I am currently applying to PhD programmes to Computer Science departments in the area of Natural Language Processing. My grades are rather mediocre, though during my bachelor (3yrs) and master (2yrs) studies, I managed to publish several papers as the main author (two of them to the top-level (ACL) conferences in the field). As a consequence of my publishing focus, my grades are not perfect. This is made more confusing by the fact that my undergraduate school uses 1-4 best-worst grading scale (I have 1.24 average) and my graduate school yet another grading system but with a similar average.

At most department websites it is stated that the department faculty do not take care of the admissions and that they are handled by the admission committee. This makes me wonder whether my application (and publication history) will even make it to closer inspection or whether the first filtering happens at the level of grades. I believe that this altogether makes the application somewhat confusing and less competitive, especially when the schools I am applying to (top institutions and Ivy League) mention that they receive hundreds of applications every year and that every part of my application should be strong, otherwise there is no point in applying (and paying the application fee and bothering my supervisors to upload their letters of recommendations).

Finally, I do not have any GRE scores as for this and last year admission rounds, most of the schools stopped requiring it and the majority of them do not even accept it.


In total, I am applying to 15 top-tier graduate schools for a PhD. All these schools list roughly 5% acceptance rate. Assuming that my application comes from the same population, this gives me only a little over 50% chance of getting accepted somewhere. This makes me wonder whether I should change my selection strategy because apart from my research and some teaching experience, my application has little to offer (e.g. no awards or internships at Google) and I am not sure whether it's going to make it through the first pass.

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    With such a narrow range of applications, you are very likely to be disappointed. Too much competition for too few slots.
    – Buffy
    Sep 19, 2021 at 12:27
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    you need to clearly explain the marking scheme in your cover letter, hopefully with reference to the transcript or school website where details on the marking scheme can be verified.. Sep 19, 2021 at 13:13
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    Besides applying also to some less selective schools (which you should obviously do), in a case like yours it is crucial to write the faculty who might be interested in working with you so they can, if interested, put a word in in favor of your application. Sep 20, 2021 at 0:38

1 Answer 1


My strong recommendation is to modify your application strategy. There is nothing wrong about applying to top tier schools, but you limit your chances of getting any bid if you limit it to that.

The US (where it seems you will be applying), has may very fine schools, often state universities, within the top 100 institutions. Some are stronger in some fields than in others, of course. But they tend to have larger faculties than many of the top (but smaller) schools, so you get a wider set of choices in advisor.

It is impossible to predict how you will do, since the members of admissions committees all have their own views. But for top tier schools, most of the applications that are seriously considered are near perfect. Some (sadly) have GPA cutoffs.

A broader search gives you more options and a greater opportunity for success.

Yes, 'lots' of papers is a plus, but the selection process is broad based.

  • What distribution of applications would you suggest? 5 in top 20, 5 in top 50, 5 in top 100? Or should one go further down?
    – Vilda
    Sep 21, 2021 at 8:26
  • Maybe top 50 or so, but it doesn't need to be a uniform distribution.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2021 at 11:22
  • I'm not sure I understood your comment. Are you suggesting to stay in top 50 or to go to top 150?
    – Vilda
    Sep 21, 2021 at 11:39
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    No, I'm suggesting that your distribution can be biased toward the top schools with a few further down. Just don't make it narrowly focused.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2021 at 11:41

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