Computer Science

Master’s in Computer Science Requirements [Applicant Checklist]

Master’s in Computer Science Requirements [Applicant Checklist]
A strong undergraduate record, substantial work experience, solid recommendations, a killer essay, and impressive standardized test scores all help build an admissions application that's difficult to reject. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella January 29, 2021

What are Master of Computer Science admissions officers looking for? This guide explains what your application should show to get you into the program of your choice.

Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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If you’re considering a master’s in computer science, you’re probably already aware of the benefits. Computer scientists with an advanced degree typically enjoy better job opportunities and generous pay, with average annual salaries over $100,000.

But will you get into the master’s program of your choice? Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs are highly selective: the admissions rates at top schools usually fall between ten and 30 percent. Even a highly qualified candidate can sometimes receive the dreaded thin envelope from the admissions department.

MSCS applicants admitted to top programs typically have:

  • Great standardized test scores
  • Outstanding letters of recommendation
  • Strong computer science backgrounds
  • Unique personal essays

While thinking about potential rejection is painful, understanding the admissions process can help bolster your admissions chances. Read on to learn about master’s in computer science requirements. This article covers:

  • What is computer science?
  • What is a master’s in computer science?
  • Admissions prerequisites: MS in computer science
  • Requirements to complete a computer science master’s degree program
  • Best Master of Science in Computer Science programs
  • Best online Master of Science in Computer Science programs

What is computer science?

The term computer science covers a broad range of practices—everything from maintaining networks to designing self-driving cars. As society grows ever-more technology-dependent, the need for computer science proliferates across every field.

Definition of computer science

The University of Maryland – College Park defines computer science as “the study of computers and computational systems.” Because computer science covers such a vast expanse of knowledge and practice, individual job descriptions within the discipline can differ drastically.

List of computer science specializations

Computer science specializations may be offered as individual degrees,
or as tracks in a computer science program. Popular specializations include:

Artificial intelligence

AI encompasses computer applications that simulate human activities such as visual recognition and speech recognition. Students in the Southern Methodist University AI specialization—a track in the school’s computer science master’s program—investigate topics like computer vision and expert language. AI has strong ties to machine learning.

Biocomputation

According to Stanford University, “Biocomputation is an interdisciplinary specialization focusing on computational challenges and solutions in the biological and medical informatics application areas.” Coursework focuses on applying computer science processes, such as computational methods and algorithms, to biomedical practices.

Computer graphics

Georgia Institute of Technology – Main Campus offers a computer graphics specialization with core courses in algorithms, complexity, and computability. Elective courses include game design, animation, and geometric modeling.

Computer-human interface

Also known as human-computer interaction (HCI), this speciality examines the connection between people and technology. The Carnegie Mellon University MHCI curriculum includes graduate courses on user-focused research, user interface, and user-programming capabilities.

Data science and analytics

Schools with high-quality data science and analytics programs include Syracuse University and Texas A & M University – College Station. Both degrees focus on data mining and parsing. Some schools offer their analytics programs through their school of business or through data science programs at their school of engineering.

Game design

The game design specialization at the University of Southern California includes artificial intelligence and computer animation courses.

Information security

There is a growing demand for information and cyber security. The Master of Science in Information Security at James Madison University includes security, ethics, law, and forensics coursework. Similarly, University of Tulsa offers a master’s in cyber security through its department of computer science.

Machine learning

Machine learning is accomplished with programming and algorithms. The field is closely linked to artificial intelligence; many programs combine the two disciplines. The Columbia University machine learning specialization includes computer vision and AI courses, for example.

Networks

The Boston University computer networks specialization “provides students with a broad foundation in information technology and an in-depth understanding of computer data communication and modern networking.”

Programming languages

Most MSCS core requirements include programming, though certain schools emphasise it more strongly than others. The curriculum at advanced programming coursework at Stevens Institute of Technology digs deep into C language and UNIX systems.

Software engineering

Software engineers create and run programs and systems. The University of Chicago designs its specialization coursework around advanced programming languages (C++, Python, and Java), computer architecture, and applied engineering.

Systems

Systems is a broad designation. The The University of Texas at Dallas systems concentration focuses on networking systems, architecture, and security. Case Western Reserve University offers an MS degree program in electrical, computer, and systems engineering that stresses network communication and security education.

Theory

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two branches of CS theory: theory of algorithms—which is application-focused—and complexity theory—which studies algorithm effectiveness and computational classification. Most MSCS programs include theory as a course requirement. It can also be a research field, which may require a PhD.

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“I'm Interested in Computer Science!”

“Typically the additional income from a master’s degree over a lifetime is worth the sticker price you pay for it.” (source)

A master’s in computer science can open countless doors from coast to coast. It will expand your knowledge and can help you advance your career, opening doors to management and leadership roles and increasing your earning potential. Jobs are plentiful around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to finance, entertainment to manufacturing.

University and Program Name Learn More

What is a master’s in computer science?

A master’s in computer science is an advanced degree that helps graduates increase their earning potential and job options. While research-focused MS degree programs can lead to a PhD in computer science, most computer scientists end their academic studies at the master’s level. That doesn’t mean they stop learning; remaining current in computer science requires constant professional development, trainings, and certifications.

How is an MS in computer science different from a BS in computer science?

A master’s in computer science typically continues the education that a bachelor’s in computer science starts—though programs for those without traditional computer science backgrounds exist. MS programs typically last two years, rather than four for a bachelor’s. The main difference is that graduate programs usually attract working professionals who know what they want to specialize in rather than undergraduate students trying to build a foundation.

How is an MS in computer science different from a PhD in computer science?

PhDs focus on research, emphasising the science part of computer science. MS programs are more application-focused, while PhDs usually lead to positions in academia, research, and upper-level management. You may need a research-centric master’s to qualify for a PhD.

How long does it take to get an MS in computer science?

Several factors go into the amount of time you’ll spend on an application, including the number of schools you apply to and if you retake the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Though there’s no set time, especially considering people usually need to balance work, school, and life, you can expect to spend roughly a year working on applications.

Receiving a decision depends on the way each school is structured. Schools with rolling admissions decide based on when they receive applications. It may take just a few weeks to hear back from a program with rolling admissions.

Once admitted, it usually takes two years of full-time study to earn a computer science master’s. Exceptions include accelerated programs, such as the one at Tulane University of Louisiana, which take around a year. Students usually transition into accelerated programs from a four-year undergraduate degree. Part-time programs take longer—between three and five years. Those without a computer science background usually need to complete a bridge program or self-study before applying to a master’s. This adds study time, of course.

How much does an MS in computer science cost?

According to US News and World Report, the tuition cost for most master’s programs is between $15,000 and $72,000. For top programs, these numbers can exceed $100,000. Taking advantage of funding opportunities including scholarships, fellowships, and employer funding can help cut the cost of your degree.

How much will you make with an MS in computer science?

The average MSCS earns nearly $103,000 per year, according to PayScale. However, individual salaries can fluctuate drastically. For instance, a principal software engineer earns closer to $140,000 , while a chief technology officer earns over $160,000, on average.

Admissions prerequisites: MS in computer science

While this section is specific to computer science, you’ll encounter similar admissions requirements when applying to any graduate program at an accredited institution. Each program has a unique way of evaluating applications. Researching what a school looks for before applying is essential.

Undergraduate record (transcripts)

It’s standard practice to submit a bachelor’s degree transcript. MSCS programs like the one at Rutgers University – New Brunswick require students to show proof of completing undergraduate-level computer science courses—such as data structures, linear algebra, and finite mathematics. Most top schools look for an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0.

Graduate record (if any)

Those who have already completed a master’s program must submit these transcripts as well. Schools want to see your entire academic record.

Standardized test scores (GRE)

It’s standard practice to submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores. While having excellent scores certainly doesn’t guarantee admission, low scores can be a dealbreaker. Georgia Tech, a top program, looks for scores of 153 (Verbal) and 155 (Quantitative) out of 170, and 3.0 (Analytical) out of six.

Many programs are moving away from required testing, even before COVID, but especially during the pandemic. University of Pennsylvania is test optional, and University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign also don’t require scores.

The amount of time you’ll spend preparing for the GRE is situation-specific, but it commonly takes a few months.

Work experience/resume

Submitting a resume and relevant work experience is standard. Not every program sets a work experience requirement, though most students have at least two years of experience—often more. Having a strong resume is an excellent way to showcase your abilities and prove why a program should accept you.

According to Dartmouth College, there are benefits and drawbacks to work experience. Benefits include a deeper understanding of the field and the possibility that an employer will pay for your education. Those who wait may struggle more with the GRE and being in a school environment.

Letters of recommendation

Submitting three letters of recommendation is standard practice. One of the most important parts of any application, it’s an opportunity to have others—usually professors or employers—speak on your behalf.

Essays or personal statement

Another aspect of the process that most schools value highly, the personal essay demonstrates how and why you fit in the program. Good personal statements and essays discuss past success and look to the future, showing who you are along the way. It’s a difficult task to complete in under 1,000 words—often around 500—but an essential one.

Interview

Not every school has an interview process. Columbia requires it on a case-by-case basis. Like the personal statement, this is an opportunity to impress the school and show that your personality fits the program.

Employer sponsorship

International students may require employer sponsorship to obtain or maintain a visa. Employer sponsorship is also a way to pay for school. Occasionally, companies offer tuition reimbursement or even agree to pay for a degree, usually in exchange for additional years of work.

English fluency (non-native speakers)

Non-native English speakers need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This test demonstrates English proficiency. Like the GRE, you may need to meet a minimum score. For instance, Georgia Tech only accepts TOEFL scores above 100.

Financial responsibility (international students)

Another common responsibility for international students is to demonstrate financial responsibility. Northwestern University asks for proof of tuition, housing, and living expenses for one year.

Requirements to complete a computer science master’s degree program

Master’s programs are usually project-focused, providing opportunities to apply knowledge outside of the classroom. Most programs require either a thesis or capstone project to graduate. Other common requirements can include an internship and GPA maintenance—usually above 3.0.

Master’s in computer science curriculum

MSCS curricula are split into required and elective coursework. Students who specialize may have two sets of required coursework—one program-wide and the other specialization specific. Additionally, students can usually complete electives for their track.

Typical MSCS core curriculum

The typical MSCS core subjects include:

  • Advanced algorithms
  • Advanced programming
  • Advanced software development
  • Computational problem-solving
  • Operating system design
  • Software theory

While these are prevalent courses, individual programs can differ drastically, especially when factoring in a chosen track and career goals. For instance, New York University offers “maximum curriculum flexibility, allowing you to adapt your program to your ambitions and goals as well as to your educational and professional backgrounds.” Online programs typically have the same curricula as their in-person counterparts.

Examples of MSCS electives

Electives usually depend on the type of program you complete. For instance, each of the 11 specialization tracks at Georgia Tech has a different set of elective and core courses.

Computational Perception and Robotics specialization electives include:

  • Artificial Intelligence Techniques for Robotics
  • Cyber-Physical Design and Analysis
  • Interactive Robot Learning
  • Machine Learning for Robotics

Computing Systems electives include:

  • Big Data Systems and Analytics
  • FPL Special Topics: Foundations of Programming Languages
  • Graduate Introduction to Operating Systems
  • Secure Computer Systems

MSCS final project/thesis

Graduate students usually complete projects as classwork and may collaborate with faculty members. It’s an opportunity to mesh your passions with the skills you developed during the program. Examples of recent CS thesis projects from Brown University students include:

  • Assembly of 3D Rooms into Floor Plans from Retrieved Layouts
  • Assessing the Correctness of Debloating Binary Shared Libraries with LibFilter
  • Characterization of Forward-edge Control-flow Integrity Targets in LLVM-compiled Linux
  • NestFuzz: A Framework for Fuzzing Nested Virtualization Environments
  • Stylistic Compatibility Learning with Deep Neural Networks for Indoor Scene

Some schools offer a non-thesis option.

Best Master of Science in Computer Science programs

Before jumping into a list of the best MSCS programs, it’s important to understand that there is no ‘best’ school. Someone who lives and works in New Jersey, for instance, may have Stevens ranked higher on their personal list than someone who lives in Massachusetts—that person may prefer one of the many excellent Boston schools. HBCUs often foster better learning environments for students of color than primarily white institutions (PWIs), including better mentorship programs and more representative classes.

The point is, even if you get into “the top school,” it may not be the top school for you.

Still, knowing the conventional wisdom is a good place to start. The top computer science schools, according to US News and World Report, are:

Best online Master of Science in Computer Science programs

Online degrees can increase your options to anywhere in the world. Top online MSCS programs include:

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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