Applying to study for the Ph.D. degree

This document describes a procedure of applying to study for the Ph.D. degree in Computer Science in the United States and Canada. Although this process was used for applying to the Computer Science study, the most of it can be probably used in general. This text describes only the procedure. Motivation and background information on individual steps can be found in [1].

Before you begin

Before you begin you have to decide whether you want to study for the Ph.D. degree or not. It's up to you. The process of applying is expensive so either you have to be a big joker or you must take it seriously. You have to be prepared spend about USD $500 and a lot of time in the application process. But the price is worthwhile.

Application procedure

In this section we describe the steps of the application process. The given dates show usually the latest possible moment for the given action. The year Y indicates the proposed year of the entry to the Ph.D. school.
  1. July-June (Y-1) - Select Schools
  2. August-September (Y-1) - Obtain an Application Packages
  3. September (Y-1) - Register for TOEFL, GRE's
  4. October-November (Y-1) - Take TOEFL
  5. November-December (Y-1) - Take GRE General Test and Subject Test
  6. November-December (Y-1) - Prepare the Application and Supporting Materials
  7. December (Y-1) - Send the Application
  8. February-March Y - Wait for Responses and Chose Your Destination
  9. March-August Y - End?
  • A Cost of an Application Process
  • Paying for Services
  • Differences in Other Fields of Study
  • Financing Study

    Selecting Schools

    July-June (Y-1)

    You should select your desired university or school. There is no general advice for this step. Follow your taste. Ask people in the area of your interest for advice.

    WWW is a relatively good source of information on universities but sometimes you could find out-of-date information. You can usually ask directly the university for up-to-date materials.

    On WWW you can use lists of universities worldwide, or URL's like www.???.edu. For universities in the United States you can use this ranklist. You can send a letter to something like "Graduate Program / Department of Whatever / University of Whatever / City, State, ZIP"

    Obtaining Application Packages

    August-September (Y-1)

    After you have made some decision on universities to which you will apply you need to get application packages from them.

    Some universities offer downloadable packages over Internet. This is quite comfortable because you can fill-in application forms using computer.
    For packages from other universities you could ask at their Graduate Offices.

    Registering For Tests

    September (Y-1)

    You have to register yourself for TOEFL test and GRE tests. Information on those tests can be obtained via WWW or directly from your local test administrator. Embassy of U.S.A. in your country usually has some idea who is your local administrator, so you can ask them. You should obtain bulletins on those tests. Those bulletins include registration forms.

    Note: see (in Czech).


    TOEFL - Test of English As a Foreign Language - is usually administered four times a year so you have no many options. Registration for TOEFL test has to be done 6 weeks before actual testing date. Take in an account time for mail delivery of your registration form.

    This test is usually required from all international students whose language of instruction in previous attended institutions was not English. It is not required from native English-speaking people.

    In 1997/98 TOEFL test costs $63.

    GRE General Test

    GRE General Test - Graduate Record Examination General Test - is administered in two forms: Paper Based Testing and Computer Based Testing (CBT).

  • Paper based testing is administered about three times a year so you have to choose the date carefully. This test should be registered 6 weeks before actual testing date.

  • Computer based testing is administered more flexible and you have to register 3 weeks before testing if you are paying by check or just a few days before testing if you are paying by some kind of credit card. In such case you can fax the registration form directly to a registration center (see bulletin.)

    This test is usually required by all universities.

    In 1997/98 GRE General Test costs $96 in U.S. and $120 outside U.S.

    GRE Subject Test

    There are several GRE Subject Tests for various subjects. You have to choose the one that is required by the department to which you apply. Almost all departments require from an applicant to make some Subject Test (esp. if you are applying to computer science department}. Read very carefully application instruction for determining which one you have to take. Information on this topic could be somewhere inside the application materials.

    Subject Tests are administered in paper based form only. Subject Tests on all subject areas are administered on the same day as paper based GRE General Test so they are administered three times a year, too.

    You can take General Test and one of the Subject Tests on the same day because General Test is administered morning and Subject Tests are administered afternoon. But it could be exacting to take two tests on the same day.

    Similar to General Test registration you should register for Subject Test 6 weeks before taking test.

    However, there is a big difference between GRE tests and TOEFL test. You can register for GRE tests as a standby directly at test center on the day of the test. This service costs extra money (about $35) and you have no guarantee that you will be admitted to the test. There are also some other limitations on such registration.
    Such registration is pretty risk especially for subject tests because you have to find some test center with appropriate test materials (Such test center could be far away (for example 400km in another country) and you may need to phone to ETS at Princeton for information on it. You can use email of course but answer time could be a week (they are probably overloaded before testing dates.))

    Important: Register early for all tests. CBT Test dates especially in December may be overloaded and you will be automatically scheduled on later dates.

    In 1997/98 GRE Subject Test costs $96 in U.S. and $120 outside U.S.

    Taking TOEFL

    October-November (Y-1)

    On the date of TOEFL test you have to report at the test center on stated time. You should take to the test center some stuff like ID cards, pencils, erasers, and so on. Read instructions for taking TOEFL test in its bulletin.

    At the test center you shall fill-in to which institutions your score should be reported. So, on the test day you should have a very good idea to which universities you will apply. You can request to send scores to up to three or four institutions free of charge. If you need report your score to more institutions you can request it. But this is charged service so you will pay about $10 for every additional institution.

    IMHO it is worthwhile to be prepared for this test. At least you can exercise filling in an answer sheets. :-)

    Taking GRE General Test and Subject Test

    November-December (Y-1)

    This is similar to taking TOEFL test.

    If you are registering as a standby be early in the test center. Standby registration is served on first-come bases.

    Preparing Application and Supporting Materials

    November-December (Y-1)

    You have to obtain and prepare following materials:

    You have to collect all those materials and send them along with application fee to given office. Application fee ranges from $40 to $60.

    Application form - You have to fill in application forms. This is terrible task. Some application packages contain even tens of forms, fortunately some contain only a few forms. Fill them very carefully. This takes much of time.

    Letters of recommendation - You usually need three letters of recommendation. It's a good idea to ask people who know you quite well. Give them enough time to write such letters (a month or more - they are usually busy people.)
    Some universities supply forms for letters of recommendation. They are included in application package.

    Transcripts - You have to obtain transcripts of your academic records from previous (and actually) attended post-secondary institutions. Contact Study Offices of those institutions. This could take also some time.
    In case they are not issued in English language, you have to let them translate and send them with certified translations.

    Note: see (in Czech).

    Curriculum Vitae - Usually you should send a Curriculum Vitae but it is not always required.

    Subject of purpose - This is required part of application. You should write, why you are applying, what you want to study, why you apply to this particular school, and so on.

    Resumes - If you have some "working" experiences related to your study (participation in some project, teaching, ...) you can include brief resume.

    Sample work - This could hold for some other fields of study than computer science.

    Sending Application

    December (Y-1)

    Check application deadline and send done application package to destination. It is a good idea to send it early enough. Deadlines fall usually in the range January 1st - February 1st. Take in an account Christmas overloaded mail services.

    Waiting For Responses And Choosing Destination

    February-March Y

    After receiving offers of admission you have to select one of them, commit it and cancel the others. Selecting among them is usually hard task. Ask other people for advice. Try to contact some people that studied offered programs or visited those schools.


    March-August Y

    This is probably not the end. It is probably the beginning. You have to obtain VISA, "close all windows", move...

    ... Good luck

    Cost of application process

    There is a real approximation of the cost of an application process in the year 1997/98. This is for situation in which you apply to three institutions from outside U.S.

    TOEFL Test $63
    GRE General Test $120
    GRE Subject Test $120
    Application fee $40-$60 per institution
    -> 3 * $50 = $150
    Banque services $10-$50
    Postal services $10-$20
    Paper, pencil, printing, ... $10
    Totalaprox. $510

    There could be some additional fees:
    Additional score report - TOEFL$11 per institution
    Additional score report - GRE$13 per institution
    GRE Standby registration$35

    In case you do not live in the place of TOEFL/GRE test center you should count with extra money for transportation and possible accommodation.

    Paying for services

    Fees (i.e. application fee, registration fees for tests, and so on) are usually required to be paid by checks or by money orders. Sometimes it is possible to pay fees by credit card (VISA, MasterCard, American Express, and so on) but this supposes you have any.

    In some cases there is also possible to apply for fee waving.

    Note: see (in Czech).

    Differences in other fields of study

    If you are applying in other field than computer science possibly you should take also some other tests. For example TWE (Test of Written English) or TSE (Test of Spoken English). Police for those tests will probably be similar to police for TOEFL and GRE Tests.

    Financing your study

    Study is very expensive. In case you have enough money to cover your study and living expenses a priori, you are lucky. In other cases there are some sources of financial support for your study.

    Firstly, there are some "external" foundations that offer financial support for students. You should contact them and apply for such support (of course if you are eligible for it). List of few such institutions can be found in TOEFL/GRE bulletins. (It is from other reasons there so that there are also other foundations not listed in those bulletins.)

    Secondly, universities and schools usually also offer some financial support for their students. For such support you usually apply along with application for study. Either there could be separate form or you should check some options directly on application.

    Such support could be in any of the following forms:

    Such support is usually merit-based. There could be also need-based help. It could be for example in the form of loans.


    I would like to thank to many people that have supported me during application process and to people that have given me valuable advices. Especially I would like to thank to Tomas Karakolev for information on TOEFL/GRE tests, to Jiri Sgall for practical information on study in U.S., and (last but not least) to Tom Holan for his general advices.
    Also I would like to mention excellent paper by Philip Agre


    [1] Agre, P. E., Advice for Undergraduates - Considering Graduate School, Crossroads - The ACM Student Magazine, Summer 1997, 24-27.
    [2] Untitled, Paper issued by Fulbright Commission.

    Note: see (in Czech).


    I am computer scientist so I have seen many software disclaimers. There are some.

    Warning: Using instructions and information contained in this document is on your own risk.


    Michal Koucký, (c) May 1998, Permission to copy and to distribute this document is hereby granted.