Last year, I applied to Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Computer Science program. I’m now enrolled in my second semester; in my experience the program provides an excellent education and is an excellent match for my needs. But I’m not writing about the virtues of the OMSCS.
The application asks you to author two statements: a background statement and a statement of purpose. I sometimes visit the OMSCS subreddit—an excellent resource for anyone considering the program—and think over my experience with the admissions process. My statement responses and approach were a bit unconventional, but they didn’t disqualify me. I’m sharing them here for anyone exploring the long tail of Google advice for getting into the program.
Statement of Background
As I understood it, OMSCS admission is not competitive: they’ve employed an educational platform that scales, and would like to admit all who are qualified to study on that platform. I can’t find an official quote to that effect, so take it as heresay, but it’s the assumption that I base the rest of this post on.
Given that, Georgia Tech’s first question is, “Are you prepared for the program?” You answer this question in the background statement. Here’s their instruction:
Please describe your background (academic and extracurricular) and experience, including research, teaching, industry, and other relevant information.
And my response:
* Programming for 20 years, starting with language C.
* Picked up PHP, Python, and other languages as ideas or projects arose.
* Four year enlistment in the Marines.
* Achieved transfer admission to University of California, San Diego, towards goal of becoming a high school mathematics teacher.
* Minored in Mathematics, majored in Cognitive Science, with focus on theoretical neuroscience and machine learning. Graduated Cum Laude.
* Developed and analyzed behavioral experiments in MATLAB while working in a theoretical neuroscience lab, benchmarking results against Bayesian optimal models.
* Presented poster at Neuroscience conference.
* Taught high school math for two years in tribal, southwest Alaska.
* Formed company to develop educational software with machine learning component, in Python and Django.
* Now work as a web developer for the University of Washington, Office of Enrollment Information Services. Enroll in computer science and mechanical engineering courses from the University on lunch breaks.
* Teach Python to adult learners through the University's continuing education program.
CURRENT HOBBY PROJECTS
* 3D printer, built from kit.
* Arduino programming, to include a networked alarm clock and networked thermostat.
* Natural Computation I (Machine learning via Bishop, plus applications in theoretical neuroscience, UCSD)
* Natural Computation II (Bayesian modeling in theoretical neuroscience, UCSD)
* Programming Languages (University of Washington)
* Data Abstractions (Data structures, concurrency, parallelism, and algorithms, University of Washington)
* Systems Programming (University of Washington)
* Operating Systems (Currently enrolled, University of Washington)
* High school mathematics, Yupiit School District, Alaska
* Python Internet Programming, University of Washington Continuum College.
Headings and bullet points. My experience with reading cover letters and resumes is that you get about ten seconds to convey your story to the person reading your application: your reader will glance over your application for about ten seconds before throwing you into either the “hard no” pile or the “maybies”. And did you read through the list? Or did you only take a few seconds to glance over it? If you only glanced, did you get a rough idea of a story from it?
I’m sure that the Georgia Tech admissions process is more holistic than a glance at your background statements, but I think that this list does convey a story to a ten-second scan.
Aside from listing the courses that I took in preparation for the program, I also wanted to answer some questions that might be raised by the rest of my application. I’ve picked up a lot of experience from different places: before and after the Marines, courses taken online and in person from community colleges in preparation for a transfer application, continuing education courses related to my Alaska teaching certificate. In the background statement, I wanted to put the story together: he transferred to UCSD to become a math teacher, and while he was there he did cognitive science research; he taught in Alaska, then followed up on that machine learning experience to develop educational software; now he’s programming for the University of Washington, taking classes, and teaching adults.
It’s a much tighter story in bullet points than I remember it in real life! And I’d like to say that if you had only looked over that list for ten seconds, you’d have picked up the highlights.
Nowhere in the application does it say that your description of your background has to be an essay. Use whatever format best answers the question of whether you have qualified yourself to join the program. In many cases, a list is the quickest way to answer that question with a “yes”. If you’re a marginal candidate trying to explain a 2.95 GPA with a story about challenge, perseverance, or growth then you might be able to best tell that story with an essay. In any case, choose the medium that suits the message.
Statement of Purpose
After answering whether or not you’re qualified to join the OMSCS, Georgia Tech will want to know whether your goals are a fit for the program. You address this in the statement of purpose:
Please give a Statement of Purpose detailing your academic and research goals as well as career plans. Include your reasons for choosing the College of Computing as opposed to other programs and/or other universities.
In effect, “Why Georgia Tech? Why the OMSCS?” or, “Will you be satisfied with your enrollment in this program?” My response:
In the next five years, I want to begin working on mission-critical aerospace software running close to the hardware.
The projects and companies that inspire me are constructing physical devices with semi-autonomous operation. For example, I'm working on a 3D printed, GPS guided autopilot for my sailboat. Most of all I want to work in aerospace, and I'm pursuing a master's degree to build the credentials and skills I need to begin programming real time control systems for that industry.
The OMSCS obviously presents the best combination of value, cost, and convenience for a working professional. For me personally, as an aspiring aerospace engineer, I hope that the program will yield an opportunity to work on a project that takes advantage of Georgia Tech's outstanding School of Aerospace Engineering.
You can use up to 4000 characters. I could have typed more, but I think that that would have obscured my answer: this thing that I want for myself is definitely something that Georgia Tech can help me achieve. Fewer words make it easier to see this at a ten-second glance.
I don’t think that my application really hinged on my application statements. I didn’t write them thinking that I had the burden of convincing anyone that I was qualified to join the program. My goal was to provide a story that led the reader through my application materials, a story that could be read at a ten-second glance.
It goes almost without saying that you shouldn’t reuse these materials directly for your own application. But I hope I’ve provided some inspiration!