problem with this type of opening is that it is completely irrelevant to why we should admit you to our Ph.D. program. Professors don't care that you got the first computer on your street and started messing with it when you were really young. We don't believe you either. It also makes you seem really boring because you had to reach back to your childhood to find something interesting to say about yourself. Nobody wants to work with somebody like that. Do you want to know what I was doing when I was young? Flushing things down the toilet (e.g., money, car keys, cosmetics, food). Habitually. Does that make you a better researcher than me? Maybe, but probably not.

I read Mor's guide when I was applying to graduate schools and I made sure to avoid this same pattern in my statement of purpose. Surely I thought others would heed the same warning when I joined CMU's admissions committee in 2013. But I was surprised at the number of essays that did start off with this "boy genius" opening. To give an idea of just how pervasive this problem is, I am sharing a sample of essays (anonymized, modified, and paraphrased) from the last two years. There were at least another two dozen essays that were similar. I also have a couple of unscientific observations about the type person that submits an essay with this kind of opening:

  • The applicants are from all around the world. There was no particular country or region that had more bad essays than others.
  • Most of the applicants were applying while currently enrolled in an undergraduate program.
  • These applicants were usually weaker overall than other applications (e.g., recommendation letters, previous research experience).

Disclaimer: I am not sharing these examples to belittle or shame these people. Nobody was rejected from CMU's Ph.D. program solely on the basis of their application essay. We take each application seriously and spend a lot of time thinking about whether the potential student would be a good fit for our program. I am providing these examples as a cautionary warning to those that are applying in the future to avoid this same trope.

Elementary School

Here are some people that were dying to tell us about how smart they were before they hit puberty:

  • When I was 6, my father bought a computer for me. This fostered my inquisitive mind regarding computer science.
  • The most impressive memories in my life relate to the progression of my knowledge of computers. For example, I remember my father helping me debug my first program when I was 10.
  • Coming from a educated and respectable family, when I was 7 I established my enthusiasm and dedication towards acquiring knowledge.
  • Computer science has never bored me. From since I was 10, I was fascinated by the beauty of computer systems.

Middle School

Then we had people tell us about they had discovered the mysteries of computer science in middle school. Some of them had this epiphany while programming, while one person got it while watching a movie:

  • I started programming when I was a middle school student and this kindled my interest in computer science.
  • When I first started writing programs in middle school, I was fascinated by the simplicity and flexibility of computer science.
  • In middle school, I got in touch with programming by chance. I was fascinated by various subtle algorithms and quickly became a crazy coder.
  • I watched the movie "A Beautiful Mind" in middle school, and it made me want to get a Ph.D. in computer science.

High School

Finally, we have people that could not help themselves but to write about how they were either inspired by something or were ripping it up in high school:

  • I began participating in mathematics and computer science competitions when I was 15. I told my friends that I wanted to become a computer scientist on the first day of the high school.
  • The first time I was really excited by computer science research was when I read about Huffman codes in high school.
  • As a huge fan of computer games and animation, I have been determined to contribute to the field of computer games and animation since I was 14 years old.
  • I have been fascinated by electronic gadgets since my teenage years. I enjoyed exploring their internal construction and solving relevant problems.

What About College?

You may be wondering whether it's okay if you start your essay with talking about some life changing experience that you had while an undergraduate. The answer is "yes" but only if it is about something other than when you took a class. If your essay starts off with talking about how you took a class that you really liked and it made you want to get a Ph.D., then you're doing it wrong. If instead your essay starts off with talking about how you broke up with your girlfriend/boyfriend because they smelled like they always ate at the Golden Corral so then you went off and worked on this amazing idea that ended up as an open-source project or a research publication, then you're doing it right. Ask yourself which of those two essays would you want to read?

My Essay from 2007

Lest you think that I am projecting or hypocritical, I would like to present the opening to my graduate school application from 2007:

  • A distinguishing characteristic of distributed computing research is that it incorporates facets from many other fields in computer science. This broad encapsulation, as well as the problem domain itself, arouses my interest the most.

I will be the first to admit that this is a bit ostentatious and dry. But it is better than all of the "boy genius" examples from above. It starts off with immediately telling the reader what I want I am interested in working on. The next sentences in the same paragraph talks about things I've done in professional and research career that is related to this statement. If you don't have something colorful to say, then your essay should start off with something like this.

Writing a statement of purpose is hard because you have to write about yourself and try to convince others that you are as smart or as hardworking as you think you are. It's a good way for the admissions committee to determine whether you can organize your thoughts succinctly and whether you are mature enough for a Ph.D. program. Hence, I implore those of you that are applying this year to do yourself a big favor and be more creative in your essay openings. Don't do what these other people did and write a bad essay. If you find yourself writing something like the above examples, stop and change it. Especially if you are applying to be my student because now I will know that you didn't read my website.

Word is bond.

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