M.S. Admissions - FAQ

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Some Frequently Asked Questions about Symbolic Systems Masters Program Admissions

[Updated: March 29, 2018]

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 s-y-m-s-y-s---a-d-m-i-s-s-i-o-n-s-@-l-i-s-t-s-.-s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d-.-e-d-u. We are currently short staffed, and you may not receive an answer immediately. Please resend your question if you do not receive an answer within one week.

What is the expected time for a student to complete the program? Can it be finished in less than the expected time?

We distinguish between Externally and Internally admitted students. External applicants are students who apply from institutions other than Stanford. Internal applicants are those who are completing, or who have (usually very recently) completed, another Stanford degree. Stanford undergraduate Coterminal applicants are considered Internal, as are students currently enrolled in another graduate program at Stanford who apply to transfer to or to do an additional degree in Symbolic Systems. Internal applicants, including most Coterm applicants, generally apply with a Project Area Statement and an advisor commitment, in addition to a course plan, included in their application. External students are not expected to apply with a Project Area Statement, advisor commitment, or course plan, and those who are admitted generally take longer than Coterm students do to complete their degrees.

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 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 masters 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 within just one year in addition to their undergraduate career. For Internal admits from other Stanford graduate programs, the situation is more variable.

How many people are admitted to the program, and how many apply?

Internal applicants are admitted at a higher rate than External applicants because they often have a prior research relationship with a Stanford faculty member who has agreed to serve as their project advisor if they are admitted.

In the most recent Winter admissions cycle (February-March, 2017):

  • The Program initially admitted 4 out of 42 External applicants, and wait-listed 2 additional applicants. All of the 4 admitted External applicants accepted admission, although one deferred entry into the program for one year with the approval of the Admissions Committee. One applicant was then admitted from the waiting list and accepted to enter in the fall.
  • The Program admitted 2 out of 6 Internal applicants (one Coterm and one Stanford graduate student), both of whom accepted admission.

In the most recent Coterm-only Spring admissions cycle (May-June, 2017):

  • The Program initially admitted 4 out of 7 Coterm applicants. Three of these 4 Coterm admits accepted admission, and one declined. One additional Coterm applicant was then offered admission.

These numbers reflect long-term trends in the percentages of External and Internal applicants admitted to, and enrolling in, the Symbolic Systems M.S. program.

What are the qualities of a successful application?

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 folllowing 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 masters 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.

How much does it cost to complete the program? Is financial aid available?

For a rundown and set of links related to this question, see the separate page "Costs and Funding Options for Maste's Students". 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 for the full costs of attendance. 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.

What types of research projects do students do for the M.S. in Symbolic Systems?

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 file an approved Qualifying Research Paper prior to the year in which the thesis work is undertaken. Requirements and deadlines for these documents are spelled out on the M.S. Research Documents page.

To see and read about past thesis projects done by masters students in our program, you can browse the list of Symbolic Systems Forum presentation announcements for talks given by M.S. Candidates in our program.

What grade point averages and GREs are needed for admission?

As a research-focused program, we tend to weigh factors such as research experience and accomplishment, letters of recommendation from faculty, and the fit between an applicant's interests/experiences, on one hand, and our program's resources and scholarly community, on the other, somewhat more heavily than GPAs or GREs in making admissions decisions. Having said that, GREs and the strength of an applicant's undergraduate record are often important factors in admissions.

GPA standards and systems vary widely across institutions and countries, and the Admissions Committee is sensitive to these differences. For Stanford undergraduates admitted to our program as Coterminal M.S. students, for the admission cycles from 2012-2013 through 2016-2017, the average GPA at the time of admission was 3.63, and the range was 3.19 – 3.93.

The table below summarizes the averages and ranges for GRE scores and percentiles for admitted applicants, from 2012-2013 through 2016-2017:

  Quantiative Quantitative Percentile Verbal Verbal Percentile Analytical Writing Analytical Writing Percentile
average 164.5 89th 163.4 90th 4.6 76th
range 158-170 71-99 153-170 60-99 3-6 17-99

Can an applicant or prospective applicant meet with Program administrators, faculty, and/or M.S. students prior to admission? If so, when?

The answer to this partly depends on whether the applicant is External or Internal (see above).

  • For 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 (typically April 15).
  • For Internal applicants (i.e., current Stanford students and Symbolic Systems Bachelor of Science graduates): After reading the information on our website as thoroughly as you can, you may write to s-y-m-s-y-s---d-i-r-e-c-t-o-r-s-@-l-i-s-t-s-.-s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d-.-e-d-u to request a meeting if you have remaining questions about applying to our Masters program, e.g. about the approrpriateness of a possible Project Area Statement, prospective advisor, or course plan.

Prospective applicants are welcome to contact affiliated faculty about their research and teaching, or current M.S. students and/or M.S. alums about their experiences in our Program. Access to the contact info for faculty, students and alums depends on their own privacy settings, and may be restricted to Symbolic Systems affiliates, or it may be completely private. We are unable to give out more info about current students or alums than is available to the public on our website.

Questions not answered on our website may be sent by email to s-y-m-s-y-s---a-d-m-i-s-s-i-o-n-s-@-l-i-s-t-s-.-s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d-.-e-d-u. Please resend your question if you do not receive an answer within one week.

Is Symbolic Systems a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program?

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 paln of study, Sym Sys students can be classified as studying Cognitive Science (2010 CIP Code 30.2501) or Informatics (2010 CIP Code 11.0104).

I am a current Stanford undergraduate interested in possibly coterming in Symbolic Systems. What advice can you give me?

Read the page titled "Research, Honors, and Coterming in Symbolic Systems: Get Started Early!". You should also consider related graduate programs at Stanford or elsewhere to see if they might be more appropriate for you than our Masters degree, which is a project-based program emphasiizing interdisciplinary research across fields related to symbolic systems. If you have questions after reading over all the material on our website, send an email to s-y-m-s-y-s---a-d-m-i-s-s-i-o-n-s-@-l-i-s-t-s-.-s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d-.-e-d-u and we will try to answer them. You may also visit our program offices during office hours. Some of our undergraduate Advising Fellows are also coterm students in Symbolic Systems, and they may be able to provide additoinal advice to you from a student's perspective.

I am a Stanford undergraduate and want to apply to the Coterm program in Symbolic Systems, but I do not yet have a Project Area Statement or a faculty member who is willing to commit to being my thesis advisor. Can I apply anyway?

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.

If I am applying to the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, can I name the M.S. program in Symbolic Systems as my prospective graduate degree program? Can I still apply in the same year if I am not accepted as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar?

Yes and yes. In accordance with the procedures for KHS applicants, you will need to submit your application to our program by November 15 of the year prior to the one for which you are applying. We will review your application before February 1, 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 s-y-m-s-y-s---a-d-m-i-s-s-i-o-n-s-@-l-i-s-t-s-.-s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d-.-e-d-u.

Can I apply and be admitted outside of the regular February and May admissions cycles?

Unfortunately, we cannot consider applications at other times of the year, unless you are also an applicant to the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program (see above). KHS applicants must apply to their prospective Stanford graduate program by November 15th. KH Scholars admitted in Symbolic Systems will be notified by both the KHS Program and the Symbolic Systems Program in mid-February, about a month before the regular Winter admissions process for our masters program is completed.

If I am admitted into the program, can I defer entry past the quarter for which I am admitted?

Requests for deferral of admission, for up to one year, must be made in writing to the Program directorate after a student is admitted. A decision about whether to grant deferral will then be made by the Admissions Committee. Permission to defer is not guaranteed prior to the Admissions Committe's decision, and depends on anticipated capacity in future years and other factors. Deferral is a change in the scheduled date of entry into graduate student status. Coterm applicants who are admitted can only request a deferral of admission if they are going on a Leave of Absence from their undergraduate degree program that begins with the scheduled quarter of entry into the Masters program (i.e., Spring Quarter for Coterm students admitted in the Winter cycle, and either Summer or Autumn Quarter for those admitted during the Spring cycle). Once a student has formally matriculated to graduate study, deferral is no longer possible and absences are governed by the policy on Leaves of Absence for graduate students, which must be approved by the Program directorate.

If I am not admitted to the program, can I reapply?

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 applicaitons.

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