I've read at quite a few places about criteria for admissions to graduate programs.

A common theme was that a typical PhD program's admission committee looks for evidence of research potential in the application.

However no such thing is said about a Master's program. So, I want to ask the academia folks: What does a typical Master's program's admission committee look for in an application?

If this is too broad: the field is Computer Science, and the countries interesting universities are based in are US/UK/Switzerland. General Answers are also welcome.

  • Are you asking about professional programs (intended to train students for industry workforce needs) or academic programs (intended to educate generally in the subject and prepare students for PhD programs or community college teaching)? Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 19:34
  • @AlexanderWoo If the answer talks about both and also generically (i.e sometimes programs don't specify/do both, sometimes they give the student that option (research vs coursework) in their second year, etc.)
    – whoisit
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 19:43

6 Answers 6


Master's degree in CS / Information Science (and many other fields) are a big revenue source. Some ethical universities will want to restrict admissions to students who have a good chance of succeeding in the program. They will also want to ensure that graduates of the program are likely to increase their value in the market place, at least sufficiently to set of the costs of going back to school. Some ethical universities use the caveat emptor principle, which means that they will give good and honest information to applicants, but accept all applicants that fulfill the requirements. And then there are universities who see the MS program as a purely commercial transactions. They will not lie, but leave it to the applicants to figure out whether they are a good fit and whether going through the program is going to lead to a better job. And then there are unethical universities who give out misleading information. One way to protect against falling victim to these programs is to look at reputation, because academia is pretty good at finding out what others are up to.

(Why are MS degrees a revenue source? The number of undergraduate student is stagnating now and going to fall soon. Ph.D. students are expensive, since they take up a lot of faculty time and maybe lab spaces. But there are many people in the work-force that are "stuck" in their current level and therefore are looking for new capabilities that are certified. These people often have paid of their student loans and now have disposable money. They might also remember their college days fondly and look for a repetition. At the same time, the workforce gets more and more specialized and cannot find employees with certain capabilities (like right now data analytics). Thus, from the university's point of view, there is a big market, they can serve the needs of the prospective students, and they do not need to lay out money for financial support. For a public university, they are not restricted by legislative mandates.)

In short, in my field, a MS is mainly a commercial transaction. Universities in general try to offer a good value for the money and time spent on the students. Some will want to ensure a high success rate, others rely on the students themselves making a good decision, and there are some who will admit anybody with a breath and an undergraduate degree.

The difference to the Ph.D. is that a Ph.D. student is initially a big investment of time and money, and a later pay-off once the Ph.D. student has become productive. A MS student pays for their way through school as they go.


For a coursework Masters program the admissions are generally determined by performance in a related undergraduate degree, or failing that, equivalent professional experience. For a research Masters program the admissions may be slightly more geared towards the assessment of "research potential" but with a lower expectation than admission to a PhD program. Aside from that, there are many universities with these programs, so many varitions on exactly what they require/prefer for incoming students.


I'm not sure that "typical" masters degree program is a valid concept, actually. There are several kinds. Some are considered terminal degrees, though not usually in CS (MBA, for example).

Most look for undergraduate success and, in the US at least, probably good letters of recommendation. An expressed "eagerness" is probably also a plus, though subtle.

Some programs are purely course based, not unlike an undergraduate degree but with more advanced topics. Some have a research component, though usually time limited, restricting what can be attempted. But a research background in undergrad is unlikely to be required, though treated as a positive.

Some programs are a stepping stone to a doctorate, and some are awarding during doctoral study, perhaps for some extra effort, though not always even that. Asking is enough in some places. But those students were accepted using different criteria than the others.

I've known of programs that are primarily for employed students, perhaps in an area with specific needs to advance the skills of some industry/industries. Places with high-tech concentrations for example. They might look for experience in one of the industries served.

But, it probably boils down mostly to "Will this student benefit from the program and contribute in some way."

And some just treat masters degrees as a revenue source. Some take nearly every applicant, though the applicants are self selecting to some extent. Those who hate schooling and are bad at it are unlikely to apply.

And a "typical" admissions committee, when used, looks for indicators of success in that program whatever its characteristics. If a program accepts nearly all applicants, there might not even be a committee, treating admissions as a clerical function, checking boxes against admissions materials.


Swiss (public) institutions do not care about your money as the tuition fee is heavily subsidized by the government. The acceptance rate for international students is surprisingly high, even at the best institution ETH Zurich. (high) GPA/ranking in your class, graduation from a reputable institution, recommendation letters will be the main factors contributing to the chance of getting accepted.

You also need to fulfill some prerequisite requirements regarding relevant courses taken at previous institutions. For CS Master it is expected that you have already done some CS courses (Data Structures/Algorithms for example), some maths courses (Real Analysis, Linear Algebra, Discrete Maths, etc), etc.

The living cost is cut-throat... There are highly competitive full scholarships. At ETH Zurich there is the ETH Zurich Excellence Master Scholarship, but you have to prepare an excellent research proposal, and even if you have a good one, as I said, it's competitive. It is good to know German. There will be more TA opportunities available to those who are proficient in German. The hourly wage is quite attractive.

  • This does not apply to Executive degrees, diplomas for professional people by the way!
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 14:53
  • I would also note that Swiss Master's are more of a continuation of undergraduate studies and heavily course-based. Additionally, the access to master degrees, even at EPFL and ETHZ, is not selective for Swiss university graduates; acceptance to most programs is guaranteed by law if you have a corresponding Bachelor degree from a Swiss university.
    – xngtng
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 16:32
  • Yes that was the reason why I only mentioned international acceptance rate @xngtng.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 16:33

You should be aware that the UK Masters/MSc market is different from the way things work in other countries, courses are almost exclusively one (calendar) year long and primarily taught (usually about 2/3rds of the overall course weighting).

Since the teaching style isn't too different from undergraduate patterns, admissions panels are broadly looking for similar things; good grades, evidence of interest in the subject area and no obvious weaknesses on the technical side of things. Letters of reference don't usually play a big part unless the author is known & trusted, or the letter is written in a way which damns with faint praise. As with Buffy's answer, some departments use MSc students (particularly international MSc students) as a major revenue stream, leading to fairly large (i.e. undergraduate size) classes.

A small number of institutions offer Masters by Research (MRes) courses, which have a far smaller number of classes and include more training in how to conduct primary research. These are frequently linked to PhD places as an integrated degree, running a little bit more in the US style.


Keep in mind that, at least in the US, the commitment a university puts into a Masters student is much less than that put into a Ph.D. student, from recruitment expenses until the day they graduate.

If a university admits a Ph.D. student they shouldn't have, they've "wasted" (not quite the right word) any money spent bringing that student to campus for tours and interviews. They've wasted a fairly limited slot (departments often have a limit on how many Ph.D. students they can accept). They've wasted tuition waivers.

For Masters, all of this is of much less concern (in the US). A student gets admitted, and a year or two later, they graduate, or don't.

Mostly, what admissions committees look for for Master's students is a feeling that they can handle (i.e., pass) the courses in the curriculum. There's a higher bar if an individual Masters program is highly competitive, of course.

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