Reflection: My Graduate School Application

Class of 2021 is one of the most challenging classes in the history of the 21st century. Fortunately, I am lucky to get admission to the EPFL Master of Computer Science program. I would like to share some detail of my application process in case it would benefit future CUHKSZers.

Main Direction: Research-Based Programs

My main direction is a research-based program in CS. Frankly speaking, I don’t want to be a programmer in SV; otherwise, I should have applied to some MS programs in the USA. I have spent a summer at Berkeley, and I can clearly see the cultural difference and the potential difficulty of living and studying in the US, especially as an Asian.

My research interest is Computer Systems and System Software, which is really challenging and exciting. I will explain more in another post. For systems research, the US is, of course, the academic center and also Europe. However, few systems researchers are in Asia, probably because all Asian talents research AI, lol.

With the one-year systems research following Prof. Yeh-Ching Chung, I have decided to pursue a research-based graduate degree. Actually, Prof. Chung always persuaded me for a Ph. D. degree, and I have tried my best to find one. Still, I finally choose EPFL’s master program, and I believe I would continue for a Ph. D. study after that.

I have listed 11 milestones as follow. Enjoy it!

Milestone 1: My First TOEFL Test – May 2019

Well, I didn’t expect this TOEFL test would be the one I used for my graduate application. Fortunately, I got an OK score at this time.

I would take one TOEFL test at the end of my sophomore year and more tests at my junior year in my original plan. Therefore, I didn’t have well prepared for it. I tried my best to remember all vocabulary in my leisure time. Then, I took the test one week after the final exam of my sophomore year, and I only used that week to do exercises. As a result, I got 103 (Speaking 22) on this test.

At that time, I thought I could improve my score in the subsequent trial. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came in 2020, and my second TOEFL trial in March 2020 was canceled. Meanwhile, I needed to prepare for my GRE test and also worked on my research. That’s really a tough time!

My suggestion is to try your best to prepare for your first trial because you may not have a second chance.

Milestone 2: My First GRE Test – January 2020

I originally had the following plan: TOEFL – GRE – the lower one – another one. Therefore, I had my first GRE test at the beginning of January 2020, right before the COVID-19. It was one of the most essential decisions I had made because otherwise, I may directly give up any applications requiring GRE scores.

I used my Christmas holiday preparing for my GRE test without taking any courses. Since I didn’t have a language talent, I only got an OK score this time: 321, which only allows me to apply to Asia and European graduate schools, but not America’s. I registered for another test after I finished the test and received my score, but unfortunately, it was canceled due to the COVID-19.

If I had a second chance, I would have prepared for my GRE test in my sophomore year and finished it in 3 months, taking some courses. Like many standardized tests, few skills are required for GRE, but the tricks and test methods. With those tricks, everyone can succeed in 3 months.

Milestone 3: COVID-19 and Tests Canceled – Spring 2020

The spring of 2020 was terrible. Courses were online. We had to stay home. And all tests were canceled. It was challenging and demanding for the whole class of 2021 because we were competing against other students and time. The application would not delay because you have not taken tests, so you lived under high pressure and a feeling of losing control of yourself. I hope this would never happen again.

Milestone 4: My Paper Accepted – August 2020

As mentioned in my previous post, the first good news in 2020 is accepting my paper on MEMSYS 2020. It means that my hard work in the most challenging time pays off. With this paper accepted, I can stand out from other competitors, and it helps me a lot when reaching out to potential supervisors. I strongly suggest having at least one first-author paper before your graduate school application for those who would like to apply for direct-PhD programs. In other words, it is an essential requirement for all top schools.

Milestone 5: NUS Interview – September 2020

With the paper acceptance, I started reaching out to potential supervisors in August 2020. It was really hard and disappointing because most American professors would not even reply to your emails. You know, before sending each email, I have at least read one of their papers and try my best to align their research to my personal experience. It takes time but mostly your time is simply wasted.

If I had the chance to go to Washington DC to attend the MEMSYS 2020 conference in person, I would have much more chances to meet professors. Unfortunately, it became virtual without even a Zoom meeting. We presenters only uploaded our videos on the conference website, and probably nobody will watch them. Disappointing!

In the first two weeks, I only contacted US professors and failed. Then, I switched to Singapore and HK schools and found some nice professors.

I found Professor Djordje Jevdjic at NUS in early September, and his research area aligned with my previous research of in-memory storage. We met on Zoom twice soon and talked nicely. In the meeting, I present my previous work to him, and he would pause me to ask me fundamental questions on OS. Then, he discussed his fascinating research topics. Personally speaking, he is my best choice if I were not admitted by EPFL. I strongly recommend you to consider him as your supervisor if your research area is computer systems.

Milestone 6: CUHK Interview – October 2020

Meanwhile, I also contacted several CUHK professors on systems. One professor required at least 6-months RA and rejected me with an interview organized by 3 of his Ph. D. students. Then, I met Professor Eric Lo.

Professor Eric Lo works on many topics on computer systems, including database, distributed systems, AI for systems, and so on. He is a nice professor, but the interview process is not so satisfying. In total, I spent 8 rounds of interviews on his position. The first 5 rounds were a 1-to-1 interview organized by his 5 Ph. D. students. Then, he met me once. One month later, I passed the committee interview. And finally, we had the last talk. Personally speaking, I think it is too tiring, and he explains that he would like to first ask his students’ opinions before considering me. That makes sense and is really Hong Kong style…

In October 2020, I passed his first 5 rounds interviews by his students and had a nice talk with him. He promised to give me a Ph. D. position, but also told me that I had little chance for HKPFS because I didn’t have any National Prize (国家奖学金). Well, this is also very Hong Kong style…

From his students, I know he is very kind to his students and his students enjoy working with him. Therefore, I also submitted CUHK’s application and considered being his student.

Personally speaking, Hong Kong is not an international academic city. Most Ph. D. students are Chinese students who do not want to go to graduate schools in mainland China. Therefore, it is a very competing (卷) place to do research. From my perspective, one’s working hours are proportional to the ratio of Asia students (especially Chinses students) in the lab.

Milestone 7: My Last GRE Test – October 2020

At the same time preparing my interviews, I took a GRE course from 考满分 and learned those tricks. Finally, I got a score 328 and that was enough for my application. This course is very useful and the materials help me very much! If you consider taking this course, you may contact me (and I will get some refer to share with you).

Milestone 8: CUHK Unofficial Offer – November 2020

In November 2020, I passed the CUHK committee interview. In this interview, 4 professors asked me basic questions about data structures, OS, and programming. It is very Hong Kong style! (They even did not really care about my research experience.) Later, I received Eric’s reply that he would reserve a position for me. Moreover, he understood I also applied to other schools, and he would like to wait for me until the spring of 2021.

If you would like to apply to Hong Kong Ph. D. programs, you should have a high GPA and solid knowledge. Mostly they care about your course works unless you have extraordinary research experiences. Probably they also adopt the same admission principle as most mainland universities now.

Milestone 9: Application Submissions – December 2020

In December 2020, I submitted my applications to the following programs:

  • CUHK Ph. D.
  • NUS Ph. D.
  • ETH MSCS
  • EPFL MSCS
  • MIT Ph. D.
  • UC Berkeley Ph. D.
  • CMU Ph. D.
  • Columbia Ph. D.
  • Cornell Ph. D.

All American schools are top ones because I didn’t want to compensate for my life and happiness unless the reward (a top Ph. D. degree) deserves it. Actually, I had ever considered Wisconsin Madison, but it was too cold there, and I gave up. Moreover, I had received CUHK and NUS’s promise, so I decided to apply to TOP schools only.

In the process, I would like to thank everyone who helped with my essay, including my uncle, my OS teacher Jack Klob at UC Berkeley, teachers in 芝士圈, teachers in Cheersyou, and teachers in CPDO. But personally speaking, the service provided by CPDO was not so satisfying because they forgot to tell me my consulting time, and their teacher didn’t read my essay before the consulting. If you require essay help, you can ask me (and I can also get refer :). In total, I spent around 5k on my application, except the application fees charged by each university.

Milestone 10: NUS Unofficial Offer – March 2021

NUS is TOO late! TOO low efficient! I submitted my application in December and their interview was arranged in March! In March, I had received rejections from all US schools and also ETH, so I was very close to choose NUS. Another reason is that nobody was admitted by EPFL in the history of our university.

If NUS had the committee interview in February and gave me the offer before March, I might have accepted it and giving up EPFL’s offer. But disappointing, the NUS admission process is prolonged. And before receiving NUS’s official offer, I was admitted by EPFL, so bye-bye, NUS.

Milestone 11: EPFL Offer! – March 2021

I didn’t expect it would happen. But I made it. I am the first person admitted to EPFL in CUHK(SZ) history, majoring in Computer Science. This year is the tough one because of the US government and the COVID-19. I know many students prefer Switzerland’s schools to the US ones, making EPFL much more competitive. I am so lucky to be admitted, and I decide to accept EPFL’s offer and end my application year. Wish me good luck!

Lessons I Have Learned

  • Plan everything earlier.
  • Plan for the worst but wish for the best.
  • Try your best on the first trial.
  • Do your own school research and don’t follow the majority.
  • Building up your connections is essential.

Reference:

Hopefully the following links are useful:


Read more about my undergraduate reflections: Summary List.

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