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I have a friend who'll be attending a graduate program in Physics, at a school I would be interested in for when I am applying to grad schools. However, I'm a CS major, so I'd be applying for that.

My question is what can he do that would help at all in making my admission more likely? I know the research he'll be doing is interdisciplinary (Physics and CS) so he'll have some interaction with CS. As a first-year grad student, he won't have much weight, but I'm still curious.

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It is highly unlikely that they would have any ability to directly influence your admission to any graduate program. It is plausible that they could help you indirectly, however. They could be helpful for the following:

  • Scouting Professors/Labs: Finding out more about the interests and goals of the professors and labs that you would want to work with. This would help you tailor your application so that certain professors might be more likely to advocate for you, if they see a good fit for you in their lab.
  • Gathering Comparisons: Talking to recent grad students admitted to the program and seeing if they wouldn't mind sharing their application packets, so you could see what a successful candidate looks like (and what factors seem to be valued).
  • Informal Reference: If a professor who is reviewing your application packet has worked with your friend, they might ask them for some details about you. This is highly unlikely in your case, due to them being a new student and in a different department. I provided this kind of background once when my lab was evaluating an acquaintance of mine from my undergraduate program. It is fairly uncommon and would not sway the decision greatly.

Some of these things would have been more effective if they were performed earlier (e.g, gathering comparison CV's), since it gives you more time to beef up any weak spots that you have or to build on your strengths.

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There are a couple of places where your friend may be able to help you. First, some programs have admission committees that include a few graduate students from their own program. Depending on the culture in the program, the student involvement may range from administrative/paperwork assistance to direct evaluation of the applicants. Unfortunately this opportunity is usually not provided to a first year student (or a student outside the department, for that matter). Moreover, if your application is not strong already it's hard for your friend to argue for your case in front of the faculty even if he/she really wants to promote your application.

A second possibility is the interview. During the interview/recruitment weekend, student involvement is quite common. You may be assigned a student host who will walk you around and make sure that you make it to your interviews. During social events (such as dinners, poster sessions, etc) you also have a chance to talk with students in the program. Usually after the recruitment the program will solicit opinions/comments from the students. Thus given the already positive relation between you and your friend, he/she will likely give you favorable reviews after the recruitment, making an admission offer more likely. Unfortunately, this scenario will only help you if you can make it to the interview stage in the first place. But if you've already reached the interview stage, the program most likely will give you an offer anyway, providing that you don't do anything stupid during the interview. So overall the effect of having a friend in the program is minimal in this regard.

To sum up: it's better to work on your GPA, research experience, GRE, etc., rather than wasting time trying to find "shortcuts" like this.

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    Given that the OP is in CS and the friend is in the physics department, it's even more unlikely that the friend will be on the OP's admission committee. – ff524 Apr 18 '16 at 4:51
  • @ff524 Yes that's exactly right. I added this point to my answer. – Drecate Apr 18 '16 at 5:20
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    Having your friend try to get on the admissions committee and push your application is unethical, unless he discloses his relationship with you. If he does disclose it, his "help" probably won't have a positive effect. – David Ketcheson Apr 18 '16 at 6:00
  • @DavidKetcheson you are right it's not ethical but I didn't say it was going to have a positive effect anyway. Also, you do realize that the whole idea of networking is based on the same idea right? – Drecate Apr 18 '16 at 13:54
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Depending on the school, one common question that is often asked is how likely is this student to accept our offer, particularly with fellowships. This is generally more an issue for the more middle of the road schools, especially ones in backwater locations. If this is the case, then anything you mention that indicates you have ties to the area can be helpful, because it signals more than just a passing interest in the school. In this context, your friend's presence there may be able to strengthen your application by helping you form a coherent argument as to why you want to attend that particular school.

For example, suppose you visited your friend at the school once for whatever reason. If that is true, mentioning that you have been to the school and liked something about the campus or whatever is helpful. If you have spent time at the school or the area for one reason or another and actually liked it, it is worth briefly including, because it helps to communicate your serious intent to relocate your life to that school.

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