Hooray! I got accepted into Georgia Tech’s OMSCS program! Thanks for all the kind words of encouragement along the way, and as promised I wanted to take a few minutes to lay out how I successfully applied to this program.
Honestly I’m a bit surprised that I got in — I considered my chances solidly “on the fence”. In my opinion there were a few major strikes against my application:
- I had no formal computer science education and my undergraduate degree was not really related to computer-anything (Aerospace Engineering)
- My undergraduate GPA was quite low (2.9)
- My work experience has entirely been in high school teaching and web development, and the Georgia Tech website specifically calls out experience in web development as maybe not quite enough:
“Keep in mind that computer science means something very specific at Georgia Tech; it usually does not mean information technology, MIS, CIS, or web development.” (Georgia Tech)
My approach to applying was therefore to take each of those weaknesses head-on.
Getting some “informal” education in computer science
Not having any formal computer science courses on my transcript was probably the biggest hurdle for me to overcome. To succeed in this program I would have likely needed a core knowledge of computer science fundamentals. So I spent the last year subscribed to Coursera and completed as many computer science courses as I could, with as good of a grade as I could manage.
In all I completed 18 courses and received a verified certificate in each course (view the full list here). I’m not entirely sure if the certificates were necessary, but my gut tells me without a verified certificate these online courses amount to essentially nothing. Coursera’s subscription was cheap enough ($49/mo) that it was really a no-brainer anyway.
More important than the quality of the coursework was probably the volume of it — I believe I was able to successfully prove to the admissions committee that I could sustain 15-20 hours of coursework for an extended period of time, all with a full-time job and a family at home — something I will have to do while enrolled in the OMSCS program. Proving that I could handle the time commitment was probably as important a factor as proving I could handle the intellectual challenge.
Addressing my undergraduate GPA head-on
If you have a suspect academic credential — in my case it was a poor GPA — I believe the proper strategy is to address the issue head-on, not dwell on it too much, and then prove that you’ll be successful in spite of it. As a student my vice was overcommitment and a slow degradation of my desire to be in the Aerospace industry. I was involved with the freshman orientation program each year, I was in the concert band each year, worked a part-time job, ran the 7:00 Mass at our local church, was always involved in a research project or design competition at NASA, all while attempting to complete a degree that only graduated less than 25% of it’s students.
At the same time I was steadily developing a deep passion to help others in a direct way, and slowly shifted away from my childhood dreams of doing “space exploration”. By the time I graduated my life goals had swung so far in a different direction than when I started college that I actually decided that I would become a Catholic Priest (yes — I had the papers signed and even had that conversation with my parents; thank you Mom and Dad for absorbing all the stress that may have caused…). After spending a couple years in college — and a semester or two afterwards — discerning the priesthood I came to realized that what I was really looking for was to become a teacher.
Looking back, it’s not really a mystery that I averaged just less than a B in my courses. But it’s also obvious to me that my failures in those undergraduate years really had nothing to do with the rigor of the coursework and everything to do with my mental state, an overcommitment to extracurricular things, and a change in life goals at the time. I’ve since received a graduate degree in Physics Education with a much better GPA, which — at least in my own eyes — is proof that my earlier grades were aberrant.
It’s tricky to explain in just a few sentences that while all these experiences contributed to a low GPA they also formed the person am I am today, but that was my approach. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it, and focused the majority of my background essay on my positive journey toward software, but I did address this story directly.
Telling a compelling story about my journey to software
If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering how the heck I found myself in the software industry at all! I started out in aerospace, had a brief stop discerning the priesthood, turned that vocation into a 6-year stint as high school teacher, all before finding a career as a software engineer.
While my particularly circuitous path to software may be unique to me, I believe our industry attracts many professionals with similarly strange career journeys. If you’re in software as a second (or third, or more…) career I don’t think you should be ashamed of anything! Celebrate it! Trying new things and going down strange rabbit holes to gather new experiences is one of the great joys in life, and I wouldn’t change my career experiences for anything.
But to an admissions committee this history seems strange and inconsistent. So, my approach was the tell this story of my experiences, but I highlighted how at every stop — in aerospace, in education, and now in web development — I have always incorporated computer science at some level. As an aerospace student I was always writing software to automate tasks, generate reports, or solve complex problems that spreadsheets couldn’t. As a teacher I built my own website and curriculum platform, then turned that into a startup that I ran with for a few years. All of those experiences contributed to my knowledge of software development.
Selling the story of my future
After I told the story of how I got to where I’m at, my next major goal was the sell a vision of where I’m going. A few months before I submitted my application I had decided that I’ll be spending the next 20 years methodically working my way towards the role of CTO, so this story was fairly easy for me to write. I have a concrete goal and I knew for a fact that obtaining a degree in computer science from Georgia Tech will help me get there.
If you are currently applying to this program — or thinking about whether this program is right for you — I strongly recommend trying to figure out your career goals first, and then deciding if this program aligns with those goals. I feel like this part of my application (my personal essay where I laid out my 20 year plan) was simple for me because I had spent almost a year convincing myself that this is what I wanted to do; convincing the admissions committee at that point was an after-thought.
Structuring my application
I spent quite a bit of time making sure that all of the pieces of my application complimented each other, and that I didn’t waste any space in my essays — which had to be incredibly short, just a couple paragraphs each — repeating some fact about me that I’d already mentioned everywhere else. Here is how I structured things:
- Background Essay: This is where I told the story of how I prepared myself for the program and also included a paragraph about my undergraduate experiences
- Personal Statement: This is where I explained my 20 year goal and how Georgia Tech fits into that goal
- Resume: This is where I explained the details of my professional experience and also linked to this website
My resume was an important glue: it linked to this website and some of my blog posts where I went into more detail about my background and experiences. I have no idea if the admissions committee clicked through on my links, but I like to think that they did, and that some of these blog posts contributed to my successful admission.
At the end of the day I got in, which has been my goal since I announced my intentions to apply to this program exactly a year ago this month. I do think I had a pretty good plan which was:
- Spent a year preparing for this application by taking fundamental computer science coursework online
- Addressed my deficiencies head on in my background statement but not spent a lot of time dwelling on them
- Meticulously planned out both the story of where I’ve been and the story of where I’m going and did what I consider a good job weaving together a fluid narrative from a seemingly disorganized career path
- To preserve the preciously limited space on the application I didn’t repeat myself in any of the major application components
I wish well anyone else applying to this program and I’ll continue to gladly answer any questions you may have for me (just email me)!
Thanks for reading this story — I’ve laid out some major life facts about myself here that I’ve not revealed publicly before, so I appreciate you taking the time to consume this narrative. One of these days I’m going to tell a much more detailed story about how I went from aerospace to education to software - please subscribe (below) to make sure you don’t miss that!