Varun Nayak: MS Admit to Stanford University

DoJMA caught up with Varun Nayak, who will be joining Stanford University, USA for his higher degree programme. Read on to glean some words of wisdom straight from the horse’s mouth.

DoJMA: How did you opt for pursuing an MS, in the face of the multitude of options available such as MBA, the GATE or any other choice? At what stage of your undergraduate study did you decide on doing an MS?

VN: Although I used to have thoughts about how valuable an MBA after engineering could be during my second year, it did not seem as attractive to me when I went through its curriculum and job profiles. In 3-1, I started appreciating academics and projects much more than I used to (despite the general trend). Once I started browsing through the myriad of research projects at various universities in search of a thesis adviser, I became completely sure that I wanted to pursue an MS. This happened towards the end of 3-1. I even dropped out of placements and chose to graduate early to gain more research experience. I preferred the US over Indian universities mainly because of the industry-relevance of their graduate programs and world-renowned professors.

DoJMA: Which branch will you be graduating in from this University?

VN: I will be pursuing my M.S. in mechanical engineering with a focus on robotics.

DoJMA: Which universities did you apply to and from which universities did you receive admits?

VN; I was accepted by Carnegie Mellon University, University of Michigan, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania and rejected by ETH Zurich, Georgia Tech and University of California – Berkeley.

DoJMA: What was the thought process while shortlisting universities for the purpose of sending your application?

VN: I already had about 15-20 universities in mind based on their strengths in robotics research based on the research I had done while applying on my thesis. The quality and relevance of coursework, current projects, faculty, facilities and location were the factors which helped reduce this number to 8. This can be found by thoroughly going through university websites and speaking to current students. The application process is arduous and expensive. It is better to keep the total number below 10 to preserve the quality of each application. It is generally advised to have a few “moderate” and “safe” universities on your list along with the ambitious ones. I tried to follow that to some extent based on my confidence.

DoJMA: Which factors did you consider while choosing Stanford from the universities you had got admits from?

VN: The most striking feature about Stanford is its curricular flexibility: only about half of the total units need to be completed from my department. This is especially useful for a field as interdisciplinary as robotics. Top contenders in my list such as CMU(MRSD) and UPenn weren’t as attractive in these terms in spite of being at par with Stanford in most other factors. Labs at Stanford are flush with funds from its insanely large endowment and industry collaborations. The Silicon Valley location gives it an edge in terms of job opportunities. The pleasant Californian weather also played a part.

DoJMA: How did you build your profile to suit the requirements of the university?

VN: “Profile building” doesn’t really happen with the goal of pursuing graduate studies or joining a particular university, in my opinion. Having said that, if one is clear about going for an MS well in advance, the focus should be on academics (CGPA), research experience and long-term impactful projects. I took a couple of courses from the EEE department as electives and also completed a few relevant online courses. I had a couple of good projects owing to my time spent at AeroD and a decent DoP. Interning at IIT Madras during the summer gave me my first publication. My thesis was probably the single most important part of my profile as it was challenging and required extensive independent study. Extra-curricula’s’ like holding a PoR in AeroD and being active in college sports also added a bit to my profile.

DoJMA: What were the strong points of your SOP, in your opinion, and what was your CGPA before applying?

VN: I believe that my SoP explained very comprehensively, the journey that culminated into a strong desire and my preparedness to pursue graduate studies. There was a healthy balance of academic, research and personal experiences giving a good idea of who I am and how graduate studies will push me towards my aspirations. I made sure that I reached out to multiple seniors for feedback and refinement. It is very important to highlight intricate details and not just replicate your CV in paragraph form, which is the most common mistake among applicants.

My CGPA during the time of application was 9.2.

DoJMA: How will you rank each of these, in increasing order of importance, for an admit to a coveted university: a) CGPA, b) GRE score, c) TOEFL score, d) LOR, e) SOP, f) projects and research work, g) extracurricular involvement such as a POR, h) good fortune

VN: For MS programs: CGPA > Projects/Research > SoP > LoR > Extra-curriculars > GRE >> TOEFL. Fortune favors the brave.

DoJMA: How did you receive the required guidance for GRE and TOEFL? When did you write each of these exams? Which sources did you use for the preparation of these exams?

VN: I wrote both GRE and TOEFL in July 2017, right after my summer internship came to an end. I used material from ETS and Barron’s for GRE/TOEFL and videos from Notefull and Magoosh for TOEFL. I paid special importance to the format of each exam and took about 7-8 mock tests. It is always best to develop a strategy for such exams.

DoJMA: How did you get the necessary recommendations from the professors involved in your LORs?

VN: Four professors were willing to write me recommendations. Since I was not on campus during the application period, I wrote emails to them in September itself. It is better to meet them personally if possible. I requested my thesis adviser to write me one in November, as he knew me well by then. Most universities require three recommendations. Sometimes it is better to have a couple more as backup if you are applying to a larger number of universities.

DoJMA: Why did you choose to obtain an MS degree directly instead of obtaining some job experience beforehand?

VN: Since I genuinely want to remain in core, there weren’t many good job opportunities after B.E. I also feel that I lack relevant skills required to land a good job, which I wish to gain from my MS studies. Another reason for this is that I feared that I may lose interest in academia after working for a few years. Having job experience does not affect much, the value that one gains for doing an MS, as opposed to something like an MBA. In fact, I feel that it’s best to go for graduate studies when your concepts in mathematics and engineering from B.E. are fresh in your mind.

DoJMA: Did you factor in funding while applying to universities?

VN: MS students in US are generally not awarded aid. Hence, I neither factored it in nor kept my hopes up. However, I enquired about TA/RA opportunities at some universities to calculate how much I could save on tuition costs. These jobs pay well. Universities in the European Union provide tones of financial aid in comparison.

DoJMA: How did you arrange for accommodation near your university?

VN: Stanford provides subsidized on and off campus housing for its students, which I have applied for. Although not guaranteed throughout, it is a boon given the unearthly living costs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

DoJMA: Any message that you would like to pass on to the readers?

VN: MS is a huge investment of your time and money and hence, it is extremely important to explore your options before being sold to the idea of it. Try your best to keep a healthy CGPA and never stop learning even outside the classroom! The internet, your XoPs and collaborative projects in courses and technical clubs actually teach you a lot more than you think. Make full use of the freedom that BITS offers! Future applicants can always reach out to me for any advice: varunnayak3101@gmail.com.