Skip Links

How to get your kid into an elite computer science program

Robotics competitions, programming skills tip the scales for college applicants; being a girl helps

By , Network World
November 21, 2011 06:09 AM ET

Network World - High school seniors are facing stiffer-than-ever competition when applying to the nation's top computer science programs this fall. But admissions officers and professors at elite tech schools can offer tips aimed at helping your child get accepted come spring.

With early applications to elite colleges at an all-time high, the nation's highest-rated undergraduate computer science programs are bracing for an uptick in applications between now and January. 

Hottest major on campus? Computer science

The numbers are daunting. Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh expects to receive 4,000 applications this year and will accept only 400 of them. Similarly, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., expects its applications to increase again this year, after rising 15% in each of the last two years. Last year, Harvey Mudd accepted 21% of its 3,144 applicants.

To get accepted to an elite computer science program, high schoolers need a combination of good grades in challenging math and sciences courses as well as extracurricular activities that show passion for the field.

Selective computer science programs look at the math and laboratory science courses taken by students during high school. Harvey Mudd, for example, only accepts students who have taken a year each of calculus, chemistry and physics. These classes don't have to be honors or AP level - although that helps - as does receiving A's or B's in these classes.

"We're looking for evidence of intellectual achievement," says Mark Stehlik, assistant dean for undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science. "We look at your high school GPA, and if you have really good SAT scores. We look at what kinds of classes you've taken, if some were AP classes or classes at a local college or summer programs. You have to have the baseline intellectual ability to get in the door."

It also helps to be a girl. At Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, for example, only 14% of the computer science majors are women, so it's easier for female applicants to stand out from the pack. At Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, 30% of the students are female.

"If you are a woman applicant and all things are equal - if you have exactly the same numerical scores as a man - then it's likely we will vote in your favor because we are committed to diversity," Stehlik admits. "The criteria is the same for women and under-represented minorities. But we will tip our hat to these populations because they are harder to find."

Many high schools don't offer computer science courses, so these courses aren't a pre-requisite at even the highest-rated undergraduate programs.

"We are painfully aware that at many high schools, computer science is not seen as a core course, is not seen as something that's integral to the curriculum," says Rob Springall, dean of admissions at Bucknell University, a Lewisburg, Pa., school whose undergraduate computer engineering and computer science programs are ranked third by U.S. News & World Report. "Like other elective courses, computer science is one that is most at risk of getting left out when there are budget cuts."

Our Commenting Policies
Latest News
rssRss Feed
View more Latest News