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Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about admissions to the Symbolic Systems Master of Science Program.


Please read through all the information about our M.S. program and related graduate programs at Stanford, including the answers below, to see if your question is answered in the material we have provided. If you still have questions, you may send them to symsys-admissions@lists.stanford.edu.

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Every year we admit a select number of exceptional students to our program. Because we are small program, we do not offer specific admissions statistics. In general, our admit rate is around 10% for external applicants and closer to 50% for Stanford Internal/Coterm applicants. 

Admission to our program is competitive, so unfortunately, we reject many good applicants whom we expect to be successful elsewhere. While there are no hard and fast rules for defining a competitive applicant, the following points characterize the factors that most often distinguish applicants who are admitted to our program.

  • Because the M.S. in Symbolic Systems is a research-based degree, which requires each student to complete a Master’s thesis, the Admissions Committee looks especially for evidence of prior research experience and accomplishment. Authorship (especially as a sole or first author) of a research paper that has either been published, prepared for submission to a publication venue, or an undergraduate thesis project, is often an important factor in a successful application, and may be evidenced by the inclusion of this paper as a writing sample. Letters of recommendation by academic researchers/faculty who have supervised or collaborated with the applicant on research are usually considered to be the best sources of third-party evaluation of an applicant's research achievement and potential.
  • A successful applicant will usually have an appropriate and successful academic background in one or more fields that make up our Core undergraduate curriculum. The Committee also looks for strong evidence that an applicant can succeed in the interdisciplinary coursework required for a Symbolic Systems M.S. degree.
  • Lastly, we seek to admit applicants who will contribute to the scholarly community of our program. A good fit between a student's academic and research interests and those of our affiliated faculty (which may be highlighted in an applicant's Statement of Purpose), and, in the case of Internal applicants who apply with a Project Area Statement, a good fit between the student's proposed project area and their prospective advisor, is often a distinguishing factor for admitted applicants. The potential of an applicant to contribute to the Program is usually evaluated in the context of our other students and admitted applicants, and in this regard we value a diversity of personal backgrounds and academic interests.

The M.S. degree in Symbolic Systems requires completion of 45 units of graduate work certified by Stanford. Stanford undergraduates who are admitted as Coterms can apply units from as early as their sophomore year to their graduate career, although such units cannot then count toward the required 180 units for an undergraduate degree.

The number of quarters it takes to finish the degree depends on both how many units are completed each quarter and how quickly the required research project (masters thesis) is undertaken and completed. Graduate students paying full tuition can take up to 18 units per quarter, although 15 units ( or 3-4 courses that require substantial student work outside of class) is about the maximum that would be recommended for an M.S. student in our program. Students registered for half-loads can take up to 10 units per quarter, at the lower tuition rate, and students on assistantships are generally required to take 10 or fewer units during the quarter of an assistantship.

As a rule of thumb, External Master's students in Symbolic Systems should expect to take from 4 to 6 quarters (up to two academic years) to finish their degree, whereas a Coterm student can usually finish the program in about one year in addition to their undergraduate career. For Internal admits from other Stanford graduate programs, the situation is more variable.

In the Symbolic Systems Program, we strive to provide equitable access to all students who share our intellectual interest in the nature of minds, computational systems, and their interactions, regardless of race, religion, gender or other identity.

The pursuit of our intellectual mission is enhanced by diversity of all kinds: we cannot study minds if we do not understand and represent their full diversity. Further, our quest to understand machines is not complete without an understanding of the context in which they are created and in which they learn. We are thus enriched by the diversity of the participants in our program -  students, staff, and faculty - and the diversity of the minds we consider.  

We aim to make every Symbolic Systems student feel welcomed and supported. This inclusion goal requires continual attention to our curricular offerings, academic events, and the extra-curricular environment, and we invite student participation and input to help us achieve it.


Along with other graduate programs, Symbolic Systems is an active participant in Stanford's IDEAL Initiative.

For information and a set of links related to this question, see the separate page "Financial Aid"

The Symbolic Systems Program does not provide regular financial aid for students to pursue the Master of Science degree in Symbolic Systems. Applicants for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program may specify the M.S. program in Symbolic Systems as the graduate program to which they are applying, and if an applicant is admitted and selected as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, funding will be provided. Students may also apply for any available positions as Teaching or Research Assistants, as well as outside sources of funding, although admitted applicants generally must decide whether to accept an offer of admission well before they can apply for or receive such funding. Assistantships, when available, are usually arranged quarter by quarter, and are not usually available for the entire duration of a student's degree program.

Yes. In accordance with the procedures for KHS applicants, you will need to submit your application to our program by October 14, 2020 at 1:00 pm Pacific Time of the year prior to the one for which you are applying. We will review your application in January, and you will be notified by the KHS office of the status of your application soon after that. If you do not advance in the KHS selection process, you may remain in consideration for regular admission to our program in the February cycle, but in that event you must notify us that you wish to do so by sending a message to symsys-admissions@stanford.edu

The Program supports a wide variety of research projects under the supervision of Stanford faculty. As part of the Program's general requirements, each student must complete and gain faculty approval for a masters thesis prior to graduation. The thesis requirement is preceded by a requirement that the student gain approval for a Project Area Statement, which must be endorsed by a faculty member who agrees to serve as the student's project (thesis) advisor. The student must also submit an approved Qualifying Research Paper prior to the year in which the thesis work is undertaken. Requirements and deadlines for these documents are available on the M.S. Research Requirements page.

Yes. Students in Symbolic Systems qualify under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Designated Degree Programs list of STEM programs. Depending on the plan of study, Sym Sys students can be classified as studying Cognitive Science (2010 CIP Code 30.2501) or Informatics (2010 CIP Code 11.0104).

Yes, you can still apply as a Coterm student, but far fewer Coterm applicants are admitted without a PAS and advisor commitment. It might make sense to apply under these circumstances if you are a junior or third year undergraduate, you plan to finish your M.S. degree in a fifth year, you have a very strong academic record with some demonstrated research experience, and you know faculty who can write confidently about your ability to do symbolic systems related research. You will be evaluated similarly to External applicants, who are admitted at lower percentages than are Coterm applicants who have a PAS and advisor commitment. If you are a senior or in your fourth year of undergraduate study, it is harder to make a case for admission without a PAS or advisor commitment, for a couple of reasons. First, the Admissions Committee will wonder why you have not been able to find a project and advisor by this time, despite being at Stanford as an undergraduate. Second, the PAS and advisor commitment are generally required by May 1st of the year before you are expected to do your thesis. Since for Coterm students the thesis usually takes up the fifth year of a Stanford student's career, you would have little if any time to get a PAS or advisor commitment approved after being admitted to the Coterm program.

Unfortunately, we cannot consider applications at other times of the year.

Yes, you can submit a new application in a subsequent admissions cycle. If you wish to reapply after being denied admission, you will need to wait until the next deadline for applications.

External applicants: Due to limits on our available time and also a desire not to give an unfair advantage to students who can afford to travel to Stanford, Symbolic Systems Program administrators are unable to host visits or meet in person with External applicants until they are admitted to Stanford. External applicants who are offered admission will be invited to visit the campus and to meet current students, faculty, and Program administrators before the deadline for accepting admission. Although we are unable to meet individually, external applicants may visit campus at any time and join the twice daily campus tours

Current Stanford students may email symsys-admissions@lists.stanford.edu to request appointments.