The school selection process of my journey of applying to grad school.
These will essentially be a complete series of the challenges I encountered and how I managed to solve the problems. While everyone has a different path, and you probably cannot reproduce my results since we are very different humans, these are just for your information.
Hopefully, my journey can help someone land a better grad school, leading to a brighter career. If that is the case, my time would be well worth it.
Picking Schools & Programs
My mom always tell me that “Use whatever you have on the edge of the blade”. That is, put resources into use the most efficient way as possible. Obviously, everyone is different and has different experiences and interests, I can only provide some thoughts on how to prepare your list of schools. Here are some worthy strategies to consider:
First, I found a list of programs I wanted to apply. Tip: Do make an extensive search and find more programs that you intend to apply at the end. Everyone has their own list, so you will have to figure out on your own. Eventually, it would be a spreadsheet containing the name of school, URL to the program, and the date that the application is due, as well as how many recommendation letters that school requires.
Then, I started a separate spreadsheet rank all the programs from the program that I wanted to attend the most, to the program I wanted to attend the least. I also made a separate spreadsheet ranking on approximately how difficult the school is to apply.
Then I pick programs based on these two spreadsheets, ranking schools in three levels:
- Level A: Very good program, slightly above my ability to apply but still has hope, and I definitely want to go if I get in. (aka dream schools)
- Level B: The difficulty of applying to the program is manageable and I am confident that if I apply to these programs I will get at least 50% admitted.
- Level C: Not very good program but almost guarantee to admit me if I apply, so I have backup and don’t end up school-less.
Any school that doesn’t fit into the above three categories, I crossed them off my list. They are either too difficult to get in (ex. Harvard), so I am essentially just giving them money for nothing, or too easy that is either meaningless even if I get admitted or will actually reject me due to over-qualified.
By the end of process, I had a pretty good idea about which schools I was going to apply. And I believe you will too, if you follow my procedure.
Talk to Others
It turns out that there are just way too many programs out there, and when I was researching all the programs from all the schools I was overwhelmed.
I found it a really good idea to find colleagues of similar major or career goals that is of the same class as me, and just ask them what schools and programs they are applying to. I can almost guarantee you will find some new and interesting programs that wasn’t in your gradschool hunt sheet, in fact, I heard about Cornell Tech from one of my colleagues. If not because of that conversation, I am certain that I will be attending elsewhere than Cornell Tech.
During the course of my four years of college, I also made friends with a lot of professors. It is a good idea to just send an email to these professors for ideas. I sent an email about my struggles and asked for advices, many of my professors recommended me great options that I ended up crossing some of the programs I chose on my own off the list. If you are lucky enough and your professor knows someone in another school, he/she/they might recommend you directly and you will get a much better possibility of getting in.
Surprise!! Recommendation letter isn’t usually a letter. Don’t think naively that your professor would just need to write one letter and send it to ten schools, it usually isn’t the case.
At least to my knowledge, for many schools (Like Cornell Tech), it is more like a multiple question survey that asks question on every aspect of the applicant and is roughly 600-700 words long. Although I didn’t do this, now that I think about it after everything, it is actually not a bad idea to just send an email to every school’s admission office, and just ask them about recommendation letter questions. Some schools have their recommendation letter questions on their website (Like Cornell Tech), if not, just tell them that you have a professor who isn’t tech-savvy and would like to mail the recommendation letter physically. Then you can arrange who to write what based on the questions.
I found that a golden number for each professor to write recommendation letter is around three. I reached out early and happened to have a lot of professors that are willing to help me write my recommendation letters. I had nine professors, and each of them helped me wrote three letters, which sounds like a lot, but actually not, considering each school needs three letters most of the time.
For me personally, I decided to apply to three different directions in terms of field of interest: Machine Learning, Informatics, and Fine Art. So I had three professors in each direction, and I try to let them write letters for similar programs to increase the chance that they can reuse what they wrote before and ease their load of work.
Portfolio & Projects
For art schools, portfolio is important!!! My best advice is figure out a way to make a fancy website (Like this) that both looks cool, exhibits your art, and shows your personality. For the minimum level of effort, you will at least setup a website on ArtStation (Here’s mine), and it is very easy. You will want to demonstrate as many art as possible, with a central idea that all of your work gives a good idea of who you are and what you will likely to make in the future.
I submitted a range of prints using different techniques (woodblock, silk screen, etching, drypoint, etc), paintings, drawings, computer animation, 3D models that I made, and a work in progress version of my capstone animation film. For my portfolio, I submitted the ArtStation website as my main portfolio, this website as my personal website, as well as some attached medias like my capstone film. In the end… Parsons thought it was enough.
If a school ask you if you want to be considered for optional scholarship, do click that box! Also, a lot of schools (Like Cornell Tech) will only consider scholarship and fellowships for its first round of applicants. Do act fast and submit your application as early as you can to be considered for scholarships! They are really, free money. (Well, you still have to pay a lot of tuition, but less.)
Pre-Recorded Videos & Interviews
Due to COVID-19, many schools now require students to submit a pre-recorded video (For example, Parsons School of Art) of themselves. Some other schools, like Cornell Tech, require students to complete a pre-recorded interview after a first round of selection. Fortunately, I got admitted to both, so let’s talk about some of them.
First Step is Looking Good
While most schools will indicate that “quality of video doesn’t matter”, I still think it is very important to look good on camera. After all, if everyone is using a crappy laptop camera and your image and sound quality really shines, it shows your character. Here are three ways you can do.
First and easiest is use my phone. Not the front facing camera, but the back main camera that I use to take photos every day. An optional, yet worthy equipment to invest in is a tripod with a phone holder. This helps me hold and stabilize your image and free my hands during recording. I used a free software (although they do have cheap paid version) called Epoccam on my iPhone 12 Mini with a Windows 10 laptop. Basically, it lets me use your phone as a webcam device, and it can even use the microphone on my phone as a sound input (aka microphone) device. Thus yielding very good quality videos. It is also a very good tool for everyday video conferencing. For most people, I highly recommend it.
If you want to get even better (Which from this point is quite unnecessary, but if you have the equipment, why not make it perfect?), you can use a camera and an external microphone. For some newer cameras (I have a Fujifilm X-S10) produced by Fujifilm, Canon, Sony, there is a webcam utility that you can install onto your machine to turn your camera into a webcam by plugging it in. Here are some: Fujifilm X Webcam Utility, Sony Imaging Edge, and Canon EOS Webcam Utility.
For older cameras that does not have such support, you can invest in a capture card in order to turn your camera into a webcam. This approach is usually used by a lot of Twitch Streamers, who use their DSLR or mirrorless camera as their streaming camera. While streamers usually go for the Elgato CamLink 4K for the best image quality, unless you want to become a streamer, I actually don’t recommend buying a CamLink due to its three digit price. Instead, a year ago I was watching random youtube videos and saw EposVox’s review on a cheap capture card. It only costs around $20 on Amazon and out of tech savy curiousity, I ordered one from Amazon. It actually works quite well, and gets everything I want it to do… done! So if you want a cheap capture card to work with your camera, this is a good option.
Many of us have crappy microphones on our computers. External microphones are cheap to buy and are a worthy investment to make in the long run if the pandemic doesn’t go away and we need to do a lot of video conferencing. External clip mic is quite easy to find and buy and almost every external mic has better sound than internal mic, I won’t elaborate too much here. Instead, some might find them in a situation that they have an external mic, but no port to plug into. I recommend a cheap (but surprisingly good) USB sound card made by Creative called Sound Blaster Play! 3, which will cost you around $20. It delivers very good sound quality, and most importantly, allows you to plug into your microphone. I highly recommend this product, it is cheap, small, gets thing done, without unnecessary functionalities.
Nailing the Interview
Parsons School of Art required me to record a video of myself answering some questions, for around 1 minute. One seemingly easy but actually difficult thing to do, is to look directly into the camera while talking. Because I know the questions ahead of time, I wrote down my answers word by word and tried to just read it off from the script while recording. When I watch the playback, I find it is easy to see me peaking elsewhere and looking back and fourth between the camera and somewhere else. Eventually, I just memorized my response and looked at the camera all the way while recording. Seems like this really helped in my application.
Cornell Tech, on the other hand, required me to complete a recorded interview after I submitted my application. This is the way that they filter out people that have poor communication skills but have a really good personal statement because they have an agent who wrote it for them. The form is very similar to a technical interview that one would face if one applies to a tech company. There is a website that I had to log onto using an unique link they sent me, it will show the question for a minute, and I have to respond directly after that. All questions are easy questions, in my opinion, and does not involve any technical questions. Just jog down some points, and speak with confident. In my opinion it is more testing on my communication skills than testing on if I can answer a question perfectly.
I will write a separate post on interviews and post-admission. Stay tuned!
I hope this is helpful.
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