A majority of the media reports in recent times have been highlighting that the number of US applications is on a decline. Yes, those have been the actual headlines. But, if you look closely, you will realize that international applications are down by 13.7% in the US for business programs. But, the STEM-certified programs in the US are still very popular. In this post, we will look at how to get into Ivy League universities for MS from India.
As per the GMAC survey report, 43% of STEM-certified programs (including Data & Business Analytics) saw a growth in their international applications in 2019 (source: Business Because). In fact, Ivy League and other top schools like Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, UT Austin, CMU, etc. are still hot favorites among international (and Indian) students; especially for STEM programs – Computer Science, Engineering, Data Science, and Analytics. The top US schools report an acceptance rate in the range of 10 – 25%.
In this article, we will look at the application tips for the top US universities, especially the Ivy League and Elite schools. Additionally, we will also focus on the SoP component – how important is the SoP in the overall application, how technical an SoP should be, and SoP tips for improving admission chances at the top US schools.
How to Get into Ivy League Schools for MS from India
Application and SoP Tips for Top US Schools with GRE 320 – 340 Scores
Required GRE Scores for Getting into Ivy League and Elite Universities for MS from India
In order to crack admissions at the top US universities, you need to have very high GRE scores (typically 164+ in Quant and 320+ overall) and the AWA score should be no less than 4.5. Now, let’s find out the approximate scores required for the top US schools for STEM studies.
Rule of thumb – the higher the better. 330 in GRE is always better than 324. Period.
Related Article: How to Score 167+ in GRE Quant and Overall 320+ in GRE
TOEFL (or IELTS) score is another mandatory test for US schools. Ideally, you should have 95 – 100 in TOEFL (iBT), unless a university has specified a score. You can also get into the top 25 US universities with a score in the range of 90 – 95 (IELTS 6.5 – 7.0).
No need to put super-extra effort into this component. A TOEFL score of 110 or 118 (out of 120) is not going to make you stand out in the applicant pool in any way for an Ivy League or any other Top 25 US School.
GPA Requirement for Getting into Ivy League Schools for MS from India
Accept it, there is no substitute for an impressive GPA.
Academics form a very important part of the application. Since the committee members do not get an opportunity to interview or test the candidate in any way, they have to use the grades as a proxy for determining the candidate’s competency in his/her field of study. Having an impeccable academic record (e.g. topping the department or always being in the top three, etc.) is definitely a sure-shot way to get noticed by the committee.
But if not that, it is highly recommended to at least maintain a fairly good cumulative GPA (subjective to clearly define but around the ~3.6/4.0 or ~8.5/10.0 mark) so as to not get directly rejected on grounds of poor academic performance.
An undergraduate degree (even with a slightly below-par GPA) from IIT or NIT will also improve your admission chances at the Ivy League colleges for MS from India.
See the table below (to be used for reference purposes only).
Getting a 9.0/10.0 in most of the top Indian colleges is significantly tougher than managing a 3.6/4.0 at a US university. The admissions committee (Adcom) members appreciate it a lot if the university’s official transcripts have an appendix that clearly spells out the mechanism behind the assignment of grades and the final GPA calculation.
Things get even trickier while dealing with candidates whose transcripts contain absolute marks and grades reported in terms of percentages. Unless the committee has prior experience in dealing with candidates from that university or at least has more than one candidate from the same university for comparison purposes, it is tough to gauge whether getting 80% marks on an absolute scale is commendable or not.
The candidate might have got 75% marks and been the topper of his department, but “75%” nevertheless looks unimpressive on paper, especially when compared with the candidates who have scored 3.6 / 9.0.
It may seem like a tougher battle for candidates from such universities, but strong recommendation letters from professors who can comment on the candidate’s academics can help in leveling the playing field. In particular, it helps a lot if the professor clearly states that the candidate did indeed top the department (or a particular course) and also provides some background regarding the usual range of grades for courses taken at that university.
LOR Guidelines for Getting into Ivy League Schools for MS from India
Letters of recommendation (LOR) play a very vital role in the admission process. In fact, even a single letter might at times change the committee’s overall outlook towards the applicant and thus potentially change the application’s outcome.
The committee attaches a lot of importance to these letters since they provide evaluations of the applicant by professors and/or supervisors who have closely monitored the applicant’s work over a period of time. However, the committee is also smart enough to detect anomalies in the letters most of the time.
How do Adcoms Evaluate LOR?
Every admission committee has professors who have reviewed applications year after year and have read a variety of recommendation letters, besides composing them for their own students. They can thus use some helpful cues to find out whether the recommendation has indeed been composed in confidentiality by the person it claims to be.
Even easier to figure out are cases where the recommendation writer clearly does not know the applicant well and has written the letter off a standard template. Such letters usually just praise the applicant without citing any personal experiences or facts to support their claims. They, therefore, sound too generic and could have been written by the recommender for any applicant.
Advice on Getting a Strong and Personalized LOR for MS
A good recommendation letter is one where the recommender talks in some detail about the actual work done under their supervision by the applicant, how he/she fared at the task, and other specific instances from their interactions with the applicant.
Such a letter not only gives the committee an idea of the applicant’s impression of the recommender but also highlights projects, achievements, and other salient information which might not be evident from the rest of the application.
Advice for Asian Applicants
A LOR from an Asian university might be quite different from a letter from a European or an American university. There are also variations on a recommender to a recommender basis.
Some might only choose to highlight the positive points (and in general, fill the letter with praises) and say nothing negative about the applicant at all. On the other hand, others might do a more honest evaluation – highlighting both the positive as well as the negative points. The committee thus takes the overly glorifying letters with a grain of salt.
For instance, the committee might decide against a highly enthusiastic recommendation from a university that’s been unheard of, in favor of a good but not so enthusiastic recommendation from a top tier university.
Choose Your Recommender Wisely
While nominating recommenders, the applicant has to clarify on his/her application form whether he/she waives the right to read the letter. The committee looks more favorably at letters for which the right has been waived since this ensures the confidentiality of the letters and reduces the chance that the letter writer was influenced by the applicant.
LORs from the Head of the Department, the Dean, a Senior Researcher, a Senior Manager or a CEO can be more influential.
However, it is important to note that any recommendation will work only if it has a personal touch to it and if the recommender has indeed had a close association with the applicant.
Despite being penned by a very senior person (for instance, the director or the president of a university), if the letter turns out to be a very generic certificate of appreciation, or if it can’t convince the committee that the recommender did in fact personally interact with the applicant, it does not serve the purpose.
Relationship Matters More than Designation
The relationship should be such that it involves direct supervision and frequent interaction over a period of time – for instance, a professor who has taught a class or two to the applicant or has supervised him/her for a project, a manager to whom the applicant directly reports to, etc. It is highly preferable to have at least one recommender who has known the applicant for a year or more.
The recommendation form typically asks the recommender to rate the applicant as being in the “top 1-2%”, “top 10%”, “first quarter”, “second quarter”, etc. of an evaluation pool.
But, someone rated as being within 10% of all students in a top school like IIT or BHU might still be considered to be a better candidate than someone who is in the top 1% at an unknown university.
Work experience is not at all necessary to apply for MS at a US university. In fact, work experience need not even necessarily improve an applicant’s profile or increase his/her chances of getting accepted. Thus, someone fresh out of college is just as qualified to get admitted as an experienced professional.
Suppose a candidate is applying for an MS in Computer Science and wants to specialize in the field of Artificial Intelligence.
The best case (i.e. the one that adds the most value to the application) would be one where the applicant has been working in a research lab or the R&D wing of a company that works on problems related to his field of interest (in this case, AI problems like Robotics, Image processing, Language processing, Speech processing, etc.).
The next best option would be a job as a software or hardware engineer in the computer industry where he/she works on software development (or hardware design) projects. Such a job, even if not research-oriented or focused on a particular field, is still related to Computer Science and at least gives significant programming experience to the applicant (a skill that will always be necessary, even in academia).
Provided that the work is relevant, the other factor that matters is the identity of the company itself. Companies that are reputed and are more familiar to the committee will have more weightage than others.
For instance, in the computer industry, these would be companies like Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Oracle, etc. Applicants having work experience can choose to have one of their recommenders as their immediate manager from work instead of someone from their undergraduate college.
This can help both applicants who hail from fairly unknown colleges but work in a reputed company, and applicants who could not manage to perform very well in college (hence recommendations from college are likely to be weak), but subsequently excelled in his/her job.
Research Experience and Publications
Here is what an Adcom has to say:
When I review applications, I look at three things:
prior research (published or unpublished)
letters of recommendation
If you have unpublished work, submit it with your application, and someone from the field will judge the quality of the work. If you don’t have any prior research, don’t lose hope. You can still get in because schools are trying to judge the potential to do research.
If the school lets you select a thesis or coursework as a preference, select the thesis.
Selecting coursework signals the admissions committee that you’re not interested in research! But, just selecting thesis is not enough for Ivy League admissions.
Pro-Tip: Contact a faculty member you’d like to work with
Email them a couple of months or so before you apply. My personal recommendation – approach them in the summer, if you are targeting fall intake in the following year.
The email should be formatted into points–not paragraphs.
Tell them you were considering applying, and that you’re curious about the research opportunities available in the field. Comment intelligently on some research that faculty member has done.
Attach any research you’ve done, and briefly summarize your research interests. That faculty member can then make sure your application receives a thorough review.
Bear in mind that professors receive lots of form-letter spam from prospective students. It’s painfully obvious when the email is form-letter spam, and most professors will summarily discard it.
Overall Profile and Importance of Statement of Purpose (SoP) and/or Essays
In most cases, if the overall application (GRE, grades/GPA, recommendations, etc.) is very strong, then the applicant has a good chance of getting admitted even with a lackluster SOP. In other words, a badly written statement will almost never be the sole reason for rejection.
However, skillfully written statements will always help the applicant’s cause.
When you are specifically targeting the Ivy League and other top US universities, the application pool is typically extremely competitive.
Having an 8.5 or 9.0 CGPA and a GRE score in the 90th percentile will impress the committee. You might also have 2 – 3 years of solid work experience or happen to be an IIT or NIT graduate. But there is a good chance that many of the other applicants could have emulated the same feat.
After all, all the cream candidates will be applying for the Ivy League Universities like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UPenn, etc. and top US schools like CalTech, MIT, CMU, Georgia Tech, UT Austin, Michigan, etc.
Secondly, if you somehow managed to have a below-par GPA (say 7.8 out of 10 or 75% from an Indian institute) or average GRE score (say below 320), and want to apply for the Ivy League or Top 25 schools in the US, a well-written compelling SoP can leverage your average GPA/GRE feat.
Read the follow-up post: How to Write SoP for Ivy League Universities (and Top US Universities with GRE 320 – 340 Score) for MS.