I'm an American EE/CompE undergrad at a mid tier(top 200) smaller state school with a 3.96 GPA. I am the first person in my family to attend college, so you can imagine that getting advice on grad schools would be pretty difficult.

My university is not very big on research, so I have looked elsewhere for research opportunities and completed an EE REU at a top 20 university and a CompE Summer Research Program at a top 10 university. I'm looking to work on the Robotics/Perception/AI side of CS. I have posters and have given presentations on my summer research, but I don't have any publications. Realistically, what is my chance of getting into places like MIT EECS, Stanford CS, or UIUC CS? Is it even possible? Would they consider someone with my background, or is just a waste of money to apply?

I also plan on applying for fellowships such as NSF GRFP and will mention that on my application. I'm gonna be graduating in December, so I am currently applying for a prestigious CS research internship at a national lab for the spring(Jan - June). Assuming that I get accepted, would you list it on your Resume/CV in your application as a "future accepted position"? Or would that look unprofessional since you didn't start yet?

Am I at a disadvantage in terms of being a domestic student since most applicants are international? What kind of GRE scores should I be aiming for(I know some universities don't require the GRE)?

Thank you so much! I would really appreciate any feedback or advice that you may have. Sorry if my post is too long.

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    By small state school do you mean flagship university of a small state? Or a school that is lower rank within the state (and if so does your state have a good state university, because here is your domestic-student advantage)? Jul 14, 2019 at 3:40
  • I mean lower rank within a state. I go to one of the larger universities in the CSU system in California.
    – Coder6174
    Jul 14, 2019 at 4:26
  • Then you should definitely consider applying to the top-tier UC's. And take (ace) the GRE to prove you are smarter than your school's ranking. Did you do well on other such tests (SAT, ACT)? Jul 14, 2019 at 5:07
  • Yes I did very well on the SAT. I've taken some practice tests for the GRE and can realistically get in the mid 160s for quant. How high do my scores have to be?
    – Coder6174
    Jul 14, 2019 at 5:37
  • The higher the better. Don't ignore the verbal test either. There's no score that makes you a lock at a top-tier program. The rest of your application is important too. I don't know much about this recent phenomenon of ignoring the GRE. But in my experience, the number of students with top grades and mediocre test scores outnumbers those with both top grades and top test scores by orders of magnitude. So I'd focus on schools where I can use that test score advantage. Jul 14, 2019 at 6:33

2 Answers 2


Let me offer some concrete data to support Buffy's answer, as a faculty member at one of the departments you mention (although I don't work in AI). Short version: Your profile is definitely strong enough to be considered at Illinois, but your chances are low, because everyone's chances are low.

The computer science PhD program at Illinois received about 1100 applications for Fall 2019 admission. More than 300 applicants listed artificial intelligence as their primary research interest. (Another 450 applicants listed AI as one of their secondary research interests.) We offered admission to 35 of these 300+ applicants; about half of those 35 accepted our offers.

(I'm sure the application numbers are significantly higher, and the acceptance rates comparably lower, at MIT and Stanford.)

Almost all of those 35 admitted applicants were from universities with highly-ranked graduate programs. A significant fraction of the accepted applicants already have research publications (or at least strong submissions) at top conferences. A slightly smaller fraction are finishing masters degrees or applied to transfer from another lower-ranked PhD program. (Every successful applicant with some grad school under their belt has already published.)

The main thing we look for in PhD applications is compelling evidence of research potential. This evidence must be explicit in your CV, in your statement, in your choice of references, and in the content of your reference letters. (Not surprisingly, this is also what the NSF GRFP and similar fellowships look for!) So your application really needs to include strong letters from your mentors at both of your REUs.

On the other hand, the biggest resource constraint is faculty attention. We only admit PhD applicants that get several positive reviews from faculty, and at least one faculty member declaring their willingness to advise. Admission in AI isn't ridiculously tight because we don't want to admit people, or because we think the people we reject wouldn't thrive, or even because there isn't enough money. It's tight because students require care and feeding, and AI faculty need to sleep occasionally. So thinking strategically, you may fare better aiming at newer faculty, or at subfields where the department is growing. (Hint: Robotics.)

Finally, if you're not accepted to a strong PhD program straightaway, you might consider joining a research master's program first, to build up your research track-record, and then applying again. But then you really need to publish during your MS program to have a shot; PhD applicants with prior graduate-school experience are held to higher standards. (Not surprisingly, this is true for the NSF GRFP and similar fellowships!)

Assuming that I get accepted, would you list it on your Resume/CV in your application as a "future accepted position"?

Yes, absolutely! (See: evidence of research potential.) But be sure to describe the position in more detail in your statement, to remove any ambiguity.

Am I at a disadvantage in terms of being a domestic student since most applicants are international?

No, not at all. It's true that most applicants are international, but the average international applicant is weaker than the average domestic applicant. (It's really hard to entice our own best undergrads away from six-figure salaries at Appflix or Twitbook or Ubazon or whatever.) Roughly half of our PhD admission offers went to domestic students this year.

What kind of GRE scores should I be aiming for (I know some universities don't require the GRE)?

MIT and Illinois don't require GRE scores (because we think they're useless as evidence of research potential), but Stanford does. You should aim for the best GRE scores you can get.

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    "but the average international applicant is weaker than the average international applicant." I guess something's missing there. Jul 14, 2019 at 20:47
  • 1
    @NimishMishra Oops. Edited to clarify.
    – JeffE
    Jul 14, 2019 at 22:43
  • Thanks Jeff, I really appreciate your advice.
    – Coder6174
    Jul 15, 2019 at 4:49

The main disadvantage that you have isn't the school at which you studied, but only the extreme level of competition for entry at such top level institutions. None of them will (or could) admit every "qualified" applicant. All of them will look at each student's overall record of accomplishment and try to make a judgement about the probability of success in their respective program.

You lose nothing (except maybe money) by applying. But make sure that your application materials clearly demonstrate your drive as well as ability. Probably say something about goals. And get good letters of recommendation.

You want the committee, who will reject many, to put your application folder into the short pile of people to be further considered and not in the larger pile of easy rejects.

Most places would rather have an A student from a school like yours than a C student from Harvard or Yale. But you need to make your case. Acceptance rates are small. It is necessary, however, to have a backup option, either lower rated universities or ideas about work in the (gasp) real world.

  • Thank you so much for you advice Buffy. I really appreciate it.
    – Coder6174
    Jul 15, 2019 at 4:45

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