Voices of CS: Tao Long
The 1st-year PhD student talks about the Pre-submission Application Review program and how it helped him finetune his application.
One of the hardest things to do is prepare application materials for a PhD program. It is hard to gather your thoughts and try to distill them in a way that makes sense and will impress the admission committee. Plus, the pressure is on for you to get into a program and a lab that matches your research interests.
These were some of the thoughts running through Tao Long’s mind this time last year when he was figuring out which PhD programs to apply to. He started doing human-computer interaction (HCI) research as an undergraduate at Cornell University and knew that he wanted to continue on the academic research track. When he saw that Columbia’s computer science PhD program had an application review program, he knew that he should apply to it and take the opportunity to get feedback on his application materials.
The Pre-submission Application Review (PAR) program is a student-led initiative where current PhD students give a one-time review of an applicant’s statement of purpose and CV. Now in its third year, the aim is to promote a diverse and welcoming intellectual environment for all. Not many PhD applicants have access to a network that can give advice and guide them through the application process; the student volunteers of the PAR program hope to address these inequities.
Long shares his experience applying to PhD programs, taking part in review programs, and how he is paying it forward by helping other students with their applications to PhD programs.
Q: Why did you decide to go into a PhD program directly after undergrad?
During my undergrad at Cornell, I worked on a few projects in several different labs, all focusing on HCI. I am really proud of a digital technology project that I contributed to – collaborating with Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Law; we are trying to understand the existing barriers for asylum seekers to adopt technologies and how to design ones for them.
My passion for socially impactful technology makes me want to continue doing human-computer interaction (HCI) research. HCI researchers study how people interact with technology and how to better design and develop technology according to people’s needs. Thus, both technical and social science knowledge is essential in this interdisciplinary field. With a background in information science and communication, I believe technology has a communicative capacity and responsibility: we speak, design, and build for those who can’t.
Q: How was your experience applying to PhD programs?
I finalized my school list, started reaching out to faculty members I was interested in working with, and prepared my application materials around September and October. In November, I focused on polishing my statement with some current graduate students and pre-submission application review programs held by universities.
December was the time when the long wait began. After the holidays, some applicants will begin receiving interview inquiries. Around late February and March, most applicants will receive their concluded application decisions back. Lastly, they need to decide whether they accept the offer by April 15 (see April 15 Resolution).
The whole half-year-long application process was too long for me. There are many online platforms, like the r/gradadmissions subreddit and the GradCafe, where people share their admission updates. These information sources made the waiting process more exciting but also made me feel a bit anxious. I think I really enjoyed the post-submission period, where I felt relieved after all my application materials were in. Thus, I started working at an on-campus cafe, learned knitting, and watched YouTube and TikTok all day.
Q: Why did you choose to apply to Columbia CS? What attracted you to the program?
Columbia is well-known for its strong academic and research resources. I am now taking a class on how to build a successful startup in CS. The instructor of that class is a Columbia CS PhD graduate with several well-established startups. In addition to courses, countless fascinating research projects from the department widely collaborate with different schools on campus and large tech companies in the city. Specifically, I find the research conducted by my advisor, Lydia Chilton, really cutting-edge in helping users understand and interact with artificial intelligence tools. Many of her recent publications on large language models and text-to-image generative models are fascinating and impactful to the HCI community.
Q: You were part of the PAR program last year; how was it?
I found the PAR program on the department website during my school search period. During that month, I looked through many university websites and found several schools that provided similar programs to give feedback to PhD applicants. I chose to apply for the PAR program because I wanted more feedback on my application materials. Sometimes people say you have enough experience, but it isn’t addressed well on the application. I wanted to make sure that I presented myself well and painted a full picture of myself.
Q: Was it helpful to get feedback?
I submitted my Statement of Purpose, Personal Statement, and academic CV in early November. Then, the PAR team paired me with a reviewer and provided me with valuable and insightful written comments on my application materials by November 21, which is around 20 days before Columbia’s application deadline.
The feedback contained a general evaluation of the pros and cons of my application materials. They pointed out problems in the statement structure – mention more about my experience, stress more about the technical or the non-technical skill sets, shrink the length of the statement, and move one section forward. Feedback was also given on the format and language usage like what tense to use, easy-to-read font style and size, and header or page breaks to help the user flow between sections. Thus, containing feedback from both high-level and low-level perspectives, this PAR review program was beneficial for me to navigate and make future changes.
Q: You are part of the PAR team now, right? Why did you join the group?
I became active in the subreddit r/gradadmissions last year while I was waiting for the admission results to come out. I found it helpful to check posts there to learn more about the general admission process from other people’s cases. I also found a few HCI PhD applicants there, thus establishing some prior connections before entering the field. My friend and I started helping applicants from low-resource countries or regions by reviewing their application materials and providing feedback.
When I decided to go to Columbia, I knew I wanted to continue helping PhD applicants. I am part of other review programs offered by affinity groups outside Columbia to help those interested in pursuing a PhD. I joined the department’s PAR program committee in September. We are getting ready for the upcoming November 15th deadline and recruiting current CS PhD students to become reviewers. I highly recommend that applicants join the PAR program! I am sure that you could receive a lot of insightful feedback from the current CS PhD student community to help polish your materials! Good luck!
PAR Program Offers Peer Support to PhD Applicants
Student-led Initiative Aims to Help Applicants of the PhD Program
Interested applicants have to apply to the PAR program and submit their personal statement and CV by November 7th at 11:59 pm EST. Because the program is student-run and dependent on volunteers, there is no guarantee that every applicant can be accommodated. Those who are accepted will be notified by November 14th, then paired with a PhD student in the same research area who will review their materials and provide feedback to them by November 21st – well ahead of the December 15th deadline to apply to the PhD program.